Monthly Archives: December 2013

I resolve not to kill myself in 2014. Not intentionally, anyway.

A resolution can be made at any time, but man, isn't it convenient that tomorrow is the start of a brand new year?

A resolution can be made at any time, but man, isn’t it convenient that tomorrow is the start of a brand new year?

Woo-hoo! 2014! Bring it on, Baby! I love the New Year! It is my FAVORITE holiday! And while I love a good party, I seldom go to, and I’ve never thrown, a New Year’s Eve party. Instead, I get the biggest buzz from opening a new calendar–and I realize that in making that confession, I’ve probably convinced you that I am the dullest person who ever lived.

Seriously, I love the clean, unspoiled pages of a new calendar the same way I love the clean, unspoiled pages of a new notebook. To me, these two items represent potential, the promise of things to come, endless possibilities, and at heart, I am a dreamer.

I spend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and quite possibly the first two weeks of January talking about and writing about the old year—all its ups and downs, what has changed and what hasn’t, the memories I will save and the ones I will try to forget–and the new year—all the plans, resolutions, hopes, aspirations…good stuff.

I do this at the start of every month, every week, and provided I wake early enough, every day. And I get that same buzz, but to a much lesser degree.

I believe in and make Resolutions—on a yearly, monthly, and sometimes weekly basis. I think that anytime anyone can make a genuine effort to do anything better, it’s probably a step in the right direction, and while I know that God loves me just as I am, I could be managing every aspect of my life better. More importantly, I’m pretty good at keeping resolutions no matter when I make them. Woo-hoo, me!

The biggie for me in 2014 is self-care.

About a week ago, as I was finishing my mother-in-law’s morning routine which requires no fewer than three lifts—from bed to wheelchair, from wheelchair to toilet, from toilet back to wheelchair—changing her, changing her bed sheets, and running back and forth getting her breakfast and meds ready as I was taking her vitals and doing all this with children underfoot and receiving what I am sure was meant to be constructive criticism from my mother who was visiting, I slapped the blood pressure cuff on myself. 208/118. No joke.

My husband freaked out a little. “That’s high enough to be hospitalized! You need to see a doctor!”

“No, this is situational. Give me an hour and it will be normal,” I said. Of course, I was thinking, Hospitalization sounds like a $&%@-ing vacation to me!

And when you don’t take the dangerously high blood pressure into account, it’s almost a comical scene. Imagine a high stress situation and you just happen to have a blood pressure cuff in your hand? Does that ever really happen? Really? Apparently, it does if you are me.

An hour later, it was down to a comfortable 120/80. Okay, that’s not great either, but it’s not on the brink of having a stroke, so I’ll take it. It’s borderline pre-hypertension. The thing is, my blood pressure was never borderline anything until 18 months ago. It was normal. Sometimes, it was even a little low.

For most of my life, I’ve been blessed with extraordinarily good health. I could get away with eating whatever I liked and never exercising and still be both thin and strong. I never had headaches. I seldom caught colds. Provided that I got four hours of sleep per night, I functioned like a well-rested person. I never had aches or pains. I could run a 10K without training for it. Okay, THAT was probably 25 years ago, not 18 months ago.

Now, not only is my resting blood pressure borderline-prehypertension, my back hurts, I get headaches—probably because my eye-glass prescription keeps changing, I’m slightly overweight, I’m tired all the time, my toenails are turning black—eww, gross—and my mammogram is long over-due. It’s been years since my last mole-check (and for a light-skinned person who used to have tanning competitions with her friends, this is a much bigger deal than the mammogram). Running just a mile would probably kill me. And despite the many trips I’ve made to the pharmacy for other people, I still haven’t had my no-appointment-necessary flu-shot.

It’s safe to say that I’m falling apart physically. In the past two years, I would bet that I have aged over a decade. I look—gasp—my actual age. I hate that. I loved being 40 and having people assume I was 30. Those days are gone.

But here’s the real question: What am I going to do about it? Here we are on the cusp of a bright New Year. It’s the ideal time to muster all that excitement I have for a new calendar and make some positive changes.

I’m going to start by making an appointment with a doctor, have a physical and discuss all this with her. And from there, I will come up with a plan. Besides the dentist, the ophthalmologists and the gynecologist, I haven’t seen a doctor in over seven years.

While I do think that having two small children and an elderly mother-in-law to care for has created many stressful situations and certainly puts my own physical care on the backburner, I can’t really use them as my only excuse.

Sadly, I am sure that if I pulled a journal from ten years ago and again from twenty years ago, I could find entries in which I am complaining that I just don’t have time for “self-care.” Ha! Please. I’m now amazed at the incredible amount of time I had for myself post-children, but pre-grandma, so before kids? Where did my time go? Work, I guess. Housework? Having a social life? Maybe.

However, not making time for “self-care” was no big deal back then. I was healthy–more so than I deserved to be. Things are a little different now. As much as I do believe a hospital stay is as close to a vacation as I’m going to get, I’d like to avoid all the other crapola one has to go through while recovering from a heart-attack or a stroke. And while I don’t want to ever get old, I’m not looking to die young either.

So, my overall New Year’s Resolution for 2013 is to make my own health-care a priority. My goal for January is to make a doctor’s appointment. It’s a start!

And just so you know, anyone who reads this and says something like, “Oh, you should so get away for a few days. Go to the beach. It’s a great de-stressor,” but doesn’t offer granny-care and child-care, will be in danger of receiving one of those mythical shoe-beatings. You’ve been warned.

Disappointed. Not in the movie. In NOT getting to see the movie. That’s why I am disappointed.

No, I am NOT disappointed in the movie. I haven't seen the movie. I understand it is quite good.

No, I am NOT disappointed in the movie. I haven’t seen the movie. I understand it is quite good.

Disappointment. It happens.

Yesterday, I decided that today, I would take my children to see Frozen, the latest and greatest Disney flick, in a real, genuine, actual, bona fide, honest-to-goodness, authentic, unadulterated movie theater. As I’m sure you guessed, the redundancy is intentional–I just want you to know this is a big deal for us. We seldom see first-run movies on the big screen because I’m cheap. If I’m going to lay out the big bucks on entertainment, we are doing something interactive, and not just sitting on our butts, smacking over-priced popcorn and watching. Regardless of the size of the screen and the sound system, we can do that at home. And the plot of the movie is NOT going to change between now and when it is readily available for home-viewing.

But I figured, hey, it’s the last day of 2013, I have a little Christmas money left over, and because we so seldom go to movies, it’s a big treat for us. And of course, we have granny-care!

That’s what I was thinking.

Then, my phone rang around 10 pm. It was Deborah, our care-giver. She was at the nursing home where she works almost full-time. “About tomorrow morning, I may be late or I might not be able to make it in at all.” She went on to say that another clients of hers had been found walking about her neighborhood in her nightgown, alone and confused. A neighbor took her home and called a family member. That family member called Deborah and asked her to sit with the woman until they could get there—sometime in the morning, and so, now as her shift was ending at the nursing home, she would be going over to this lady’s house.

Okay, so, we don’t have granny-care. We aren’t going to a movie. Not today.

This is the sort of thing that happens, and in all fairness, it’s the first time Deborah has ever called me in the middle of the night with a change of plans, and yes, she called. Up until we hired her, we had a series of care-givers who just didn’t show up. No phone call. No text. No message delivered by passenger pigeon. They were just absent. It was extremely stressful not being able to make plans from day-to-day.

Besides, confused, elderly woman wondering the streets alone versus my desire to take my kids to a movie? Hmmm…of course, I’d say the other client’s situation takes priority. What kind of cruel being wouldn’t?

Still, it’s disappointing.

On one hand, disappointment is a part of life. Get used to it. People who don’t expect occasional disappointment are going to be, um, well disappointed—a lot. And as a parent, it’s my job to make sure my kids know this. You aren’t always going to get what you want, and when you don’t, it’s really not that big of a deal. Get over it.

And on the other hand, repeated disappointment can be very defeating. Why have hope if it’s going to be shattered? Why look forward to something if you suspect that it just won’t happen? Why trust people if they always let you down? See? A lot of ickiness can result from disappointment when it is constant. I believe it’s also my job to shelter my children from that.

This is one of the harder parts of living in a sandwich household. Disappointment happens more frequently than it probably should AND the needs of the elderly grandparent are to blame.  I suppose we could just as easily be cancelling our plans due to a flat tire or tickets being sold out or horrific traffic. All those things happen, too, but if I had to guess, I’d say 90% of the disappointing change-of-plans in our household are the direct result of granny-care. (I could be wrong about the 90%. I’ve never kept track. If I did and I discovered that it was indeed that high, it would breed resentment in me. I’m just going by what it feels like to me—at this moment.)

Of course, when I announce that we are not going to the movie today, I won’t say, “Because we don’t have granny-care! That’s why we never get to do anything fun!” I’ve felt that before, but no, I would never say that aloud to my children. Still, they are pretty bright. Even when I put on a calm voice to explain that Miss Deborah had to go take care of a lady who needed her a little more than Grandma needs her today, I think they will know that we would be going to a movie today, but can’t because we need to stay with Grandma.

Yeah, that was my bad call—I told them about the movie last night. I was using it as leverage in that way I suspect most parents do from time-to-time. I told them that if they were good, we would go. Why? Because Deborah is so reliable! I would have never, ever, ever made a promise while using the services of previous care-givers because I knew that someone else’s problem—be it childcare or transportation or personal dilemma du jour—could and would result in me not being able to deliver. That’s just the way it is when you have to rely on other people.

“My sister’s husband’s friend’s cousin’s car got towed last night and I was the only one who could take him to the impound lot.” Ah, yes! Someone six degrees removed from me parked illegally and that is why I couldn’t go to the grocery store today. Seriously, THAT is the kind of crap that would happen before we hired Deborah. Oh, how I wish I were making this stuff up!

In a care-giving situation, there is seldom a contingency or Plan B. If Plan A fails, it’s over. I remember reading that in an article a friend gave me when my mother-in-law first came to live with us. Sadly, I don’t remember the title or the author’s name, but it was written by a woman who was a social worker and became care-giver to her husband after a brain injury left him immobile and altered his personality. I remember reading about how every outing was carefully orchestrated and if anything fell-through, the outing had to be cancelled. She likened it to building a house of cards. Each card in the deck had to be accounted for and carefully placed because if they weren’t, the house would collapse. I nodded as I read that paragraph.

Much of the article, however, didn’t really apply to my situation. Caring for a spouse is different from caring for an in-law. Still, I could relate all she was saying about how you lose the flexibility to just change plans without cancelling them entirely, and with that comes disappointment.

So, what about today’s disappointment? What’s the up-side?

Well, for starters, it’s temporary. I’ll take them to see Frozen tomorrow. Maybe that will become our New Year’s Day tradition—a movie—before or after we eat our collard greens and hoppin’ john. I have a friend who eats filet mignon every New Year’s Day because “If you can afford just one good streak per year, you can’t be too bad off.” Amen, brother! Perhaps I can say the same about the movie.

Secondly, I am filled with this deep and abiding appreciation for Deborah. She’s been taking care of my mother-in-law three days a week without fail since July and this is the very first time she has cancelled on us. Wow. Since previous care-givers seldom went an entire week, I’d say she is a keeper!

And finally, I’m not good at staying home. When I am forced to do so, it challenges me. A little challenge is always a good thing.

 

The Downside of the Short List of a Non-Greedy Child at Christmas

He looks real to me, too. I should have sat on his lap and asked for kitchen remodeling.

He looks real to me, too. I should have sat on his lap and asked for kitchen remodeling.

My children aren’t greedy. They can watch TV without getting sucked into the commercials—unless of course, it’s an ad for car insurance, mattresses, or some other product clearly not aimed at them. Then, I hear, “Mom! Log onto Incestory.com! It’s free!” Yeah, Incestory.com. I know you are laughing at that.

I can take them into Target or any other store and never hear, “I want.” And for Christmas, they each asked for only one present.

I’ve always felt a little proud of their non-greediness and how creative they are when it comes to creating the toys they want, but don’t have. For a very long time, my son carried around a certain super-hero action-figure who dresses in blue and red.  People would make conversation with him by asking, “Is that Superman?”

“No, it’s Batman.”

“Looks like Superman to me.”

“It’s BATMAN!”

And then, I would explain, “He really likes Batman a lot. So, to him, that’s Batman, not Superman.”

Recently, with the help of his sister, he put a red sock on a stuffed monkey’s head, pinned a piece of white paper to its chin and called it his “Santa Claus toy.” Of course, he is the same kid who refers to a “sandwich” as a “doughnut.” But really, if we all took whatever we have and just made it what we want instead of always wanting something else, wouldn’t the world be a happier place?

So, I admire these traits in my children and I encourage them, but I’m also aware—painfully aware—things could change. This time next year, I could be writing a blog entry titled My Children Are Greedy Little Monsters. I know this. So, I’m not gloating. I’m being thankful they aren’t greedy little monsters, yet.

And at Christmas-time, greed might not be a terrible thing. It might make Santa’s job a little easier. Just hear me out on this while I make a strange and simple case for greed.

Both of my children really have asked for only one thing for Christmas. My son wants the action-figures/dolls from Toy Story. He has a Buzz Lightyear, but he wants Woody, Jessie, and Bullseye. I know that’s technically three things, but I’m counting it as one because they go together. He has been very specific and consistent in this request since July. That’s what he is getting, and I’ve grimaced every time a well-meaning adult has asked him, “What else? What else is Santa going to bring you?”

“Just Toy Story toys. That’s all I want. And some candy.”

“Well, isn’t your mommy a lucky lady?”

My daughter, however, hasn’t been so consistent–and this is where a little greed would be helpful. For months, she wanted the Leap Frog Ultra. It’s certainly pricier than what her brother is getting, but at this age, Santa can get away with that. At least in our household, the kids have yet to measure the cost of things and I hope it stays that way for a long, long time. So, Santa bought and hid a Leap Frog Ultra in our attic.

Then, one day, very out-of-the-blue, she announced, “Mom, I hope Santa brings me a Barbie house.”

“A Barbie house? You never play with your Barbie. Why would you want a Barbie house?”

“Heather has one.”

“Oh, maybe Heather likes to play with Barbies. Before you ask Santa for a Barbie house, maybe you should think about what you really want.”

“Okay, maybe I want a Leap Frog Ultra, then.”

Phew. Santa crisis averted.

But then, yesterday, I finally took my children to see Santa and what did my daughter tell him she wants? A bicycle. And she was very specific—“A pink Barbie bike with training wheels that my dad can take off after I learn to ride.” This is the first and only time she has even mentioned a bike. But of course, it is such a normal request that Santa thought nothing of it. He told her that if she finds a bicycle under the tree on Christmas morning, she must promise to always wear a helmet. Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas.

“When did you decide you want a bike?” I asked her.

“While I was waiting in line to see Santa.”

“What if you don’t get a bicycle? What if Santa brings you something else? Something else you really, truly want?”

“But, Mom, I just told him I want a bike. And I think he is going to bring me a helmet, too. And I could tell that he was the real Santa.” Hmmm…he did look real. Real beard. Real boots. A shiny, golden belt-buckle with the initials “SC” on it. I bet that guy carries around a picture of Mrs. Claus and Rudolph in his wallet–or on his iPhone. I don’t know how tech-savvy this Santa is.

“Listen. I talked with Santa more than a month ago. I told him what you wanted then. At the time, you didn’t want a bike. You asked for something else. Something really, really special. So, if you don’t get a bike, you can’t be too disappointed.”

This is where a little greed would be helpful. If she had asked for a Leap Frog Ultra, a bicycle, AND a Barbie house, I could have said something like, “Sometimes, we don’t get everything we want. Santa might bring you one of those things.” Instead, we have a situation in which the one and only thing she asked for, she will not be getting. I’m hoping that upon seeing the Leap Frog Ultra, she will forget all about the bike. For now.

Really, I’d love for her to have a bike. I’m a little embarrassed that my children aren’t riding yet, but if you could see where we live…it’s not bicycle friendly, but that’s a blog topic for another time.

And now, I AM gloating. This is the Santa toy my children made. Pretty darn creative, if you ask me!

And now, I AM gloating. This is the Santa toy my children made. Pretty darn creative, if you ask me!

And I know that on a certain level this whole Santa-business is silly. That’s not what Christmas is about. I even know that some people consider it as a lie, but I really want my children to believe in Santa for now. I suspect that they will gradually figure it out on their own—as most of us do—and then, go along with it for a few more years because it is fun. I think that eventually I’ll find presents under the tree “to Mom, from Santa.” I hope so.

I want them to experience the joy of playing Santa because it is all about anonymous giving, being generous without taking credit for it. I love the idea that we all sometimes do nice things for others without acknowledgement. After all, isn’t that character? And isn’t that the kind of lesson one has to learn at home?

It will be Christmas morning in just a couple of days. Despite the fact that there will be no pink Barbie bike under the tree, I think it will be a good one.

Merry Christmas to all!

 

 

Is elder-care the next “mommy-war” battle? I hope not, but if it is, I’m heavily armed.

As frequently as I threaten to beat people with shoes, I should wear something like these.

As frequently as I threaten to beat people with shoes, I should wear something like these.

A friend called and as we chatted, she asked me how my mother-in-law was doing. I thanked her for asking and tried to keep my answer brief.  After I had shared the quick highs and lows of our week, my friend said, “I couldn’t do it. If my mother-in-law needed any kind of help, I‘d tell her to look to someone else, at least while my children are still at home. The kids are my priority.”

I really didn’t dwell on those words at first. We went on to talk about other things like her holiday travel plans and the great Christmas tree farm my husband accidentally discovered. Had I really given it any thought at the time, I would have conceded that my friend really doesn’t know how she would react if her mother-in-law needed care because you can guess what you might do if placed in a situation, but trust me on this, you don’t know—not until you are there.

The following day, I ran into an acquaintance who had heard from a mutual friend that my mother-in-law is living with us, and she volunteered her own care-giving story. She took care of her father-in-law following a stroke. “Thank God my children were already grown. I would have never done it when they were younger. When they were growing up, they were my top priority.”

There’s that word again! Now, having been smacked with this priority banter twice in as many days, I am thinking about all the times in the past year and a half in which someone has told me that they couldn’t care for an elderly relative because their children are/were their priority. I know they are justifying their own decisions, but how can I not see this type of comment as a slap in the face? After all, my children are only six and three!

“Are you implying that my children are not my priority? That I am a crappy mother? That I love my children less than you love yours? Please, answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions and hold still while I take off my shoe and beat you with it.” Yes, that may be what I say the very next time this conversation happens. It’s my guess that Ms. My-Children-Are-My-Priority will do some serious back-peddling when she sees that shoe in my hand.

But, who are we kidding? In a confrontation with me, you are more likely to see a Lands End clog-style moccasin flying at you.

But, who are we kidding? In a confrontation with me, you are more likely to see a Lands End clog-style moccasin flying at you.

Because other women feel the need to volunteer what they would do and that my reaction is so visceral, I wonder if elder-care is the next great battle in the Mommy Wars. Maybe we are just waiting for Rikki Lake to make a movie about it or for Gisele Bundchen to call a press conference. Is how we care for our elderly the next great parenting debate?

If you are male or a child-free female, let me catch you up to speed on this Mommy Wars nonsense. Once a woman announces she is pregnant, almost every other mother gives her passionate, unsolicited advice. Her every decision is open to scrutiny and public debate. Lesser celebrities write books, make films, and comment ad nausea on how their way is the right way to birth and care for a child. It’s a career-booster for them. Their agents probably tell them, “Look, I can’t find you any work unless you publish a book on vegan diets for infants.” No real expertise is needed—kind of like me with this blog, but with name recognition.

For the most part, I’ve felt somewhat exempt from the Mommy Wars. I suspect it’s my age, but I would like to think it is my aura of confidence, that keeps most of my would-be critics and advisors from commenting. I don’t get much advice or snarkiness concerning my parenting skills–even when people witness my children chasing each other with scissors. I give even less.

However, the question of whether it is possible to care for an older person and small children at the same time reminds me of the biggest Mommy Wars battle of all: Stay-At-Home-Moms versus the Employed. Perhaps it is because that word priorities gets thrown around a lot when women discuss this topic.

When I hear someone cite kids as a reason not to care for other family members, I am reminded of a stay-at-home-mom telling an employed mother, “I’d love to go back to work, but my children are my priority.” Ouch! You see, that statement may be what the speaker genuinely feels about herself, but it comes with bitter edge of judgment, too. Isn’t she really saying, “Because you work outside of the home, your children aren’t your priority?”

And believe me, the employed moms deliver their own brand of zingers. I’ve actually had someone say to me, “You are so lucky you don’t feel the need to work. I’ve always been the ambitious type. I could never just throw my education away by being a housewife.” Please note that I did not beat that witch with my shoe, but I probably should have.

As woman who left a career to stay home with her children, I’m well aware of the Mommy Wars, and I’ve made a point to not engage in them. I recognize that we all do what we believe is best for our families and no justification of personal choices is ever needed. I believe the reason so many women feel the need to weigh in negatively on the choices that other women make is that they feel insecure and are second-guessing their decisions.

The same is true of elder-care. A nursing home may be the answer for one family, but not for another–and the age of one’s children is just one factor in a sea of variables. Until you are right there and having to make a decision based on your very specific situation, don’t assume that you can’t or won’t be swayed to do something you previously thought beyond your abilities or not in line with your priorities.

Look around you and you will see we live in a world in which life has handed a lot of people situations they had not anticipated. Grandparents and (gasp) great-grandparents are raising children. Soldiers return from war without limbs. CEOs and laborers find themselves unexpectedly unemployed. Loved ones die suddenly and at any age.

The cold, hard fact is that regardless of what you say your priorities are and what you want your priorities to be, unfortunate life-events may have you dealing with more responsibility than you initially signed on for. When I look through my wedding album and see my beautiful mother-in-law so elegantly dressed, I know that on that day, I could not have foreseen that I would be brushing her teeth for her or giving her insulin shots eight years later.

The stuff that happens to us is usually not a choice. No one chose for my mother-in-law to fall and suddenly age more rapidly. And I certainly didn’t choose for this to happen while my children are still so young. Frequently, when I think about her care, I feel pretty damn choice-less. However, I am—we are—doing the best we can under the circumstances, and is her care a priority? Yep. It has to be because she is family and compassion is something we value.

Are my children any less of a priority? No. On those rare occasions when I do feel a little sorry for them, I remind myself that my kids won the parent-lottery. My husband and I attend to their needs.  We teach them right from wrong. We pray for them and with them. We expose them to new experiences in a big, exciting world. We nurture their interests. They are growing up healthy, happy, courageous, and grounded. That’s as good as it gets.

And if there is any benefit to being a child in our household, it is growing up knowing the world doesn’t revolve around them and they are called to be compassionate even when they don’t feel up to it.

Not too long ago, I heard a woman talking about what it was like to raise her children—one is healthy and the other has a disability that requires extra attention. She said that when she is worried that she is short-changing the healthy one, she reminds herself that he has the advantage of knowing first-hand what it’s like to live with someone who is a little different and demands more care. He’ll take what he learns at home and share it with the world. She even tells him, “Just think, you already know more about care-giving than most adults. You are a blessing because you can teach people about helping and about love!”

That blew me away. I thought, “That’s not entirely unlike our household, and I’m going to hold onto her words!” because again, here is a family taking what life has handed them—a child who has some greater challenges—and they are doing the best they can with what they have been given. God bless ‘em.

So, even if this questioning of priorities becomes the next Mommy Wars battle, I’ll probably sit this one out. I’ll keep my shoes on my feet, and just remind myself that other people’s choices aren’t a criticism of my own even when they may feel like it. We do the best we can with what we have been given.

(Disclaimer: To date, I have yet to hit anyone with a shoe. I think about it all the time. I just have yet to do it. Don’t be the first. Hmmm…that sounds more like a threat than a disclaimer.)

 

Exchanging Burnt Cookies

 

No, I didn't bake these. (You may have figured that out on your own since they aren't burnt.)

No, I didn’t bake these. (You may have figured that out on your own since they aren’t burnt.)

At 41, I was a Cookie Exchange virgin. Sure, I had been invited to them in the past, but I never went because who has time to bake all those extra cookies? So, how did I end up going to one this morning?

Well, on Thursday night, I went to dinner with friends and by pure chance sat next to Pilar. As soon as my butt hit the chair, she asked, “Why aren’t you coming to my cookie exchange? Do you know how much work I’ve put into planning it?”

“I appreciate the invitation. I really do. But we are so busy this weekend that I can’t imagine finding time to bake all those cookies,” I explained.

“Find time? What kind of sorry excuse is that? Go to the store, buy some of that slice and bake stuff, and put it in the oven. Who doesn’t have time for that?”

Oooooooh, I thought all the cookies had to be made from scratch. I thought I had to flip through a dozen cookbooks looking for the perfect recipe. I thought I needed to make a list of obscure ingredients and spend a day going from store to store hoping to find macadamia nut oil or Madagascar honey. Pilar, however, was telling me to please come to her cookie exchange. I could cheat if I had to, but my attendance was more important than baking the perfect cookie.

So, last night, I spent just a few minutes scooping unbaked, pre-made cookie dough from a plastic tub, plopping it onto a baking stone and putting it in the oven. Cheating was painless.

I recall a Christmas years ago when I was in my mid-twenties and newly married to my now ex-husband. Although I had a full-time job that kept me very busy during the holiday season, I decided that I would “create a Christmas like no other.” Inspired by a photo spread in Martha Stewart Living, I chose a gold and silver seashell theme, and I sprayed conch shells, starfish, scallop shells, oyster shells and sanddollars with gold and silver paint. The huge conches became a centerpiece and mantle piece. The smaller shells became tree ornaments.

I bought seashell stencils and made my own cards and coordinating wrapping paper. I used some of the shells to create candle holders that I gave away as gifts to friends. I also made and jarred Kahlua that I gave as gifts—both Kahlua and candle holders were presented in gold or silver giftbags stenciled with the trademark shells.

I bought seashell cookie cutters, made gingerbread and sugar cookies from scratch and bought gold and silver pastry glitter from a specialty confectioner’s shop. I had planned to use it to decorate my cookies. On Christmas morning at 4 a.m., however, I burnt a batch of cookies. I was exhausted having stayed up all night creating a perfect Christmas, and now, it was ruined by burnt cookies!

As I sobbed, my husband came into the kitchen, looked at me, shook his head, and said, “I don’t know why you are so upset. It’s not like anyone else cares.”

At the time, his reaction seemed insensitive. I accused him of not having any Christmas spirit.

Years later, I realized his comment was spot-on.  Sure, on Christmas Day when my in-laws arrived at our house, they admired all the homemade ornaments. They were impressed by the beauty of the tree, the dinner table, and our mantle. They enjoyed the home-cooked meal, but within a day or two, they didn’t really remember it in the vivid detail I had created. And by that same token, they didn’t remember that the last batch of cookies was a little darker than the rest.

That one Christmas served as a turning point for me. Slowly, I was coming to realize that being called a perfectionist was not a compliment and that being a control freak was not an asset. People would rather be in the company of someone who screws up and admits it than someone who is freaking out over all the little things that will so soon be forgotten. The tendency to obsess about all the things that really don’t matter won’t win you a popularity contest. Instead, you will drive people away.

Now, when I hear a person say, “I’m such the perfectionist” with pride, I marvel at the stupidity of the statement. Why not confess “I’m such an alcoholic” with the same cockiness? Why not proudly proclaim, “I’m a bed-wetter?” Honestly, if you were a kleptomaniac or a compulsive liar and you recognized the problem, you would seek help. How is being a “control freak” any different?

I’m glad that I got over my perfectionist tendencies before my daughter was born. She has the benefit of being raised by someone who expects to make mistakes and recognizes that the vast, vast, VAST majority of mistakes are like cookies left in the oven one minute too long—no one notices, no one cares, and no negative consequences exist beyond the mind of the person who forgot to set the timer. I’m sure it’s an easier life for her than being the daughter of a control freak.

Still, I sometimes forget that my imperfect company is more important than cookies made from scratch, and I’m thankful to the Pilars of the world for reminding me.

(I wrote this piece a few years ago and recently came across it. It seemed timely–so, I posted it.)

 

Good, For Goodness Sake!

 

I agree. He is a little creepy, but my kids love him.

I agree. He is a little creepy, but my kids love him.

When I was a kid, an adult singing, humming, or whistling a verse of Santa Claus is Coming to Town was always enough to turn my bad attitude around—even in July. It’s powerful stuff, isn’t it? Your misbehavior now could lead to a very disappointing Christmas morning even if it’s still six months away–so you better watch out, you better not pout, you better not cry

It’s a time-tested trick that still works– only in some households, it’s a lot less sophisticated now. We no longer need to imagine Santa as a magical being with the psychic ability to just know who’s naughty and nice. He has helpers who report to him—Elves on Shelves.

We have one. Ours is named Willoughby after the title character in Mr. Willoughby’s Christmas Tree, and he doesn’t poop on cookies, play poker with teddy bears, or wrap our Christmas tree in toilet paper. No, he is simply a spy. He watches our family daily and reports to Santa nightly. Every morning, he’s in a new location—provided I remember to move him and yes, I do sometimes remember at 2 am and have to get out of bed and sneak downstairs.

And I have to admit, I love watching my children look for him every morning. He’s always somewhere high in our house—bookshelves, curtain rods, tops of cabinets—mostly because I don’t trust the kids not to touch him. How is it that other kids don’t touch their elf when he’s on the floor tying Barbie to an O-gauge electric train track? Mine would treat him as a toy if he did that. I know it.

Lately, however, I am having second thoughts about this whole Elf of the Shelf/Santa’s watching concept. My biggest misgiving is that I know we should all be good because it is the right thing to do. Our behavior shouldn’t be motivated by reward—or even punishment. Isn’t that what character is? When we do the right thing even when no one is watching?

And then there is this issue of tattling. Deep sigh. If you have more than one child in your household, you know what I am talking about.

The other day, instead of coming to me, my son addressed Willoughby directly. “You tell Santa Claus that Sissy is on the naughty list! She made a mean face at me!”

“Babe, why are you tattling to the Elf? Do you remember what I said about tattling? If you just want to get someone in trouble, it’s ‘tattling.’ If you are concerned for your safety or someone else’s, it’s ‘reporting.’” Reporting. I used to use the word “telling,” but the school calls it “reporting” and I want to be consistent with the language.

“Willoughby tattles to Santa.”

Yep, I guess he does. “But Willoughby wants to give Santa a good report. He wants to tell Santa you and Sissy have good behavior. He cries when he has to give Santa a bad report.” Nice save, right? And yet, I served it with a side of guilt because who wants to be responsible for making a sweet, little elf cry.

I’m probably taking the whole elf-thing way too seriously because I’m feeling challenged by it a lot lately. No, not the tattling part.  Know that if you are behaving badly, I may ignore you, I may pray for you, I may confront you, but I probably won’t tell on you because I’m older than 12—whistle-blowing situations are the exception. And maybe crime. If you are stealing mail out of mailboxes or punching people in the subway station, I’m calling the cops.

No, I’m challenged with this idea of doing the right thing because it is the right thing and not because I fear negative consequences or am hoping for a reward or even because on-lookers expect me to have good behavior. Good, for goodness sake. Why is that so hard for me right now? More often than not, no one is watching me and I’d say I do the right thing most of the time anyway.

But I’m not even talking about my actions. I think that just about anyone observing me would say that I am a good person based on what I do. Outwardly, I’m a very kind and loving being. It’s more my thoughts that challenge me. Keeping them positive is an up-hill battle right now—even with something as simple as snow.

Yes, it’s snowing today. A real ‘snow day’ and I know the rest of the world is rejoicing—at least locally. The Federal Government is closed, kids are out of school, and we are only expecting seven inches. Whenever you can measure your snow in inches, not feet, it’s a happy, good thing, right? It’s manageable and fun!

But I can’t get excited about it. My husband still has to work, and he will probably put in an extra-long day. My daughter is home from school, and while she will enjoy playing in the snow, I will still have to make her work on a school project that’s due on Friday.

And I have no granny-care—again, today. Slick roads mean Deborah stays home. So, where’s MY day off? I don’t get one. I never get one. My day is actually going to be a little harder because of the snow. Thank you very much! I wanted to get out of this house just for a little while, but no, I have no granny-care–it’s all on ME, and even if I did have help, I don’t trust the tread on my tires in this weather. New tires. That’s probably what I’m getting for my birthday next month. Lucky me.

I realize that in the big scheme, none of this is a big deal. So, I’m wiping butts and washing sheets and running food through a blender again today. It’s not like I am starving. I don’t live in fear for my life or for the lives of those I love. I’m not stranded on the side of a desolate road with a dead cell phone.

Yet, I want to throw a temper tantrum. I want to yell and scream and break things because I’m not going to get to do what I want today. You won’t find me pounding my fist into the floor or wailing like a maniac, however, because it’s a complete waste of time. Crying never solves anything, never changes anything, and while others claim there is a therapeutic power in tears, I’ve never experienced it. No, it never makes me feel better. So, it’s all about the thoughts, not about the behavior.

Counting my blessings does help bring me out of this funk:

1) We still have electricity. This is a biggie. ‘Cuz no one wants to change a Depends in the dark. Yeah, you see how I was able to stay positive for almost two seconds.

2) This is Maryland. It’s snowing today, but it’s not like we aren’t going to see the ground for the next six months.

3) I will have granny-care again. Deborah will come tomorrow or Thursday. I will be able to go to the grocery store later this week. In the meantime, meals will be creative.

4) My car may need new tires, but at least I have a car.

Yeah, I will get through this—my funk and the snowy, snowy day. These are just my rambling thoughts today–at this moment. I’m allowed that, and in the end, I do control them. Really, how we choose to respond is all we ever control completely.

As for other people–what they see, what they think about us, what they say about us–they may influence the way we behave because no one wants to get caught picking their nose or stealing office supplies. However, what we think and how we feel, it’s all an internal struggle, and we choose who we let into that secret world. No one reads minds–not even Willoughby. Maybe he can. If so, I hope he reports to Santa that I’m counting my blessings and not the part about wanting to yell, scream, and throw things…

Ghosts of Christmas-Letter Past

Ah, yes! The notorious "reindeer jumper" from Bridget Jones' Diary! It made me love Mark Darcy all the more.

Ah, yes! The notorious “reindeer jumper” from Bridget Jones’ Diary! It made me love Mark Darcy all the more.

End-of-year letters stuffed into Christmas Cards are like brightly-colored holiday sweaters—most people either love them or hate them, and those who love them, don’t really care that the haters hate.

As for me, I don’t own a Christmas Sweater. I’m proud to say that I have an applique-free wardrobe, and I refuse to don anything with jingle-bell buttons. As I write this, however, I am wearing a green fleece over a red t-shirt and Santa socks.

With that end-of-year letter, my feelings are equally complicated.  I love receiving them, but I find writing them to be an almost painful experience. I can stare at a blank screen for hours or rewrite the same opening sentence 400 times. As a writer, I feel a lot of pressure when it comes to personal correspondence. I think people expect me to write something good and most of what I write is really just okay. Writing a thank-you note is agony for me, and I have yet to write one that I think is worth reading.

More than that, however, I struggle to find that right balance. I want my end-of-year letter to be cheerful and up-lifting and brutally honest. “Dear Friends, My mother-in-law is still alive. She has bed-sores but seldom complains about them, and I’ve become the resident expert on dementia, atrophy, and geriatric dental care and have learned that bed-sores always aren’t always a sign of neglect…”

Certainly, care-giving isn’t my only frustration in life. Nor is it the only thing I do, but sometimes, it feels like it, and yet, I don’t think I would want my annual letter to say that. I want to sound like I have more balance—yes, the elusive, fictitious ideal of balance—and that my life is oh-so-rich in other ways, but how honest would that be? I mean, I’m sure that it is, but it doesn’t always feel that way.

Because I am debating as to whether I should write a year-end letter for 2013, I went through some old files looking for past letters. I discovered I haven’t written one since 2010, and I did so that year to assure people that we were all okay—really, truly okay—and to share my gratitude for all the help we, as a family, received that year. You see, my husband had a heart attack that year– just weeks after our son was born.

Well, rather than tell you about it, I’ll let you read the letter. This is it, word per word. I blanked out all the names because I’m a fiercely private person. Stop laughing.

“Merry Christmas!

Mentally, I’ve written this letter a dozen times, and so I finally decided to put the words on paper and share my thoughts with you. 2010 was certainly a year like no other, and I look forward to all that 2011 has to offer.

On January 12, we welcomed R_______ T_______ N_______ into the world. At the time, our golden haired, brown-eyed boy weighed just 7 lbs. 14 oz. and was 19” long. Today, he is almost 20 lbs. and crawling quickly to keep up with his big sister. E_______ loves playing with Baby T______ and teaching him all that she believes he should know. His first word was “E________.” That’s a mouthful for a baby and I was shocked to hear him say it so clearly, but then, he hears me yelling “E_______” all day, every day and so why wouldn’t that be his first word?

In early February, as we were settling into life as a family of four, the Mid-Atlantic States were hit by a paralyzing blizzard. If you weren’t close enough to have experienced it first hand, no doubt you heard about it on the evening news. During a power outage and with three feet of snow on the ground, A_______ suffered a heart attack. (If you are reading those words for the first time, I’m sure your mouth has fallen open and you are asking, “Is he okay, now?” Yes. He is fine now.)

He was taken by EMS to the Anne Arundel Medical Center where a stent was used to open one of two blockages. A couple months later, it was determined that a second stent was not needed at this time. He continues to be on medication, but his physical therapy has ended.  He is now as healthy as he appears. Amen!

When I think back on that time in our lives—the blizzard, the power outage, A_______’s heart attack, my c-section—I am overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of others. Friends from church provided us with a place to stay and transportation. Friends from Professional Moms at Home babysat and brought us meals. A neighbor shoveled the snow from our very long walkway. A_______’s colleague used a Bobcat to clear the snow from behind our cars. My friend P_______ came down from New Jersey and did everything from grocery shopping to clearing snow from our back porch. Daily, I received phone calls and emails from people wishing us well and asking what they can do to help. Many, many  prayers were said on our behalf. For all of this, I am eternally grateful.

By June, life as we know it had returned to normal—or as normal as life gets with a baby and a toddler. We had a wonderful summer with a quick trip to SC for my 25th high school class reunion. I admit that I loved saying, “My son is 5-months-old” and seeing the surprise on people’s faces. “Why, yes, he was born on my 43rd birthday.”

Later that same month, we went to the Bahamas for the wedding of our niece C______ and her high school sweetheart T______.  Ahhh! The sun, the sand, the crystal-clear Caribbean water, time with family, and the picture-perfect wedding celebration of a sweet, young couple! Yes, we had a wonderful time. In addition to being with the entire S_______ clan, R___, S___, and E___ flew in from Norway. Grandma and Grandpa N____danced at the wedding of their first-born grandchild. What a blessing! E________ still talks about kissing and feeding Kelly, a dolphin, she befriended at the Atlantis Resort.

My sister G____ and her family visited us in July. In August, we went to Delaware to visit my sister A_____ and her family before they moved to Missouri. We didn’t see L____ and her family this year, and I miss them terribly.

In September, E_______ started pre-school. At three years old, she continues to be adventurous and out-going. She loves her classmates and her teachers. She knows the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes. For Christmas this year, she wants Santa to bring her a sled. If we don’t get snow this winter, we will be making a weekend trip to the mountains just to try it out.

Everything else about our lives is just the “same old” story. Our project-filled farmhouse continues to reveal its many needs to us—most recently we had to replace the subfloor in the bathroom. A______ still works long hours as the Chief of Natural and Historical Resources. We are still active in our church. I still edit the newsletter for PMAH, and I work from home on whatever project comes my way. I’m currently doing website calendar edits.

Our immediate and extended family members have experienced many highs and lows, many big and small changes, in the past year. Through it all, everyone has persevered! Looking back on it all, I see that we are truly blessed.

We look forward to 2011 and all the challenges it will bring. May God bless you and yours in the New Year!”

I didn’t write a letter in 2011. It was a much less erratic year. No one in our household was born and no one nearly died. By sharp contrast, 2012 felt unspeakably tragic because my mother-in-law fell and my father-in-law died. So, 2013? Is it time again to tell people we continue to persevere and be grateful?

There is something both haunting and beautiful about that 2010 letter. I do remember seeing my in-laws dance at the wedding reception and being filled with such awe and gratitude that they were both alive and seemingly healthy. I also remember being vividly aware that they wouldn’t be around for my own children’s weddings—or even high school graduations.

While we were all in the Bahamas, I became aware that my in-laws seemed to need a little more help physically and mentally. Travel—something they had always loved—was now arduous for them. They relished their time with family, but it wasn’t easy for them to move about in a new environment. In the course of one thirty minute conversation, my mother-in-law asked me no fewer than a dozen time about our flight. “What day did you arrive?” “Tuesday.” “From what airport?” “National.” “And when did you arrive?” “Tuesday.” “What airport?” “National.” And so on and so on.

On that same trip, I complimented my mother-in-law on the amethyst necklace she was wearing, and she replied, “You like it? I will give it to you for Christmas.” Yes, a very kind and generous statement, and at the time I thought, “Oh, by Christmas, you won’t remember that I like it. You will give me a calendar and a nightgown two sizes too small.”  And I would have been happy with the calendar and nightgown because I’m not a things-person. If you promise me a thing and don’t deliver, I shrug. I’m really okay with that.

On Christmas morning, she presented me with a gift, and when  I opened it, I found the necklace AND the matching earrings and cocktail ring! “Wow! You remembered! You remembered that I liked this necklace!” I shouted in delight and surprise.

“Of course, I remembered. I remember everything.” Of course.

The other thing that strikes me as I re-read my own letter is that I have yet to really write about what happened on the day of the heart-attack. It’s surreal, and I know that if I were ever to write an autobiography, my opening paragraph would have me standing in an ice-cold house, holding a newborn and a cell-phone with a dying battery. I know I would describe the hard-breath of paramedics wading through waist-high snow with their equipment held high on their shoulders, a tiny girl peeking in from the next room to silently watch the paramedics shave her father’s chest, and the void that came when they finally drove away and I looked around wondering what to do next. We couldn’t leave, but we couldn’t stay either.

So, what would I say about 2013? It was better than 2012, and I believe 2014 will be even better. Really, that is a start—and it’s true. With my mother-in-law’s house rented, I do feel as though time has opened up a bit and I will be able to do things that I have been putting off—maybe work on my own house, take a class, maybe even go away for a weekend. Yes, these are the little things I have missed.

I could write about my children and how they amaze me. Through all the ups and downs of their short lives, they have remained resilient. They are kind, loving, and very inquisitive.

The same is true of my husband. In additions to all the stress here at home, he deals with a lot of people and situations at work and does so with a smile. And knowing what some of these situations are and how some of these people operate, I applaud him. I don’t think I could do it.

As for my mother-in-law, she is still with us.

And yes, I guess, that’s an end-of-year letter for my Christmas card. If anyone wants to know more, they can just read my blog.

You do have to wonder about the role of the time-honored letter in an age of social media.