Friday, December 24, 2010

My Christmas list (no shopping required.)

Sometimes I think I’m really two people. One part of me is relentlessly pragmatic, reasonable and logical. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, except when it gets in the way of the magic that can be found in everyday life. The confounding counterpart to this is that another part of me is just as relentlessly sentimental, emotional and hopeful.

Here’s an example. I can’t read an email that cries out for help regarding a lost child without immediately hopping onto to check it out. (They’re always fake, by the way.) I also find myself reading emails that contain heartwarming stories of love, fellowship and encouragement; the kind people often send to friends and family with the best intentions. Deep down, I’m glad they include me in their list of those who will enjoy the story; they’re mostly right about that. Yet even as I read it, I think (in my logical way), do I have time for this today? I have sit on mute for back-to-back conference calls! I have to create two more Powerpoints today!! I have to work out a P / L by ten a.m.! God knows I’d rarely seek these things out on my own.

That’s why when I read a holiday story a few days ago, I couldn’t imagine why I stopped on it in the first place. I had little doubt I’d be left wallowing in sappy Christmas schmaltz. Without going into every detail, the story told of a young boy who comes to understand the spirit of Christmas. In an effort to prove that Santa Claus is real, his grandmother gives him ten dollars and drives him to a store, telling him “to buy something for someone who needs it.” After much thought, the boy decides to buy a coat for a classmate who doesn’t have one. (All of these stories paint a picture of someone who is sad, alone and needy or someone dead or dying, along with someone who steps in to help. Sorry; that’s an editorial comment from my reasonable side. In this case, the student in need never joins his class in recess because he doesn’t own a heavy coat. He pretends to have a cough so he has an excuse to stay indoors. )

The young boy chooses a jacket and takes it to the counter to buy it. When the clerk asks if it’s a present, he explains the story of his needy classmate. The clerk smiles as she puts it a bag and wishes him a Merry Christmas.

Your typical Christmas story, right? I probably don’t have to tell you that as the grandmother helps the boy wrap the coat, she removes the little tag and places it in her Bible. They hide the gift outside “Bobby’s” house, knock on the door, then watch him come outside and discover the package. The rest, as they say, is warm Christmas history.

Except it wasn’t. The story ends with the boy recalling that he still remembers the spirit he felt that day. As the author puts it, “Santa Claus was alive and well and we were on this team.” Fifty years later, he still had his grandmother’s Bible, and the Christmas coat’s price tag she tucked into it: $19.95.

The tears that filled my eyes when I read the ending of the story sprang directly from my sentimental side. I loved the quiet notion of sales clerk, seemingly just a bit player, turning out to embody the spirit this boy was seeking.

So where does that leave me, this Christmas Eve? My practical nature has me counting up the cookies I didn’t bake, the cards I haven’t written and the gifts I haven’t wrapped. The logical part of me is already making plans about how this absolutely will not happen again next year. I’m mentally writing a list of the list of things I won’t forget to do earlier next year so help me God.

And where does that leave the softness, the magic, this Christmas Eve? It’s buried, under layers of planners and errands and tasks. It pokes its head up from time to time: when I hear my boys sing Christmas Carols, or watch them decorate cookies and imagine them fifteen years younger, when their cookie icing and sprinkles were simply out of control.

Everything I want to give to those I love can’t be wrapped and placed under a tree. Mostly, I want to help them feel the spirit of Christmas. When our sons grow up, I want them to give in to sentiment, much more than I do. I want them to give up – at least temporarily - on the measurable. I want them to relinquish what’s practical from time to time.

I want them to pay the difference for the jacket.

That’s hope. That’s love. That’s Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why do I have the feeling I'd be tempted to say: watch this.

With particular thanks to Jen H. and her book group for the inspiration:

You won’t be surprised to hear that I was horrified but also amused to learn the details about some fresh hell called The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition or some such nonsense. I don’t know how long this elf has been wreaking havoc in homes around the world but thank God my boys are young adults. I can practically guarantee you we would have been the family that never had an elf on any shelf on our home. Or we would have been the family with the reluctant mommy dragging an elf out of storage every November and regretting every moment she spent rearranging it for a month.

But my own acceptance or rejection of this is an unanswerable notion, really. I may have bought into this “tradition,” given my sentimentality about Christmas. I still may have regretted it but I may have been right there along with other parents who wanted to add to the magic of the season for their children. Let’s just say I’m assuming everyone is adding to the magic, not trying to traumatize their children, which is all too possible according to some of the reviews I’ve read.

Here’s the idea, in case you aren’t already living through this elf / shelf mania. The book tells the story of this helpful little elf that joins your household – your family must give him a name, by the way - to do nothing more than spy on the children who live there for the express purpose of reporting their behavior back to Santa on a nightly basis. He's Santa’s helper, on the job daily, who sees everyone while they’re sleeping, and watches them when they’re awake. Not to put to fine a Christmas point on it: he knows if you’ve been bad or good. But let’s make this distinction: his message isn’t to be good for goodness sake. No, this spy-elf more or less promises good children that Santa will reward them with every gift on their lists. The bad children will be left with nothing, no doubt.

Talk about behavior modification! Every night, the elf returns to the North Pole to make his report, but he’s right back on the job before day breaks, ready for a new round of noticing every move the kids make. The parents help create the illusion of a globe-trotting elf by carefully placing him in a new spot every day, so it’s clear he’s been away filing his report while the children slept. Upon his return, he settles into a new spot in the house, ready to keep his eye on the kids. Some children apparently just love searching for him each morning.

So let’s summarize this from a child’s point of view: a daily recap to Santa on your every move, and a promise of material rewards for good behavior. Charming. What’s not to like about that?

First, I love that kids seem excited about this little guy. It’s adorable. Little children at Christmas are mostly adorable. Second, well…there is no second.

I think it’s kind of risky for parents to invite a fictional Christmas spy – even a sweet little elf spy - into the home to help keep the children in line. Believe me, they’re not doing themselves any favors. In fact, more than a few reviews I’ve read on websites indicate that once Christmas has come and gone, the resolutions about good behavior last about as long as the dead tree no one has watered since December 21.

I’ve heard first-hand stories this mid-December from parents, strongly indicating that they’ve reached just about at the end of their tether when it comes to moving this cockamamie elf to a new location every day. Do you hide him? Leave him in plain view? Make it easy for kids to reach or position the elf in some inaccessible places? (And I think all the elves are boys, by the way. Which is annoying for some reason but I don't have the energy to wage a battle about that just now.)

Tales abound of parents leaping out of a sound sleep at 3 am because they forgot to move the elf before going to bed. [Moment of recognition: I used to slip tooth fairy money under pillows as I woke my kids up in the morning. Yes, we often – perhaps almost always – forgot to place the silver dollar we gave them under their pillows before we went to bed for the night. I’m positive I’d forget about this ridiculous elf at least four times a week.]

I heard the story of one mother who made the mistake of dangling their elf from a lighting fixture and he was slightly singed as a result. Her children were inconsolable. I can only imagine what cover-up story she told them. Maybe he stood too close to the fireplace in the workshop at the North Pole.

I guarantee you had we owned an elf on the shelf, I would have moved him incrementally from day to day. I’m not certain but I don’t think the rules call for him moving from room to room or floor to ceiling. He would have moved from one side of the sofa to the other, or one side of our bookshelf to another all month long.

So where are we with this? I don’t know. It’s kind of cute but kind of odd. It’s indicative of what we’ve become in a way. It’s not enough to tell our children about Santa Claus, with some kind of benign “he’s keeping an eye on you!!” story. In the good old days, elves made toys, they didn’t spy on children. In the words of the chipper little song that accompanies the book on CD,

"Every year at Christmas Santa sends his elves to watch you

And they go back to tell him who’s been bad and who’s been good!

The elf on the shelf is watching you – what you say, what you do…

The elf on the shelf is watching you each and every Christmas.

The elf on the shelf is watching you each and every Christmas

Dear God. I wonder if the elf on the shelf would watch me not write out the Christmas cards that have been sitting on our coffee table for two weeks. Watch me hop online and order more gifts that I’m positive will arrive promptly on December 28. He could watch as I have yet to bake even one cookie.

I’d love to hear from parents who have invited this little fellow into their Christmas holidays. I am probably entirely wrong about this and it's delightful and I need to lighten up. Maybe kids love it. Maybe parents love the fantasy as well. God bless.

But it’s still a little creepy.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Quite literally, I am missing the point here.

Honest to God, I think we all must have too much money again.

I was reading the Continental magazine on my latest trip and came across an article titled Presents of Mind, that offered the perennial "gift ideas for everyone on your list." The point here was that we need to be creative and give gifts that speak to the recipient's interests or character. Yes, who would dispute that?

I doubted that I'd find any real ideas but hey – it’s already about two weeks until Christmas and I’ve purchased exactly two gifts so maybe I needed a push. Maybe there were ideas here after all.

LEGO Container Truck ($69.99) – nope. Fun - especially since it had functional steering and a motor and a linear actuator - but we’ve been out of the Lego world for years now. I don't know what a linear actuator is, anyway.

An Apple Magic Trackpad ($69), which could be a good idea for someone except I read the description twice and I still don’t know what it does. Plus, the description said it requires OS X 10.6.4 or higher. I don’t know what that means.

Some kind of combination light / speakers things ($599) that delivers different songs to different speakers throughout your home: “ a stand-alone transmitter sends audio wirelessly to an LED bulb, which fits into a recessed light fixture…and because you can send signals to different bulbs, you can pump beats into one room while enveloping another in soothing jazz and yet in another….” Whatever. I haven’t figured out how to turn on our stereo at home and we’ve lived there for about eighteen years. Like the Apple product, this description contained many words and phrases I couldn’t define accurately.

A Bugaboo Bee stroller. Finally, something I understand. I’m not in the market for a stroller but even if I were, I can’t imagine spending $600 on anything even remotely connected to transportation that doesn’t also come with a key.

A pretty overnight weekender bag ($240) – maybe. But I really wanted it for myself when I saw it so I’d buy one and want to keep it. Not good.

A diver’s watch – except it cost almost $5,000. Plus, I don’t really know anyone who dives regularly and frequently enough to warrant a watch. Plus, anyone who would wear this without diving is annoying. Plus, this was available from a high-end, used watch dealer, which makes me worry about the diver I never met who wore it last.

Wait a minute – here we go! A croquet set! Lovely! Fun for everyone!! And a rule book, and a history / tactics book. And a handmade, gold-lined winning post. Wait a minute. Here we don’t go: $1,650.

A Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame jacket ($64.99). Nah.

A coffee table book full of gorgeous dessert photography ($29.95). Could be fun for the right person but I don’t have that person on my list. And if I owned it, I’d want to eat dessert even more often than I already do. Nope.

Ah – here we go, yet another item that doesn’t work for my list. Bark’n’Boot Polar Trex. Extra traction booties of some kind for dogs to wear to protect them from ice, rocks, frozen terrain…and salted sidewalks. They’re $89.95 and I couldn’t tell if that was for a set of four Bark’n’Boots or for just the one. No matter. I’m not buying them for any dog I know. And I don’t care how sturdy they are, I guarantee you our Charlie-dog would have chewed them to bits before sunset on Christmas Day if we had ever tried to affix them to his paws.

This isn’t working. I’ve found nothing for anyone on my list. Most of this stuff is too expensive, anyway. Is there nothing for under twenty bucks? Something perfect and fun and quirky and unique?

Hold on. Here you go. And before you read any further, I swear to you I am not making this up. For just $15, Artisanal Pencil Sharpening (yes, you read that correctly) will choose a standard #2 pencil for you – or send them your own! – and craftsman David Rees will sharpen it by hand “to as fine a point as you have ever seen.” He’ll even bag and send the shavings to you; shavings that were “painstakingly removed from the pencil during the sharpening process.”

And please don’t worry about being misled (Get it?? Mis-led?). They’ll stand behind their excellent work and send you “a certificate that attests to the sharpness of your writing implement.”

“ .”

I’m mostly speechless, here. And not to put too fine a point on this (see what I did there?) … but … what? You send this guy, David, a pencil and $15 and he’ll send it back sharpened by hand? Along with the shavings he took off the ‘writing implement?”

Dear God, we are in danger of dying off as a species if we can’t quite manage, nor are we satisfied with, a pencil that hasn't had its tip crafted and shaped by hand by sending it off to

But I’d like to think I’m a glass half full girl. Someone please call the AP and the other wire services. Send press releases to The Economist, Fortune, Forbes, Business Week, Financial Times and Kiplinger’s. The recession – long rumored to be over – is truly behind us.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

"Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different was you." Hmmm.

It’s been a week.

That sound you don’t hear is the sound of mothers from coast to coast, sitting amidst the quiet in their homes this evening. They’re walking past doors they slip a chain lock across at the end of the evening, past beds that remain smoothly made in tidy rooms and past towels that hang neatly – for days on end - in the bathroom. They notice the car parked outside, albeit with only half a gallon of gas in the tank. They walk past kitchen cabinets where favorite cereals, snacks and drinks that were on hand just one week ago, are all gone.

They’ve all said a post-Thanksgiving goodbye to sons and daughters who headed back to college following the holiday break. And almost no part of it feels very good.

This is the third year I’ve sent someone back to college after Thanksgiving. In 2008, my oldest son came and went, exhibiting a bit of the “you’re not the boss of me” attitude I’d anticipated from my college freshman but somehow was still not fully prepared to handle. In 2009 and again this year, my second and third sons joined in the fun of arriving home, hovering in and around the family for several days, and then leaping back into what had quickly become their new normal.

So – three rounds of this and you know what? It doesn’t get easier. At least for me it doesn’t.

What became evident to me, this year more than in the past, is that no matter how much you want it to remain safe and familiar, and no matter how hard you try to recreate a moment, you can’t do it. Life continues to evolve and the people in it do, too. Salinger expressed this so much more poetically in ‘Catcher’ when Holden talked about walking through the unchanging exhibits and figures in the Museum of Natural History: “Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. … Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

Well, let me think about this. Our rooms remain the same, with the same picture still leaning against one wall, waiting to be hung properly (it’s been there for eleven months – I’m not joking.) Other photos sit on a table, waiting for the right frames. The rooms remain filled with the papers, books, magazines, notes, flyers, and newspapers. [For years, I’ve believed in the ‘butterfly effect.’ A butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing and a piece of paper lands on a flat surface in our home.] But even if all that remains unchanged, I feel like we’re all different, in small almost indefinable ways this year.

For example, despite their protests, I used to “wait up” for the boys, dozing on the sofa until I heard the door open and I could hug them all good night. I don’t know why I thought this made a difference to the outcome of any activity on the planet, or why sofa-sleep somehow indicated I was more attentive than bed-sleep. (It didn’t by the way, although no one could convince me of that at the time.)

That has given way to “waiting up” while lying comfortably in bed, and sleeping lightly until I hear their footsteps on the stairs. I’ve told the boys that no matter the hour, I will hear them arrive home. At night, I have the hearing of an Egyptian slit-eared bat. Last week, I heard one, then a second son enter and exit a bathroom, then heard two bedroom doors close. In my mind: “Two? Only two? “ Someone’s missing… Click. A third door. “Ah, there he is.” And then I snuggled under covers and dozed off.

So what does that make me? Less concerned? Less committed to motherhood? Neither of those things. It just proves my point: the setting remains but the people evolve.

But I guess I’m wondering what Holden may have meant by having “certain things” stay the way they are. I don’t really want to stick anything or anyone in a glass case but the idea of preserving the moments I’ve cherished as the boys grew up is tempting. Then I remind myself that this is real life, not a museum of life. The only person I can think of who preserved the past to help him live in the present was Norman Bates, for God’s sake.

Every stage of their lives has been a fascinating journey of discovery as we all found out - incredibly incrementally I might add – who we were. Who we were when we were fighting, or furious. When we were thrilled with our circumstances and laughing uncontrollably. Or when we were bereft and very nearly inconsolable. And who we were for every single hour in between. Every moment left its own little footprint, and each one was a discovery we wouldn’t have made had we been frozen in one spot.

Here’s the thing. I watch my boys – who are really no longer boys, but young adults – and I think, for the nine millionth time – are you okay? I’m wondering if any of the fourteen thousand decisions I made about anything that was super-critically, God-we'd-better-get-this right important while you were growing up – not one of which I can name right now - meant anything in the long run.

At the same time, let me just say: they’re amazing people. All on their own, they’re each one an amazing young man. It’s been my enormous good fortune and blessing to have them in my life for more than twenty years. And in these last few years, as they wander in and out of our home on their way to the future, I keep thinking about another line from Holden’s visit to the museum: “The birds nearest you were all stuffed and hung up on wires, and the ones in the back were just painted on the wall, but they all looked like they were really flying south…”

So yes; I see them but they’re moving further away, on their way to a new destination.

But it’s all good! I’m good! I’m good with that. And I’m bad with that. And thinking: only about two more weeks until winter break.