Sunday, December 30, 2007

Family visits sometimes feel like a tight squeeze

I've survived another holiday season. Miracle that. Every step of the way I perilously balanced on the brink of insanity. Starting with what to get the kids, then moving on to what to suggest others get the kids, or what not to get the kids and what I forgot to get for anyone who is in fact NOT a kid, it all lead to what I succeeded in getting -- a headache.

Once I put aside all the consumer nonsense that the holidays drag out of me, I dished out a heaping helping of seasonal angst that comes from analyzing powervisits from the in-laws.

They would be the people who had absolutely NO say in who their son would marry.

They would also be the people who have NO say in how their son’s children are raised, and are furthermore not allowed to gasp (or growl) when said children arrive at the dinner table semi-nude on Christmas day.

Also, anything they do or say in relation to the development of said childhood will be misconstrued (by moi) as being critical; not to mention a dig on my ability to parent effectively.

And a powervisit, for those unaware, is when a houseguest -- usually a family member who hasn't seen the kids in a while -- stays for a brief time around the holidays, hoping to take with them some magical memory, however infintessimal, with them when they go.

Usually all they get is a memory of me turning red and steaming from the ears. Sad.

See, I hold onto every raw nerve in my body, and let the resulting wound fester. Like the time my father-in-law told me -- waaaaaay back before marriage to his son was even a possibility -- that the relationship was destined to end badly since I was "just like his mother" and "he was more like his father."

But I'm not bitter. I have no problem passing the potatoes when he asks politely.

And then there was the time the family-in-law decorated the Christmas tree the first year in our new home ... without me. Well, they strung the lights on the tree and decorated the room while I was at work, but then they retired to the kitchen with their glasses of wine and left me to hang the ornaments ... alone.

Again, not bitter. I even saved the ornaments I made that year (after plucking them from the trash).

Somehow all this seems like small potatoes once you add small fries to the mix.
I bristle when my mother-in-law gives her granddaughter stars that glow in the dark to hang in her room.

It angers me not they are plastic eyesores, but because she tells me they are the first step in getting the girl to sleep without lights on. Even thinking about it makes the hairs on my neck stand at attention.

Why am I so put out by a harmless -- inventive even -- approach to behavior modification, which, coincidentally, would also save some kilowatt hours on the energy meter? I just can't help but think grandmothers are supposed to spend their visits doting on the grandkids, filling them with sugar and leaving the parenting to their parents.

Truth is I know the person I have the biggest problem with is me.

Instead of looking at the gift as well-intentioned tool that doubles as a toy, I see only criticism -- of me. And when Ittybit kicks at the dinner table, or takes off her clothes, or interrupts the conversation and I feel the grandparental eyes upon me, I start to squirm in my seat, too.

I project my inner voice over (what I imagine to be) their inner monologue: We didn't allow our children to dress themselves; our children didn’t talk back; they didn't run through the house screaming at the tops of their lungs. We MADE them nap.

I tried to deflect the glaring light of my own failure by intervening on my daughter's behalf. When her Ama told me she was hoping Ittybit would wear the dress with the matching tights — The tights SHE'D asked for specifically -- I gave my only bit of advice:

"I find it's best to embrace the toddler-ness of her clothing choices. She has her whole life to try and fit in."

Of course then it occurred to me, I'm really just talking about myself.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sometimes life is just all consuming

American Public Media's Marketplace recently aired a series called "Consumed," in which it asked the question: Is our consumer society sustainable?

The series mainly focused on Americans' insatiable appetite for things: Pretty, pretty, things. Pretty cheap things. Lots and lots of cheap things. Things that once we own them never enter our minds again. Things that come packaged in more things.
Things that can't be repaired. Expensive things that are cheaper to replace. Things we can throw away without looking back.

For ages I've been looking at my buying habits and monthly credit statements, and vowing to make some changes. But now that these pretty, cheap things -- especially for children -- come with a toxic shadow surrounding them, I am trying to reform my ways in earnest.

But boy is it tough.

It's like a drug, these bargains that aren't really bargains. The Christmas-Tree-Shop thinking (Don't You Just LOVE a Bargain for some piece of detritus you don't really need in the first place) combined with a spend-or-the-terrorists-will-have-won mantra, which is apparently keeping the economy afloat, is drowning me.

Just saying 'no' isn't that easy in the wake of total submersion.

My mother reminds me that WE didn't have all these plastic toys when she was raising us. There just wasn't ALL. THIS. STUFF. She talks about how we were happy playing with creations of our own making.

We didn't watch a lot of TV not because she eschewed it but because there just wasn't a lot of children's television. Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Captain Kangaroo ... Saturday morning cartoons were pretty much all the programming there was; and movies for children consisted of the occasional Disney flick in theaters, and Willy Wonka and The Wizard of OZ, played once a year on the boobtube around Christmastime or Halloween.

Yet, I could list all the possible things I could buy, collect, watch, rinse, repeat, and I still would probably miss about 75 percent of the things available to purchase as a way to deplete the college fund for no good reason.

And you know what? No matter how I rail against it, I am guilty of perpetuating it. I pay so little attention that the reality of buying some $1 piece of dreck seems a bargain if it will just stave off whatever potential meltdown is brewing in the background.

"You just lost the battle," my husband scoffs at me as Ittybit leaves Target with a tiny basket of fruit bearing a Made in China emblem.

I try to protest, turn the tables and shine the blinding light of failure elsewhere. I tell him I am too tired to have THAT fight. I don't want to drag her from the store, kicking and screaming over something that is a natural desire: To have something new.

We are both guilty of those types of transgressions. He can't go past a hardware store and I can't get out of a discount store without buying something I don't need just because it was inexpensive-artfully placed-or-otherwise alluring with its shiny "Hey-You-Don't-Have-This" glow.

He looks at me with well placed skepticism.

"The only way to win this war is to leave her home," I say in exasperation.
"Or you could say 'NO,'" he responds.

"Leave me HOME?" Ittybit asks sadly from the backseat. "You’re not going to take me with you to Target anymore?"

"Yes, honey, that's right. I think we are going to have to go without you for a while," I reply.

"But why?"

"Because Mommy can't say 'NO' to you, and I really need to say 'NO'."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Grocery store often offers up food for the soul

Isn't it strange how life-affirming events almost always happen in the most mundane of all places, or, more specifically, during the pursuit of the bland?

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. It's not like revelation waits for those RARE moments when you're all gussied up, coiffed and powered, and sets a place card for you at the table.

But the supermarket? The supermarket!

I've spent countless hours in empty rooms, in comfortable clothes, emptying my mind of its negative contents and not only does relaxation elude me, but I gain no insight into any of life's great mysteries.

Yet give me a cart with a wonky wheel, a kid who won't be still and an infant who is as happy as pie to just be attached and you can be sure some little bit of wisdom is going to come my way just as I try and find the aisle where the shopkeepers hid the pancake mix this week. As luck has it, the life lesson hits me right in the face instead of sailing past my head.

I remember the first time it happened: Ittybit was only a few weeks old and I had gone to the market for oranges. I was in the produce section frowning over clementines when the aunt of a friend came up to congratulate me.

I didn't feel worthy of congratulations. I didn’t feel like much of a parent. No experience. No sleep. No ability to see too far into the future. I told her the idea of returning to work frightened me, as did the idea of not returning.

"Don't worry," she told me. "You will make the right decision. And remember, if that decision doesn't work out you'll make ANOTHER decision and it WILL BE the right one!"

Just that little affirmation made me breathe easier. It's crazy but still comforting. You know, like when your mind is mulling over all the things that you can't shut down and some song comes on the radio that seems to fit perfectly. Some little bit of universal wisdom wedged into a couplet that makes you whistle a happy tune again all because it played when you needed it most.

So I guess I have to admit that when I need something spiritual in nature I go to the grocery store. I head right for the make-your-own coffee counter next the Bakery and then I slowly make my way up and down the other aisles, taking my time.
Usually, I'm given some sample of something that changes my outlook.

Just last week I was bagging my groceries with the little one asleep in the pouch. An elderly woman was sitting on a bench by the window and she asked for my attention. Like most people who notice me, she was interested in the being in the bag.


"Why look at him, he's so alert.

"And so handsome.

"My word.

"You know, I predict he will do great things. I can see it in his eyes."

What is it about unsolicited praise from a stranger that makes everything seem so smooth and uncomplicated?

And somehow, with the sweetness of age and concern, even unsolicited advice seems silky soft.

"May I give you a piece of advice? Don't ever mock him. Don't even laugh at him with love. These smart ones catch on even when they don't really know."

It was something I know, sadly, from experience.

"Don't laugh at me," Ittybit tells us now, "You're making me foolish."

It's a shame I don't come to the store more often, I think, because by the time I get back to the car with my purchases and my lukewarm coffee, I've got more than nourishment for the body. I've got some for the soul, too.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Christmas exercises my limits

Halloween is but a distant memory, what's left of the turkey is in the soup and Christmas is calling my credit card by its first name and slapping it on the back with a hardy laugh.

I can almost hear its cigar-sawn voice (because in my imagination the personified Christmas smokes stogies and has a distinct Bostonian accent) taunting my little plastic friend into coming out from the warmth of my wallet: "Hey, buddy! You really should stretch those legs and staaaht shawppin'."

"Are you kidding?" is my perennial reply. "The poor tired card's been doing nothing but exercising its limits."

It doesn't matter whose advice I take — I've tried shopping in the summer, making lists, checking twice, searching for sales — will power is what I lack.
I remember one Christmas I had checked off everyone on my list by December 1, but about a week before Christmas I had pretty much double (and in some instances triple) checked with sale items.

"Oh, I see," exclaimed my nearest and dearest friend one year as I was frantically trying to get last-minute gifts for all the folks on my list I'd already covered. "You've gone insane."

And it's all because THAT is what the holiday does to me, folks: Drives me bat-guano insane.

This year, I'm fairly certain I have managed to adopt every possible shopping profile that has ever been studied by a plethora of marketing think tanks, not to mention the learned folks in charge of updating the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The Early Bird: That would be the person who starts shopping for Christmas on December 26th. This person shrewdly figures they will take advantage of the after-holiday sales and who thinks they can remember where they stowed all the Christmasy booty 364 days later. Of course in my case, I will forget where I hid all the stuff, only to find it when I’m wrapping all the replacement gifts on Christmas Eve.

The Vacation Shopper: This person has the same DNA as the Early Bird, only buys gifts for Christmas and other holidays when they’re feeling all warm and fuzzy at resort towns, spending their "mad" money at gloriously posh boutiques. In my case, I'll start wrapping presents a week before the big day and realize no one has any real use for flip-flops that say "MAINE, VACATIONLAND" in December. As a Vacation Shopper I was still out shopping on Christmas Eve.

The Bargain Hunter: OK. No matter how much I’d like to be this person, I know I can't. I just don’t have the will, patience or stamina to weather crowds on Black Friday. I am never going to stand in line overnight to be one of 12 lucky people to acquire a $200 laptop. My brain just tells me the thing will likely implode once plugged into the wall. As a Bargain Hunter I was still out shopping on Christmas Eve.

The Internet Buyer: The polar opposite of The Bargain Hunter. This is the person who makes a conscious decision to buy fewer things at higher prices and pay for shipping. And this, dear readers, is the persona I adopted this year. Let's see how I'm doing, shall we?

I've purchased nothing made in China, which means I have two toys, four books and 130 Christmas cards.

I've purchased nothing under $100, which means I am already above my preset limit. And so far it looks like at least half of my haul is backordered, which means … drum roll, please ... I'll be out shopping on Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

All in the family

The conversation seemed straight forward enough.

Christmas is coming, and not only do we need to consider the all-important LIST for Santa we also have to consider making room in Ittybit's room for the things she hopes he'll bring.

In the past I've waited until the dark of night when she's soundly asleep to spirit away all the toys she appears to have abandoned.

The act, in preschooler terms, is eerily similar to an alien abduction. If she notices the disappearance during the next few days, the hapless toy returns. If it goes undetected, the toy disappears forever.

This time, however, I thought I'd make an attempt at including her in the process. Together, I imagined, we’d cull her collection, and she'd get a chance see what how good toy donation philanthropy can feel.

But for one little notation — the potential of sending the toys in the best condition to children in Iraq, children with nothing not even mommies and daddies — the exercise might have ended in buckets of tears over having to relinquish so many never-loved trinkets in order get The Jolly Old Elf to procure some new baubles, which will undoubtedly face the very same fate.

"What do you mean 'NO mommies?'," she asked with alarm.
"Well, honey. There are all different kinds of families," taking a deep breath and preparing to list all the types of families there are in the world.

I didn't expect her to be terribly surprised. She's got friends who don't have daddies. She knows others who have two mommies. She has dipped a toe in discussions of divorce and death, and, though she doesn’t have an adult's understanding of either concept, she seems comfortable with our repeated explanations.

But what she wasn't prepared to discuss was an inevitability most all families face — a time in the foreseeable future when our kids move out.

"What do you mean, Move Away?"

"One day, when you’re all grown, you will probably move away and want to start a family of your own."

"But you are my family. I want to stay with you."

How do you explain to a tiny tot that there will come a time when they will fight tooth and nail to get away? That there will come a time when they will load that 'stupid chest of drawers' — the one that pinched their fingers when they were trying to get at their jammies — onto a truck and haul it away to a new apartment? The day is coming when they will beg to take the small TV, or a pot and pan, or maybe we’ll go shopping for a set they can call their own. How do you explain to a tot that all this parenting stuff is supposed to lead just that, an empty nest?

"But I don't want to go to another family. I. Want. To. Stay. With. You."

How do I explain that what she loves and can't be separated from today will drive her crazy and require gaining freedom from only a few years down the road?

I suppose I can't.

"You are not going anywhere for a long time. You are stuck with us until you don't want to be. ... How's that?"

"Good! I want to stay with you and daddy and baby Champ forever and ever and ever. ... Now can you ask Santa to bring me a REAL KITTY?"