What the Dickens?!

Let is never be said that I am a Scrooge during the holidays.  But for some reason, this year, I just can’t seem to get my merriment on.

I first noticed it while picking out our Christmas tree.  Normally, I give the same attention to buying a tree as I do to buying a house.  Every year we wander the tree farm, circle back, and mark possible candidates before making that final cut.  This year, it took all of five minutes rather than the usual thirty.  Here’s how it went down:

Husband:  “How about this one?”

Me:  “Yeah, sure.”

We put the tree up as soon as we returned home and it stood naked in the living room for an entire week.  Finally, I strung lights on it.  Two days after that, I slapped some ornaments on with the same enthusiasm one normally reserves for dental work – I just wanted to get it over with.

At first, I chalked up my lack of interest to fatigue but, since I wasn’t busting my back with all the usual Christmas rigmarole, that was a lame excuse.  Perhaps I was depressed?  Since I’m not prone to the blues, that was unlikely.  Was I just being lazy?  Well, laziness is relative.  By my own standards, I did think I was being lazy, but that was only a symptom, not the cause.  I finally settled on my health as being the culprit.  I’d been fighting a cold for a few weeks.  Maybe it was getting the better of me.  So I decided to take a goodly swig of NyQuil, straight from the bottle, and go to bed.

In the middle of the night, I felt someone poking at me.  It was a young woman in her twenties.  She was wearing a shiny suit with big shoulder pads, chunky gold jewelry and enough Stiff Stuff in her perm to paralyze each and every follicle.

I jolted awake from my NyQuil stupor. “Who are you?”

“I am the ghost of Christmas past,” she explained.

Judging by her outfit, I’d say she was the ghost of Christmas 1983.

“Come with me,” she said.  “Touch my sleeve.”

The feel of her garment suggested a Qiana-rayon blend.  Now I was sure she was from the ‘80’s.

The next thing I knew, we were watching three women, sitting at a kitchen table, making ornaments from cornstarch and baking soda.  I quickly recognized them: my sister, my friend Laura, and me.  This was my first apartment, in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Puffing away on cigarettes, we were having the best time shaping and baking and painting the ornaments, while watching It’s A Wonderful Life.  It was colorized that year, but we didn’t know it because our 12” TV was a black and white set.

“I remember that!  Oh, we had so much fun that day.”  I was delighted by the memory.

On the corner of the old kitchen table sat a stack of Christmas cards that I lovingly hand-addressed in calligraphy.  I remember pouring over boxes and boxes of cards, until I found just the right ones.  Drawn in black and white on the outer flap, was a picture of a brownstone.  The only touch of color was a green Christmas tree topped with a  gold foil star, visible from a second floor window.  Inside it read, “A tree glows in Brooklyn.”  I loved those cards and wished I’d saved one.

“There’s more to see,” said the spirit.

Next stop: Rego Park, Queens about 10 years later.  I was a newlywed.  This time my sister and I were in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies with my little niece.  Baking cookies with me had become a traditional holiday activity for my friends and relatives.

Rego Park Christmas

Rego Park Christmas with my sister and niece.

We only observed the scene for a moment before dashing forward to 1998 and the suburbs of New York.  There in the great room of our first house, with my 8-month-old daughter on my hip and a pastry bag in my hand, I was decorating gingerbread men, while my three-year-old son rolled out more dough, getting flour in his hair, his eyelashes, between the slats of the hardwood floors…  That year we had a holiday housewarming to celebrate becoming homeowners.  I baked about 300 cookies to serve and give as gifts.  Seeing it in this vision, I felt the same warmth and pride and excitement all over again.

Housewarming cookies

Housewarming cookies

In the corner of the room, outgoing Christmas cards were piled on the desk.  They were each addressed with an Avery inkjet mailing label and pre-printed return address stamps.

In the other corner stood our big, bushy Christmas tree, displaying many of those handmade ornaments from my Brooklyn days as well as new ones purchased from the store.

Turning around to see more, I found myself back in the bed of my current home.  My husband was out cold, and seemingly unaware of my recent time travels.

Now, I don’t know about you, but once I’m awake, I have trouble getting back to sleep.  So I went downstairs for a glass of water.

On my way to the kitchen, I walked past our Christmas tree.  Even though I still have some of those original cornstarch ornaments, none of them are hanging from its branches.  Nor are the dozens of others that I’ve collected throughout my adult life.  This year, I grabbed the first storage box of ornaments I saw and only those made it onto the tree.

We moved into our current home, a 19th century Victorian farmhouse, back in December of 2005.  That year, I went crazy with the decorating.  A neighbor said, “It looks like Santa threw up in here!”  And it did.  Not a single surface or nook was spared.  It was cheerful and festive for as far as the eye could see.

I’d scaled way, waaaaaay back on the decorating this year. The wreath on the front door was thrown together about three days ago with ribbon and some plastic holly I picked up at the drugstore.  But at least it fairs better than the giant wreath on the barn, which is completely bare.  Not even a bow to sass it up a little.

There are no cookies in the kitchen, no Christmas cards to be mailed.  The happy little snowman village, which I normally display on the kitchen mantel, is nowhere in sight.  No Christmas countdown calendar.  No jolly mural drawn on the kitchen blackboard.  Nope.  There is just a little bit here, and a little bit there.  If you pass by my house, you wouldn’t just wonder if we celebrate Christmas, you’d wonder if the house is currently vacant.

As I looked around, I had to admit something to myself: I completely half-assed our present Christmas.  But there is nothing I can do about it now.  Christmas is just days away.  It’s too late.  Heaving a heavy sigh, I decided to take some more cold syrup and go back to bed.

Just as I managed to drift off to sleep again, a little girl popped up from beside the bed, all excited and bubbly.  “C’mon!  C’mon!  Come see!”

I took her hand and she led me back downstairs.  As we passed the living room, the lights and tinsel were almost blinding.  Every branch was jam packed with glittery ornaments, both old and new.  There were so many packages piled under the tree, wrapped in shiny paper and bows, that they covered half of the floor.

In the kitchen stood an older version of myself.  I was baking cookies with three of the most adorable little children I’d ever seen.  They were calling me TaTa (my family nickname), and we were all laughing and carrying on.  I could tell they were my grandchildren and was overcome with the most intense feelings of love.  The kitchen mantel was alive with the bustling little snowman village and from the window, I could see the barn, lit up like a used car lot, giant decorated wreath and all.

This is my vision of Christmases yet to come.  I know I will eventually get my merriment back on, bake the cookies, send the cards, decorate the dog, and so on and so forth.  For now, less is more and I’m OK with that.  So I’m taking the pressure off myself, making a cup of tea and heading to the couch to watch Christmas in Connecticut for the umpteenth time.  But before I do, I’d like to wish that all of your holidays are filled with joy, wonder and spirit (whether they be induced by over-the-counter medication or just the pure love in your heart).

Merry Christmas from SNORK!

Merry Christmas from SNORK!

White Christmas

The excitement of Christmas, and all ita wonders, can dwindle for some of us, as we age.  Rather than embracing a time for rejoicing, or devotion (should one reflect on the actual meaning of Christmas), the season can become a drudge of extra chores that nobody needs to add to their overloaded agendas. Often, at this time of year, people become cranky, depressed, and envious of their associates whom do not partake of these traditions.  My friend Vanessa, a Jehovah’s Witness, manages to look fresh as a daisy throughout the entire month of December and feels not a smidge of stress.  I love her, but sometimes that really pisses me off.  But I digress…

I noticed a sag in my own Christmas enthusiasm beginning in my teens.  By then, I well knew the “real” story behind the origin of those gifts under the tree.  And rather than waking up before the sun and bouncing around until we were allowed to rouse my parents (6:00 a.m. and not a minute earlier), my siblings and I would shuffle into the kitchen whenever, put the coffee on, and wait for the last slug-o-bed to emerge (always my brother Michael, even to this day).

Then, in my thirties, something truly magical happened…I had a child.  Not the second Christ child (although my mother might disagree) – just an ordinary baby boy, born in a Manhattan hospital rather than a manger.  Seeing Christmas through my child’s eyes reignited all that joy and anticipation and contentment.  I was obsessed with creating Christmas traditions and memories that my son, and later my daughter, would want to share and repeat with their own families…caroling, midnight mass, Advent calendars, gingerbread houses…

One of the biggest rituals involved Santa Claus.  The first year that my son was old enough to comprehend old Saint Nick, I insisted that the one and only true Santa was at Macy’s in Harold Square.  All those other “Santas” were actually Santa’s helpers because the one and only true Santa was at Macy’s.  Did I mention Macy’s?  The only true Santa…there…at Macy’s (no, they aren’t paying me to say this).  When we’d see a bell-ringing Santa on a street corner, I’d remind my son, “He’s Santa’s helper because, you know where the real Santa is, right?”

“At Macy’s!” my boy would squeak.

So, on an early December Monday at about one o’clock, my husband and I took our impressionable toddler to Macy’s to meet the one and only true Santa.  I was so excited I nearly wet my pants!  I had never been to Macy’s Santaland before.  It was everything I dreamed of and more.  We had strategically chosen a time to go when it wouldn’t be crowded.  Let there be no distractions!  I wanted him to feel like we were the only ones in this enchanted place, so he could really take it all in.  We were all giggles and jitters.  What a moment!

After strolling through this fairy tale, our time had come.  All the build up, all the picture books we’d poured over, all of our (my?) dreams were about to become a reality.  We were ushered in to see the one and only true Santa Clause.  And that’s when this happened…

The One and Only True Santa

The one and only true Santa Claus was a gentleman of color.  He was not the image of Santa pictured in our copy of A Visit From St. Nicholas, or the one that sat atop of our Christmas tree, or the one on all the Coca Cola billboards!  Now readers, I would never lie to you.  So I have to say, this was something of an “oh shit” moment for me.  I had spent weeks telling my son that all the other Santas were bogus and only the one true Santa was this man sitting before him.  It was all very confusing (for me).  My mind started racing now what do I do?  What must he be thinking? How will I explain?

Well, I learned a big lesson that day.  I didn’t have to do or explain anything – and I was ashamed of my reaction – because my little boy didn’t skip a beat.  He climbed up on Santa’s lap, had a sweet chat with the jolly old elf, told him what he’d like for Christmas and gave him a warm hug before parting.  To children, at least mine (and I’d bet most), Santa is Santa, plain and simple.

Since that year, we have seen many Santa’s at Macy’s and elsewhere.  They have come in every possible shade a human being can be.  So, regardless of what you may have read, or heard on Fox News, there really is only one true Santa.  And he looks like love and peace, harmony and joy.

Killer Instinct

Competition can bring out the best in us, or the absolute worst of our animal nature.  I am highly competitive, but when push comes to shove, I fall apart in spectacular ways because I lack the killer instinct.

Some years ago, I was an archer, traveling around the country to compete in tournaments.  One of my favorites was the enormous World Archery Festival, held every year in Las Vegas, and attended by thousands.  I was having my best year since I started shooting and, by some miracle, had just won the New York State Indoor championship.  I was certain I could take home a prize in Vegas.

On the first day of the tournament, out of 30 arrows, I shot 30 bull’s eyes.  Yes, a perfect score!  [Full Disclosure: While it may sound amazing, there are actually plenty of people who shoot 30 out of 30 all the time in Vegas, but I’d never done it.  Also, the bull’s eyes are larger in Vegas than in any other tournament, but that’s none of your business.]

The next day, I was ready to continue my reign.  I was riding high.  Spectators were watching me.  There was only one problem – spectators were watching me.  When under pressure, I fold like a cheap Chinatown paper fan.  Did I mention that spectators were watching me?  My first arrow was a bull’s eye. Dead center.  However, it was nothing to rejoice about…because I shot it into somebody else’s target.  Translation: rookie mistake.  Competitors with the killer instinct do not make this error.

I had completely blown my chances.  Everything after that was a blur, although I do remember my friends, Dave and Bryan, picking me up by the elbows and transporting me to the nearest bar stool.  Bryan’s instruction to the bartender was very specific, “Serve her margaritas until we tell you to stop.”

Three weeks later, the USA Indoor Nationals were being held in Andover, Massachusetts. The calamity of Las Vegas was behind me and I was ready for this two-day event.  I’d learned from my mistakes.  I had my confidence back.  The first day of shooting went better than I’d hoped.  But I wondered how my competition was doing.

When we arrived at the venue on the second day, the standings were posted on the wall.

As I walked toward it, my friend and fellow archer, Pete, grabbed my arm and warned, “Don’t do it.”

“Why not?”  I asked.  But I knew why not.  Pete knew why not.  Anyone who had ever met me knew why not.

“I’ll look at it for you,” Pete offered.  He walked over to the wall, looked at the postings, and returned.  “Let’s go shoot,” he said, without expression.  He wasn’t giving anything away.

“Oh, c’mon!” I said.  “This is silly.”  As I walked toward the score sheet, Pete warned me again, but this time more forcefully, “Do not do that!”

I ignored him and searched the list for my name.  It didn’t take long to find it…I was in second place.  I slapped my hand over my mouth and squealed like a piglet with it’s tail caught in the barn door.

“Well,” Pete sighed, “that’s the end of that.”

Pete’s a pretty smart guy and it seems he can predict the future.  That second day of shooting was a disaster.  I went home empty-handed, again.

If they gave awards for “Choking,” I’d have to rent out storage space for all my trophies.

I don’t shoot any more, but I compete in other ways.  My new favorite “sport” is Words With Friends.  This is where my killer instinct surfaces.  Yes, I am that person who will play a chintzy 2-point word to block you from using a triple word bonus.  I’ve become so competitive at Words With Friends that I now have to call it Words With Random Opponents because none of my “friends” want to play with me anymore.

But that’s in the virtual world.  In the real world, I’m not competitive unless there’s something truly worth winning.  Occasionally, however, I find myself an unwitting participant, in the midst of a competition of which I want no part.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  Just go to any reunion, cocktail party, any time or place when people have an opportunity to talk about their kids.  This is where that killer instinct rears its ugly head with a vengeance.

Here are two of my favorite “competitive parent” moments, but first a little back story…

My son had the privilege and misfortune of attending an obsessively competitive school.  The students obsessed over grades.  Their parents obsessed over their kids getting into Ivy League colleges, at all costs.  They were not “helicopter parents.”  They were “stealth bomber parents.”

This first tidbit took place at a back-to-school night, when my husband and I ran into the “Farrugut-Uppingtons.”

FUs:    How was your summer?

Me:     Great!  How about yours?

FUs:    What did your son do over the vacation? [Answering a question with a question…it should have been a tipoff.]

Me:     [Naively falling headfirst into their trap] He went sailing with the boy scouts, spent some time on Cape Cod and then did some things locally.  What about your son?

FUs:    [Suddenly puffed up to twice their original size] Well, Robespierre had a summer internship at Johns Hopkins University.  He co-wrote a medical paper with his mentor, about the relationship between ADD medication and superior standardized test scores.  It was in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Perhaps you read it.

Me:     [speechless]

FUs:    [smirking]

Me:     [thinking to myself] Eff you.

In a panic, I took my husband aside and whispered, “Oh my god!  Is that the kind of thing our son should be doing over the summer?”

My husband, who is completely immune to such parental shenanigans, calmly said, “It’s called a vacation for a reason.”

The Farragut-Uppington's family car

The Farragut-Uppington’s family car

My second story involves parents’ visiting day.  We were gathered in the cafeteria for lunch.  Our children were freshmen, so naturally all everybody was talking about was getting them into Harvard.  Here’s a snippet of that conversation:

Parent A:         We told our daughter “It’s Harvard or nothing.”

Parent B:         Same for our son.  He’s already got the grades…and we’re legacy, so…

Parent A:         [claws inching out]  What did he get on that last bio test?

Parent B:         What did your daughter get? [Apparently, Parent B had already been to this rodeo.]

Me:     [trying to quell the brewing storm]  Well, they’re coming from this school, so that’ll be a leg up.

Parent A:         You can’t count on that.  Robespierre’s sister ended up at SUNY Albany!  [She said this in a breathless, gaspy way, while clutching her pearls…as if going to SUNY Albany were akin to being thrown on a slag heap, naked and bleeding.]

Me:     [A proud graduate of SUNY Albany]  Ahem…

From underneath the table, I could feel my husband place his foot on top of mine and gently, but firmly, apply pressure.  His eyes widened and he made a face perceptible solely to me.  He was speaking the silent language that can only exist between partners who have been married for a very long time – newlyweds cannot pull this off.  His soundless shouting was loud and clear – Don’t start! They’ll eat you alive.

I kept my mouth shut, which was easy by this point, because I was gnashing my teeth.

For the remainder of my son’s high school career, I never got wise to these sorts of set ups and fell for them every single time.  In the long run, none of it mattered anyway.  All I care about is that our son got into the college he most wanted, he loves it there and he sounds happy every time we hear from him.

So, what ever happened to those students, whose parent used them in their constant one-upmanship tournaments?  Many of them got into the schools they so desperately wanted (and when I say “they” I mean their “parents”).  As for Robespierre Farragut-Uppington?  Rumor has it he got expelled for selling ADD meds on his college campus…at SUNY Albany.

SUNY Albany.  Go Danes!

SUNY Albany. Go Danes!

Please Release Me

Parents have lots of endearing nicknames for their kids: Budgie, Smoojie, Jellybean…  For occasions when their children are being needy, I’ve heard parents call them Velcro, The Warden, The Cling-On… And during those especially trying times: The Barnacle or The Hemorrhoid (always said with love, of course).  In our house, you would be known as Whiny Clingman or Grumpus Minutus.

As a tyke, whenever my Sonny Boy was feeling codependent, he’d stand in front of me with his arms raised, saying, “I hold you, Mommy?”  This meant, “Pick me up.”  I know what you’re thinking: how cute!  Yes.  It was cute…for the first seven thousand times.  After that, as I’d try to cook the food, launder the laundry, or tend to our younger child, it would become a tad less darling.

If I couldn’t pick him up right away, he would swiftly transform from Whiny Clingman to Grumpus Minutus – turning me into Grumpus Minimus or Grumpus Maximus, depending on my hormone levels.

Sonny Boy would often wait for the most inopportune time to require cuddling – usually when I’d have his little sister, Peaches, on the changing table.  I would have to bend down, raise my ointment-covered hands like a surgeon, press my head against Peaches to keep her from rolling off the table and hug Sonny Boy with my knees and elbows. Try it sometime.  It’s a herniated disk waiting to happen.  He would come from out of nowhere, like a toddler ninja, and insist on human contact.  So stealth.  One time, I didn’t even know he was standing right behind me until he squeaked, “I hold you, Mommy!”  Nearly jumping out of my skin, I jerked, flinging diaper rash goop onto the ceiling and alarming the daylights out of poor Peaches.  The result?  Two disgruntled customers.

Toddler Ninja

Now before you judge my Sonny Boy as demanding, let me tell you, he was the ideal child.  A delight!  Cheerful and sweet 99% of the time!  He loved to sit quietly and look through his books or play with his toys for hours on end.  That’s why I’d feel especially guilty if I couldn’t hold him at the precise instant he needed some extra attention.

Whenever I could, I’d scoop him into my arms, and squeeze him with just the right amount of squish.  I’d nuzzle his sweet ample cheeks, and whisper, “Sometimes you love too much, my little man.” And then we would laugh and he’d kiss me.  It was our little joke.

This all happened nearly two decades ago which, in parent years, was yesterday.  It’s an age-old cliché, but truer than true: time passes faster than you ever thought possible.  These days, Sonny Boy is nearly a foot taller than I, so I’m grateful he hasn’t asked me to pick him up recently.  But he hasn’t asked for hugs either.  If only.

Very soon, we will drop Sonny Boy off at college for the first time.  We live in New York.  His college is deep in Pennsylvania, so it’s practically Kentucky (or Pennsyltucky, as the locals call it).  Being a six-hour car ride away, it may as well be in another galaxy.

I have already warned him that I might be embarrassing on move-in day.  I’m pretty sure there will be tears.  I already wept at orientation, and I wasn’t alone.  It happened when the bursar spoke to all of us parents about college loans and financing.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

But move-in day is sure to be worse.  I will hide behind my huge Jackie O sunglasses.  I’ll probably tear up on the ride there, but as soon as our wheels hit the campus, I will begin the “ugly cry.”  I will try to be brave while meeting his RA and put on a jolly façade as I’m being introduced to his roommate.  By then, however, my nose will be red, my eyes will be puffy and I will be fooling no one.

When it’s time to say good-bye, he will walk us to our car.  He will hug me and, if I’m lucky, he’ll kiss my cheek.  Hubby and I will drive away, leaving him behind.  In that twinkling of an eye, I will have to let him go, for real.  And this will cause me considerable pain because, my name is Whiny Clingman, and sometimes I love too much.

So long, buddy. I miss you already.