Monday, December 20, 2010

The Grinch, Santa, and the Busy Post Office

I saw on the news this morning that today is the busiest day of the year at the post office; and of course I had an errand there that wouldn't wait. Needless to say, I was pretty much dreading the idea of waiting in line forever with a VERY active toddler -- that's pretty much a recipe for an enormous public meltdown.

I was dreading it even more because my errand was not dropping off cards or holiday packages, but mailing a certified letter warning our tenants that we'll have to start eviction proceedings if they can't get their rent in. Which made me feel a lot like the Grinch. [boo, hiss.....] In my defense, we aren't actually evicting them at Christmas, but still. It's not a position I ever wanted to be in, and not great timing for threats of legal action.

The Grinch feeling only increased as Monkey and I filed into line with everyone carrying cards and packages for loved ones. It was like the letters in my hand were slowly becoming radioactive. I found myself re-explaining to me how lenient and understanding we have been with our tenants so far; reminding myself that we've given them plenty of opportunities, done lots for charity this season, etc., etc.

Then my mood improved substantially because Monkey started aggressively playing peekaboo with and blowing kisses to the people in front of and behind us. He's such a little ham, and it was hard not to laugh at him -- and soon we were chatting happily with the lady in front of us, who is missing her own grandchildren and seemed to enjoy a bit of a baby fix. She also kept Monkey engaged and happy, and that helped all of us pass the long wait more easily. I was so grateful and all my Grinch feelings were back in perspective.

As we neared the front of the line, another little Christmastime dilemma arose as the nice lady in front of us asked a question I've had frequently this year and I'm sure will only get more often as I take my Irish-looking son around town. "Have you taken him to see Santa yet?"

This always makes me feel a little awkward, not in a deep theological sense, but in a basic conversational sense. We're Jewish, and while some Jews have absorbed the Santa tradition, we have not. So when I meet someone in passing who I will never see again, is it appropriate to fib my way through this question -- the same way you say "fine," when a stranger asks you how you're doing, even if you've had a crappy day and a vicious headache?

It's a tough call for such an innocuous and well-intended question. When people wish me Merry Christmas, I wish it right back. So what if I don't celebrate the holiday? Obviously that person does or they wouldn't say it, so I just receive it as a positive thing and reflect back their well-wishes. I think people of all faiths could benefit from being more flexible about how we show kindness to one another this time of year, instead of demanding that everyone conform to one particular understanding of the holiday(s).

On the other hand, answering a very specific question falsely to facilitate an easy conversation doesn't feel right, either. This lady did not say, "Hope Santa's good to you!" as we parted. She specifically asked if I had taken my son to see Santa. Even though he's not old enough to understand the question fully, I feel it's important to model honesty, and teach him not to be ashamed that our religion, culture and holiday observances may sometimes be unlike those around us.

My primary hesitation on being truthful in this circumstance is that I don't want to embarrass the person asking the question. I often feel that when I do clarify the fact that we're Jewish, in response to the assumption that we're Christian (a common one given the pasty Irish complexion and red hair), it makes the person asking the question feel as though she's been corrected. And, well, I guess she has.

In this case, I started with a simple no, and then she asked as a follow up, "I guess he's too young for that, huh?" So I went with the truth.

"We celebrated Hanukkah already, actually..."

"Oh, I'm sorry!" See? Totally embarrassed.

"No, that's alright. We did see a Santa at a church play with some friends last night, and he didn't show any interest, so I guess I'm off the hook for answering that difficult question for another year!" I tried to smile comfortably to let her know it was really okay that she'd asked.

It was awkward, and I could tell she felt a little bit bad as I wished her "Merry Christmas!" and stepped up to the counter. But maybe she learned something about her own assumptions that she can carry forward with her; and hopefully I got a little practice doing the uncomfortable, but right thing, because you know this won't be the last time I get that question! 

As I left the post office today I thought, wow, I'm glad we got here when we did. The line is out the door! But I also thought what a good lesson for this time of year, for both of us. For all of us:

Be proud of who you are. Be a friend to someone who needs it. And your true self is the best gift there is.

[Cue the violins! Pass the Kleenex!]

Merry Christmas to my Christian friends. Happy Kwanzaa to those who celebrate it (if any of you do celebrate Kwanzaa and don't find it intrusive, I would love to know more about your traditions). Happy Chinese food to my MOT friends, and happy warm thoughts to everyone.

The blog is going on a short break, but I'll see everyone bright and early in 2011!!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

This 'Marital Moment' Brought to You By....

ME: Urrgh! You keep complaining about stuff, but you won't accept any of my solutions!

DH: I know, I'm really frustrating that way. It's a character flaw.

ME: Character flaw? Really? Are you sure it's not just a consistent, annoying choice?

DH: Hmmm... [Thinks]. Nope, it's a character flaw.

ME: *Sigh*

Friday, December 17, 2010

Dear PTA Lady: A Protest!

It's Teacher Appreciation Week at Monkey's school.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? I think so. I love teachers. I worked at a school for almost three years and teachers were the majority of my acquaintance. My best friend is a teacher. I know first-hand what a hard and often thankless job it can be. So I was thrilled when we joined the PTA in August and learned that a portion of our dues go to appreciation gifts for the teachers and staff. Perfect. Lovely.

Or it was, until my inbox started getting hit last month with a slew of e-mails requesting -- no, demanding is really the better word -- that all parents have their children make cards for the teachers this week. Not just the kids' specific teachers (Monkey has two), but all the auxiliary teachers who do specific subject work and support staff (there were eight named in the e-mail).

So that's TEN homemade cards this PTA committee chair wants me to sit down with my almost-18-month-old create. And, since my child is, well, one, that means I have to sit down and create ten cards and try to get him to personalize them. I haven't even sent out holiday cards yet, and I am still mailing off the stray moving announcement here and there from almost three months ago. Who does this lady think I am?

Okay, I don't want to be callous, and I'm sure some of my PTA mom friends are going to read this in horror, but.... one of the reasons I have Monkey in school is so that I don't have to do that kind of stuff. I'll admit it. Whether it's crayons or fingerpaint, artwork holds his attention for about 20 seconds, usually. With crayons, that 20 seconds is not enough to produce a serviceable greeting card. And fingerpaint.... Between putting on the smock, getting the supplies, prepping and cleaning, it takes me about 20 minutes to get it ready and then put it away. That's a 60:1 ratio of work to fun! Plus he has to be closely supervised in both cases, or I end up with purple crayon all over the TV and fingerpaint on the cat. 

So he does artwork at school, in a controlled environment with great lighting, fun friends, no couches or electronics to ruin, and patient teachers to guide him. Who, again, I appreciate. And he brings home sheets and sheets of fun projects, many of which make their way directly to File 86, with a few going into the permanent file for later.

And that's another thing. Even I, who gave birth to him and love him enough to wipe his nose with my own sleeve in emergencies, even I don't keep all the random crap he 'creates.' So why would a teacher, who does artwork with little kids all day long and has kids of her own bringing home little treasures, why would she want more smudgy artwork as a thank-you for all the long hard hours she puts in? I don't know, maybe it's just the cynic in me, but my experience with teachers is they want what everyone else wants: Starbucks cards.

Don't get me wrong, I really do appreciate Monkey's teachers. The staff at his school are amazing, and I'll gladly throw in an extra $5 or $10 in PTA dues if our appreciation budget is not what it should be. I also try to thank them personally when I see them, take time for conversation, and let them know how much Monkey loves being there. [He was out because of illness recently and kept running to the door saying 'Kool? Kool?']

I get it. I really do. Some people are really into this kind of thing, and baking cookies or creating thoughtful homemade gifts is right in their wheelhouse. Great. More power to you. And I've been in enough school volunteer committee meetings in my day to understand that there can be a lot of pressure to do your particular job really well. Maybe just buying Starbucks cards felt impersonal. Maybe the idea was to allow more parents and kids to participate. I guess the idea that some people don't have the time or inclination didn't occur to them....

I love the PTA organization. I work with PTAs professionally doing presentations and they're great. But as a somewhat-working, somewhat-at-home mom, I just want to say that I put enough pressure on myself, thank you very much, and I don't need extra pressure and extra to-do list items (however small they might seem to someone else).

Why, as parents, can't we take the pressure off ourselves and our peers to do everything in the most perfectly wonderful, wonderfully perfect way? And WHY did I cave? (Well, sort of -- I made 5 of the 10 requested cards because that was all I could manage before Monkey ran off covered in paint). I think I feel the pressure myself to make a good impression in the community and to not be seen as 'the mom who doesn't care.' Which of course, is why I'm venting in a blog instead of confronting the PTA Lady directly....

Shouldn't it be okay to let people who have the time and inclination to do something crafty and super-personal do that, and let the rest of us express our appreciation in our own way? In this age of choice and empowerment, isn't there room for a wide variety of moms who have their own strengths and limitations? Can't some people serve on committees and make hand-crafted gifts, while others focus their energies elsewhere?

Ultimately, my child is in preschool/daycare because I work, and I would much rather spend my downtime enjoying him than making finger-paint cards. Or, you know, blogging about how much I hate making finger-paint cards. Whichever.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Feeling a Bit Like Tippi Hedren

And, yes, I had to look up how to spell her name.

It is so cold outside today that the birds in our backyard seem to be actually trying to get into the house. All morning I've been watching an aerobatic display in out the window -- we are fortunate to have a yard that's hospitable to birds of all types -- the fiery cardinals competing with the red-headed woodpeckers for attention as red spots blur in and out of my peripheral vision while I work. Birds are flitting from tree to tree, taunting the cat by stopping to rest briefly on our patio, then hopping onto tables, chairs, the grill, the birdhouse, nearby branches....

In the last few minutes, however, things seem to have taken a different turn; and more and more frequently I hear the tap and scrape of an aviary someone hitting the enormous window in our breakfast room. At first I thought that one or two of the little peeps had just gotten carried away with excitement and bonked their heads on our house by accident.

"Hey, Matilda, check out the loop-to-loop I can --- OUCH."

And you just know Matilda's over there in the crook of the tree, laughing at the silly fool as he rubs his sore head with a tentative wing and tries to pretend he meant to end up horizontal on the pine straw beneath the window.

But now it's starting to seem less like incidental collision and more like the birds are actually looking for a way in. One little brown bird (a wren maybe?) just hoisted herself up and tried to work her way into each of the four corners of the big window, one at a time. She's looking for a weakness in our security system!

The cat, who desperately wants to be outside but cannot tolerate the cold for more than 10 minutes at a stretch, is beside herself. She is prowling back and forth between each of the most popular windows, tail swishing in excitement and frustration.

Occasionally she looks at me like, "Isn't there anything you can do about this?"

And I look back at her with a look that says, "This is karma, dear." (I had to reschedule a trip to the vet earlier because she took one look at the cat carrier and squeezed through a hole into the crawlspace under the house -- so my sympathies are less than they might be otherwise). I do feel a bit sorry for the cold little birds, though.

I guess it's fitting imagery for a theme that has been running in my life lately. I have had to make some tough choices in the couple of weeks to remove people and situations from my life that were zapping my energy and causing more harm than good. For example, firing the unreliable bathroom contractor who had turned our renovation into the world's worst babysitting job, rather than a home improvement project. Drawing critical boundaries with a client knowing that it meant I might not get to accompany her on the journey any further. Putting some internal limits on how much I can invest in different areas of my life right now, trying to reserve and time and energy for something about which I am passionate, rather than to which I feel obligated.

All this is fitting for a cold, almost-winter day. When the weather is unpleasant, we pay more attention to the walls that shelter us from outside. A drafty window or broken door seal may mean nothing on a balmy fall afternoon; but when it dips below freezing, we notice all the weaknesses in our defenses. Similarly, when our resources are running low, it's more important than ever to structure our lives in a way that keeps unhealthy or unproductive stuff out -- so we can keep our own little acre of the universe warm and nurtured.

I feel bad for the cold birds, and the troubled client, and the wayward contractor. I really do. I'm a helper and it's against my nature to turn anyone away. But sometimes opening the door of your life too often -- or leaving it that way for too long -- only means that the warm safe space you've created becomes eroded by the cold wind. And then there is no shelter, no energy, no creativity left for anyone to enjoy.

So I am working on releasing what was never mine to hold. My responsibility lies within my own house, taking care of those who depend (appropriately) on me and I on them. It's my job to keep myself and what gifts I have healthy so that they can be used in the best possible way; for the greatest overall good. 

The birds are in God's hands.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

With Thanks to a Friend...

... for a trip down Memory Lane (more like Memory I-85) that made me smile and reminded me of a period of real growth in my own life. Reading her blog, I felt like a much better person than I really am most days. It's nice to have friends with good memories around at your better moments so they can remind you of them when you need it most. There are some things in my life that I'm not proud of, but on World AIDS Day I can tell you that our day with Cornelius is not one of them.

I don't remember how Cyn and I got the assignment from Mobile AIDS Support Services. In fact, reading her telling of that piece of our shared history brought back many details I had forgotten about that trip. But I will never forget how I felt walking into Cornelius's home that day, more nervous than I cared to admit. He was a African-American man in his 80's, suffering with AIDS and already blind. We were on spring break, volunteers, and had spent most of the week -- as she described -- elbow-deep in condoms and menial jobs. I never knew condoms could be boring until that trip!

Frankly, I think I was less nervous about AIDS then than I was about Cornelius's general living conditions -- he lived in poverty and illness, alone, and was not able to clean up after himself. Entering his home, I was struck by "an overwhelming sense of ickiness," as Alicia Silverstone said around that time. It's funny how all the logic and education in the world are nothing in the face of some of our most basic fears and aversions.

But we were there to help. We'd given up our spring breaks getting hammered on the beach with all the other college kids, we'd come all this way, we were talking the talk. Our pictures had been in the newspaper for Pete's sake, we'd better earn the attention. So we talked with Cornelius a bit and tried to give him some company and comfort. But mostly, we cleaned. We did week-old dirty dishes in a tiny kitchen infested with roaches. We wiped furniture and walls, and -- for my personal Everest -- I scrubbed the toilet.

Even now, with countless dirty diapers under my belt and experience cleaning up some pretty disgusting things over the course of my life [as a teenager I worked at McDonald's and cleaned things I don't even want to discuss], I still get squeamish cleaning toilets. Even my own. All you nurses and hospice workers out there, just go right ahead and laugh. I can take it.

So to be faced with cleaning up after this elderly man who had been so sick, it brought out my least rational reactions. Maybe I'm imagining backward, but I think I still remember the yellow light in the room, and the brown tile walls; a large crack in the porcelain tub. I wasn't sure I was up to the task. Once I had scolded myself for being a huge baby and got on with it, of course it took no time at all. When we were done I remember breathing deeply the fresh air from Cornelius's rickety front porch. I felt proud of myself for doing something challenging, and sad that I couldn't do more for him.

The rest of our crew gave me a "potty award" at the end of our trip because they knew how hard that had been for me personally - and I was actually really sad when that was stolen along with some other precious things in a fire safe box years later. I have 13 years of softball trophies in my Dad's attic that I could pretty much care less about. Funny what makes us proud, isn't it?

It wasn't until days later that it occurred to me to wonder how he felt, a proud man rendered helpless by this disease and listening as a couple of young white college kids from another state invaded his personal space. It wasn't just our HIV status that made us different; it was also economics, education, race, gender and age. He seemed grateful for the help; but I'm sure he also resented needing it, too. Looking back, I think I was lucky to have that opportunity to meet Cornelius, and to make -- even for a few hours -- a connection that would've been unlikely under most other circumstances.

And I'm grateful to Cindy -- an amazing person herself -- for reminding me of that connection today. AIDS is not about certain groups of people or a demographic profile. It is a human problem, and we all need to be part of the solution... even if it means stepping outside our comfort zones for a while.