It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chaos

Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 5.17.48 AMFriday. TGIF. The last day…before Christmas break. The world is rejoicing. We…just…have…to…survive…today.

I brought the gifts I made for my advisory students yesterday. Getting a jump on Christmas, like most of America. I forgot two boys’ things. A “Worst Teacher in the Universe” move. They forgave me. Today, I’ll earn redemption. I have their gifts here.

The kids started Christmas early, too. There were bags, boxes, bangles and bows. Santa hats and shirts. I’ll wear my Santa hat today.

Today, they’ll be wandering the halls with more wrappings, stuffed animals, glitter and ribbons. We, like mini Scrooges, will attempt to keep order.

Chaos will reign supreme. They’ll go to their parties, they’ll hug their friends. Some will rejoice, others will cry. Christmas is not fun for everyone, you know. Homelessness, divorce, difficult family situations, the economy…it wears on kids who know today will be the last day that they see their best friends…on whom they hang for support…for nearly two weeks. Teachers, too.

The halls will jingle, parties will fade. Students, cracked upon candy and pizza, will get on busses that bring them to their lives.

And I hope they will have a Merry Christmas.


Where’s My Snow? How to enjoy holiday blessings without it.

Thomas Kincaid's "Christmas"

This is something I can now ascertain with metaphysical certitude. There will be no snow. It was fifty degrees when I closed up shop for Christmas vacation, walking out of the school in a flurry of high-fives after what seemed to be the longest semester of my life.

I drove home.  I looked for snow along the way.  It’s impossible to see the snow on the ground when it’s nearly fifty degrees, so I contemplated the options. I could wish for snow, which will probably get me nowhere because it seems my friends in Chicago, Wisconsin, and my beloved Great Lakes region have hijacked my share. I could wait for snow, which means I’d have to reschedule Christmas for sometime in February. I could hallucinate about snow, which would also be unproductive, because it is still nearly fifty degrees, and that will not bring the white stuff at all. It would only bring the men in white coats who will bring me to a very white room which will still not have snow.  I decided the only thing I could do was imagine the scenes of the “New England Christmas,” and sing some Bing as I stopped at the grocery store on the way home.

Since the Big Move Out of the City, I now shop at the local IGA–that means Independent Grocers Association. Each one has its real name. In this case it’s Brigido’s.  It’s a family market. In this first Christmas in my new town, it’s really nice to have a family market to go to when I forget the sweet potatoes, cream cheese, sour cream, and stuffing for Christmas Eve dinner. I’m trying to plan a traditional meal despite the lack of snow, because I don’t think I can get away with no-snow food like hotdogs and potato salad with the calendar turned to December.

In the old house, I used to shop in the Big City. I’d go from bodega to bodega–all the little ethnic stores–for spices, herbs, produce. I would dance in the aisle to the salsa and bachata blasted over the store’s loudspeakers.  They don’t blast salsa and bachata in the forest-town IGA at all. But they do have friendly strangers-soon-to-know-my-name who smile at me and sell me herbs and produce.  And once in a while I travel to say hello to the shopkeepers at the Indian, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish stores because they’ve always been good to me, and I restock the “obscure food wrapped in foreign languages” section of my pantry. I catch up on what’s been freshly baked, share a story, get a recipe. They usually remember me because I’ve been doing this for so long–and–let’s be honest–there aren’t many non-Chinese-non-Cambodians non-Indian-non-Spanish anglos shopping at those stores.  Let alone ones who can hold their own in Spanish, try hard in Chinese, greet you and thank you in Hindi and, well, smile politely in Cambodian.

I can drive to those place and take a tour of the world. But for this Christmas, I’ll stay nestled in my new corner of the forest waiting for snow.

I’ll look at the beautiful pink miniature roses on the bush in the front of my house that should have crumbled months ago. They are stunning. When I finish making the first batch of egg nog, filling the house with the smell of the Christmas cranberry bread, and going back to the IGA for the stuffing I forgot despite the fact I only had four items on my list, I will sit down in the forty-to-fifty degree weather, wish Santa a safe journey and say a prayer to thank God for all the blessings I have enjoyed this year.

I’m not going to lie, it’s been a stressful year.  But one full of blessings–I fully appreciate our ability to move to this little stone ranch in the middle of the worst market in history.  I’m convinced this town was designed by Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kincaid as a mockup for their art. A town where the postmaster smiles and talks, and when she sees a box headed for San Francisco or Virginia, she doesn’t scowl like they do in the Big City, knowing she’ll have to wait for me to fill out forms.  She reports the weather en route to my box’s destination as if I were traveling there myself and says she can get it there faster with a few forms, which she fills out and sticks to the box for me.  A town where everyone in the school knows my name and they care about my little monster. Where I get to drive by a two farms and a giant golden Buddha, which, catching the sun just perfectly, brings a little snapshot of heaven to my morning and evening commute. Blessings.

My family has been blessed with health, jobs, safety. We’ve finally–after years of working alternate schedules, been able to sit down at the dinner table together and remember we are a family, not people working 24 hours a day to coordinate daycare and get somewhere in the universe.  Life seems to be settling down into a pattern of peace blanketed with happiness. Not happiness every day but the kind you get when your blessings and optimism are focal points in your life, and your gratitude for them is never far away.

I may wait patiently for the snow. But most probably, I will sit and enjoy the seed catalogues that are arriving, look out at the soft squishy earth outside, circle pictures of heirloom carrots, beans, corn, and tomatoes, and wait for the chirp of the birds to announce the first leaf buds of spring.

Meanwhile, I am blessed and grateful as this year comes to an end–for you who are reading this, for my family, friends, old friends, new friends, students, home, and the gifts that come to me each day through God and the magic of the universe. Whether this year has been kind or cruel to you, I wish you blessings and solace as well, and the happiest of new years.

[Edit: Not twenty minutes after I published this, I heard, “LOOK, MOM! SNOW!!” Sure enough, flurries are falling. Even if it doesn’t stick, it’s a nice reminder never to doubt the magic in the universe.]

Attention Non-Christian Friends: You’re Getting a Card, Too!

I never make it through my Christmas card list.  Every year I try, every year I fail.  If I start too early, I feel like a department store putting Santa out before Halloween.  The news in the cards becomes outdated. Then I don’t want to send them. If I start too late, they never make it to the mailbox.

I’m old-fashioned about the idea of a Christmas card–they remind me of a time when people used actual correspondence and had certain levels of etiquette about such things. I wax nostalgic about a tangible piece of mail that does not contain a bill or coupons for products I don’t use. I still get junk mail dating back to the time when we thought it was a very funny practical joke to sign each other up for mailing lists just to be obnoxious. I bet the rainforest thought that was pretty obnoxious. Someone signed me up under the name “Jon Shankenheimer.”  He gets a lot of college offers at my address.

Anyway, every year, I sit down with Card Number 1, and write an amazing letter, then put it in a pile.  For reasons unknown to me, I can’t mail Card #1 until all the cards are done and since they are never done, they never get mailed. Sometime around the Fourth of July I find the stack and toss it. Or I’ll pick one or two finished cards from the pile and mail them like the winning entry of the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes to people who truly get the essence of my mind.  They can enjoy my card in time for the summer solstice. Two days later, that person will call me because they can’t read my writing anyway. So much for Dickensian calligraphy.

On a good year, I can make it to the D’s in my address book. Some years I try to be fair and start at the Z’s and go backwards thinking of the kids who never got to be line leader due to the cruelty of alphabetization. In such years, I can almost always make it to the Y’s or even W or V, but not much further.  M and N are always left out.

This year, I have a very different strategy, which I will begin this week. I’m going to do my cards in order of religion, starting with all the non-Christians first. This, I think, makes the most sense, because I want everyone to feel included in the holiday season, taking part in “American Christmas,” which was created by Macy and enjoyed by us all. Consumerism transcends religion, after all, because if the holidays were really about God, we’d forgo the Black Friday sales and spend more time serving our fellow man. So, why not include non-Christians and secular Americans in the fun, too?

The order of operations for cards:

I’m starting with all my Jewish and Hindu friends.  Why? Well, because Jews have been oppressed for thousands of years, and so they always get my respect and admiration. They deserve a card, even if it has Jesus or Santa on it. Hindus come in close second because they get to be born again, so if I don’t finish, I always get a second chance with them.

Buddhists will be third–not because I love them less, and it’s true, they also get a second crack at life which helps me better deal with my procrastination, but they also spend such a great deal of time getting rid of desire for material things. I fear a Christmas card might just be clutter.  Still, I think my Buddhist friends will appreciate the sentiment behind the cards, even if it messes with their inner zen.

Muslims come next. They have lots of cool holidays so they may not need ours, but since most of their holidays require superhuman feats of sacrifice, like 40 days of fasting and prayer while watching other people eat, they are on my most-respected list. That’s hard-core prayer and contemplation. They definitely get a card. Maybe two.

I have a few Jehovah’s witnesses on the list. They’re a tough group, because a Christmas card would actually offend them. They don’t technically celebrate the holiday, though, because they feel such commercialism aggrandizes people above God (true), and we don’t even know when the historical Jesus was born–it was most likely in spring, astronomers tell us–so why have a party to give ourselves presents during the time of the winter solstace-based Roman-conquest holiday of Festivus?  It doesn’t make sense to them.  And as such, they do not get cards commemorating holidays of Roman conquest, presents, trees given to us by German pagans and awesome yule log cakes made by French bakers.  But I found a loophole.  You can give a Jehovah’s present a gift out of friendship and appreciation, if it does not lift the individual above the Lord.  So, this is the spirit of my cards.  “Hey, you’re a great friend.”

Then, if I make it that far, I’ll tackle the list of cards to my Christian and secular friends.  They’ll be really busy shopping and wrapping, so they won’t have time to read the cards right away anyway.  But if I don’t get that far, as usual, I’ll consider stealing a screen shot of an Ansel Adams photo and posting a card on Facebook.  It’ll be that or mailing out the summer solstice cards once again.  I still have three weeks–I’m doing the best I can. We’ll see how it goes.

Avert Disaster: Organize for the Holidays!

Thanksgiving snuck up on me. It was a busy year–buying and selling a house, doing the staging, showing, and construction leading up to the sale/purchase, moving, dealing with the “finer points of education reform,” writing, creating, blogging, supporting my husband in expanding our business and converting the adult kickboxing portion to the franchise (coming to a city near you). All on top of trying to run my end of the household simultaneously.

They say that women can have it all. That’s not true. There are only 24 hours in a day and choices must be made with values prioritized. I try to be creative about time management–never easy for me. I’ve settled for getting up at 4AM to be productive when there are no possible distractions around. The East Coast is asleep, the West Coast just went to bed, and the only people awake are on the other side of the globe, and they’re usually at work. This is the best system for me in organizing and reining in my ADHD and keeping things in check before they take on a life of their own.

Thanksgiving clearly got away from me.  Last weekend, it occurred to me that I should procure a turkey. Sometimes I forget about this step, being a vegetarian and all. There have been years where I either forgot the turkey until a couple of days before Thanksgiving, or if I purchased it in advance (which I usually remember to do after being slapped in the face with a dozen sale fliers advising me that dead turkey season is upon us) I invariably forget to take it out of the freezer.

For those of you who cook, you know this is why the Butterball Hotline was invented–to deal with simpletons like me.  Because you simply cannot thaw out a million pound carcass overnight. I’ve done lots of shady things. I’ve put it in warm water (bacteria can kill you). I’ve left it on the counter overnight (another version of bacterial Russian Roulette). I’ve even hired a group of kids to breathe on the turkey. Even then, it takes a long time to thaw. I’ve been lucky.

Holiday planning is important. 

Holidays are tough for many people. Even though I have been especially blessed this year, the holidays will cause stress if not well planned.

Nearly forgetting about Thanksgiving caused a scramble.  But in the end, I got to bring together a branch of family that doesn’t often get together. I got to hike in the woods with Declan. Both are important.

For Christmas and New Years, though, I need to step up the pace and plan. I must shop. I must bake and cook to ensure everyone gets their favorites. I must prep and send boxes, bags, baskets, and gifts, so they GET there by the right dates, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Russian New Year.

Incidentally, that’s why I like my Buddhist and Hindu friends the best–first of all, December 25th is irrelevant, so I can totally be late if I want, and they have a lot of lives to begin with, so my lack of attention to the calendar means nothing. Maybe they’ll need my gift more in the next life anyway. My Jewish friends come in close second, because if I plan to get something there by Day One of Hanukkah, I have seven days to screw up and still be on time. The Russians are a close third since they hail from a country where they had to change their holiday from Christmas to New Year’s to avoid persecution. They’re very forgiving. It’s just the Christians that keep me on task.

And there are a lot of them. So I must be prepared.

I need a strategy. I need a list.

Then, I must reduce that list–we have too much crap in this world anyway. Best not to get carried away. And while “three carbon credits have just been purchased in your honor” isn’t really an ideal gift for kids, I can pull it off for my environmentalist sister. Parents always say they don’t want anything but quality time. That’s worth a try. And my husband wants a tow hitch now that we live in the sticks. I’m not really sure how to steal his Jeep for two days without him noticing, though. I guess I could draft a fake police report and tell him I saw two farmers in the driveway with a slim jim–I couldn’t fight them off because of their guard cow.  But that would cause him stress. And the holidays are about reducing stress.

Here’s my strategy: 

1. Buy less–create joy with experiences and quality time, both of which are far more valuable commodities these days.

2. Handwrite cards–reconnect with people and enjoy the lost art of hand-written correspondence. I’ll need discipline as well as a touch of forgiveness from friends because my handwriting is truly awful.

3. Create a calendar and checklist–making sure I get everything out on time. The post office trip has always been my worst enemy.

4. Reduce the list by 50%–make the favorite candies, fudges, cookies, and breads. The canning is done. Sometimes I go overboard, so, this year, I’m making a few key favorites, and that’s that.

5. Relax.  No perfect tablescape is worth losing the time to enjoy the holiday, unless you are Martha Stewart. But Martha has interns and I do not. So, this year, since I’m getting a late start, I’m going to schedule in all the things I absolutely must do and cross off the ones I do not. End of story.

Considering that planning and organization is a part-time job itself, no wonder so many people say they dread the holidays. That’s sad. I love the holidays–the music, the wonder, the tradition, the joy.  Best to keep it that way.  Planning and preparation will help me do just that!


I’ve organized a lot of my material on Learnist boards. I created some of these to get my own mind in gear, but I hope you find them useful. Here are a few resources:

Organizing for the Holidays: This was my attempt to avoid procrastinating.

Going Green: Waste-Free Holidays: I truly believe in this, but I’m struggling to get over the tradition of wrapping paper. Maybe I’ll evolve.

Frugal Holidays: There have been years where frugal was the only option. Those years  have been a gift. They have created my happiest memories.

Gift Baskets Galore: This board is by blogger and Mom Colleen Sullivan. I love it because gift baskets make me think about the recipient for longer–they show love.

Holiday Food Gifts: This board is by Lauren Atkins Budde. I have always done “gifts in a jar,” canned foods, and homemade candies. I’m glad Lauren put this together.

Why We Can Never Be Martha Stewart: You might wonder if I’m serious about this board, but the truth is I hold nothing but the highest reverence for Martha, who shows women that independence and domesticity can reside in the same sphere. I think I’ll write an entire post about her soon.



Black-listing Friday: Getting Back to What Matters

Christmas appeared early this year in our local stores–about three weeks before the Fourth of July, I think. It’s not that I don’t love the site of a freshly-decorated fake tree with a pine-smelling air freshener trying to convince me it’s real–I do, don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff.  I love mistletoe and wilted cranberries alternating with stale popcorn strung in strands wrapped around light poles.  I love walking down Fifth Avenue looking at the outrageous perfection of window displays planned months in advance and revealed for the season. I love knowing that the largest tree in the world has been hunted down, exterminated, and will be waiting for me in Rockefeller plaza if I get a chance to get down to see it, which I used to try to do annually but haven’t done for some time.

I love all the trimmings of the American Consumer Christmas that was created in tandem by Coca Cola’s plump carbonation-consuming Santa and marketing genius W.H. Macy–the first great entrepreneur to give St. Nick an emolument for sitting in his department store training kids to want stuff on the occasion of the birth of someone else. And then to be ballsy enough to have a parade in honor of that desire. That’s America! And who doesn’t love the movies–the Bing, the Jimmy Stewart, the “Christmas Story” 24-hour marathon. Because I can watch it twelve times. It’s a cult classic.

I don’t mind the secular side of Christmas, or the leftover relics of other holidays so intelligently disguised by the Holy Roman Empire–I love the German Christmas tree, the Yule Log, and the fact that the mistletoe was actually a fertility ritual. I’m even willing to forgive the fact that in the year 350 the Roman Catholic Pope Julius I picked the date of Christmas to coincide with everyone else’s holidays irregardless of the historical birth of Jesus, just to make it easier and more convenient for other religions to convert and still keep their celebrations in tact.

I want to share this holiday spirit with everyone–religious, secular, Christian, non Christian–it’s the season of awesome carols (also a pre-Christian tradition, I might add, but I’ll steal a good song like Vanilla Ice lifting Freddie Mercury when it presents itself). It’s the season of million-calorie egg nog.  It’s the season to give cards, token gifts, and smiles–even to the people we don’t like. They all seem a little nicer to me. And that’s a good thing…


Black Friday.

This is a tradition I just can’t wrap my head around.  I didn’t mind so much when it was the stores opening a bit early to publicize a few doorbuster sales.  But then it got vicious. Stores opening earlier. Stores staying open all night. People fighting over the last Whatever’s Hot That Season and selling it on Ebay for ten times the cost. Almost all of the “seven deadly sins” wrapped up in a – bow for the news coverage to see. One person reported to me that he had to go to Black Friday training to be permitted to work the all-nighter, because stores taught techniques in loss-aversion and crowd control.

Let me get this right–we have to train employees in law enforcement so they can deal with thieving, pushing crowds the day after Thanksgiving–the holiday of gratitude? Workers need to learn how to mediate disputes between people fighting over consumer goods at rock-bottom prices made in countries that are underpaying poorly treated workers? In honor of love and spirituality?

I pause to think.

One year, I did take part in Black Friday–I didn’t set my clock. I’m naturally awake at Dumb O’Clock in the morning.  The reason I decided to venture out was because I lived in the city near the store. We were really struggling that year–we were building a business–the entrepreneurial spirit is never quite as glamorous as one thinks–the Great Recession hit hard, and there was so much uncertainty in the air. I was flat broke and my step-daughter’s holiday list was on the table. I went out to one store, and got the simple things–as many as I could so that I’d have something to wrap under the tree. Things made in countries by underpaid workers made available to me at rock bottom prices.

I started thinking of a time before Black Friday existed. I was somewhere around eight years old.  My father was out of work during that generation’s Great Recession, but there wouldn’t have been box stores offering huge sales at that time, and if there were, my mom would have had to make choices between things like food or presents.  Somehow, there were presents. The gift I remember most was a radio. I now know this came from a tag sale, and it was broken.  It only got one channel–the Spanish station. I think my mother was upset, but I loved the Spanish station–I still love it today.  Por eso, hablo espanol bastante bien, claro. 

Because the things we truly love cannot be measured by money, sales, or consumerism.

As a child, that Christmas was just like any other Christmas–family, community, and fun. Community was much closer in those days. Friends stepped in and helped. They were there in person because computers did not exist. When there was no food, food appeared, when there was no money, it magically grew in the Christmas cactus. When someone was sick, people came and took the kids and gave parents the break they needed.

This is the essence of the holidays and Christmas seasons I remember. My friends Karen, LIsa, and Cheryl–how we used to make Christmas crafts together. All my parents’ friends and their circles of guitars. The traditions at the church and the houses of the people with whom I grew up. As we got older we sang in the choirs. As we got older still, the last people awake and still coherent enough to read the words on the page had to go back to the late Mass to sight sing Latin a capella…I miss that. And you can bet this holiday season, I’ll throw on the sacred music, even if I don’t always land in church in person.

Black Friday–taking employees away from their families and communities–is the opposite of this feeling of warmth I remember.  Although I caved to Black Friday that one year due to the year of fear and uncertainty for my family and for many Americans–I will not be doing it again.

This year, Thanksgiving will be small and peaceful. I suspect my extended family will show up for cheesecake, egg nog, and the list of pies they requested. The day after Thanksgiving, I plan to fence off my garden–I just moved, and I want it to be ready for the spring.  I want to take the weekend to reach out and thank the people to whom I’m grateful–friends new and old, new colleagues, family members I don’t see enough.  I want to make actual phone calls rather than sending texts and emails–I want to hear voices on the other end; just a small attempt to stop the rat race for a little bit.

And if I venture out into the commercial arena, it will be to my local businesses, which have pulled out all the stops better than the stores on Fifth Avenue ever could. I’ll meet the shopkeepers in my new town, and buy some gifts from them–because Small Business Saturday, I think, should not be a holiday, it should be a way of life.  It should be a way of shaking hands and building back the community that the rat race seems to have stolen from us.

I’m guilty of joining the rat race, too. Of seeing how much I can get done in order to defy the physics of time. This holiday season, I want to prepare, connect, build relationships, and enjoy.  Black Friday seems the perfect time to do just that.