Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why I Celebrate Halloween

Halloween, like many other US holidays, has its roots in pagan celebrations and other celebrations that many Christians consider heretical, occultic, or, at the least, unsavory. Its true name is, after all, “All Hallows’ Eve.” It is steeped in folklore about witches, demons, zombies, and ghosts. In many cultures, it is considered a time to contact the dead. But also like many other US holidays, over the years it has taken on a different significance, and the traditions associated with it have come to have very different meanings than they originally may have. So let me share why I celebrate Halloween.

Halloween is a time to dress up and pretend to be something other than what you are. I love Halloween for the same reason that I love theater. It allows me to shed my mild-mannered, introverted persona and take on the personality of someone more exciting and more assertive. Instead of a suburban housewife and mom, I can be a pirate, or a gypsy, or a princess, or a superhero. I can shed my usual jeans and sweater and put on a tiara and chandelier earrings and suddenly become glamorous. I can take a break from saving the change in the bottom of my purse by donning a mask and a cape and saving the world from evil.

Halloween is also one of the few times in our modern society when we go and visit our neighbors. Sure, I chat frequently with the people who live next door, but what about the family down the street or around the corner? I may see them when I’m out walking, but I never have the chance to actually introduce myself and my family. Trick or treating at Halloween gives me the opportunity to meet the people around me. And the neighbors with grown kids love to see how my kids are growing from year to year. Halloween can truly be a community holiday, if you let it.

Halloween is also a chance to splurge on candy. I don’t let my kids have candy very often, and when I do, it’s a very special treat. So getting a whole bag of candy and getting to eat more than one piece at a time makes Halloween a special, fun time for kids and parents alike. I have fond memories of sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace in my parents’ living room, sorting through my bag of Halloween treats and deciding which candy I would eat right away, which I would save for later, and which I would give to my sister. Kit Kats, Three Musketeers, and $100,000 bars were in the first category. M&Ms, Twizzlers, and Tangy Taffy were in the middle category. And anything involving coconut, nuts, or peanut butter always fell into the latter category. My kids aren’t quite old enough to be that discriminating yet, but I look forward to a few years from now when the careful negotiations begin: “I’ll trade you two packs of Nerds and a bite-size Baby Ruth for that full-size Snickers bar.”

And finally, because of its connection with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, Halloween is, to me, a holiday of remembrance. Celebrated by many branches of the Christian church, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are celebrated immediately following All Hallows’ Eve, with prayers for the souls of family and friends who have died. The Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is also a day to remember, pray for, and celebrate loved ones who have died. These holidays celebrate the dead, not with fear but with affection. So on Halloween, I remember those I have loved and loss. I think of my parents, my grandparents, my brother-in-law Glen, my friend Nancy. I recall all the love and laughter they brought into my life, and I am grateful that I was blessed by knowing each one of them.

So tonight, I’ll happily and without guilt dress my kids up in costumes, take them trick or treating, let them eat candy, and imagine my loved ones looking down on us and enjoying the holiday as much as we are. Because that’s why I celebrate Halloween.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Storm's a-Brewin'

Even here, where we consider ourselves “hardy New Englanders,” the threat of a coming storm makes us nuts. We stock up on bread, milk, and batteries. We buy generators, sump pumps, and snowblowers. We clean out the fridge and keep the candles and flashlights handy in case the power goes out. We fill the bathtub with water and the car with gas. We cancel school and work from home and just generally hunker down until things blow over.

Most of this preparation is good planning. It never hurts to have a few things stockpiled. But the frenzy and panic that seems to accompany the planning sometimes seems a bit overboard to me. Yeah, there might be a power outage. So what? It’s October; it’s not like it’s mid-February and the temperatures will be below zero. Throw an extra blanket on the bed, wear mittens in the house if you really need to, and call it a day.

After all, most of us have been through bad storms before. Hurricane Bob, Hurricane Gloria, the April Fools’ Day Storm, and how about the Blizzard of ’78? I was nine years old when that one hit, and I remember it very clearly. No school for a week, no power for a week, my dad’s work was shut down for a week, and we had to shovel out the front door every hour so it didn’t get stuck behind the snow. Our gas range still worked and we had a fireplace, so we threw a bunch of food into a cooler (as I recall, we kept it cold with icicles broken off the eaves) and pretended we were camping. We cooked hotdogs on the fire and beans on the stove. We ate canned goods and played board games by candlelight. When it got chilly, we put on another sweater or snuggled closer to the fire. It wasn’t a hardship, it was an adventure!

I don’t intend to minimize the effects of this storm. I’m sure that plenty of people will struggle with power outages and flooding, and many of them will wish they had a generator or a backup sump pump. But the majority of people who are panicking are the ones who will be able to manage just fine with what they’ve got. So let us “hardy New Englanders” lead the way by not freaking out, but by celebrating our hardiness and survival abilities by taking whatever this storm throws at us in stride. If the power goes out, tell ghost stories by candlelight. If you’re keeping warm with a fire in the fireplace, break out the marshmallows for toasting. Since your whole family is together, spend some time just chatting and enjoying each other’s company. Don’t forget: this is the storm you’ll still be talking about 30 years from now! Be sure to make some great memories out of it.


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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Date Night In, or, Cooking Is Sexy

Now that my husband and I have two children, it’s harder (and more expensive) to find a babysitter. So although we still have a Date Night every now and then when we go out on the town, have dinner out, or go see a show, these days we’re a lot more likely to have an in-house Date Night. And in some ways, those are even more fun.

I love in-house Date Nights because I don’t have to put on makeup or do my hair or even wear shoes. (In fact, barefoot is preferred.) I don’t have to make sure there’s no dirty laundry sitting outside the laundry room or on the bathroom floor or clear the clean laundry off the stairs before the babysitter comes. I don’t have to take the emergency diapers out of my purse or make sure my cell phone is charged and in my purse. All I have to do is wait until the children are in bed.

And then the fun begins: we cook.

Really, that’s one of my favorite parts of Date Night In. I love cooking with my husband. After all, food is sexy. Preparing food is very sensual, in the most literal meaning of the word. Food smells good, it feels good, it looks good, and it tastes good.

Let me describe an example of how cooking can be very sexy. One of our favorite menu items on Date Night In is risotto, which has got to be one of the most sensuous foods on the face of the earth. You begin by melting butter in a pan, then frying up some onions and garlic. Sensuous smells begin to pervade the house, wafting into the living room where your partner is lighting the fire in the fireplace. He comes in to investigate just as you pour in some white wine, releasing a cloud of even headier aromas. Naturally, the two of you have to share the remains of the wine, so it won’t go to waste. And since risotto requires near-constant stirring, you are trapped at the stove, at the mercy of any little snuggles and kisses that your husband feels the need to send your way. What could be sexier than sliding past each other while you’re each working on different parts of the meal, a glass of perfectly chilled wine in your hands, stopping now and then to feed each other little bites of creamy deliciousness?

And then, of course, dinner itself is eaten by the fire with a bit of extra candlelight and some soft music. No reminding children not to throw food on the floor. No letting your own meal get cold while you cut up someone else’s meal, or coax someone to eat “just one more bite,” or hop up to get a few more noodles or another spoonful of squash or a slice of bread. No loud voices, either happy or sad. No chairs or tables being kicked. Just you and your sweetheart, quietly enjoying your dinner and each other’s company in a way you don’t often get to do.

And then there’s the lingering. Oh, the lingering. When you have small children, there is no lingering at mealtimes. When the kids are done eating and freed from the table, you’re back on duty whether you've finished your own dinner or not. And if you decide to finish your own dinner while you’re on duty, you know there’s a pretty good chance some of it will get knocked on the carpet by a rambunctious child, or spilled on your lap by an unexpected bear hug, or stolen by a child who refused to eat it when it was on her plate but wants to eat it all when it’s on yours. So lingering is a precious, precious thing on Date Night In.

Altogether, it adds up to a pretty special evening. But then again, any time I get to spend time with my sweetheart is a very special evening. 

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

What a Crock

Having grown up in New England, it should come as no surprise that autumn is my favorite season. I love seeing the first pop of red at the top of a maple tree, I love the way the sun glows on all the brightly-colored trees along Route 128, I love the smell of fresh mulch and burning leaves, I love the crunch of crisp fallen leaves underfoot, I love the pumpkins and huge pots of mums that suddenly pop up on doorsteps everywhere. But one of the things I love the most about autumn is cooking.

My mom was a great comfort food cook. She taught me to make wonderful casseroles, meatloaf, stew, and pasta sauces. And most importantly, she taught me how to use a crock pot. I love cooking with a crock pot. I think one of the things I like best about cooking in a crock pot is that it makes the house smell wonderful, not just at suppertime but all day long. It builds the anticipation from lunchtime on, giving you little hints about the wonderful meal to come. The scent of garlic, of thyme, of bay leaves, of chicken stock, of smoky ham or spicy sausage or earthy lentils. It smells like love, and it smells like home.

My dad worked the same job for over 40 years, and we had supper as soon as he came home from work at 5:00. So every night, he would walk in the door to the smell of something delicious coming out of the oven (or the crockpot). It was like a little welcome home present every night. When I was a little older and my mom got home from work at the same time that my dad did, she would leave me nearly-finished meals to add the final touches to. I would pop the lasagna or the shepherd’s pie into the oven; I would stir a few extra herbs into the simmering sauce in the crockpot; I would bake the cornbread or the biscuits. And whenever I did, I felt like I was giving both my parents that same welcome home present at the end of a long, tiring day.

This may sound like a very old-fashioned attitude, but I love to be able to give my husband that same welcome home present. I know how hard he works, and I like to show him that I appreciate his hard work. So I hope that every night when he comes home from work, he can smell in my cooking the same love my mom cooked up for my dad.

It might not work for everyone, but for me, cooking for my family makes my house feel more like a home.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mother's Little Helper

When I was in junior high, a friend of my mom’s who lived on the next street from us asked if I would be interested in being a mother’s helper for her a few times a week. I had no idea what that meant until she explained to me that it was like babysitting, except that she’d be home. She’d started doing some work from home and was finding it difficult to do with her (then) three kids underfoot. At the time, the only experience I’d had with kids was helping my parents out in the church nursery, but I liked kids and knew that babysitting could be pretty lucrative, so I agreed. She taught me how to change a cloth diaper, including the invaluable tip of sliding the pin through your hair to pick up a bit of oil so it’ll slide through the fabric more easily (a tip I’ve used over the years in many circumstances other than babysitting), how to distract a crabby child, what little ones can and can’t eat, and the art of spelling out certain words. It turned out to be some of the best training I ever had for babysitting - and for parenthood.

Because of that, I’m looking forward to having a mother’s helper myself in the near future. We made a connection with this young lady in a very unusual way. We were out to dinner with the kids at the local Chinese buffet and, as usual, my daughter was flirting with and waving to everyone in sight. A teenage girl and her mom in the next booth were obviously charmed by her, and when we waved goodbye as we left, she jokingly asked, “Do you need a babysitter?” She was a bit surprised but also very excited when we stopped and told her, yeah, we did. We quickly discovered that we knew several families in common from my stepdaughter’s school years, so references were easy to check on both sides. We exchanged information, and in the next few weeks she’ll hopefully be coming by after school to give me a few hours of respite from the kids.

It’s funny to think back to thirty years ago when I was in her shoes, and I wonder if thirty years from now, she and I will be chatting on the future equivalent of Facebook as I now do with my mentor, reminiscing as her children go through the stages that my children are going through now. Maybe I’ll be sharing pictures of my daughter’s wedding with her, recalling some funny story or tidbit from today. Maybe I’ll be sending her a recording of my son’s band, or a video of his first professional football game, or a news article about his graduation from medical school. Maybe I'll even be sending her photos of my grandchildren.

But whether I keep in touch with her for years or not, I will be proud to know that I have become another link in the endless chain of mothers teaching other mothers.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lumpy Oatmeal

This morning, the daycare program at my husband’s office posted a question on their Facebook page directed at over-40 parents: “What are the pros and cons of having children older vs. younger?” I’m sure there are dozens of factors that affect all parents differently, but for me, the answer to that question really comes down to one major con and one major pro.

The most obvious difference is that I have a lot less energy in my 40s than I did in my 20s. Especially now that I have a 14-month-old who STILL doesn’t sleep through the night consistently and a VERY active 3-year-old, my fatigue really affects me in a way that is more of a problem than I suspect it would have been twenty years ago. Back in college, I could easily go for weeks or even months at a time on 5 or 6 hours of sleep. No more. These days, if I don’t get 7 or 8 hours a night on a regular basis, I’m crabby (my husband will attest to this) and impatient (my kids will attest to this).

But the biggest advantage of having children older is also somewhat obvious, at least to me. There is a certain degree of calmness, acceptance, and patience (at least, there is when I’m getting some sleep) that I doubt I would have had in my 20s. Having twenty more years of experiencing life’s unexpected ups and downs has given me an ability to roll with the punches in a way I never could in my 20s. Very few people in their 20s fully understand the saying, “A lump in your oatmeal, a lump in your throat, and a lump in your breast are not the same lump. Get to know the difference.” I’ve experienced enough throat lumps and breast lumps, both personally and in those near and dear to me, to understand that most of my lumps in life – and particularly, in parenting - are just oatmeal.

In the past week – actually, now that I think about it, in the past three days – I’ve had to deal with crayon on the TV screen; stuffing pulled out of the couch; unexpected vomiting; unintentional shoplifting; refusal to eat; 2am crying jags (not mine – at least, not in the past three days); being kicked, punched, and bitten by my kids; full-scale public tantrums; and several pounds of birdseed ground into the carpet. I won’t go so far as to say that these things don’t drive me crazy, because they do. But age 43, I have the wisdom to step back, take a few deep breaths, and give the situation a little perspective before I deal with it. If I’d had to deal with these things at 23, I think there would have been a lot more personal 2am crying jags and possibly a public temper tantrum or two of my own. But not now. Because now I know that those are only lumps in my oatmeal. I’ll save the real stress-outs for those other lumps when they come along.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Home: The Land of the Familiar Stranger

Last week, my sister and I finalized the sale of the house that we grew up in. My parents bought that house before I was born. I lived there until I graduated from high school, I lived there most summers during college, and I visited and hung out there many weekends in my young adulthood. Even after my own home was established, that house was where the family always gathered to celebrate birthdays and holidays. Both my parents lived in that house until they died. I haven’t lived there full time in over 25 years, but it still felt like home, and it was a bit of a pang to hand over my keys to the stranger who would now be calling it home. It made me think a lot about my own home.

It’s never been easy for me to settle into a new home. I have to get to know new routines, new places, new neighbors, new routes. I have to get used to the layout of a new grocery store. I have to find a new hairdresser. I have to learn what days the trash and recycling are picked up. I have to figure out how to get to the nearest Walmart and Target and Kohl’s and JoAnn Fabrics and post office. I have to discover back roads to get everywhere I need to go to avoid the traffic. And I have to get to know a whole new batch of familiar strangers.

Many years ago, I read an article that talked about “familiar strangers.” What the author was referring to was people that you recognize but don’t really know. The young mom you see walking her baby in the stroller every morning as you leave for work. The guy in the green shorts who’s leaving the gym just as you get there. The teenage grocery clerk who always works register 4. The senior citizen who signs you in at the polls every election. Occasionally you might exchange a wave or even have a short conversation with a familiar stranger, but mainly they’re just people you recognize without knowing them.

Ever since reading that article, I have been aware of familiar strangers. And I have realized that familiar strangers are part of what make me feel at home. After living in my current home for over four years, I have gathered quite a list of familiar strangers:

The older gentleman who walks his golden retriever through our yard in the late afternoon.

The grocery store cashier who always offers my kids stickers.

The CVS clerk who comments on how much the kids have grown.

The Friendly’s waitresses who always bring the kids’ food right away.

The guy who collects the grocery carts from the parking lot who used to run to get my cart for me when the kids were babies.

Ed who owns the gas station.

The guy down the street who drives a shiny red pickup truck.

The woman around the corner whose cat, Fuzz, tries to let himself into our house.

The moms whose kids are in the gymnastics class right after my son’s class.

Our mailman with the gray ponytail.

The recycling truck driver who turns on the compactor right in front of our house when my son is watching.

The clerk at the seafood counter who takes a lobster out of the tank for my son to look at.

The bakery clerk who gives my kids broken cookies for free.

The security guard at the front desk at my husband’s office.

 And the list goes on and on. I don’t know any of their names (well, except Ed), but they are familiar and comforting and I would miss them if they were gone. They are part of what makes my home my home. I guess that means they’re not really strangers after all, are they?

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Monday, October 8, 2012

What a Character!

One of the special parts of going on a Disney vacation is getting to meet all your favorite characters: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, Chip and Dale, Captain Hook, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Belle, Sleeping Beauty…the list goes on and on. And for most children, that is indeed a highlight. Little girls, especially, like to dress up like their favorite princesses and carry around autograph books so everyone they meet can sign them. But there are always a few children who are, let’s call it, “hesitant” to meet the characters.

My kids fell neatly into each of those categories. My one-year-old daughter, who refuses to go to the arms of even a familiar babysitter without several minutes of coaxing, would reach out excitedly for every character in a 100-foot radius. But my three-year-old son, who is basically fearless, would not go near a single character until the very last night of our vacation. The photograph pretty much sums it up:
If you look closely, you’ll notice that Donald’s left hand has my daughter’s hand in a death grip, to prevent her from continuing to molest his beak. And my son, although smiling for the camera, has a death grip of his own on Daddy, his exposed belly button and rucked-up shorts evidence of the prior struggle to get him even that close to the creepy giant duck. This was pretty typical of every character encounter we had.
One of our favorite evening activities aboard the Disney Fantasy was the family dance parties in D Lounge. Various DJs or live musical acts provided the music, and one of the many bubbly, energetic staffers was on the floor with a microphone coaxing everyone to join in the dancing, or occasionally teaching a simple line dance. Most evenings, one character or another would make an appearance and join in the dancing. On formal night, Chip and Dale came, dressed to the nines in their tuxedos. Katie chased them around until they literally had to peel her off so another child could have a turn. Ryan hid in a chair at the back of the lounge until they left.
What really surprised me was that my son not only hated the non-talking, “giant head” type characters, but also the human characters such as the princesses and even Peter Pan. My daughter ran over to Princess Belle the first chance she got and admired her beautiful gown and gloves, but as you can see, my son was desperately koala-ing onto Mama. Really? How can anyone not want to go right up to this lovely princess and say hello?
Even as I was writing this blog, my daughter spied this photo and began cooing and attempting to climb on my lap to get closer. My son checked it out as well, with the commentary, “Hey, that’s me. I was very sad and scared.”
In another five years or so, when we’re ready to take another trip like this, I’m sure both kids will have completely changed their thinking about these characters. At ages 5 and 7, it’s likely that my daughter will be dressed like a princess herself, although awestruck and shy about approaching the real princesses, and my son will probably be chasing around all the villains with a plastic sword (Captain Hook, I’m looking at you). I’ll apologize for both of their behaviors in advance.
But I, at least, will be delighted to meet each and every one of you!


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Monday, October 1, 2012

I Walk the Line

Yesterday I blogged about how amazing Disney’s marketing program is. Today, I’ll write about how amazing their line management skills are.

Anyone who has ever been to a Disney theme park knows there are lots of lines everywhere you go. But Disney has a way of making the lines seem shorter, both by making them invisible and by making them entertaining. As a parent, I appreciate both aspects of their approach. Keeping two toddlers happy in a long, hot line is never an easy task, but Disney makes it manageable. They hide the lines so even though you see a sign that says you’ll be waiting 10 or 15 (or 30 or 40) minutes, you don’t have that inner groan of seeing all 200 people who have to funnel through ahead of you. You shuffle through the line in one area with a clear goal in front of you – got to make it to that next corner! And then when you get around the corner – BOOM! More waiting in line. But around that corner there are lots of fascinating things to look at and details to check out. And just when you finish looking at everything there is to see in that section, you turn the next corner and there’s another whole room of delights.

Their attention to detail alone provides lots of interesting things to look at while you’re waiting in line. For example, outside the Enchanted Tiki Room, you can see birds and carved figurines that occasionally come to life and chat. In the line to the Haunted Mansion, you can read funny epitaphs and maybe see one of the carved effigies open her eyes, and you can push buttons to make music play or shuffle the books in the library. In the line for the Winnie the Pooh ride, some kids never make it to the ride because they’re too busy playing with the “whack-a-gopher” games, or playing on the vegetable drums, or jumping on the rabbit footprints to make the gophers pop out of their holes, or running in and out of Mr. Sanders’ house.
The Dumbo ride even has an air-conditioned playroom halfway through the line where you can stop for a long cool break!

Before you get on the Buzz Lightyear ride, you get to see Buzz himself give you a pep talk and instructions on how to help him defeat the evil Emperor Zurg.

Disney never gives you a chance to be bored unless you want to be. They make the waiting part of the adventure. And THAT, my friends, is the true magic of Disney.

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