You Can’t Always Get What You Want (aka: Christmas Choices)

It’s nearly midnight on Christmas Eve.

I would love to be tucked into my bed, watching visions of sugarplums dance through my head, but no such luck. Because I’m the mom.

santa-lte-night

The mom gets to sit in the living room, sipping a glass of chardonnay as Smallville plays on the television, and staring down at a pile of metal bars and chains, which, when assembled, will somehow form a bicycle. Afterward, I get to rip open yet another cardboard box and start putting together a second bicycle. Two shiny new bikes for teens who actually really need them to get to school each day.

At least, I’ve convinced myself that they need them.

I like to choose Christmas gifts based on the familiar old adage:

Something they want
Something they need
Something to wear
and something to read.

Pajamas? Check. Books, check. They hardest part is discerning between something my kids desire to have and something they actually need. It is something that many of us Americans struggle with in this culture of excess. We stroll through a Target store, drooling over the shelves packed with sparkling novelties. Coffee makers that produce a perfect cup of joe at the mere push of a button. Water bottles with built in filters to make our clean tap water even cleaner. Powerful tablet computers that fit in a handbag.

Oooh, I need that, we tell ourselves as we fill our red plastic shopping carts with far more items than would fit on our actual shopping lists. But in reality, we don’t. We want those things. We desire those things. But we so easily get what we want and desire mixed up with what we need.

wants-or-needs

My kids probably don’t need most of what is currently wrapped and waiting beneath the Christmas tree. Those are desired luxury items; scented lotions and electronic doodads that will bring moments of excited smiles and happy laughter as they rip open the colorful paper. My children already have what they need — healthy food, clothes that fit, and a mother who loves them like crazy. These beautiful new bikes (once they become bikes) are not a true need. They want bicycles, and I want them to have bicycles to get to school and around town. Could they have lived well without them? Absolutely. They already have.

As we transition into the upcoming new year, I hope to do a better job of separating the things that I want or desire from that which I really need. I also hope to transmit the correct value to these three terrific kids of mine, too. You can’t always get what you want. You shouldn’t always strive for what you desire. Believe it or not, life is better when you learn to be content with what you have instead of always looking to the next Big Thing that catches your attention.

Oh look — it is officially Christmas morning. And there are still these pieces of bike to be assembled. Santa doesn’t get much sleep on such a night. Time to crack open the toolkit and make this Christmas morning a merry one for my family.

I wish the same for all of you. Peace!

bmxmas

 

Merry X-cess (aka: Leave No Trace)

Christmas Save the PlanetEver notice what a waste Christmas can be? No, not a waste of time or energy (although that’s debatable). But what a waste of paper!

(Buckle your seat belts, readers. This is going to be one long, bumpy guilt trip.)

It’s ironic that I would be preaching about excess exactly one day after I braved the mall to purchase an excess of stuff so that my kids won’t think I’m a total Grinch. By the end of my trip, I was carrying so many shopping bags, that some kindhearted stranger offered me a few crumpled dollars. Okay, that totally didn’t happen. But it could have.

Excess of Santa Clauses

An excess of Santas

Excess of Xmas light-up stuff

An excess of holiday lights. What show-offs!

Anyway, there I was, gliding past Hot Topic and Yankee Candle, when it occurred to me that I was carrying so many plastic shopping bags full of plastic doodads, that it could probably be melted down and reformed into an entire Barbie Dream House. Or better, a whiffle ball bat. Very useful tool for fighting one’s way through the mall crowds this time of year. And all around me, people swarmed like Orcs — I swear, my keys were glowing blue and everything.

blue glowing sword

What happens to my keys when there are too many people around.

 

Between the excess of people, the excessively tall North Pole Christmas tree, and the excess of soon-to-be plastic junk in every store window, three words popped into my head:

LEAVE NO TRACE

Leave No Trace

 

Now I know what you’re thinking. Go back to Jupiter and let us have fun destroying our planet in peace! Well too bad, because I’m just getting warmed up — exactly like this planet. (See what I did there?).

I love the principles of Leave No Trace. The idea is that we can all take steps to help to protect the earth’s natural beauty and pass along the heritage to future generations. Yes, the principles largely apply to venturing outdoors, but what if we took it further? What if we attempted to “walk lightly on the earth,” as Barbara Ward once said, and applied Leave No Trace ethics to everything we do, including our holiday celebrations? How would Christmas look if we were to focus a little less on creating the world’s tallest mountain of torn and crumpled Santa Claus gift wrap, and more on the impact our choices may have on the environment? What if we all rose up and decided to ex-nay the excess for once? What if we…

Hold that thought. One of my kids just mumbled something about my spending an excess of time using the computer, which just happens to use an excess of electricity, kind of like the non-LED and therefore not-environmentally-friendly Christmas lights blinking on our non-replantable Christmas tree. Okay fine. I give up. Just call me Miss Hypo-Christmas. Anyway, I’ve gotta go wrap some plastic junk in a bunch of shiny paper.

I Want a Buzzsaw Louie (aka: The True Meaning of Black Friday)

It’s that time of year again. People are bundling up to stay warm in the chill air. Tiny colored lights are beginning to twinkle on rooftops. And though Halloween was like, yesterday, every radio station insists on blasting It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year eleven times per hour. So naturally, I can’t stop thinking about veggies.

Wait, what? Shouldn’t I be thinking about turkey and pumpkin pie? Shouldn’t I be obsessing over my three kids’ ever-expanding Christmas wish lists? After all, it’s only a few days until Black Friday – the most popular and important American holiday of the year! (Or so I heard on the radio, just after they played Santa Baby three times in a row). Who would be thinking about veggies at a time like this?

Me. But to be clear, I am thinking about a specific bunch of veggies – a talking cucumber, his best friend the tomato, and a bunch of squash and peas with adorable faces and vaguely annoying voices. Because the moment Halloween ends and the winter holiday season rushes in, kids everywhere contract this hideous disease I call the “I-Wants.” And nobody does the I-Wants better than those ultra-super-OMG whiny veggie brats from The Toy Who Saved Christmas movie.

Even now, I can hear it eating into my poor brain: “I WANT A BUZZSAW LOUIEEEE! ‘CAUSE THAT’S THE TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAAAAAS!”

Ironically, the whole Buzzsaw Louie thing was supposed to be pointing out the ridiculousness of Christmastime consumerism and greed, to encourage viewers to embrace the simpler and more meaningful reasons behind the holiday. But just the memories of it (mixed with the 52-page long wish lists of my kids and their friends) make me want to steal Christmas like the Grinch. Or better yet, invite Krampus to the next kids’ school Christmas party to shake things up a bit.

Evil Krampus

However, I will not. I will swallow my inner screamie-voice, pull out my bank card, and perform my duty as an American to keep the national economy afloat by buying more Stuff™ for my kids. I will head over to Stuff Mart (Yes, sadly, another Veggie Tales reference) soon after Turkey Day (since Mervyn’s has gone out of business, and I can’t do that open-open-open thing anymore. I tried it once at a Target, but they didn’t get it). Because, readers, that’s the true meaning of Christmas. Not the ideal meaning. Not the peace-joy-goodwill toward men meaning that we like to sing and write about. But the technicolor, battery-operated, hate-it-but-it’s-true kind of true.

On that positive note, I wish you all a very Happy (and Profitable) Black Friday!

 

Why Do We Celebrate Christmas Anyway? (aka: Holiday Cynicism vs. Idealism)

Sigh.

It’s that time of year again. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The season of peace and joy and goodwill toward men. The time of year when children’s eyes shine as brightly as the mysterious star that appeared over the baby Jesus in his manger (although, I imagine that this is less for the birth of Jesus as it is the anticipation of getting a big sparkly pile of toys).

A Mountain of Presents

First of all, let me just say that I am not a Scrooge. While I may Bah! Humbug! the tinsel and trappings and materialism and hypocrisy surrounding the big day, I am actually very fond of the ideals that embody the true spirit of Christmas.

As a parent to three terrific kids, I know too well how easy it is to get sucked into the self-centered, mind-numbing void of consumerism this time of year. It’s just so much fun to see my children get all excited as the days progress toward Christmas Eve, and such a thrill to hear the laughter and happiness bubbling over on Christmas morning, as they unwrap the special toys they’ve been hoping for. The very idea of their reactions is a huge driving force – so strong that even I, the cynic, race to the stores at the crack of dawn on Black Friday, anxious to find The Perfect Toy and secure my place as Best Mom Ever.

Who can resist this level of excitement and happiness on a child's face?

Who can resist this level of excitement and happiness on a child’s face?

But that is not Christmas. It is not supposed to be about shoving people out of the way in order to grab the last cool toy from the shelf. It is not supposed to be about making my kids feel temporarily happy with a pile of toys they will love for two weeks, then forget about. It is not having the most impressive display of Christmas lights, or the most adorable family photo greeting cards, or being hostess of the perfect holiday party.

But when is anything ever as it is supposed to be?

Underneath this hard, cynical shell lies a soft, sentimental idealist. A daydreamer who wants the impossible. I want Christmas to be a time when people open their hearts wider than their wallets. I want the neighbors holding hands and lighting candles and singing songs together. I want the poor and the needy of our community to be more than just faceless nobodies to whom we throw a dollar or donate a shiny wrapped toy. I want them to be the guests of honor at our tables. I want for people to try a little harder, to reach a little deeper inside themselves, and to be genuinely kind, loving, humble, compassionate, forgiving, and generous. Those are the values that embody this holiday. Those are the values that were supposedly taught by that man who was once a little baby, born in such humble circumstances so long ago – the one about whom so many Christmas carols are sung today. I want that miracle.

The end of It's a Wonderful Life is filled with so many of the best ideals of Christmas. Too bad it's only a movie.

The end of It’s a Wonderful Life is filled with so many of the best ideals of Christmas. Too bad it’s only a movie.

But I keep my idealism safely locked deep inside, where the disappointment of reality cannot destroy them. Because here is the truth: there is no miracle. Many of the same people who sing the carols and claim to believe in the same ideals of Christmas are sucked into the same void of self-centered, mind-numbing commercialism as everyone else. And so, the holiday becomes a pointless blur of shopping and decorations and fancy events. We pretend to pay homage to some cute little baby in a manger, when the truth is that he is not much more important to us than the plastic blinking reindeer our our front lawns.

This.

This.

And so, I sigh. And I spend too much money on expensive toys for my children. And I deck the halls with plastic holly and twinkling lights. And I sing Joy to the World and smile to see my children’s sparkling eyes as we await the big day of celebration. But what do we celebrate?

Toy Crazy

Apple Store Playmobil for Grownups I like to think that I am not a materialistic person. Really, I try hard not to place too much value on things. But the truth is, I have one great weakness. Okay, maybe two, if you count books. Oh fine, three, counting my beloved iPad. But my other great weakness is toys. That’s right – you heard me – toys. I am kind of toy crazy. When I was a kid, I loved dolls of every kind. (My daughter, unfortunately, never quite took an interest in dolls, despite my best efforts to spark her enthusiasm).

Like most Americans, I gave my three kids more toys than any human child could possibly need or want. I’m not really sure why we bothered – pressure to conform to the norms of middle class society? Some ridiculous urge to give our kids every bit of the luxury we enjoyed during our own childhoods? Whatever the reason, our children’s toy organizers were often bursting with cheap plastic McToys and battery-operated garbage, until I finally made them throw away or give away all but the most essential, most treasured items. The funny thing is, the toys that remained, for the most part, are the few which I consider to be among the top toys ever invented. If I could rewind the clock and give to my children only the toys which add value to their play, only the toys which spark the curiosity and imagination, these are the toys which I would choose:

1. Playmobil $$$

The wonder toy of open-ended imaginative play, Playmobil has been my favorite toy since my own childhood. No matter your fancy – pirates, astronauts, fairy-tale princesses who battle evil dragons – there is a Playmobil world of characters and accessories at your fingertips, ready to be played into being.  The downside? Thousands of teensy-tiny accessories which fit perfectly into the figures’ hands, but have a terrible tendency to be sucked into the vacuum cleaner.

2. Lego $$$

Lego probably has just as many open-ended realms of fantasy, but this time, you get to build it. Follow a plan or dream up your own designs. Extremely educational without the obvious academics. Versatile and fun for either gender. The downside? Stepping on Legos in bare feet in the middle of the night is excruciatingly painful.

3. Rokenbok $$$$

I am amazed whenever I meet people who have never even heard of Rokenbok. Then again, it is only available through specialty toy shops. Basically, Rokenbok is like Lego meets Erector Sets crossed with remote control vehicles. Okay, that isn’t quite accurate. You see, you build this construction world with blocks, and then operate these R/C trucks to move “Roks” around, and…oh shoot, I am not explaining this well. Here, just watch the videos. I swear, it is super-awesome. Downside? Super-expensive.

Building Our Rokenbok WorldMy boys (and a neighbor) playing with Rokenbok

4. CitiBlocs $$

Exactly like their more expensive predecessor, Kapla Blocks, CitiBlocs http://www.citiblocs.com/ are narrow, lightweight wooden blocks that can be stacked in various, creative ways to create structures. Simple fun, no batteries required. Downside? The structures break rather easily.

5. Unit Blocks $$$$

Simple, perfectly-cut, smooth blocks of wood that can be transformed into castles for your soldiers, skyscrapers for your Playmobil figures, parking garages for your Hot Wheels vehicles – the sky’s the limit. The downside: Building a decent collection of unit blocks is very costly. I highly recommend collecting them a few blocks at a time over the years, as we did with our children. (The Lakeshore Learning Store sells blocks by the unit).

6. Wooden Railroad Sets $$$

I nearly wrote Thomas Trains, because these wooden railway sets are high in quality and play value, and the fun faces and stories capture the imagination of the youngest train engineers. However, our family is quite fortunate to have also collected a few very high-quality pieces from Brio, which I personally prefer due to their low commercialism and high value. Downside: A play table is practically a requirement.  I built one for our children for a fairly low cost when they were preschoolers. When they were older, we used the table to build Rokenbok sets.

The best toys last forever

In addition to these few expensive Super Toys, I would add a few small essentials, such as vehicles, dinosaurs, and a couple of high-quality dolls and doll accessories (if, unlike me, you have a doll enthusiast). These are the toys that lasted. These are the toys that were used the most and loved the most by my children, and by many children around the world and throughout the decades. I know, I know, trendy toys come and go. We have lived through My Little Pony, Bakugan, Squinkies, and then some. But the funny thing is, our children seemed to enjoy wishing for and collecting these trendy toys much more than they actually played with them. There were no tears shed when they were finally lifted away by the garbage truck. But as for the Super-Toys, I don’t think I can ever bring myself to part with them. Once my children grow up and head off to university, the toys will be neatly packed into indestructible plastic tubs and saved for the next generation. Then again, maybe I will convert one of the spare bedrooms into my very own Playmobil world of fantasy.

The Turkey is Not the Point

I hate turkey. In fact, my favorite Thanksgiving dinner was in 2011, when I at last decided to break away from tradition and serve my family king crab and oyster chowder.

“When you think about it,” I explained, “shellfish is a very authentic Thanksgiving-ish food, since the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag lived so close to the sea.” Luckily, my kids were totally happy with eating crab, although they thought my oyster chowder tasted like pond sludge. (Oh well…I still thought it was better than turkey).

When it comes down to it, however, it is not about whether one likes or dislikes turkey. Or oyster chowder, for that matter. The point of Thanksgiving is to stop and reflect on our blessings, to express our gratitude, and to share those blessings with those we love. This year, I asked my children to come up with a personal list of three blessings for which they are grateful. (Their response is at the end of this post).

I made a list, as well. It wasn’t exactly easy to do. This year has been somewhat riddled with difficulties. And when you are feeling overwhelmed with obstacles, it can be somewhat challenging to reflect on the good things. But still, I reflected, and here is my list:

  1. Our house, which may be small and old, but it is warm and cozy during the cold nights, and the roof doesn’t leak (much).
  2. My substitute teaching job, which may not be a steady as my old permanent position, but every little bit helps to get the bills paid.
  3. Health! Healthy children who hardly ever get sick, as well as my own remarkably good health this year.
  4. Our opportunities to travel together this year. Though we may lack the resources to travel far, the kids and I have been very fortunate to explore beautiful cities, beaches, and locations up and down the West coast. I am also grateful that my kids are so easy to travel with.
  5. My iPad. I know, I know, this is such a silly, materialistic thing to add. Really, I am not a materialistic person. I do not care about designer brand names, and I am just as happy to read a book from the library as I am to own one. But my iPad has been very important to me…a very practical tool, a source of entertainment, as well as a window to the world for this severe introvert.
  6. Music. Poetry. Literature. Art. The beautiful things that give my spirit wings to soar above the fog of life.
  7. The San Francisco Forty-Niners, who are having another incredible season this year. Also Manchester United FC (that’s soccer, people), Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and the LA Lakers.
  8. Katniss, Buffy, Sydney Bristow, and all those other kick-ass female characters who inspire me to be stronger than I think I can be.
  9. Rainy days, scented candles, hot cups of tea, and cozy blankets to cuddle in.
  10. Humor. Laughter, to me, is the best medicine, and can pretty much cure and prevent any affliction.

Well, technically it is still (Everything-but)Turkey Day for another 20 minutes. So, wherever in the world you may be, readers, take a few moments to reflect on your blessings, and have a very Happy Thanksgiving.

What Are You Thankful For? from Tiare75 on Vimeo.

 

Just Another All-American Christmas

When I was a kid, Christmas was all about the presents. On Christmas morning, my brother, sister and I, like millions of other American kids, would race into the living room and stare in awe at the magical scene before our eyes: a table heaped with candy and nuts, fat red stockings, and piles and piles of gifts piled beneath the Christmas tree. My parents would eventually stumble, bleary-eyed, into the room, and we all spent the morning ripping open packages of Barbies and Star Wars playsets and Cabbage Patch Kids while Nat King Cole crooned from the record player (yes, I said record player).

But when my husband and I had kids, we swore that we would celebrate differently. No piles of presents. No Santa Claus stories. No focus on the materialistic glut that Christmas has become. No…our kids would grow up with solemn Christmas Eve candle-lighting services at church, and stories about the baby Jesus in the manger, and one…maybe two small gifts beneath the tree. Simple. Quiet. Full of meaning.

But as our children grew, I learned something. As our children awoke on Christmas morning and raced into the living room, their eyes shone with that same eager, awe-filled, Christmas-y expression that my siblings and I had worn each year. And that look filled me with a new, even more wonderful feeling of magic. I wanted them to have that feeling, if only once a year. And so, the piles of gifts began to grow. The stockings grew fatter. And stories about good old St. Nicholas began to compete with Baby Jesus in the manger. Twas the Night Before Christmas

This year, we have spent a frightening amount of money on materialistic stuff. Our boys are getting shiny new bicycles. Our daughter will get an iPod touch. We have given in to the All-American Christmas Dream of contributing to the growth of the economy. I am excited, as always, to see that Christmas morning expression on the faces of my children. But the idealist buried deep within me still wishes there was some way to change the way we celebrate the season, to restore a greater sense of meaning to the most celebrated holiday of the year.