Thursday, January 28, 2010

No Gifts, Please

I am filling out blanks on pre-made invitations for our soon-to-be-four-year-old's birthday party at an Indoor Inflatable Bouncy World. We're inviting twenty-five youngsters, not including various under-two-year-olds and the birthday girl herself, who don't "count." Please come to a boing-boing bash with birthday cake and ice cream, gifts, please.

I add the last request wishing that I could explain myself to our invited guests. I mean, what kind of mom deprives her child (and have you seen my cutie pie?) of that pile of presents? I picture the raised eyebrows at what some might interpret as sanctimonious disdain for our materialistic society. I imagine the questions: Does she really mean it? Will she be mad if I bring a gift anyway? I worry that I'm triggering other parents' internal rationalizations of their acquiescence to the traditional birthday bargain: get presents; give goody bag.

And then I am guilty of over-thinking the whole thing: I wonder if my friends will judge me or themselves because they think I am judging them.

Truth is, I usually try to choose paths that make the most people comfortable. I don't like to make a big deal; I generally go with the parenting flow.

And so it's tempting, once again, to ditch what has become our traditional approach to our children's birthdays, because yes, I kind of do care what other people think. And honestly, it's the passive approach that brings the bounty of booty. You have to make an effort to stem the outpouring. Is it worth stepping out on that limb?

Well, yeah; I think so.

First of all, there are some practical reasons why it doesn't make sense to me for us to accept gifts from our crowd of neighborhood friends. Our house is small, our daughters share a room, and, it's true: they have plenty of toys. It's not that I don't think my kids can use new toys from time to time, but those times do not necessarily fall around their birthdays. Months can go by and I watch my children still intrigued by an old plaything. Then, one day, we've hit a developmental leap or different interest and it's time to introduce new stimuli. But my experience says that if upwards of ten fresh distractions fall into my child's lap at once, many will end up barely explored and some ignored altogether.

Why not, say, a few gifts for our four-year-old? I reassure you we don't believe in completely present-free birthdays; we've got the gift part covered ourselves. So please just come to the party and have fun. And the party, folks, is what it's all about, by the way. I don't know what my daughter wants for birthday; all she's talked about for months is the partay. And the cake, and also the friends.

I've heard people mention that in lieu of giving gifts, one could suggest a donation to a favorite charity or cause. My thought on that is, I prefer you decide how to spend your money. Maybe you really need your $10 for the fine on that library book you found behind the fridge after months of searching. Encouraging friends to consider not buying for my daughter seems incongruent with taking for granted they were going to anyway, and then redirecting that cash, no matter how well meaning the intent. Also, that request would be more sincere coming from our daughter herself.

Perhaps the "no gifts, please" appended to our daughter's birthday invite is just one manifestation of my growing desire to disrupt the social conventions of gift giving. Make no mistake: I love gifts. I cherish gifts. Making and discovering gifts for others is one of my life's true joys. But I'm not good at--nor do I necessarily believe in--giving on demand. In my view, the best gifts are inspired by a true desire to give (versus the annual event of a holiday) and the convergence of thinking of someone and encountering the perfect item or service for him or her.

I have a pair of earrings from Target ($7.99, baby!) which inspire compliments whenever I wear them. Last time I was in the store, I picked up three more pairs, vowing to surprise the next few people who expressed their approval. The satisfaction I gained from executing my plan and giving that simple unsolicited gift far outweighed the eight dollars a pair.

The world would be a better place, I predict, if what we gave one another more often was Love and Attention. So I've become a proponent of what I call the "experience gift": the gift of time or opportunity versus object. I often suggest (on occasion, beg, demand?) my husband give me these gifts: Some hours, please, honey, to clean the house, go running, run errands, read a book, breathe. And I try to reciprocate, especially when I can tell my partner is cracking.

In the same vein, I know my daughters would appreciate a frozen yogurt date with an auntie, uncle, or friend more than another plastic gizmo.

Redefining what constitutes gift-giving is part of this revolution. A generous friend sharing her crockpot of chili on a busy weekday night and saving me the hassle of cooking dinner might as well have served up that stew in a Tiffany's box; it feels that valuable. In our neighborhood we take in one another's rascals and haul carfuls of kids on adventures, relieving other moms and dads when we can. This is the kind of spontaneous karma chain that makes the world go 'round.

As a final disclaimer I will share that we discussed at dinner tonight our "no gifts" approach to birthday parties. Our daughters are still on board, and conversation quickly shifted to pre-planning the First Grader's August birthday.

Here's to presence over presents!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

List: Rainy Ruminations

We're on day four of rain and wind here in Southern California, and that's just plain weird.

1. We needed rain; we're having a drought with water restrictions, etc. But this deluge falls into the category of "be careful what you ask for": just because you have a craving for ice cream, doesn't mean you want to gorge yourself on the 20-scoop sundae. Everything in moderation, right?

2. We're being chided by our more weather-weary friends to the north and east for whining about the rain. But I claim that the degree to which weather is severe is related to general expectations. If you live in a place where you EXPECT it to be cold and snow to fall from the sky, you've got the snow boots and proper gear to stay warm. You EXPECT to scrape the frost off your car--it's part of the deal. Using this logic, I deduce that San Diegans in a cold snap (say, 40 degrees outside) actually feel colder than their Alaskan counterparts. And we're wetter, too. Why? Because we're wearing our sandals. We don't own rain boots. And we have cheap, flimsy umbrellas. If we have an umbrella at all.

3. Last winter (last time it rained?), I sat at this desk and watched sheets of water pour along the window into the crack between the pane and the molding and down into the wall. The storm drain was clogged, so water was flowing like a waterfall over the edge of our flat roof. There was no doubt that the wall under the window had filled with water; bulging paint bubbles were proof. But, you know, the rain passed and it got dry again and stayed dry and we never hired anyone to look in there and check if brain-cell killing molds were growing.

So, here we are a year later, suffering the consequences yet again of Deferred Maintenance. Storm drain isn't clogged (we're not that dumb!), but there's a nice gap where the window pane meets the molding, and water has wound up in the wall again.

3. Which brings me to the garage, which has always had a roof leak on the left side. Which, again, we haven't fixed. From time to time, there's been dampness, but this week we earned our inches on the floor. We join the ranks of folks who've become so accustomed to, well, no weather, that we've let our homes be holey. There are leaks and floods in dwellings and garages across the county. Maybe we all learned something this time.

4. If you live in a semi-arid region without regular rain, you begin to notice how dusty and dirty everything gets. By the end of the summer, despite our glorious, sunshiney weather, there's a certain dullness to the trees, plants, and buildings. They need to shower. So I appreciate how clean our city is after a good rain. How shiny it must be in Portland and Seattle all the time!

5. Rain at random times--and unseasonal warmth, too, say, in December--means we've got daffodils in January. Poor confused plants.

6. On my way to work today I totally hit that huge puddle at the intersection and sent a tsunami over a poor man on the sidewalk walking his dog. So sorry, dude.

It happened to me once, and it made me cry. Okay, perhaps it wasn't the splash that made me cry, but the parka and the boots and the ridicule and the Chemistry class AND THEN the slushy, dirty spraydown that took me over the edge.

It was freshman year of college, second semester, probably February. When New Haven is gray and cold and wet and somewhat demoralizing (my college actually established "Feb Club" to combat the inevitable February Blues, with a party every night for the entire month). I was trudging my way up Science Hill, against the wind and rain, dressed in my Lands End clearance-sale winter wear: full-length, shapeless, raspberry-pink parka and aquamarine-colored rain boots. Of course, these fashionable items were ordered during the summer before I arrived on my East Coast campus to find earth-tone Patagonia jackets and L.L.Bean duck boots to be all the rage--or, at least, what Everyone Else was wearing.

The necessity of hiking up Science Hill on an inauspicious day was merely adding insult to the injury I was beginning to ascribe to my choice of pursuing pre-med courses, particularly Chemistry. How I loathed that course and the lab.

And so there I was, slogging uphill, rain pelting my angry face as I cursed February, early-morning classes, and titrations, when one of a pair of giddy, probably upperclass science majors heading downhill, shouted at me across the waterlogged street, "Hey! Nice BOOTS!" I stopped and turned to look, just as a passing car soaked me in a wave of gritty slush.

They laughed and I cried. And blamed my dad, east-coast-college grad himself and my winter gear fashion consultant, for outfitting me so outrageously, albeit cost effectively.

7. I have gained greater respect and sympathy for regions plagued by monsoons.

8. The moral of this list is: too much rain (and wind) is not fun rain of the puddle-jumping variety. Power outages, car accidents, floods, trees falling on cars and houses, and deaths pretty much take the pleasure out of precipitation.

We need some good rainbows at the end of this week, methinks.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Veggie Karma

My college friend and her kids came to visit us right after Christmas, and I won't lie: I spent a few days prior cleaning the cabin. I weeded; I sorted; I tossed; I dusted and scrubbed. You would be impressed with how many loads of recycling I generated from my paper piles alone. Or, if you came over today, you'd simply note that I left a few around for, quite possibly, posterity.

On the afternoon of my friends' arrival, I escaped to Trader Joe's to stock up on groceries. I filled the cart to overflowing and enjoyed some humorous banter with the clerks at the register. It was a gorgeous Southern California day; my spirits were high and I was excited for my snow-weary visitors.

Meanwhile, my brother and his wife had organized a cousins' sleepover at their house, commencing mid-afternoon, and my husband had the latter part of the day off. We planned to enjoy a late lunch and each other's company before our guests pulled in.

I came home to my clean house and began putting away the groceries, eventually noting that some items were missing. I checked the car. No bag. I looked over my receipt and determined that I must have left a sack of food in the cart in the parking lot.

Dang it.

I called the store. Indeed, there was a bag of abandoned groceries waiting to be claimed. Husband called to say he was on his way and I warned him we had an errand to run.

We returned to a bustling, pre-New-Year's Trader Joe's, where someone figured out who I was and to whom I had spoken about what phantom bag of groceries. Which, when it was produced and I peered inside, I quickly recognized was Not Mine.

As I sent my husband outside to check the parking lot, I clarified to the staff that I had most likely left my bag outside the store, in my cart.

"Oh," sighed the manager. "You know, a homeless person probably took it..."

"Sure!" I responded brightly. That was the scenario I preferred to the thought of a greedy yuppie snatching up my diced tomatoes, apples, and organic mayo.

As I prepared to replace the essentials among my lost items, the manager insisted that I shop around for all of them.

"Seriously?" I asked.

"Of course," he nodded. And smiled.

I thanked him and his cohort profusely and vowed to write a letter in appreciation of Trader Joe's customer service practices.

And then I walked out without paying for a whole bag of groceries.

Husband and I cruised by home to drop off the goods before our sushi date.

We got out of the car and reached into the back seat in tandem to pull out a grocery bag each. We locked eyes across the top of the car as we both lifted a sack. My husband had found my errant groceries tucked under the driver's seat. I laughed.

And felt like a Really Big Jerk.

We unloaded two identical bags of groceries (How about them apples! Four bags!), and planned to fix it with Trader Joe's later.

Today, two weeks hence, I made another trip to the store with a list of our guilty goods. I loaded the front part of the cart with stuff I intended to pay for twice.

The store was quiet so I was saved the indignity of explaining my saga in front of a line of impatient shoppers. Elzie, the clerk, was more than happy to double-charge me for selected foodstuffs and clear my conscience. As he rang me up he recounted the tale of a woman who returned to the store to contest $16.10 on her receipt for an unspecified item. No way had she paid $16.10 for any one thing, and would they please refund her. Elzie racked his brain for what it could be and why it bore no description on the receipt--he must have hand-entered the price. It wasn't until later, when another customer attempted to buy a rack of lamb whose bar code didn't work, that Elzie realized she was probably having herself a very nice dinner on Trader Joe's.

It's all about attitude, was Elzie's point. Don't be indignant. You could be wrong.

Gulp. I think I learn that lesson every day.

Anyway, now you understand why we have not one, not two, but THREE jars of mustard and bottles of maple syrup on our shelves. Come shop at our house!

After you shop at Trader Joe's, of course: They're the bomb.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

This and That

Goodness! Not much to report from The Land of Back to School and Work. And I don't know where to begin with Haiti. Our daughter's school had a disaster drill the very day of Haiti's devastating earthquake and we talked at the dinner table about safety before I heard the news. Hold close your safe and sound loved ones.

So I offer comparatively inconsequential nuggets, about as exciting as the chicken variety:

Our First Grader has gotten a kick out of calling us "Woman" and "Mister" lately. "Woman! Tell me my next spelling word!" Smirk. "Woman, Mister said he would put me to bed." "Woman! WOOOOOOOOMAN! Can you hear me?"

Yes, dear.

It's taken us a while, but scientific investigation of crusty abandoned vittles reveals that our cat does not prefer the "Mixed Grill" cans in the cat food variety pack. Classic Pate, though, goes down nicely. Which reminds me of Beezus Quimby's cat, Picky-picky.

More on food: We think it's cute that the First Grader looks forward each week to Chicken Patty Sandwich day at school. With peaches and chocolate milk. Public Schools, please don't take her chocolate milk away!

Finally, from the Vice Principal front, I think American Idol's sexagenarian hopeful Larry Platt expressed how I often feel appraising our youth:

Happy weekend, everyone!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Parenting's Lovely Illogic

Popular among parents of our generation is the 'offer a choice' approach. The aim is to both empower the child (who has newfound control over whether he drinks from a blue or red cup) and to demonstrate more clearly that poor behavior is a choice--a choice with consequences.

It seems that this is a newer model of parenting; I am pretty sure myriad options were not my parents' approach. I recall whining or complaining about what was before me (long car ride, yucky mushrooms, milk served from a carton with today's date as the expiration) and hearing, "Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick." Which was not a threat, of course. Just an annoyingly obvious and frequent observation. Also hard to argue with.

Giving kids choices is part of being a thoughtful parent, for sure. It entails giving up some control and honoring our children's natural penchant for preference. "Which of these two shirts would you like to wear today?" is a fair compromise between allowing one's fickle child to make costume changes reminiscent of a Britney Spears concert, and predetermining her outfit with no room for negotiation.

On the other hand, the presentation of options can take a turn for the absurd, and on issues about which your child could not care less, there's an argument for keeping it simple, stupid. Talk to someone who's built or remodeled her home, and she'll tell you of her overwhelm at the choices: which doorknob? Which flusher? Which grout? Which fixture? There are things we don't know we care about, and then there are things we are sure we don't care about. Put the chicken nuggets on the plate, mother, for crying out loud. I don't care what color. I'm hungry.

And if you've ever served lemonade to a bunch of neighborhood kids with your household assortment of colored cups--or cut a birthday cake, for that matter--you will quickly find that each and every child can develop a favorite color or must-have piece. Which is when I like to employ our children's preschool proverb: You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit.

I've heard some parents involve time in their menu of considerations: Would you like to get dressed now or in five minutes? This technique is a bit of a head scratcher for me, since it seems like a no-brainer from a kid's perspective. Option to procrastinate without penalty? Why sure! I suppose it amounts to more of a warning or preparation for what's to come. But it requires watching the clock. I can multitask, but I am more adept at doing things at the same time. Making multiple appointments for various times sounds like more than I can handle. Let's just get dressed NOW, shall we?

Then there's the offering of choices under duress, which I characterize as a kinder and clearer alternative to The Countdown or Threat. Of course, all three strategies buy a parent some time and give a kid One More Chance. Let's say your child is not following a direction to clean up the bath toys. Instead of threatening, "If you don't clean up the bath toys right now, you will go straight to bed with no books," the same outcome can be made into a choice: "Would you like to clean up the bath toys or go straight to bed with no books?" The advantage of presenting options is that a child's response is required, whereas threats can be ignored, even when they're tagged with, "Do you hear me?"

Threat or choice, it becomes the parent's responsibility to follow through. Which is a bummer when that constitutes honoring your child's choice to be removed from the restaurant where your dinner sits uneaten.

Offering options under stressful situations has a tendency to trip me up. Coming up with choices pertaining to the present circumstances seems to require a higher-level thinking of which I am often incapable of conjuring. I will suggest two favorable options or two synonymously unpleasant choices. Or I won't make any sense.

For example, last night, at a friends' house for dinner, I asked my daughter if she wanted to keep arguing with me or go outside for a talk. She paused, cocked her head and looked at me, and then just walked away.

Apparently confusing your subject is another effective disciplinary approach.

Which is it going to be: cooperate or have a treat later?

Do you want to get with the program or get your act together?

I ask myself, do I want to be a better parent or suck at it a little less?


My husband avoids all this confusion by simply asking for volunteers. Raise your hand if you want a Time Out. Raise your hand if you don't want dessert.

Perhaps the danger of creating choices at every turn is that our children believe everything is negotiable. I've been asked by my high school clients on many occasions, for example, if they have to do their four-hour Saturday Schools, or if they can, say, do eight half-hour detentions. Sure, I respond. As soon as the penal system allows convicts to serve their sentences once a week for a thousand years in lieu of consecutive life sentences.

In the meantime, we parents are simply deciding between choosing our battles and doing the best we can.

Six of one, half dozen of the other.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Picturing Friendship

We were fortunate to have many friends and family pass through and visit over the holidays, with opportunities to reconnect and for our children to reestablish relationships with people we've known for years and care about deeply.

One of the highlights of vacation was watching our daughter and the daughter of one of my best pals become fast friends. Jealousy and competition, it turns out, are no strangers to the friendships of even six-year-olds, but our two instantly hit it off and enjoyed an easy camaraderie. They danced, sang, wrote notes to one another, played with stuffed animals, swam, and ran, and even did math problems together.

I think we all wish for our children the kinds of friendships that sustain us through good and hard times and over the years despite how we change and evolve. It's emblematic that one of the songs my friend's daughter taught ours is the old Girl Scout tune: "Make new friends, but keep the old..."

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Tribute

Earlier this fall, a friend and I attended a behind-the-scenes tour of a joint exhibit of Calder's jewelry and Miro's works at our city's art museum. I learned a ton, including that most of Calder's jewelry would be unwieldy to wear, albeit beautiful.

Our tour guide shared that Calder gifted many of his works to his wife, on birthdays, anniversaries, and on New Year's Day, when kings and their artists typically exchanged gifts. New Year's gifts from artists to their patrons were meant to honor the role benefactors played in making artists' work possible.

That tradition struck me and stuck with me. I am sure anyone could credit someone with making his/her current life's work possible, if not easier. In my case, there are many people I could thank for allowing me to raise a family and pursue the career that has felt just about right at each turn and trajectory.

But it's easy for me to identify the person who has enabled me to be the mother I want to be and the professional I need to be. My sister-in-law has made it her work--at this life juncture at least--to raise her children and assist in the caring and loving of mine (and numerous others') as well. She does this with an ease and generosity of spirit that is unique and extraordinary and far surpasses the role of "Auntie."

My sister-in-law does more than pick up my daughter from school, ensuring that her backpack and lunchbox are in order. She does more than make sure our daughters can be involved in extracurricular activities while their parents are at work and does more than make herself available for emergencies and more than saves us additional daycare costs on Fridays and vacation days, when she welcomes our daughters seamlessly into her fold.

She helps develop them into considerate family members. She teaches our daughters to be compassionate, empathetic members of a community of children and neighbors on her family's busy block. Having grown up among the dynamics of a loving extended family, she has taught us and our daughters its infinite value.

On a personal level, my sister-in-law has afforded me precious and invaluable commodities. She has reassured me that my children will be okay while I work. She has offered unconditional friendship, love, and time. She respects my life and work choices, expecting only that I do the same in turn for her. She absolves me of the guilt of indebtedness.

And so we appreciate and honor one another, in a relationship that is surprisingly uncomplicated and mutually admiring.

I know few people who benefit from the support of family members so close by. I know even fewer who live only three blocks from the treasure we've come to count on: cousins, caring, and Auntie K.

I owe many past pleasures and successes in part to you. I look forward to many more shared adventures in the next year and decade.

Happy New Year; I love you.