Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve

So here it is, December 31st, the last day of 2013. So many of us are looking back at the year behind us, reflecting on the events in our lives and the world around us. In a few hours, we'll kiss and hug and wish each other a Happy New Year and ideally we'll feel hopeful with a renewed sense of optimism about life's potential. Maybe we'll make some resolutions to be better people.

I'm not really big on New Year's celebrations but I do feel hopeful. Lately I try to strive for hopeful every day although some days all I can do is strive for an absence of the sorrow, despair and ennui that hovers constantly on the outskirts of my mind. How's that for optimism?

The thing is, what does a "Happy New Year" really mean?

I generally tell people I did not have a happy childhood and it slips off my tongue without much thought. I can think of a lot of happy memories from childhood. I spent tons of time with my sister, Carrie, who is two years older than me and was, by far, my most favorite person in the world when I was a kid. Anything that involved playing with Carrie was fun. Rollerskating with Carrie and my best friend, Molly, pretending we were Charlie's Angels and the Bay City Rollers were our boyfriends? That was the epitome of fun. Summer was always filled with happy memories of swimming, playing outside after dinner until it was dark, sleeping with the windows open. Sure, there was happiness. But the whole of my childhood is also colored by my parents' divorce, the subsequent bitterness and passive aggressiveness between them, my abusive step-father and the way all the adults in my life consistently put their needs ahead of mine and neglected my safety and well-being. I know that's a big charge, but I make it with confidence that I have worked hard to heal from all of that, as much as I can.

College was not that happy, either, although I had some great friends and I had fun and I laughed a lot. I also drank too much, blacked out almost every weekend and did many unspeakably embarrassing things while blacked out that still cause me pangs of regret and humiliation when I think of them. I did untold damage to my already-fragile self-esteem. I did learn one or two things, though.

The alcohol abuse continued into my 20s, accompanied by an eating disorder and some bad "boyfriends." Finally, when I was 27, I started seeing the best psychologist in the world and have been taking Prozac on and off for most of the last 18 years.

So my "happiness" throughout my life has been affected by my parents, relationships, my own actions, chemicals and/or pharmaceuticals and probably more by genetics than any of us really realize. When someone asked me in my mid-30s if I was happy, I answered quite honestly, I have no idea. What's the baseline for happy?

Obviously, happiness is subjective. What feels like happiness to me could feel totally different to someone else. There's no way to measure it. So why do we go around wishing each other a happy new year? And all those resolutions we make to achieve The Happy New Year? They are pointless, although I'm sure I don't need to tell you that.

What I think we should really be hoping for is just a good life, not so much a happy life. Who says we are entitled to happiness?

When I was a senior in college and beginning to anticipate the "real world" that awaited me after graduation, a friend of mine gave me a book called Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow: Discovering Your Right Livelihood. I was obsessed with this book for several years as my charming and naive idealism convinced me that if I was happy, then that meant I was doing what I was supposed to be doing with my life. And obviously, by this logic, if I was unhappy, I was clearly doing something wrong. I believed this was true with every fiber of my being. This one belief ruled my life and I felt so passionately that this was The Truth, the one, most important philosophy by which I should live my life. I agonized over it every day, convinced that if I could just figure out what made me happy, then everything else would be clear. I would feel peace, I would understand my purpose, all my decisions would be easy. First, find happiness, then smooth sailing.

Wow. It's so stupid it's almost cute.

I'm not saying happiness is a worthless goal, but I just think we are so out of touch with what it really means to be happy and what makes us feel happy that it's become somewhat meaningless. It seems more concrete to me to just try to be good to one another. Be good to the people you love. Work hard to do things that make you feel good, physically, mentally, spiritually. Do good things for other people, even people you don't know or people you don't even like! Be a good driver, be considerate, be good to the Earth, be kind to animals. Be good to yourself, don't compare yourself to other people because you either put yourself down or someone else. Eat good (real) food, do something good for your health, and read a good book. Then lend the book to someone, because that's sharing and sharing is good.

Maybe I have simply replaced on silly, naive belief with another but yes, I am prone to this type of thinking. It's the only way to fight back against the crusty, old cynic in my head. I want to live up to my daughter's view of the world as a relatively good place.

And that's my message as we usher out 2013. I have to go now and feed the birds, maybe help some little, old ladies cross the street. After that I might get raging drunk with my sisters and entertain my nieces and nephew with my ability to make lengthy speeches composed entirely of swear words. Just kidding. I try to keep the alcohol consumption in check these days (but I do swear a lot). However you ring in the new year, I hope you feel happy or peaceful or just feel good. Life is hard. We just have to do our best.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Santa's having a goddamn Christmas crisis

A few weeks back I posted a photo of my 11-year old daughter's letter to Santa Claus on my Facebook page with the caption "I'm guessing the average 11-yr. old kid no longer believes in Santa. But obviously Martha is not average." Many friends responded that their 11-year old kids still believed in Santa or that their older kids continued to believe past age 11 and most people, adults included, maintain that they still believe simply because if doubt is actually verbally expressed then presents from "Santa" stop coming. And no one wants that.

I ended up thinking maybe it was not so unusual that Martha still believes in Santa Claus, which makes me happy because it is, in my opinion, a beautiful, enchanting part of childhood and even when you reach the age at which you begin to understand that is physically impossible to fly around the whole world in one night, stopping at every single household with children (and seamlessly skipping over every single household without children), even when you begin to imagine all those apartment buildings and homes with no chimneys and see that that there are just so many exceptions to the Santa m.o. that it almost renders the core tenets of the myth completely meaningless, even when you are mindlessly browsing through your mom's Facebook page and you see your very own letter to Santa photographed and displayed for all her friends and you wonder how did the envelope get out of the mailbox & onto mom's Facebook page, even after all that, if you still feel deep in your heart that it is simply right and good to believe in the magic of a man in red who delivers gift to all the boys and girls of the world then you have a good chance of surviving the many disappointments and heartaches that life will eventually throw in your path.

Fast forward one month and I am now ready to don my Santa hat and go purchase the desired and requested items for my dear child. I'll be honest, there are a lot of parts of motherhood that I have been less than fond of (for example, breastfeeding, much to my shame). But one of my most favorite roles as mom is when I get to play Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. When I do these jobs, I AM the magic. I am transformed from my mundane, boring self into a mysterious character with boundless powers to surprise and delight. I bring gifts and that's all I do, it is my whole reason for being. So despite the fact that my Santa shopping required me to go to the den of iniquity otherwise known as the Mall of America to shop at the only American Girl doll store in the state of Minnesota, I was excited to go play Santa.

There is a slight problem to begin with, as Martha has requested four items from Santa and she has been informed that Santa only brings three gifts. Several years back another mom shared her philosophy of Santa gifts, stating that each child shall receive exactly three presents from Santa because that's how many gifts baby Jesus got. If baby Jesus got three gifts, then any other child may also reasonably expect to receive three gifts, but no more. No child can receive more gifts than baby Jesus because that would be sinful and/or sacrilegious. What, do you think your better than Jesus?? You think you deserve MORE gifts than baby Jesus? Oh no, I think not. Three presents for you, kid, that's it. Don't be greedy. Just be glad you don't end up with a sock full of frankincense, and myrrh (although gold might be nice, especially a couple of big, heavy ingots).

So last year Martha requested three gifts and Santa ad libbed a little and brought one extra, unrequested gift to surprise her. Now she figures if Santa offered a fourth gift last year then it seems prudent to add a fourth request to her letter so that she can be assured of getting something she really wants and not some dorky pair of pajamas.

Well, Martha composed her letter to Santa based entirely on the latest American Girl catalog and the following is what she requested:
  • School Desk Set, price $42
  • School Locker Set, price $58
  • School Backpack Set, price $28
  • Campus Snack Cart, price $150
One hundred and fifty dollars?! Pshh... I don't think so. Baby Jesus did not receive a $150 Campus Snack Cart so I'll be damned if my kid is getting this item. Even the price of the locker set is a little steep, but I'll buy it and justify it in my head because at least it is not battery-operated and requires a tiny bit of imagination.

BUT! Oh no... when Santa arrives at the American Girl store and inquires as to where said Locker and Desk Sets might be located, she is told they are OUT OF STOCK! And BACK ORDERED! Until February! What the fuck American Girl? Santa does not deal in OUT OF STOCK and BACK ORDERED toys. He's goddamned Santa Claus for fuck sake! There is no such thing as "out of stock" in Santa's workshop; if something is out of stock he just gets the goddamned elves to make more. And they do it. Because they are elves and they are magic and they make the goddamned dollies and accompanying Lockers and Desk Sets because they can AND because Santa asked and they are bidden to do Santa's work and they do not go to the goddamned American Girl website and order the toys online and then wait for the UPS guy or the Fed Ex guy to deliver it! They're goddamned elves!

This was the elf in charge of lockers
Ok, so now what the fuck is Santa supposed to do? Obviously, Santa is now forced to cough up the money for the Campus Snack Cart because if she doesn't her kid is going to be one pissed off little girl on Christmas morning. Yeah, yeah, I know, I should have taken a break from the Tooth Fairy/Santa gig long enough to teach my kid about gratitude and the real meaning of Christmas and then maybe I wouldn't have this problem but you have to understand, Martha's autistic brain is VERY literal. Why the hell would she write a letter to Santa if he's just going to get all independent-minded and deliver whatever the fuck he wants? Or thinks she wants? Does Santa have ESP? I mean, seriously, she obviously can see that if Santa has to deliver presents to every little kid in the world, that's a fuck lot of presents and how the hell is he going to know what EVERY kid wants? He doesn't! He needs these letters. He needs some guidance, otherwise he's just flying blind and everyone's getting footballs and dollies. And Martha doesn't need a dolly. She already got that last year. The dolly needs a goddamned locker to put her goddamned books in but now she won't have that but maybe it doesn't matter anyway because there's no goddamned desk to sit in either so how the fuck is she going to go to class anyway? She should just skip school altogether and go have a smoke in the parking lot. Fucking school... it's for total losers anyway.

Well, as it turns out, Santa left the store with the exorbitantly priced Campus Snack Cart (but come on, look at the tiny hot dogs! Look at the tiny money!) and the School Backpack Set AND the Allergy-Free Lunch set which costs $28 and will not cause any American Girl doll or her friends to break out in hives or go into anaphylactic shock because it is ALLERGY FREE. No peanuts, no gluten, no eggs, no dairy. Let's just hope no one is allergic to plastic.

My dilemma now is how to navigate the whole Santa-had-a-little-acquisition-failure issue while still trying to preserve her belief in the jolly, old, magic guy. I have to create a plausible story and it really shouldn't involve Santa ordering shit from his iPhone. My other option is to just tell the truth, which, of course, involves crushing her tender, childhood soul so it is unlikely I will opt for this solution.

There's still time to travel around the country to other American Girl stores and see if they, too, have experienced the same run on School Lockers and School Desk sets and, quite frankly, this seems like the best option. Maybe school for dollies is not so popular in other, less educated states. OK, wish me luck. Ho ho ho!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Update to 30 days of giving (12 days late)

The truth? I'm not sure I actually succeeded in giving something away for every day of November. I lost track of stuff and sometimes I considered counting some act of giving as part of my list but then reconsidered, believing some acts should just be reflexive and not viewed as generous but merely common, everyday occurrences. This lead me to question all of my acts of giving and wonder how meaningful they really were if they were done only for the purpose of tallying up 30 days of giving. And that thought just seemed depressing and sucked the joy out of what seemed like a good idea at the beginning of November. Oh, you silly obsessive brain.

So, anyway, here is what I did give away (in addition to the 4 items listed in the first blog post about 30 days of giving):

Check out the coolness of this toy
Playmobil crane (given away on Freecycle): this was an awesome toy that I bought for Martha when she was very young and crane was one of her early words she spoke and she also loved to see them and point them out in the car when we were driving around town. Playmobil toys, for those of you who aren't familiar with them, are these amazingly detailed, German-made plastic miniature toys, similar to legos but a little less blocky. The crane cost over $200 dollars but I bought it for my then-more-severely-affected daughter with autism because I was a desperate mother who wanted to nurture her child's developing brain. If you ever know a child with any kind of developmental delay or disorder, you might understand the logic behind a parent spending oodles and oodles of money to help their child, regardless of how stupid the object of the spending seems. Well, in the end, we constructed our crane, Martha never played with it, I tried to sell it at a garage sale with no success and it sat in our mud room for a few more years until finally, I gave it away. Free. A $200 toy. But totally worth it to have the box gone from my house.

Plastic baby gate (Freecycled): I saw an ad for a gal wanting baby gates for her apartment because she wanted to start fostering dogs and needed to corral her new guests. Obviously, I support anyone who is helping dogs and the baby gate I gave away had this system for being secured in a doorway that my daughter was too impatient to figure out, so it collected dust in my basement instead.

Two bags of kids clothing and winter gear (given to a local organization that helps families in need): When you're raising a child, it seems to me there is a never-ending stream of clothing that no longer fits. Never-ending, I tell you.

Books (given to a neighborhood Little Free Library): This is one of the items I gave away and then thought maybe it was lame to include in my list of giving. I'm including it anyway.

1 lb. of coffee (donated at a local coffee shop): I went in to buy myself a cup of coffee and the kid at the cash register asked if I'd donate a pound of coffee, supposedly to U.S. Troops abroad. I did it. I needed to beef up my list but it also seemed like a fine idea.

9 monetary donations made to various non-profit organizations in Minnesota: A few years back Minnesota started this "Give to the Max Day" where people can make online donations to a wide variety of schools or non-profit organizations. I like it because I can do my donations all in one day, I don't have to field annoying calls from solicitors all year round and I don't have to remember when I gave last to some group. Somehow the number of groups I give to keeps growing. This year I donated to Secondhand Hounds (the rescue group I foster for), Pet Haven (rescue group that my former dog, Carson, came from), Leech Lake Legacy & Red Lake Rosie's Rescue (two groups that help round up dogs on reservations in Minnesota and provide low-cost spay/neuter clinics and immunizations). I also gave to the Friends of Hennepin County Library, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, People for Pride in Living, St. Louis Park Emergency Program, and Second Harvest Heartland. Dogs, books, homes and help for those less fortunate; these are things that matter to me.

Volunteer time, 3 different days: Twice I shelved books in the Media Center at my daughter's school, which is kind of the equivalent of pretending I still have my job from last year; one day I helped out in Martha's classroom.

Unbelievably cute dog treats
Howl-iday Hat dog treats: these were gifts I sent to my sister and two friends for their respective dogs, Chipper, Beijing, Luci, Sadie and Zelda (who used to be my foster dog). Is this 3 gifts given to 3 people? Or five gifts given to five dogs? I'm counting it as 3 gifts so as not to appear like I'm trying to cheat.

Donations to two dog rescue groups made as a result of my purchase of Howl-iday Hat treats from Treat Me Right, an organization that makes healthful treats for dogs and donates a portion of their sales to various animal welfare groups.

Several turtlenecks I passed on to my sister from my own closet: In order to understand the significance of this act of giving you need to understand my older sister. She wears the piss out of her clothes, which is both virtuous but also kind of sad. It's virtuous because she does not end up spending money on clothes she doesn't need and it makes her seem very thrifty and reduces her carbon footprint. However, it is sad because she is a grown woman with a professional job and she is still wearing items of clothing from the 80s because they simply will not die. The turtlenecks hadn't had much action in my own wardrobe lately, so I entrusted them to Cindi. It really was a charitable act on my part.

So that's what I accomplished in the actual month of November. That's either 27 or 29 items depending on how you count the dog treat gifts. You can see what I mean when I say I wasn't truly successful with my original pledge. I wasn't even going to bother with a blog update.

But I gave one more thing to a stranger yesterday that made me decide I was ready to write about my experience with intentional giving.

Yesterday morning it was about zero degrees outside and I was shoveling my sidewalk before Martha left to catch the bus. A teenaged boy who I'd never seen before came down the street and asked me if the bus to Edina High School had come by yet. I'm not positive when the bus for the high school comes by but I told him I was pretty sure it had come and gone already (it had). He was a tall, slender, African-American kid, dressed only in sweatpants, t-shirt and a light jacket. He had no gloves or hat and his hands were stuffed into his pants pockets but he kept taking them out periodically to blow on them to keep them warm. I asked if he lived nearby and he said he lived a block away, across a busy street which is the boundary between my suburb of Edina and the city of Minneapolis. He usually catches the bus by his house, he said, but he had stayed up late the night before, overslept, and missed his bus.

So I asked him, tentatively, did he want me to drive him to school. I said I'd be happy to take him because I was sure there was no bus coming but I didn't want to seem creepy. I'm not sure if housewives/moms in sweatpants shoveling snow can really pull off creepy, but you never know how this sort of offer might be perceived. He accepted. Once my daughter was on her way to school we walked back to my garage and set off for the high school. The roads were icy and snowy and the traffic was not great so we had some time to chat. His name was Abdi and he's a junior in high school. I asked him about college (he has many in mind) and he told me about his high school football career and torn ACL. He seemed like a nice kid and he reminded me a bit of my 18-year old nephew. If he was my child waiting around in the frigid weather with no gloves, I would hope that someone would look out for him.

When I dropped him at school I told him that I walked my dog around the neighborhood all the time so maybe there was a chance I would see him. I added that I felt like I should meet his mother so she would know who the strange lady was who drove her son to school. He laughed and said she'd probably be mad if she knew a strange lady drove him to school (I appreciated that he basically just referred to me as a "strange lady"). He said he'd just tell his mom that he caught the bus. And then I realized that the reason he accepted my ride was probably to avoid having to slink home and ask his mom for a ride to school, which would, most likely, also make her mad. So I gave him a ride and a pass on incurring mom's wrath.

On my drive home I thought about the 30 days of giving because a ride was one possible thing I thought I could give to someone but the opportunity did not present itself in the month of November. As soon as I wrote the initial blog about giving in November, I realized that December is also an opportune month for giving, it being prime holiday season and all, and I considered trying for 60 days of giving (or, okay, 61 days to be exact). But then I had another idea. Instead of keeping a contrived list of the things I give for a finite period of time, I can also just give any time of the year, as needed. My new friend Abdi might need a ride some other month of the year. Charitable organizations need my daughter's hand-me-downs regardless of the season. My daughter's school always needs my time. And it's not just that the need exists all the time. My ability to give is fairly constant, as well. It appears to be kind of my "thing," it's what I do. I am the go-to gal! Because I can be.

So yes, give thanks at Thanksgiving, give extra at the holidays, but most importantly, just give what you can, whenever you can. And you can almost always give something. If nothing else, give kindness. Or a fist bump. Someone will appreciate it.