Monday, November 11, 2013


"What is that?"
"That! That music!"
"I don't know. Sounds like Christmas music."
"Yes! It's Bing Crosby! And all he sings are Christmas songs!"

So went the exchange between Sam and me on a family trip to Menards in September. As if I needed any other reason to loathe Menards, they were piping in Christmas music prematurely. I started hyperventilating, and right when we were boarding that magnetic moving walkway that transports customers with their carts up to the second floor and back. I had to grab onto the handrail to keep my balance, until I ended up looking straight into the eyes of a plastic reindeer that was on display. Unfortunately, reindeer in September aren't soothing to me. I sat down on one of the display toilets at the top of the walkway for a minute to compose myself. But then a gruff contractor wearing coveralls and a pencil behind his ear shooed me off so he could see the toilet's model number.

You might think I was overreacting, but I don't need anyone to push Christmas at me any faster than it's already coming. Every day that Christmas grows closer, I feel the walls closing in more tightly.

I'm not alone, of course. Lots of people feel pressure at the holidays. I just feel more pressure. That's because I'm one of those unfortunate wives whose husband's birthday falls a week before Christmas. I secretly scorned my in-laws for giving birth to a child on December 17 and then selfishly handing that child off to me, 25 years later, to handle the delicate issue of a Christmastime birthday. But then, a few years later, I gave birth to our daughter on the very same day of the year. That's right, there are now two people in my house who were born on December 17. For that, B and I have no one to blame but ourselves. (But really, I blame him.)

The reason that it's stressful to have family birthdays in December (aside from the obvious reasons, which are that you're strapped for cash and can't afford birthday presents in December, and you have to wedge birthday parties into an already overbooked party season) is that you have to take pains to clearly separate a mid-December birthday from Christmas. For instance, you have to be very careful how you wrap the presents. If a person has a birthday on December 17, and you hand that person a present wrapped in paper that looks even remotely Christmasy, you should quickly take cover, because Hell hath no fury like a December birthday boy receiving a birthday present wrapped in red or green. And unfortunately, more colors have become associated with Christmas as savvy designers stray from the traditional, leaving us very few safe colors for mid-December birthday presents. Silver and gold, of course, are no-nos, thanks to our pal Bing; and blue, pink and purple are really out too. And yellow is too close to gold. Once I even tried wrapping birthday presents in black wrapping paper, but then I was accused (accurately) of using clearance Halloween wrapping paper, and apparently that's offensive too. You can't win. By mid-December, it's also hard to find a place in the house that's not decorated for Christmas; last year we had to open birthday presents in the laundry room.

B is celebrating his 40th birthday this year, and for a time, the planning for this celebration only amplified my stress. After all, the Big 4-0 calls for a Big celebration! However, for years, B has been talking about putting another garage on our property. Why, you ask? I'll explain for those of you who are uninitiated city natives, like me: it's common in rural areas for homeowners to have multiple outbuildings, or garages, on their property, the purpose of which can range from snowmobile storage to poker parties. Because we a) don't live in a rural area (although my siblings and father might argue that), b) don't own any snowmobiles and c) our house has successfully accommodated several poker parties, I didn't see the need for us to add yet another space that I won't be able to keep clean. But, B works hard. He plays hard. He grew up in the country, and he's been dreaming of this garage for years. Therefore, his 40th birthday gift is a 1350-square-foot building at the edge of our property, much of which B built himself, and which we have dubbed The Party House. There. One present down.

The Party House is still in progress, but it's getting close to being finished. In fact, if we feel the need to add to the already overwhelming strain of the holiday season, we can do what we did last year, which was invite our entire neighborhood over for a Christmas party. About 70 people showed up, and when that many people are in your home at once, you never know what's going to happen. One neighbor, William, repeatedly exclaimed, "How brave of you to invite us all into your home! How brave!" He expressed the sentiment more and more as the eggnog flowed more freely, and I began to wonder what he meant. Were people stealing from us? Did someone clog the toilet? Or, Heaven forbid, did someone go into the laundry room and see the pile of junk that I shoved in there during a last-minute cleaning panic? Just then, one of the little girls from the neighborhood confessed to me that she'd dumped the gigantic bowl of Chex Mix on the floor. No stranger to spills, I was about to console her, but then suddenly her demeanor changed from remorseful to accusatory. "But YOU left it right on the edge of the table! THAT'S why it fell over!" And then she stormed away. I cleaned up the Chex Mix, and although I would never serve it to guests, I nibbled on it myself throughout the holiday season. Yes, William; I am brave.

One of my sisters and my brother also have birthdays in December. In case you've lost count, that's four birthdays I'm responsible for commemorating in a month that already includes the birthday of the Savior and Redeemer of the World. My brother, however, is so averse to aging that he insists that we not even acknowledge his birthday. I don't argue, because he's really hard to buy for. And the poor guy's birthday is on Christmas Eve. If I told my in-laws that we were skipping Christmas Eve at their place to celebrate my brother's birthday instead, you can bet I'd find something worse than coal in my stocking Christmas morning.

The flurry of December birthdays keeps me so busy that I don't get to do everything I'd like to do during the month. Like caroling. I've always wanted to go old-fashioned Christmas caroling, where you get a group together to go door-to-door around the neighborhood singing, wearing muffs and sipping wassail. But I'm afraid that even if I found the time to cajole a group of friends and family into actually dressing up like Victorians and singing at people's doors, we'd be arrested. So I've decided that I'm just going to carol on my own continually through the month of December. That way, everyone can enjoy my off-key rendition of "Mele Kalikimaka" while I'm cleaning, baking, shopping, and wrapping birthday presents in nondenominational clear plastic.

Another thing I'd like to do that I never have time for is make decorations. Unfortunately, my lack of talent and artistic ability makes it really difficult for me to create things like the adorable felted wool owl ornaments that I've seen on Pinterest. Even those projects that claim to be "easy" and "made with materials you already have on hand" are anything but. Last year, in my attempt to find something the kids and I could make in a couple of hours with things we had "on hand," there weren't a lot of choices. (And I wasn't about to make the trip to Menards to get anything.)  I don't have on hand different sized embroidery hoops, rolls of canvas, or metal primer. In fact, the only project I found that we could make with materials we actually had were these pathetic-looking trees made of twigs. And when I told my kids that we had to gather the twigs first, Sam argued that if we had to go out to the yard to gather the twigs, then that wasn't really something we had "on hand." (He's lucky Santa left him anything last year.)

So here we are, nearing the middle of November, and I can feel the minutes ticking ever closer to December and the boom of birthdays. You know, I didn't appreciate it when I was young and didn't do anything in December except make an ornament in Sunday School and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I might have done more, except I also spent an inordinate amount of time compiling a detailed list of everything I wanted out of the Sears catalog and being disappointed every year on Christmas morning when not one thing from my list was under the tree. I could elaborate, but that's a story for another time. Perhaps after I finish therapy. And included in my therapy sessions will be the trauma I suffered by hearing Bing Crosby at Menards in September.

Friday, October 25, 2013


It's a lovely fall day. One of those days that's meant for driving along the Mississippi River in a convertible, taking in the changing fall colors. I'll bet that's where the woman in the black BMW M3 is headed. I'm looking out the window at her from the Midas near my house. I'd love to be taking a leisurely ride to look at the trees too, but that's not possible, what with my car on a lift. But, hey, if I crane my neck, I can make out some trees behind the strip mall across the street. They're looking a lovely chartreuse color.

I can't complain. I don't have to sit in auto-care shops very often, even though my car is almost 13 years old. Unfortunately, this is my second time at Midas in a week, as a routine oil change revealed some other problems, albeit minor. It gave me time to think, sitting in Midas, sipping my complimentary Diet Coke, about the pros and cons of owning an older car. One pro is definitely the free pop.

But there are many cons. My car is ugly, and it lost its new car smell about 12 years and 9 months ago. My kids don't like riding in it, but for that they really have themselves to blame. The back panel on the driver's side seat won't stay on, so it reveals an unsightly array of wires utilized by the long-defunct seat-heating mechanism. Lily constantly kicked the back of my seat when she was a toddler, and eventually the panel gave up and found a new home the the floor of the car. My kids (along with everyone else) also complain about the unpleasant smell in my car. The combination of Sam's messy eating habits, the foul odors he emits from every orifice, and my attempts to cover the stench with air freshener have turned the smell of my car into something vaguely like the bathroom at Buffalo Wild Wings. It's bothersome enough to Sam that he now rides with his head out the window, not unlike a dog. When the temperature drops below zero, I insist he close the window, so then he just plugs his nose. I've decided that one of those swimmers' nose clips will make a good stocking stuffer for him this year. Perhaps with both his hands free, he won't spill so much food.

As unpleasant as it is to ride in, my car gets pretty good gas mileage, so we usually take it if we're going on a long trip. Like the time we spent a weekend in Milwaukee. We had agreed to take our friends Dave and Molly with us, although when they saw that we were riding in my car, Dave said, "You know, on second thought, maybe I'll drive us." He eventually changed his mind, and to improve the experience for our friends, Brad covered the sticky, crumb-encrusted seats in the back of my car with a blanket. He also reattached the back panel of the driver's seat with duct tape. These quick fixes gave my car the ambiance of a vehicle that might be seen on Sanford and Son, or the Junky Car Club. Perhaps this is why Dave and Molly haven't taken a ride from us since then.

There is one big pro about my car: it's paid for. And contrary to many peoples' car-buying habits, when I paid off my car, I did not take my newly acquired car title straight to the dealership to buy a new one. I know many people who do, though. It's as if the title reads "By the time you own this vehicle, it'll be outdated. Please buy another." And I don't understand it. There is no bigger waste of money than a vehicle. Not gourmet coffee, not air conditioning, not Ugg boots, not BlackBerry stock, not even the new Vikings stadium. And yet people buy them with abandon. When I was younger, I knew people who couldn't afford to move out of their parents' house, but (or because) they bought an expensive vehicle. One such friend repeatedly complained that, at 22, she was too old to live in her childhood bedroom. But you'd never know it by the way she strutted to and from her brand-new Acura Integra. After listening to her complain for the umpteenth time about her living situation, I suggested she just move into her car. Unfortunately, this was right around the time of Chris Farley's SNL skit about living in a van down by the river, and therefore my friend wrote off my idea as just plain foolish.

Spending on what amounts to nothing more than a conveyance simply doesn't interest me. That goes for purchasing a car as well as maintaining one. And yet, my cars love me. I've only owned two vehicles in my entire life, because they stay with me for decades and never fail me despite the way I neglect them. I never wash my car. Ever. I leave it to Mother Nature to wash off the dirt and salt. And even when she doesn't, I wisely chose a car color called Autumn Bronze that hides the dirt remarkably well. In fact, I've decided that every car I ever own from now on will be Autumn Bronze. I know that surprises people who know I'm more of a warm-weather girl, but Summer White would plainly show that I haven't washed the car since I drove it out of the dealership. I don't clean the inside of the car, either. I used to depend on B to clean my car, but he's tired of spending hours trying to clean up a mess similar in scope to a small tornado and receiving nothing in the way of gratitude. But it's not that I'm ungrateful; I just don't notice.

The last time Brad cleaned my car, he was unhappy that I didn't acknowledge all his effort. And rightfully so. I apologized profusely. And then I asked B if he really wanted me to become a person who cares about the cars she drives. I could almost see the thoughts running though his mind: the thousands of dollars we'd be spending on a new car for me; the extra money we'd spend if I actually followed my car's maintenance schedule; the driving gloves, the sunglasses, the Weather-Tech floor liners I'd require. He said no. I know exactly how to appeal to my obsessively fiscally responsible husband.

Speaking of the maintenance schedule that I don't follow, I drag my feet about fixing my car for what I feel are non-critical issues. A power window that won't roll up and down properly is not critical to me; that's why I went for two years without fixing it on my first car. It drove people crazy, and I don't understand why! So what if I had to open the door and step out to get to my coffee? So what if a few five-layer burritos splattered on the ground while I flailed at the drive-through window attendant from my open car door outside Taco Bell? Finally, one day my friend Trent had had enough. He called a service shop and made an appointment for me to get my window fixed. Then he hounded me every day until it was done. I never did fix the dents that I inflicted in my car door from opening it at drive-throughs during the Broken Window years, but fortunately, the constant presence of salt on my car (this one happened to be black--a big mistake) provided ample camouflage.

As my car ages, it has crossed my mind that I may someday need to buy another one. What vehicle would I get? There are so many choices today that it's hard to decide. I can tell you this, though: it certainly won't be a minivan. I deliberately limited my family to two children so I could stay in a sedan. Besides, we already have one large vehicle in our family, and it's not for carrying kids. B requires an SUV just to carry all the stuff he needs: golf clubs, two-by-fours, cases of beer, a kayak, Sheetrock, Lederhosen, bicycles, a lawn mower, poker chips, boulders, a tile cutter, and a gas fireplace insert. And that was just last weekend. B leads a much more exciting and productive life than I do.

Ah, here it comes now, rolling off the lift: my 2001 Infiniti G20.  I'm listening to Seth, the nice man at Midas, describe how my car is all set, and he'll see me at my next oil change. That's right, Seth; I'll see you in about a year, when the leaves are changing again.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

No Trappers -- Please!

I'm conflicted every year when school starts. Part of me can't wait to get my kids out the door, because their boredom after three months of doing absolutely nothing is manifest in their supine position on the floor: arms at their sides, books in hand, glassy eyes staring up at the ceiling, drool running out the sides of their mouths. When I remind them that they're doing exactly what they asked to do over the summer, and that there are plenty of other things we could be doing, their gaze focuses on me for a brief second, and then they return to reading. Most of me, though, misses them when they go to school. Terribly.

There's no such conflict, however, about that end-of-summer ritual, the annual school supply shopping frenzy. I'm just glad it's over. If I were smart, like my friend Krista, I'd get online and order everything from Amazon, and a bunch of high-quality school supplies would arrive in neatly packed boxes at my door. Instead, my frugality (and my husband) demands that I scour the Sunday ads and go from store to store, trying to pick up the cheapest school supplies possible. Perhaps this is why, a month into the new school year, Sam's homework folder has already ripped in two. Those one-cent folders from Office Depot just aren't all they're cracked up to be!

As with most other facets of today's public education, like lunchtime (just enough time to shove dessert in), standardized testing (constant), and the schedule (jam-packed but remarkably sedentary), the process of acquiring school supplies has changed over the years. My parents bought very little, if any, school supplies. Minneapolis Public Schools provided everything we needed back then, and we got to keep everything, or at least borrow things. Unfortunately, today, there are few things that schools will loan to students. And I'm afraid I know why: my sister never returned the clarinet issued to her by Roosevelt Senior High when she graduated in 1979. Of course, she claims that she's still borrowing that clarinet, and that she's planning on returning it just as soon as she's done with it. I suggested that she return it to the old band room as a way to commemorate her upcoming 35th high-school reunion. Her high-school band teacher, if he's still alive, might finally feel a sense of closure from the gesture.

Whether my sister returns the long-lost clarinet or not, the point is that people who abused the generosity of public schools ruined it for the rest of us. I was forced to shell out for Sam's trombone, and let me tell you, I intend to get my money's worth. That boy will be playing that thing until his cheeks are like Dizzy Gillespie's.

Of course, band instruments aren't technically school supplies, and if they were, they'd be at the high end of the school-supply cost spectrum. But the rest of the items add up, both in cost and in the amount of frustration involved in buying them.  I wish I could find the people who created the school supply list for my kids' school (which we'll call Evergreen Elementary), but no one will own up to it.  And if you look through the supply list for the various grades, you can see why.  There doesn't appear to be any logic behind the school supply requirements, unless you're muscle-bound, obsessed with glue and in possession of a constantly regenerating forest.

Take the first-grade supply list, for example. The celebration when my youngest child, Lily, finished first grade rivaled any high school graduation, because I never again had to watch her haul a thick binder stuffed with empty folders and manila envelopes to and from school. I'm sure the teachers had good intentions for that binder; perhaps they thought it would help control the number of excuses for lost homework (although "I lost it in my massive binder" seemed like a reasonable excuse, if you ask me).  But after watching Lily drag home her heavy backpack like a ball and chain every day, I'd flip through each and every folder and envelope and laminated page of outdated math instructions in that binder to find that everything was empty. Oh, there may have been a math worksheet once in a while, and maybe a few spelling words, but nothing that warranted a binder that weighed more than Lily herself.  It took up the great majority of space in her backpack, too. It was tough to squeeze that binder in with all the other items Evergreen School required of her, like her Obama Administration-approved lunch and snack, her gallon of purified spring water, her tub of hand sanitizer, container of sanitizing wipes, bleach pen, organic cotton sweater, all-natural gym shoes, boots, and snowpants (it is Minnesota, after all). Although she never complained about the weight of the backpack, It was difficult to watch her hobble along like a six-year-old Hunchback of Notre Dame. Since then, I noticed that the first-grade supply list has been modified to specify "Large backpack -10x14." Yet, in order to fit everything, the requirement should really be "Mountain climbing backpack, preferably Everest size - 500 x 500."

Out of all the school supply requirements on the kids' list, glue may be the most curious.  At Evergreen School, kindergarten, first, and second graders are required to have glue sticks. Third graders only need white glue.  Fourth graders need both glue and glue sticks. And in fifth and sixth grade, they need just glue sticks again. After careful consideration, Sam determined that the glue requirements are a metaphor for life. You're just learning to use your hands when you're young; therefore, glue sticks are a better option. You get to use liquid glue when you're at the peak of your vitality and therefore at the lowest risk of spilling it. In old age, you lose control of your faculties and have to go back to glue sticks again. I say that's as good an explanation as any. I have my own particular theory about third grade, the one year that several bottles of liquid white glue are required: decoupage. They have to have something to fill that Everest backpack from first grade, and I think an old dresser would fit nicely. Plus, our old dresser would look sharp covered with various pictures of One Direction pasted on with white school glue.

Some parents worry about having every item exactly as it's listed on the school supply list. I was like that too, until I realized that just because something is on the list doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be used. About 30 percent of the supplies you fought for at Target at the end of the summer will come right back to you at the beginning of next summer, like an old war buddy returning home. Just put it in the drawer with all the other old buddies that came home last year and that you forgot about when you needed school supplies this year. You can also probably add all the notebooks that you sent to school that come home with one or two pages filled in out of 70. When your kids graduate from high school, you can open up your own paper-supply store to help pay for college.

Many of today's children, besides being mouthy and lazy, are apparently dehydrated. Therefore, they must have water with them at all times in elementary school. This idea is perpetuated by the media.  Just this morning I saw a local fitness guru on TV pushing water to parents. "Sometimes kids will go an entire school day without drinking water!" The perky personal trainer said with alarm, as if she was announcing that kids go all day without clothes. Well, when they don't have gym and they stand around during their 15-minute recess, they probably don't need to have a bottle of water within reach at every moment. A novel idea would be to a) become thirsty and b) go get a drink from that relic of old, the drinking fountain.  (They just have to remember to apply sanitizer to the spout first.)

My kids are off to a good start at school, even with their cheap school supplies in tow. One thing they don't have though, is a Trapper Keeper. Something must have happened in the fifth grade once with a Trapper Keeper. Maybe someone got injured by the zipper, or perhaps someone was caught carrying something illicit in their Trapper, like a dreidel or a set of Klick-Klacks or a copy of And Tango Makes Three. Whatever the reason, on the fifth-grade school supply list, there's an emphatic "No Trappers--Please!"

So the kids won't have a Trapper Keeper like I did in fifth grade.  Either that, or Evergreen School wants you to stop trying to catch that raccoon that hides out on the playground at night.  Please!