Light ‘Em Up

This two story inflatable might be a bit much

Now that we are past Thanksgiving, our neighborhood has gone full bore into holiday mode. The lights that were going up at the beginning of November were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Since that time, more homes have had lights professionally and tastefully installed. Other homes have also been decked out by hand by well meaning homeowners. Inflatables have sprouted up in yards like dandelions in the summer. Lights are strung across back fences between neighboring houses. On one block, it’s clear that the homeowners consulted with each other because each house on the street has the same light-up snowman, so as you drive the street it seems you’re in the midst of a snowman parade. I can’t decide how I feel about it. On the one hand, it’s lovely to see people making the most of the season and taking pride in their homes. On the other hand, however, it’s one big festival of keeping up with the Joneses.

Our block has been on the low-key side of things thus far. There are thirteen homes on our street, and a little less than half have some sort of exterior illumination and only one of those was installed professionally. I have to admit, though, that after driving through the neighborhood tonight I started thinking that we need to up our game, at least a little from the one lit tree we have in our yard and the light-up corgi on our porch. It’s hard not to feel the siren’s song of oneupsmanship. It’s hard not to feel like we’re currently getting a D in Suburban Life.

I suspected when we bought into this neighborhood that these type of displays should be expected around the holidays but, damn, I seriously underestimated the collective decorative insanity of upper middle class white households. This year, we will likely forego the requisite holiday explosion, but we’re making plans for next year. Don’t worry, though. We will not be lighting up the night quite like these folks.

The Distraction Dynamic

Clean floors and holiday decor

You know it’s been a busy day when you hit 11k steps on your Fitbit and you never left the house. I spent the entire day cooking and cleaning for the upcoming food fest on Thursday. I did fun things like mopping the entire first floor. I ironed napkins. I baked cookies and pumpkin bread. I washed and folded sheets, vacuumed, and did some holiday decorating. I made simple syrup and juiced limes for cocktails. I got in time on the Peloton and managed to squeak in a shower as well. I am tired just thinking about all I finished.

On days like this, I am amazed at how much I can accomplish if I ignore my phone, computer, and the news.

Life is full of distractions. It’s too bad that most of them are ones we created. I am not one to wax rhapsodic about the good old days, but every once in a while I think we would be much better off without iPhones, apps, unlimited television channels, Alexa, social media, and the Internet. I think I would probably be able to focus better and get more done.

The 21st Century Thanksgiving Catastrophe Equivalent

Thanksgiving is in a couple days. My husband just finished having a late night snack. He went to load his plate in the dishwasher and start it.

Excuse the filthy stainless, but the dishtowel should explain it

Him: “Uh oh.”

Me: “What’s wrong?”

Him: “The dishwasher isn’t working.”

In my past, at this point, I can say with all confidence I would be losing my shit. Just in time for Thanksgiving? Of course. Why not? That makes perfect sense. Even with only 7 people dining, that’s 7 dinner plates, 7 dessert plates, 7 glasses, 21 pieces of silverware, assorted serving utensils and pieces, and this would add up fast. Way too fast for this English major to figure in her head. The whole reason I unloaded the china we asked people to buy for our wedding was because I decided I would not ever want to wash all the dishes from Thanksgiving by hand.

Me: (incredulously) “It’s not working?”

Him: “No.”

He is pressing all sorts of buttons, and I can tell from his expression nothing on the display panel is lighting up.

This gives me pause, but rather than lose my mind as I would have done in the past, I simply decide that it’s fine. We can hand wash or we can use paper plates and plastic utensils (not environmentally sound, but desperate times call for lowered moral standards). Maybe we have it both ways and can use some paper and do some hand washing of other items, thereby alleviating some of my guilt for using disposable items out of sheer laziness while still managing to be somewhat lazy.

I watch him for a few more seconds as he pushes buttons. Then, I can tell from a look on his face, it is working again.

Him: “Never mind. It’s working again.”

Me: “That’s a relief.”

Him: “My hands must have been wet.”

I assumed that meant that wet hands interfered with the touch screen. I made my peace with the fact that the whole incident had been a non-starter. And just like back we were back to normal. Steve was finishing the last bite of his toast, and I was back to watching episodes of Seinfeld. Thanksgiving was saved. We could use three plates a piece instead of just two and could put saucers under the cups now if we wanted to. Oh, reckless abandon!

It’s Freshman Year Again

Since Joe went off and started college in January, I’ve worked very hard to figure out how not to miss him. I understand this is a process. When a child rightfully extricates himself from your home to pursue his own life, there’s going to be some sadness. I was pretty depressed for about a month back in January and February when we left him in Washington. There are some ups and downs that first semester at college, and it’s hard to be away from your child when you want to be there to hug them and let them know they’ve got this. But he and I both held it together and made it until mid-May when he came home for the summer. It was a little less sad dropping him back at school in late August because I knew he was going back to friends and had reason to believe he was getting the hang of the whole college life thing. We saw him for four days in October when he came home to see us and meet the new puppy. We had a great time during his visit and when he left, I was actually not sad at all. It felt like progress.

Thing One at home and being derpy…some things never change

Today he came home for Thanksgiving. Everything in his life is going well. He’s got a new girlfriend at school and he has decided on a major. He’s back in his room tonight. He played with his dog and went to In-n-Out with us and even went on our nightly dog walk. It feels a little weird having him here now because I know he isn’t staying. Even though he is still our kid, he’s not anymore. It’s like he’s on loan.

This kind of makes me sad, and I have to think that I would be broken as a parent if I didn’t find this separation process a little daunting. But, having him on loan is actually kind of amazing too. Like, I realized the other day that he does his own laundry and grocery shopping. He makes his bed. He runs errands. He makes his own appointments and fills his own prescriptions. He goes to classes and takes his tests. None of this is my problem anymore. It’s all off my plate.

Having kids is an odd thing. You’re your own person, living your own life, and then you get pregnant and there’s this new life you have full responsibility for. They need you for everything. It’s exhausting and frustrating. Some times you love it. Some times you want to get in your car and drive to Guam. Then they begin to become independent. They start driving. They get a job. They go out with friends. They get into college. Then they’re gone most of the year and you’re back to being on your own and living your own life. But now it’s like you’re relearning how to do those things because you haven’t paid much attention to them for eighteen years.

So, as it turns out, Joe is starting his life and figuring it out during his college freshman year in Washington. And I am in my freshman year of part two of my adult life. (There was the Pre Kids phase and now there’s a Post Kids phase.) It’s kind of exciting. Wonder what I will decide to major in this time?

Let The Holiday Season Commence, I Guess

I don’t know how it is going where you live, but in our neighborhood the holidays begin now, apparently. Many homes have their holidays lights up, and they are turned on nightly. It’s a little early for me. I don’t want my holidays combined like a vanilla/chocolate swirl soft serve. I want to suck every last moment out of fall and savor every drop of pumpkin spice latte. I don’t even want to think about putting a tree up until the last of the pumpkin pie slices and bites of turkey have been consumed. What is the big rush, anyway? The Christmas season in our home exists for five, precious, ephemeral weeks, and I think that is what makes them more special. It appears I am in the minority, though, because here we are, all lit up like I am already behind on holiday shopping and wrapping.

There is only one holiday component that is allowed to begin before Thanksgiving, and that is the preparation for our yearly holiday card. The family holiday card is something we’ve done since Thing One arrived in 2001. We have not missed one year of this tradition. We know that in a couple years it’s likely that the photos on these cards will change as the boys move on into their own lives, but Steve and I will continue sending out holiday cards as long as the post office continues functioning. It may be old fashioned, but we enjoy it and there’s no stopping now.

Today I started the process for this year’s cards. I began looking online for outfits for the family photos. In the past, I have gone in person to Gap, Old Navy, or J Crew to try to piece together clothing that would coordinate but not be super matchy-matchy. But with a thirteen-week-old puppy in the house, I have too little time for those shenanigans so I opened my browser and got busy. It didn’t go as well as expected, so in the end today I decided to shop in our closets for suitable photo attire. Without too much digging, it was mission accomplished. Next up: location scouting.

We’ve never had a paid, professional photo taken for these cards. We do them ourselves, which makes them feel less polished and more, well, us, I think. We have had, on a few occasions, a family member or friend snap photos for us after Thanksgiving Day or after we cut down our Christmas tree. More recently, however, Steve has set up his fancy camera on a tripod at our chosen location. Capturing a decent photo has not always been easy. For starters, when the boys were younger, they seemed had an aversion to looking directly at camera. So, we would take 30-40 shots, sometimes pausing to run back into the car to warm up because it was so cold. Some years, we had to go with a photo that was not what we really wanted but was the best we could get. The process has not always been ideal. Often there are myriad complaints. Sometimes there are cross words. In the distant past, there may have been threats, bribes, or ultimatums in effect. I always have the final say over the photo we use because this tradition is my baby. I love putting together and sending out holidays cards, even as the number of them we receive has dwindled because others have given up on the expense, time suck, and frustration of this perhaps outdated holiday tradition.

I’m still not quite ready to let this go. I’ve kept a book containing our holiday photos over the years. It’s fun, if a bit sobering, to view these now. Each photo has a story or memory attached. There was the year that Joe insisted on having his shark, Bruce, in the photo. There was the year we took our holiday photos in Hawaii dressed like typical Hawaiian tourists. There was also the infamous year the boys had bowl cuts and were looking pretty spiffy. I am grateful, however, that we have persisted with this tradition because we will forever have these memories and photos of our time with our sons as they grew, no matter what the future holds.

The Sugar Crash

I wonder if the skeleton t-rex and vampire dog want any candy?

We moved into our current home in the summer of 2020. When Halloween rolled around, there were just five occupied homes on our relatively new block in this growing community. As I drove through our neighborhood last fall, I had dreams that Halloween would be insane because there were so many homes with young and school age children. I bought a ton of candy in anticipation of the throngs I expected. Whether it was pursuant to the pandemic or our mostly unoccupied block, we had two small groups of trick-or-treaters last fall. I consumed most of the candy that was leftover. Boo.

This year, with the pandemic concerns lessened somewhat and with all of the homes on our block finally occupied, I went to Costco and picked up two large bags of candy. Tonight, we had maybe 25 trick-or-treaters, all of whom were treated to a massive handful of candy. It’s almost 9 pm here now, and if I want to get rid of the ton of candy that is left in my house, I need to pray for some wayward teenagers to come and raid bowls I set in our driveway under a neon sign. What I hoped would be a sugar rush was actually a sugar crash. Sigh.

I am hoping that as the years go by, we continue to see an upward trend in little peoples darkening our doorstep dressed as adorable lions or scarecrows or firefighters or unicorns or fairies. Until then, I need to either stop buying so much damn candy or find a way to turn it into a fuel source.

In the meantime, I just saw a holiday ad on television, so it appears we’ve already moved on. Maybe I’ll just stuff the holiday stockings with leftover Halloween candy. Problem solved.

Louis DeJoy Is The Grinch That Will Steal Christmas

Photo by Alex Perz on Unsplash

Maybe it’s just me, but I miss the post office that existed before Trump appointed Louis DeJoy to take over as Postmaster General in May 2020. I really do. I know many people don’t mail things, what with online bill pay and Facebook posts in place of Hallmark greetings, but I used to regularly send cards to friends for their birthdays. I don’t do it much anymore because I have no idea when my greetings will arrive so I don’t know if I should be sending regular birthday greetings or sorry-I-had-to-send-this-belated-card-even-though-I-mailed-it-in-what-should-have-been-plenty-of-time-but-the-damn-post-office-is-deadly-slow-these-days-and-I-have-no-idea-when-or-if-this-will-even-get-to-you-but-my-fingers-are-crossed ones. Since DeJoy took over and started dismantling automated sorting machines and removing thousands of easy access mailboxes from convenient locations across the country, the postal service has become a joke. Cards that used to take three days to travel across the country now often arrive well after a week later. Last Christmas, many of our holiday cards arrived two weeks after I dropped them off inside an actual post office around December 10th, while some didn’t arrive at all. A package I mailed took two weeks to arrive at its destination, which is a little ridiculous considering that I could have driven the stupid box to my sister in Connecticut, handed it to her in person, and made in home in less than one week. And the package I sent that same day from Denver to Billings, Montana, made it in three weeks. It is a NINE HOUR DRIVE from Denver to Billings. Are you kidding me?

Now, none of this has to be an issue for me because I can afford to ship packages via Fed Ex or UPS and will undoubtedly be doing so this holiday season. But most people are not in my fortunate financial position. Some people still wait for their social security checks to arrive via snail mail (which is now even more snailish). Some seniors still send birthday cards to their grandchildren with cash enclosed, and I bet they have no idea that if they don’t mail them at least a week early their grandkids will be wondering if they were forgotten on their special day. And some people absolutely do not have access to or cannot afford to send packages via other carriers, so they will be stuck with this shitty situation.

Today, I read in an NPR article that “beginning on Oct. 3 and ending on Dec. 26, the postal service will temporarily increase prices on all commercial and retail domestic packages due to the holiday season.” So, if you want to send a gift to your sister in Connecticut for the holidays, I hope you have it picked out, holiday wrapped, and mailed by this Saturday or have already told your sister that she will get her Christmas gift maybe in time to open it at some point in 2022. Some people might have you believe that DeJoy’s changes to the postal service have made the service more cost effective, but they would be wrong. NPR also reported that “the postal service reported a loss of $3 billion for the quarter ending June 30, compared to the $2.2 billion in the previous year.”

As a kid who grew up sending handwritten letters to pen pals in Australia, Italy, Scotland, and Bahrain, in the early 1980s when sending a letter Air Mail to Australia took one business week, the idea of sending a birthday card across town and having it arrive 5-6 days later infuriates me. So, Louis DeJoy, if you’re listening, this is my Christmas postal service wish*: I would like to put you in a small box (can’t afford to mail a larger one with the new postal increase starting on Saturday) with a few air holes and send you first class mail across the country during the upcoming holiday season. Maybe a week or two or three, or who knows how long it could take in there, would make you rethink what you have done to this beloved and necessary institution. You may be gleeful you are slowly driving the USPS towards its demise because apparently you think it is a socialist program that doesn’t deserve to be supported by the government, but you, sir, are just the Grinch stealing Christmas from people who deserved better than you. May Santa leave coal in your stocking this year.

And that is the nicest thing I can say about that.

*I am not actually advocating putting this man in a box and mailing him across the country because that would be wreckless, dangerous, and wrong. Just consider this a thought experiment.

Country Tunes, Rose Ceremonies, and Expectations

IMG_0921It’s Valentine’s Day, the one day of the year when expectations of all ilks band together to form a super group of disappointment. You might recognize some of their greatest Country hits.

  • How Could You Not Know
  • Lingerie…the Gift for You That’s Really For Me
  • Ended up at Chili’s in my Best Dress and Pearls
  • Don’t Give Me Chocolate and Complain that I’m Fat
  • I Paid For Lobster and Got Cold Fish
  • My Dog Loves Me More Than You Do
  • Stalled in the Friend Zone
  • Valentine’s Day Threesome – Me, Myself, and I
  • Sleeping on the Sofa Again

Traditionally, this has not been my favorite holiday because I’ve never been great with expectations. Based on something that happened last night with my son, however, I have evidence my attitude may be changing.

Him: “If I wanted to buy some flowers, what would be the best way to do that?”

Me: *silently processing* Flowers? What for? Oh shit. It’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow. OMG. This may be the cutest thing he’s ever said. *squeal* Act cool. Don’t let on that he’s being adorable. And, for holy lizard’s sake, don’t be patronizing. Whatever you do, do not ask who they are for. Crap. Where will we find roses in the morning before school and how early will we have to get to the store? Maybe we should go tonight. Oh man. I don’t want to drive all over town tonight. If we go quickly, maybe I can still catch the men’s half-pipe finals. 

“We could hit Whole Foods after dinner if that sounds good,” I replied with my best game face, as if it were barely an issue. “Whole Foods usually has nice flowers.”

“Okay,” he said.

We geared up and drove the five minutes to the store and, being Mom and being something of an expert on expectations, I prepared him for multiple scenarios surrounding the endeavor. There could be no flowers left. There could be a million flower choices. The store might be inordinately busy. The flowers might be more expensive than he was thinking. We might have to go to a few different places. He might have to change his game plan.

He seemed not at all fazed by the prospects. He shared that some of his friends said he was crazy. Some expressed concern he would get hurt. Some said nothing because they had done something similar last year and were reserving judgment. I told him that if he was being honest about his intentions, there was no way to lose. If you act from a place of thoughtfulness without return expectation, you can’t go wrong. Giving should make you feel good, no matter where it leads. The act of giving selflessly is actually a gift for you too.

He was in luck. Whole Foods had dozens of buckets of roses. He had (quite charmingly) done his research about the meanings of rose colors and had decided against yellow. He and the recipient were already friends, so friendship roses seemed to express the obvious. He further knew that red roses were way beyond what would be proportionate to his feelings. He decided on light pink roses so she would know he admired and appreciated her. We inspected the pink rose bouquets to select the optimal bunch. I helped him pick out a small, blank card in which he would later write “Happy Valentine’s Day from your friend” to make sure she knew he simply wanted to do something nice to make her day more special. When we got home, he selected four flowers from the assortment and we put them into a vase.

IMG_0920

This morning he was nervous, not about the gift but about the managing of the gift. Where would he put the flowers until they saw each other? How much shade would his classmates give him? How awkward was his morning going to be? What had he gotten himself into? He had no idea what to expect. I told him that was a fair place to be and wished him godspeed.

I have spent most of my life sweating the constant, crushing, considerable heft of expectations. I was raised under them and unconsciously came to regard them as a weighted blanket, a comfortable and secure place from which to operate. Only recently have I examined them more closely and accepted their truths. Expecting too much from others or yourself only causes trouble. Expecting too little from yourself or others leaves your self-esteem vulnerable. Somewhere in the middle of that see saw, around the center at the pivot point, is the best place from which to ride life’s waves. I think I will find that sweet spot eventually. For now, I am enjoying the remainder of those pink roses we purchased last night, admiring and appreciating myself for getting closer to where I hope to be.

The Great Sausage Meltdown of 2015

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Homemade pierogies frying in butter
I am third-generation, full-blooded Polish-American. My great grandparents arrived here in the early 1900s and settled into a neighborhood with other Polish families in Buffalo, New York, and there they stayed. My parents were the first to leave when they moved west to Denver when I was 9. Denver was quite a change from my insulated life in Buffalo. In Buffalo, I’d been surrounded by people with names like Rzeszutek, Michalak, and Trzaska. There were three full phonebook pages of folks with my maiden name. We were practically Smiths. In Denver, there were seven individual listings for Nowicki in the phone book, and one of those listings was our family.

My childhood in New York was steeped in Polish culture. We broke and shared oplatki (a communion-like wafer) with our family at the Christmas table before our meal. We filled baskets with everything we planned to eat at Easter breakfast (hard boiled eggs, sausage, rye bread, horseradish, and a butter lamb with a peppercorn eye and a red ribbon around its neck) and took them to our Catholic parish to be blessed by a priest the day before the holiday. My parents and aunts and uncles, in a quaint tradition was meant to foretell their child’s future, would place a shot glass, a rosary, and a silver dollar in front of their children on their first birthday to see which they would reach for first. The shot glass represented social skills, the rosary deep faith, and the silver dollar wealth. (Legend has it that I reached for both the shot glass and the silver dollar simultaneously. I’ll let you decide what that says about me.) There were the Polish carols, the celebration of saints’ Feast Days, and the occasional uttering of whole phrases in Polish by my grandmothers. I thought all these things were part of everyone’s childhood.

Once we moved away from our Polish family, though, these traditions slowly faded into our history. My children have heard me mention these things only in passing. There is just one Polish tradition we continue to hold. Every year we make pierogies and serve them with fresh Polish sausage (not to be confused with its smoked cousin, kielbasa…horrorsfor our Christmas meal. My mother, sisters, and I have done this every year for as long as I can remember. We have taken turns making the pierogi dough and carefully stuffing them with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, or farmer’s cheese, before boiling them. We trade off these duties. Last year, I made the pierogies. This year, I was tasked with bringing the sausage and fresh horseradish to our Christmas Eve dinner.

With all that has been going on with the new house, the holidays, and my husband’s birthday on December 20th, my trip to Tony’s Meat Market to fetch the Polish sausage got delayed until December 23rd. Honestly, I was grateful I hadn’t let it slide until the 24th. At approximately 11 a.m., I got in a long line at the butcher shop. After standing for ten minutes to reach the counter, I finally got close enough to ask for fresh Polish sausage. The gal looked at me like I had asked for filet of Tauntaun. She consulted with the guy next to her in a hurried whisper then replied that they didn’t have any. It had to be special ordered a week in advance. Deflated like one of Tom Brady’s footballs, I turned and headed out of the store. This was not good.

Making pierogies is a day-long endeavor. I had gotten off easy with sausage task and I was about to blow it. In my family, you don’t want to be the one who screws up the only tradition we have. I would hear about it. For a long time. I was already running a litany of the expected and predictably critical comments on an audio reel in my head. We’re a lot better at “I told you so” than compassion in my family. I opened the car door, plunked myself down and, hand to God, started to cry…over goddammed sausage. My sons must have thought I was losing my shit because they dared not say one word while I quietly wept. When I at last pulled myself together, I called my sister for my fair comeuppance.

“Tony’s didn’t have the fresh Polish sausage,” I lamented. “They told me you have to special order it.”

“That’s what I usually do,” she replied. Of course, I thought, bitter at my error.

“I’ve never had to do that before,” I squeaked. “They’ve always had some in the refrigerator in the back,” I told her.

“No. You have to order it in advance,” she reiterated.

“Well, crap. I’m not sure where else to look for it. And my day is packed. Luke has a haircut at noon, I have to be downtown at 2 to meet Steve, we ran out of toilet paper, and we haven’t eaten yet.”

“Do you want me to do it?” she asked. “I can take care of it,” she said, sounding about as annoyed and condescending as I would have sounded if I had been in her shoes. The only thing worse than screwing up in my family is screwing up and needing someone else to bail you out.

“No. No. I’ll figure it out,” I said, pulling on my big girl panties. “I’ll call you if I I can’t get it somewhere else.”

After hanging up the phone, I wracked my addled brain trying to figure out the next logical place to find Polish sausage in a town not known for Polish anything. The name of a store downtown came to me. I searched the number for Marczyk’s Fine Foods and called. If Marczyk isn’t a Polish name, it must be close enough because the guy in the meat department told me the fresh sausage was available for $6.99 a pound. I told him I was on my way and drove the 20 miles to the store to make things right.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my little, pre-Christmas meltdown and I’ve decided it’s a borderline insane how stressful we make the holidays with our wanting things to be just so. And, no matter how well-intentioned they are, traditions are things that we expect to be just so. Our lovely custom of sharing a Polish meal would have been marred had I shown up with Polish kielbasa from the fine Hillshire Farms simply because it would have fallen outside of tradition. Aren’t the holidays stressful enough without raising our expectations at a time when we’re already overwhelmed and likely to let things fall through the cracks? The truth is that people mess up. Relatives make inappropriate comments. Christmas trees get taken down by overzealous cats. Holiday cards get lost in the mail. And at the end of the day none of it matters because it just doesn’t.

I declare 2016 the year of letting go. No more sweating the small stuff. If I show up with the wrong sausage next year or my pierogies are a little thick skinned, you can just deal with it. I’m moving on, baby.