Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Perfect Gift

Our good friends, the DeGruccios, claim to not celebrate Christmas - at least not in the current tradition of Santa Claus and consumerism galore. They call it their "no-gifts policy." We took them at their word and didn't buy them gifts last year. They, in turn, gave us some some great ones, including gifts of service (watching Junie for me while I was knitting like a fiend the day before flying home for Christmas), some reusable cloth bags that we utilize daily, and a regifted toy for Junie which has saved us on many a long car ride.

I completely sympathize with their attempts to avoid: A) going overboard on gifts that you can't afford; B) buying shoddily made items because you can't afford the well-made ones, but still want to give something; and C) the irony of managing to focus on gift-giving so much, and becoming so overstressed in your search for the perfect gift, that you make life miserable for yourself and your family. Kennan DeGruccio's favorite response when encountering a garish Christmas practice is "Happy birthday, Baby Jesus!"

Last year we observed them in some of their attempts to make Christmas a meaningful experience - full of, as we like to toss the phrase about, the "true meaning of Christmas." One was a "Super Service Saturday": a whole day spent offering whatever service they could - raking leaves, washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, etc. - to numerous families. Another was to give only gifts of service to each other for Christmas. Some of the services involved doing things that family members had requested but had fallen by the wayside due to lack of time: organizing a spouse's overflowing book collection; completing a collage of the youngest child's pictures to place next to collages that had been made for the older children during a less hectic era; arranging a celestial scene out of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of another child's room. The children's gifts of service were even simpler but perhaps more meaningful - probably along the lines of spending time with younger siblings playing what they wanted to play.

My attempts to avoid consumerism last year ended in me making practically every present I gave to others. It felt pretty good, but is something I think I can only manage every few years or so. Certainly not this year, as I spent 9 months pregnant (4 of those in a state of constant nausea). So I resorted to buying gifts. I tried to get well-made, thoughtful gifts that I could afford, but was only mildly successful in this department. Even worse, I was a dismal failure at avoiding scenario C as described above (one of Cody's Christmas gifts to me was a book entitled "Calming Your Anxious Mind"). It appears that even though I want to avoid making Christmas into a farce, I will almost certainly be unsuccessful unless I make a plan as to how to actively avoid this. This is my goal for next year. I should probably start planning now.

The one gift I managed to make this year was a Sock Monkey hat for Cody, which doubles as a ski mask when the brim is pulled down. This really was a labor of love as my dear husband has been braving the freezing weather so far this winter on his bike.

Despite my shortcomings this Christmas season, I did take pleasure in the lack of Santa Claus in Junie's vocabulary. On one shopping trip, a woman asked Junie if she was excited for Santa Claus. Junie's response was simply, "No." Surprised, the woman lamely said, "Oh, so you haven't been a good little boy, then?" A ridiculous response on two counts. After a moment's thought Junie followed up with, "Excited baby sisser." Translation: I'm excited I'm going to have a baby sister! Upon further reflection, some of her comments during this Christmas season indicate that she may have been expecting baby sister to be born on Christmas day. This could be due to a confusion between my pregnancy and the story of Jesus' birth. Or maybe that really was the best gift she could think of receiving on Christmas day.

Unfortunately, her gifts ended up being much less meaningful than that, and too numerous for my taste. I felt somewhat sickened after we spent all morning opening gifts and she still had gifts under the tree the next day that she hadn't gotten to. Granted she is at the gratifying stage of actually playing with and exploring gifts as she opens them, as opposed to quickly opening gifts, tossing each aside, then asking "is that all?" But still, I think she would have been happy with one or two gifts. She seemed to enjoy most the small things she found in her stocking.

Some of my favorite gifts received this year include the fact that Cody loves his Sock Monkey hat (Cody claims this is ridiculous and is not a gift, but I beg to differ). Another was watching my daughter dance to her favorite song with her favorite blanket (the boy in the video is Travis, the child I take care of on a full time basis.)

This Christmas, Cody decided to call the DeGruccio's "no-gifts policy" bluff. Much to my dismay he went shopping at the dollar store - the only place that makes my stomach turn more than Walmart. It's hard to describe the suffocating feeling I experienced upon entering Walmart after spending 18 months in Chile serving a mission. While in Chile, I saw people living the simplest of lives. I realized how few things I needed in order to not only survive, but live quite a full life. When I see everything available to us, most of which is cleverly marketed as necessity, I want to flee as quickly as possible. I feel especially disturbed when contemplating the ramifications (of the environmental and human rights variety) of the shoddily made goods available at Walmart, all for rock bottom prices. But I digress. Cody returned with some random gifts for Junie: a hippo flashlight; a jiggly rubber bracelet; a package of little red plastic firefighters chock-full of BPAs or whatever the most recent plastics scare is; etc. For the DeGruccios he purchased 4 mugs and two really weird religious themed "cards", one with a milk chocolate cross, the other with double crisp "chocolate-flavored" hands clasped in prayer. The weirdest thing about these gifts? The DeGruccios loved them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Walking in a 22 below winter wonderland

It's true. According to, right now it feels like -22 F with the wind chill. Negative. Twenty. Two. Degrees.

Merry Christmas everyone!

PS That isn't hairspray, my hair is frozen.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

What Children Want

This holiday season is particularly significant to our young family as we finally have a child old enough to get excited about it. In many situations I find it hard, as a parent, to muster enough excitement for both a child and myself.

A little over two years ago, I suddenly went from having practically no interaction with people shorter than 5 feet to becoming almost the sole source of entertainment for Junie - when Cody isn't around, that is. I've had to guess what it is that children find interesting, exciting and meaningful. Of course the most logical way to do this would be to tap into memories of my own childhood, but for some reason I'm quite inept in this department. Mostly what I come with up is probably an adult's perception of what a child "should" find entertaining. Cody, however, is brilliant at it. Sometimes when he is able to connect with Junie in a particularly perfect way, I've asked him how he knew that was what she would enjoy. His answer is inevitably "That was something I liked as a kid" or, if he was able to change the pace of a hard moment with Junie, "I remember being bored that way as a child."

I envy this ability, and I suspect Cody is quite proud of it. One of my favorite Cody quotes from last year is, "Somehow I just knew Junie would love playing with that potato!" A potato? You've got to be kidding me. You expect me, as a rational adult who busies herself with paying bills, cooking dinner and cleaning the house, to suddenly think of giving a particularly bored Junie a potato (not a play potato, mind you, but an actual, edible potato) to play with?

How does Cody's mind work? When I attempt such absurdities, I fall flat on my face. I've even tried copying the things Cody shows Junie, but somehow she knows that he remembers finding those things interesting. I, on the other hand, am apparently transparently adult to the core. When Junie looks at a bug with Cody, she's enthralled. I, however, feel like I'm trying to lead a fully hydrated horse to water and make it drink. "Look Junie! It's a bug! It's so... neat. It's doing all kinds of fun bug things. Look at the bug, Junie. Look..." That is me trailing off as she shows no interest in the bug and moves off to look at a far more interesting rock. But why a rock, Junie? I've steeled myself against having to look closely at a yucky bug that I would most likely have squished with a shoe had I found it in our house. Has all my steeling been for nothing? I can at least imagine that bugs might be interesting to a two year old, but a boring old rock?

As I was downloading and perusing our recent photos and video clips of Junie in preparation for this post, Cody asked, "Why are you always the one taking the videos?" My somewhat self-righteous response was, "I guess because I think to do it." But upon further thought, it may be that the times Junie is having the most fun (and thus is the most enticing to camera-wielding adults) is when she's interacting with Cody.

Take a simple walk through the fall leaves:

Or sidestepping along a ledge:

But Cody isn't the only one that I see relating well to my daughter while I flounder in my attempts to be a "fun mom." The week of Thanksgiving, we braved an 11 hour drive to D.C. to visit Cody's brother Jesse, his wife Sarah and their new baby Julian.

Juniper, by the way, did splendidly during the trip. Much to our delight she seems to have suddenly developed the ability to self-entertain for long stretches in the car. But back to my story... Sarah's Aunt Bibiana graciously let us stay in her house. It was a beautiful home only a five minute walk from the Capitol. Bibiana, however, has no children. Mothers with small children may be able to imagine the number of near-heart attacks I had during our four day stay as I stalked Junie's every move, trying to keep her from touching the incredibly interesting, incredibly fragile things that filled her house. Junie quickly learned a new word while there: breakable.

Luckily there was a school playground just across the street, to which we fled with regularity.

We also made sure to ride the metro, something Junie has been remembering fondly since our trip this summer to visit Jesse and Sarah. For an hour and a half of entertainment, it was the best $2.70 we ever spent.

We did, however, have a great time visiting with Sarah and Jesse, and getting to know our new little nephew, Julian. Junie instantly adored Julian - the only trick was to keep her from literally smothering him with her love.

Jesse and Sarah were great hosts. Despite her sleep deprived state as a new mother, Sarah coordinated, and we all prepared, an impressive Thanksgiving feast.

The last day of our visit, we began playing a board game while Junie was napping. This was also the day Bibiana returned from her Thanksgiving vacation. Around the time she got home, Junie woke up and was instantly enamored with all the plastic board game pieces that we had spent the last hour and a half carefully placing on the board in our individual attempts to emerge as champion of "Ticket to Ride." My heart rate rapidly rose as I desperately tried to concentrate on the game while keeping Junie not only away from everything in the house (doubly stressful since Bibiana was now present) but away from the game board which we had stupidly set up on a low coffee table, extremely accessible to Junie. I unsuccessfully tried to keep her at bay with spare cards and pieces set safely away from where the action was. She saw right through my feeble attempts and would have none of it. About at the end of my rope, I watched as Sarah began helping an instantly pacified Junie set up spare trains on the game board. Not be outdone by my sister-in-law with only 6 weeks experience as a mom, I lamely tried to jump in: "Hey Junie! Where do you want to put this train? No, no, not over there. No... wait! Arghh!" this last exclamation being yelped as she destroyed the entire railway system of southwest Europe. My only helpful contribution at this point was to remember it was snack time and safely restrain her in her high chair where she couldn't wreak further havoc.

And so, as Christmas approaches, I see a chance to redeem myself in a way. Here is an intrinsically fun time of year, right? It's basically a given that Junie will enjoy making Christmas cookies, listening to Christmas songs, looking at Christmas lights, playing in the snow, etc. And so yesterday I eagerly embraced my new role as a fun Christmas-time mom by planning and executing our day of setting up and decorating the Christmas tree.

Yes, it went well enough. But then today Cody goes and does a simple thing like suggest to Junie that they make popcorn together...

What can I say? Cody has a special talent for interacting with kids. At least our kid. And I'm lucky he does.