By Tomorrow

Find a place to see Christmas lights, my mom says. You know the kind where the shops are decorated and the trees are strung with white lights, she says. It shouldn’t be loud, my dad says. Or crowded, or cold, and it needs to be wheelchair accessible, says my mom. Maybe the downtown walking mall, she says.

I agree that yes there is a tree, but I’m not sure about other decorations. Not the stores. And it’s all outside, I mention, and there will be a lot of people.

No, she says, the street is lined with those trees that are lit up with the teeny white lights.

You are thinking of another place, I say. I don’t know if I can find a place that meets all of these things, I say.

Well, think harder, she says. We want to go tomorrow.


Emergency Turkey

I have a lot of rage about my mother. And my father’s latest downslide. And our recent trip to North Carolina where my wife changed her shirt for fear of being outed as gay. I have a lot of anxiety about all those things, in addition to anxiety about The State of the World and how every one of my friends reacts to it. I have anxiety about going to work. About holding my wife’s hand. About, frankly, everything. It’s a terrible mess.

Things that aren’t a mess (yet) or are a delightful mess to be in include…

that Tuesday where your Thanksgiving guest list jumps from 17 to 21.
and subsequently you are beyond grateful that the new Wegmans is offering turkeys for a song.
and you realize you actually have a table cloth long enough for a table of 17 as well as enough plates and silverware.
and you are relieved that the Foreign Service taught you one thing, which was how to have a large dinner without panicking.
and to have enough plates.
but also that your wife is an event planner, who has been around the catering block, and who also makes spreadsheets.
so you can cheat off the one from last year when you though a mere 16 was a feat.
but that, for some reason, you didn’t take Tuesday off even though you took Monday and Wednesday.
and that you scheduled meetings all day until 5.
but then you canceled them.
all of them.
and came home to thaw the emergency turkey instead.

Easter Traditions?

Tl;dr: how do you blend family traditions successfully?

The fairy tales don’t cover the very important fact that when you marry (or in any other way connect deeply) another person, you are also marrying their traditions, their families, and their memories. Cinderella and friends make it seem as though two independent individuals can get together, form a unit, and then begin their lives from some sort of rarefied blank slate. I assume. Fairy tales never actually get into the nitty-gritty of the ever after.

While I don’t strive to live up to a fairy tale, I grew up with the trappings of what my mother and sister like to call a White Picket Fence family or a Little Golden Book Family. I think that’s ridiculous not only because it’s impossible, two-dimensional, and unattainable but because those books didn’t prominently feature mental illness and its consequences. But, on a very surface level, I have a fair amount of Norman Rockwell story-lines in my past.

Now and then, Debra relays some piece of family history or experience for which I don’t have context. Even without fully understanding, it helps me form an evolving picture of her family life which in turn supports our ability to blend traditions and create a reasonable reality for RR. But I often forget at the outset of each new beginning that my own experiences aren’t the same for us both and are not the correct route in any way.

Enter Easter. This is our 5th with RR and probably the first that she’s really remembered what happened last year and generated some expectations. It’s also the first year that she’s understood candy as a thing that has value.

My childhood Easter basket? A handful of jelly beans scattered into some grass in a basket, a chocolate bunny, and (in the early days) a small stuffed toy. When I got older we also got a couple of Cadbury eggs. There was an egg hunt for my two sisters and I after church, still clad in matching Easter dresses, usually consisting of two dozen hard boiled and dyed eggs and another dozen plastic eggs with jelly beans inside. Munching of jellybeans before breakfast was not happening. And, if I recall, those baskets disappeared the next day, candy along with them. Debra’s childhood basket looked nothing like this. As I understand it, there was a candy extravaganza and a few toys. I’ll bet she got to eat as many jellybeans as she wanted.

RR’s basket conundrum. I did not get the right kind of jellybeans (my family: strict adherence to large, traditional beans. Debra’s family: small beans, tropical beans.) I wanted to strip out the packaging (my family: preserve the Easter Bunny mystery. Debra’s family: who cares about the boxes?) My number of jellybeans did not align with my wife’s. My idea of how many toys should be in my child’s life did not align with my wife’s. My idea of how much candy one child should get to eat did not align with my wife’s. How did we not discover this in the previous 4 years?

And so, RR ate a lot of candy before breakfast and added another stuffed bunny to her collection. She had a wonderful time hunting stuffed plastic eggs. She and my wife spent almost an hour playing with a bubble wand. And, I shiver to admit it, went to brush her teeth for bed having just knocked back another handful of beans. It was a perfectly fine Easter, basket-wise.

That said, how do I keep from being a candy and toy scrooge? We’re probably safe until Halloween but I still have to negotiate a basket’s worth of sweet goodness. There’s a tradition at stake here for someone and, while I’m willing to let go, I can’t seem to like letting go. Suggestions?





Fifth (holy shit) Party

On the eve of RR’s birthday my wife and I had our own crisis. She asked for a party. We invited people to a party. We did not actually plan a party.

Oh sure. We put a location and time on the invitation (park, Sunday afternoon) but we didn’t think much past that. It’s unlike us (well, unlike Debra) but we’ve had too much on our minds. Have. RR isn’t much of an asker of things so the most we’d gotten out of her, birthday-wise, was a “white cake with pink icing” and “Olafs for everyone.”


We don’t put a lot of pressure on ourselves generally. Last year RR had friends over to run in the sprinkler in the yard and our biggest effort went into making sure we could catch the World Cup match on the deck. We let the kids ice their own cupcake cones. They ate on the grass. We hosed them down. Winning.

So no pressure. Not even when RR came home from a party the day prior having made fairy wands and eaten fairy food and bearing wings and nets and giant bubble wands. Debra’s face was pale when she walked in the door with a happy, crazy-eyed kid. Well, so we felt a a little pressure. I know, I know. She’s five, who cares! And really, I don’t care. And she really doesn’t care. But that still left us feeling unprepared and much more noticeably. I mean, they had tuna salad stuffed pea pods.

We managed to order a cake. White with pink roses. We are generally party equipped so it was easy to toss carrots, cucumbers, and watermelons onto trays. But that left the kids. What do we do with the kids? We had them sack race. We had them three-legged race. They balanced eggs on spoons. They dressed in a goofy costumes and had a relay. They ate cake. RR, as usual, was happy as a clam (and would have been if there had been no cake, no friends, and no races). We declared it a success.

I want my kid to be well-liked. Not more or less so than anyone else, I suppose. But I admit that it gave me a bit of joy hearing her repeat her friend’s words the day after the party: RR that was the best party EVER!



RR has never been that kid, the one who wants to be a part of something bigger. She is a tiny, self-contained, ball of fire. She burns bright until she flares out, sleeps, lights again. Not a joiner, but a maker. Not a follower, but a watcher. Parts age and parts personality, right?

This Halloween she dressed as Elsa and we tried the large, kids’, costume event in town. We skipped it last year in favor of our own sanity. The draw is the festivity and the joy of seeing so many kids and adults celebrating. She enjoys candy, but as we all know by now, is not particularly motivated by it. What’s the key, RR? What IS your motivation?


So we were there for the atmosphere and she soaked it up. She got to practice trickortreat…thankyou…happyhalloween! on college kids who thought she was terribly sweet and adorable. And she got to mingle with hundreds of other terribly sweet and adorable children. And also, a million Elsas. There were large Elsa and small Elsas. Storebought Elsas and cobbled together Elsas. Blonde or bewigged. Tiaras or not. Gloves on some. Snowflakes on others. Anything went, so long as there was a somewhat blue dress involved. Many were accompanied by Annas or Olafs (big and small, particularly favored by the Dads). Some were friendly, others were in the candy zone – unable to recognize a fellow cheery Elsa or, maybe, a bit flattened by seeing so many others dressed in similar costumes.


There was a Halloween Elsa drinking game. There were a lot of Elsas. We stopped counting somewhere after 21 Elsas and 15 Annas. We gave RR a heads up that there would be other Elsas and rather than seeing it as a disappointment, she looked at every passing Elsa with delight shouting, Hi ELSA! HAPPY HALLOWEEN! She was thrilled to see Annas HI ANNA! IT’S ME ELSA!


It was a shining moment. RR was an Elsa among Elsas. She glowed. And she was just as happy to leave them and be a single Elsa again. It was a super Halloween. An Elsa Halloween. And RR? Well, it flowed right over her and past her and it’s gone. More chocolate for us!


Also, thank goodness Grannie can sew satiny fabrics because apparently my costume fabrication skills cease at fire fighters, raggedy ann, hippies, and mermaids.

In Which The Christmas Machine Does Not Steamroll RR

It’s not as though we haven’t tried.

RR has two countdown to Christmas calendars (is it an advent calendar if it counts all 24 days?), One, a lovely piece my mother quilted that is a replica of my childhood calendar, complete with pouches to pull tiny ornaments from. My 3-year-old self is a little jealous of her liberty – when I was small my sisters and I rotated through the actions: someone got to pull the ornament, someone got to pin it on, and someone got to tuck the flap of the pouch. RR gets to do all but the pinning (our hooks are too high for her to reach).

In height news, she has grown 2 full inches since July. HOLY COW.

The other advent calendar is a digital one sent by our neighbor with animated scenes and activities for each day. RR loves to see us click open each one and test all of our recalls by asking for “the one with the horse!” (number 8, phew!) and the “cat chasing the airplane!” (god only knows). She sometimes forgets and certainly shows no indication that we’re counting down to a big date.

Speaking of counting, when Debra asked her how many inches were on the yardstick she was holding she said, “20 16”. Her math is far better than mine was at three.

We read The Night Before Christmas. We sing Rudolph. We help her wrap presents. She sat with Santa. We decorated gingerbread men. She says ho ho ho! There are just-for-Christmas toys out to play with. We packed cookies for friends and neighbors. She has no idea what’s coming. What do you want for Christmas?, we asked. She ignored us. When pressed, she muttered some nonsense syllables and went back to long division (not really).

I imagine this will be the year she remembers well enough that she can be excited about it next year. I’m not actually complaining, we all could do with a little less I want. On the other hand, what she’s getting are a pack of finger puppets from her aunts and 96 carved wooden animals, a book, and a wooden diorama from us. She may wish she’d figured out I want sooner!

Neighborly Question

When I was small, I traded stickers with Shannon catty-corner across Grant street. Rolf (“Not Ralph, mind!”) was born in the corner house that never took down their blue holiday lights. Chris Bullenbocker shared the Grant/Grey corner and we dragged up sewer covers, peeled back milkweed, and buried his dead hamster in the yew. An Airedale lived two doors down and walked his 7th grade boy around the block every day. Janet, at the end of Grey, and I fooled around behind her couch. The middle school vice principal lived directly across Grant and one winter slipped on his steps and walked around on a broken ankle for weeks. Elizabeth and I made mudpies even though I wasn’t supposed to go past the big tree-cracked sidewalk to her house. Every Christmas, my mom sent us out with plates of holiday cookies for our friends. My deepest disappointment was that our immediate neighbors did not have a small someone with whom I could blink nighttime flashlight messages and talk on a can-string telephone.

We moved across the country when I was eleven and the most I knew about the new neighborhood was that a red-headed acquaintance named Tyson lived somewhere nearby. He wanted to be president. We’re friends on facebook and I wouldn’t rule him out just yet. Suddenly, we made a lot fewer cookies to hand around. Since then, I’ve always assumed that my first neighborhood was different. That I am different. That it was two-thirds magic.

Remarkably, it turns out that there’s a grown-up version. At the neighborhood coffee shop we discovered the reason our dog always has his head down the drain across from the farmhouse: “Oh, you’ll have seen Richard Parker, of course. He’s the 15 pound cat that adopted us last week. Used to live beneath the grate.” And Debra headed across the street again this year to put up Sydney’s Christmas tree, “I just can’t lift those tree sections anymore, dear.” Charlie is doing much better since his stroke two years ago and our new neighbors put a fire-pit in the backyard. Now we talk over the picket fence with the friendly folks on both sides. Our elderly neighbors behind us on the hill are concerned about the tree between our fences falling. It turns out that although their land comes right up to the back of our fence, that tree is mysteriously on our land (despite occupying the same stretch). Our cookie list this Christmas is longer than it ever has been in years past.

Which brings me to a question: we have always shared homemade cookies and candy with our friends and neighbors, leaving out chocolate for this one, adding more coconut for that one. It’s a small thing that doesn’t cost much. One of the neighbors we talk to most is elderly and has a daughter who is diabetic. I’m hesitant to send over cookies. Is there an inexpensive alternative? I considered some sort of ornament from RR but that seems like an assumption and RR has yet to demonstrate any interest in decorating or crafting anything. I’m also hesitant to add more ‘stuff’ to lives I don’t know well. Ask first if they’d like cookies? Other ways to spread the cheer (besides helping with the tree)?