Thursday, December 31, 2009

Let's See How We Did...

December 31, 2009

As the remaining hours of 2009 are waning, I'd like to look back and review some of the goals I set for myself as 2009 was just dawning. Some of these things I absolutely accomplished, some of them I just made progress toward. Regardless, I am not one to beat myself up over Resolutions-Not-Accomplished. For me, it's all about the journey, and any progress I've made down the path I consider a success. Like all goals, though, they really mean nothing unless you re-evaluate every now and again, and this seems as good a time as any. So here's what I set out for myself last January, and how I fared by the end of this year:

New Year's Week Blog--January 5, 2009

Like many people, I am mindful of New Year's Resolutions this time of year. The goals that I have are really about improving the overall quality of the life I have tried to develop for my family and for myself. Here are a few things I'd like to focus on for the upcoming year.

1. I want to really focus on being present with my kids whenever I'm with them. I love spending time with them, and being a part of whatever their current interests are, but I believe there's always room to improve the quality of the time I spend with my kids. Sometimes the deadlines and other obligations move in and steal a part of me, even when I'm trying to relax and just be a part of their world for a time. They are only going to be this age right now, and I don't want to miss any of it because I'm not letting myself be in the moment with them.

So right off the bat we start off with a qualitative, rather than quantitative goal. So did I make it? I certainly like to think so. Could I be better still? Without a doubt. The times I've spent with my kids this year, in their activities, in our car, at Family Dinner Nights, curling up on the couch with them--these are some of the most precious times of the past year. I hope when my kids look back on this time in their lives, they remember Mom being there beside them, cheering them on, unconditionally loving them. Nope, I can't quantifiably say this is true, but life isn't all about the quantifiable. There's a lot about life that you just have to trust your instincts on, you know?

2. I also want to be more consistent with the chores and expectations I have for the kids. Not that they'll be thrilled with this one, but they'll deal with it. It'll be good for them and good for me if I'm not the only one running around constantly trying to tame the relentless laundry beast.

I actually did pretty well on this one. I set a consistent weekly schedule, and the kids (although they grumbled), did a pretty good job of following through. It makes for a cleaner house and a less grumpy mama.

3. I want to travel a little this summer. Doug and I need to take a road trip or two, and gas prices made that a little prohibitive this last summer. I'm crossing my fingers that by the time this summer rolls around again, the cost will still be hovering close to what it is now.

We did manage to squeeze in one weekend road trip up to see Carrie and David in the fall. It's not quite as much as we'd like to travel (we'd like to take some family and couples trips), but it was a great time. Fortunately for us, Lisa did a lot of traveling this way this year, so even though we weren't on the road so much, we still got lots of visiting time with her and her girls.

4. I plan to watch at least 10 classic movies that I haven't seen, and read at least 5 classic novels I haven't gotten under my belt yet. I'll see other movies, and read other books, but I want to catch some of those that have stood the test of time, but somehow I missed.

I watched about ninety movies this year, and I don't know how many books I read. I do know, however, that although I didn't quite reach my 10 classic movies and 5 new classic novels, I did make a concerted effort to include these in my stacks. I have, in fact, read more and seen more classics than I had by this time last year. It's a start.

5. I plan to undertake the immense project of scanning all of my old photos into digital form. Since I am a picture-taking fiend, this will be a massive undertaking. I'll be able to do some during the school year, but I imagine the bulk of it will take place during the summer time, when I have no essays to grade.

I made a dent in my scanned photo project, but this one was much bigger than I had anticipated. I am, after all, a picture-takin' fool who was a little late into the digital game. This will be an on-going project in the coming year.

6. Like most everyone else I know, I'm going to try to eat better, exercise more, focus a little bit more on my writing, and be more organized. These are nebulous goals, and I'm not inclined to quantify them and set myself up for failure. The point is, I'm a work in progress, and I'll continue to focus on these areas in my life. These are less about a number, and more about a general improvement in quality of life. I doubt seriously that these goals in particular will ever be fully attained; they are on-going. As long as I make strides, I'm happy.

As I said in the goal itself, I did not try to set a number or figure on these goals. However, I'm pretty sure that although I did not eat worse, I didn't eat much better, either. I also did not exercise nearly as much as I should have or could have. I'm in serious need of a partner: like-minded, and at a similar level. Also, one who is a night owl, who doesn't feel the need to get up at five in the morning to exercise. Doesn't anybody else exercise at eleven at night?? On a good note, though, I said I'd try to focus more on my writing, and to that end, I started a blog at the beginning of January. My original goal was to put symbolic pen to symbolic paper once a week, and I find that I am ending my year averaging a little more than an entry three times per week. Now it's not literature, I know, and more often than not it's just the inane day-to-day routine of our lives that I write about, but the process is something that speaks to me and gives a forum for the voice in my head. Even if only two people ever read anything I write, at least I am leaving a record for myself and for my kids of who I am, where I am, at this moment in time, in this year in the life. It's one thing that I do for me that I thoroughly enjoy and from which I derive some real gratification.

So there it is--that's how I did. Overall, I'm pretty happy with the journey. As long as I don't stop moving forward, I'm in no danger of falling backward. You've gotta look backward sometimes, though, in order to keep looking forward. Get it? See the title of my blog? Yup. That's me, Looking Forward and Back. Next stop, 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reflections on Family

December 29, 2009

This post was originally written last year as a Facebook note, at just about this same time of year, but it bears repeating. I have updated it slightly to reflect the current year, but the basic message remains the same.

Christmas Week 2009

This past week was Christmas, of course, and Christmas always makes me a little nostalgic and reflective. As is always the case, I thought a lot about family--even more than usual. I love sharing every part of the season with Doug, Brianna, Nicholas and Danielle. Lisa and her girls will be joining us in a couple of days and we'll get to see Grandma too, but we'll miss Laura this year. On Christmas night we got to see Doug's sister Lisa and her boyfriend Larry, and Justin, Courtney, and John. Unfortunately, we weren't able to see Scott, Julie, Matthew, Anthony and Micah for Christmas, as they've stayed close to home in Washington this year. This is our third Christmas without Gary, and Sandi, Tiffany, and Brandon and their girls are still far away in Idaho. It's been even longer since Mom, the biggest Mayes elf of them all, made her last Christmas appearance. It would seem that the family is getting smaller and smaller, and those who remain are scattered.

And yet, when I really stop to think about it, our family isn't getting smaller; as a matter of fact, it has continued to grow in ways I never would have imagined. Mom and Gary are never really gone--lots of traditions and memories help keep them alive, most especially during this time of year. And our loved ones who aren't able to travel to be with us? Well, we are blessed to live in an age where being connected is as easy as a phone call--any time, any where--or a text message, or an email, or even a Facebook message.

Even more amazing is the fact that not only are we able to keep the family we've always known, but we can continue to build and add to that family. In marrying Doug, I gained two fathers-in-law, a mother-in-law, a brother, a sister, and two wonderful nephews. Their extended families are all a part of my extended family, too. I will also always consider Bill, my ex-husband, and his wife Laurie to be part of my extended family as well, because we are all working together to raise our three beautiful children to be happy, healthy, and loving people. I feel blessed that we have a partnership that allows us to foster and model positive relationships for our children. Bill's extended family, who was also my family for many years, as well as Laurie's three daughters, whom she has raised to be beautiful, positive human beings, all will continue to touch my children's lives as they grow, and so will always be connected to me as family.

We have, in the past few years, reconnected with some dear old friends, who have become integral parts of our lives, and are, without a doubt, part of our family now. Jim, David, Carrie, Cheryl, Gary, Morgan, Freya, Dennis, Val, Shanda, Mike, Mom and Dad Krepp, Debbie, Laurie, Mitchelle, Gryphon, Kathryn...the list goes on. These, too are family. Not biological, perhaps, but family nonetheless. We've seen each other at our best and at our worst, and we love each other,just the same.

Then I step back and look at an even bigger picture. Really, anyone who has touched my life in a meaningful way, whether they know it or not, has to be counted as part of my 'family.' These are the people who nurtured me, and who I may have nurtured in some way, as we moved along our paths. Some of them may only have been a part of my life for a short time, but the impact remained and helped make me who I am today. Chab, Tracy, Kari, Jay, Bill, Shai, Pat, Michele, Rosa, Lisa, Kevin, Steve, Brian, Holly, Connie, Kerry, Cindi, Mo, Karen, Heidii, , Marcos, Victory, Allison, Jeannie, Diane, Greg, Gene, Cesar...again, the list goes on and could not possibly be comprehensive, but these and many more have been a part of my own personal family, and to all of them I owe gratitude for what they have given me.

Finally, I work in a job where I get to add to my family every year. In addition to my own kids, my students are my kids, too. Some of them are with me for just that finite period of time, but others maintain and develop a friendship with me as they are moving on to college, or work, and as they are beginning new families of their own.

Family has always been one of the most important things to me, and I am realizing what an all-encompassing and varied family I really have. I am truly fortunate and thankful.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Celebrating With Family-- Part One

December 27, 2009

Here's what Christmas happiness looks like at the Lutjens-Smith household:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

December 26, 2009

The first Christmas I was on my own was my sophomore year of college. I remember vividly how excited I was to have my very own Christmas tree in my apartment. It was little one, perhaps five feet tall. I was working at the mall at the time, and I remember taking my dinner break from Kinney's shoes and heading across the way to Woolworth's. There I took my meager paycheck and purchased a package of shiny glass ornaments, a silver garland, a strand of twinkling lights, and a star for the top of the tree. That night I decorated my simple little tree for the first time.

I always admired the beautiful and sophisticated Christmas trees, stately and color-coordinated and perfect, a la Martha Stewart. There's something incredibly elegant about those trees, and I love to look at them. I figured that one day, when I was older--out of college, married, with my own children and beautiful home--that I would have a tree like those.
As I grew up, got married, got my own home, had my own children, I realized that's just not me. I still love to look at those showcase Christmas trees, but in my own home I realized that I wanted something different. Once I got married, I started a tradition of buying a new and unique ornament each year, something that was much more personalized and relevant to me than shiny colored balls hanging on the tree.

When my children joined the family, one by one, I added to the tradition. I still bought an ornament each year, but in addition, I either made or purchased one for each of the kids to hang on the tree. (Once they got old enough, their own ornaments were the ones they made in school or at daycare, so lots of them are handmade.) The goal is that when each of them goes off to college, they can take with them their own ornaments to hang on their first trees in their own apartments--a little bit of home and memory and tradition to keep with them always. I loved it when I realized that we had enough ornaments to decorate the tree without adding in any ornaments that had no personal significance to us. This is the tree that suits me, and the one that we all love to decorate each year, with a little trip down memory lane as a bonus. Is it a showcase tree? To most, no. But to me, it's the most beautiful kind of tree.
A few years back, I read an article in a scrapbooking magazine about documenting Christmas traditions. Since we are only a couple of years away from Bree being old enough to begin the exodus out of the home, some of our ornaments will soon be walking out the door with them. While they are all still here under one roof (both children and ornaments), I thought I'd share some pictures of our favorite ornaments from over the years.

The ornament Danielle made me this year:Ornaments I made for Brianna and Nicholas several years back. (I painted one for everyone in the family that year):One Nicholas made for me in daycare before he started school:
For Nicholas, our resident Star Wars fan:For Doug, our resident pool expert:
From the kids' 1st Christmases:
A family of snow folk from the first Christmas we five celebrated together:
Ornaments we gave as gifts to Mom which came back to our tree after she passed away:
A gift from one of my students, Garrett, the first year I was a Buchanan Bear:
Another year we hand-made the ornaments for everyone:
Nicholas' favorite:
Danielle's favorite:
The gumball ornament Brianna made in kindergarten: (If you look closely, you might note that there are a couple of gumdrops missing from this ornament. When Nicholas was about two--and the ornament was about three--the draw of a tasty-looking candy hanging on the tree was too much for him to pass up. Believe it or not, the taste of the first three-year-old gumdrop did not deter him from trying a second. When I caught him, gumdrop drool running down his chin, the gumdrop ornament took up permanent residence near the top of the tree.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Keeping the Magic Alive

December 22, 2009

It's been brewing now for a couple of years--a little suspicion whispering at the back of his brain--but until this year, he pushed those doubts aside and kept the faith. This year, finally, Nicholas needed to know for sure....

"Mom, I sure hope Santa brings something good this year. Last year the Star Wars Lego set was so cool."

"Well, Nicholas, probably even Santa will have to scale back a little this year. Times are tough for everyone."

"Yeah." A quiet thoughtful pause, and then, "Mom? You know what some of the boys in my journalism class were saying? They were saying that Santa's not even real." Testing, slyly searching.

Nicholas, remember, is thirteen, and in junior high. He's bigger than I am, but still very much a little boy in a lot of ways. Still, I'm amazed he's kept the faith this long. But it's time, I realize. Junior high boys can be cruel when they sense a weakness. I've seen it; it's not pretty. A major mom test: how to let him down easily, without crushing his childhood memories, without feeling like he's been lied to his whole life. Brianna was a little easier when it came to this sort of thing; Nicholas tends to live in a little more of a black-and-white sort of world. (And yes, I realize that if you have a thirteen-year-old, or have had a thirteen-year-old, you might be saying, "What's the big deal? He's too old for that sort of thing. Get over it!" I know. But if you knew Nicholas, you'd know why it was a big deal.)

So I said to him, "Well, Nicholas, here's the thing about Santa Claus: I still believe in Santa Claus, but really, Santa is not so much a guy who wears a red suit and comes down your chimney. Santa is the spirit of giving, sharing magic with all the little kids who still believe he's a guy in the sleigh." Nicholas nodded slightly. "It's kind of a big deal, though. Once you get old enough to realize that Santa is the spirit of giving, you get to be in on the magic. You get to be one of the ones who helps bring the magic to others." I looked at him to see what he thought. I'm big on Christmas spirit, and I didn't want his dashed. "Does that make sense to you?"

"Yes, it does," he nodded.

"One of the reasons it's a big deal is because it's your responsibility to not steal that magic and joy away from little kids who still believe that Santa comes down their chimney at night. You've got cousins, for example, who still believe. It's your job to let them keep believing until they and their parents decide they're old enough to help bring the magic to others. It's actually pretty cool, because when you are old enough and mature enough to know how it really works, you get to help, and it's really exciting when someone pulls something out of their stocking that you secretly helped to pick out for them." He smiled. "So what do you think? Can you handle the responsibility? It would be really mean to spoil someone else's magic for them. Are you mature enough?"

"Yes, definitely," he said sincerely, clearly taking it to heart. Then his brow furrowed just a bit, and his quizzical expression told me he wasn't quite done.

"Are you wondering about something?"

"Well, I was just wondering if Sister knows."

"Honestly, I'm not sure. Since we don't know for sure, we're just going to assume that she still believes in Santa and his reindeer, so whatever you do, you can't spoil it for her. She's eleven, and some eleven-year-olds have started to ask questions, but Danielle really hasn't yet."

"Oh," he said. "Actually, it was Brianna I was wondering about." (Bree, my sixteen-year-old! I tried to hide my smile)

"I see. Actually, Bree has been in on the magic for a couple of years now...."

Cut to a few days later, when his new-found responsibility would be put to the test.

Doug took Nicholas and Danielle out to shop for a Christmas present for me. While they were out, Danielle was talking about the present she got last year from Santa. "I really wanted it," she said, "and Santa brought it to me. Or maybe," she said shyly, "Santa just told you guys I wanted it and you're the ones who really gave it to me."

"No," Nicholas piped in earnestly, according to my husband. "I really think it was Santa who brought it to you and brought my Lego set to me."

No smirk, no sense of irony. Keeping the magic alive. He's now officially in the club.

Monday, December 21, 2009

All Tied Up and No Place to Go

December 20, 2009

In honor of my baby brother Scott's birthday, I thought I'd share a favorite family story that involves him.

My own personal favorite, and the one I tell to my classes every year (much to his chagrin), happened several years ago, when Scott was a tiny tot of about four. We lived, at that time, out in the country in big house on a couple of acres. During the summers, Mom would take the baby to daycare, but the other four of us were pretty much left to our own devices while she went to work. (Don't judge; it was a different time.) We four kids spent our days finding ways to amuse ourselves--playing marathon games of Monopoly, painting art masterpieces, running obstacle races across the yard, and playing hide and seek.

Hide and seek took hours; there were a million places to hide both inside the house and out. In order to give us all ample time to find the perfect hiding spot, we'd count S-L-O-W-L-Y to one hundred before the seeker was allowed to commence. Scott, the youngest of us at home, desperately wanted to play our favorite game with us. Unfortunately, due to his age, his counting ability was somewhat suspect, usually sounding something like, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17, 65, 83, 100. Ready or not, here I come!" Most of the time we were still trying to figure out where we wanted to go when Scott ran out of numbers that he knew, so he was no fun to play with. We all told him he couldn't play with us anymore.

Tears and tantrums ensued. He so much wanted to be one of the big kids, but we didn't want our game spoiled. However, Gary didn't want to get in trouble for not including Scott, either. Ultimately, he came up with what he thought was a brilliant plan. He explained to Scott that all we needed to do was to come up with a way to approximate the time it would take to count to 100 without him actually knowing the numbers. According to his best guesses, if Scott let us tie up his hands and legs (and blindfold him, for good measure), and if he let us push him up into the crawl space between the first and second stories of the house, then by the time he got himself unbound and down from the crawl space, it would be about the same amount of time it took any one of the rest of us to count to 100. (How Gary came up with this brilliant plan on the spot is beyond me; you've got to know Gary to know how he could make this seem like a perfectly rational solution.)

Scott eagerly accepted the terms, and Lisa and I shrugged in agreement. Hide and seek would resume. We grabbed some rope and a scarf, and Scott pliantly submitted to the plan. Somehow Gary was able to hoist him up into the crawl space through the access point in Gary's closet. Satisfied that he was secured, we told him that on the count of three, we'd run, and he could start trying to untie himself. ONE, TWO, THREE!! We were off, and Scott was on his own. We sought out the best hiding places, and then sat and waited. And waited. And waited. And then got bored, tired of waiting. One by one, we wandered back into the house, game forgotten, ready to move on to the next diversion.

About three hours later, Mom came back home from work to find us, Gary, Lisa, and me, sitting in the living room watching "The Brady Bunch". She did a quick headcount (you've got to do that now and then, when you've got five kids), and realized she was one shy of a full set. "Where's Scott, guys?" she asked. We exchanged furtive glances, wide-eyed and more than a little scared to let Mom in on our afternoon's game plan. "We don't know, Mom. He must be playing in his room. We'll go find him for you!" We had forgotten all about him. We snuck back into Gary's room and peeked in the crawl space, where Scott was curled up in a ball, still bound, fast asleep. Gary woke him up, untied him, and threatened him never, ever, to tell Mom that we had tied him up. (Gary could be very convincing when he wanted to ensure things went his way.)

"I promise I won't tell!" he said rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and gingerly caressing the marks left on his wrists by the ropes. "But can we play again tomorrow?"

For the record, we never did. Not with restraints, anyway.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Memories and Traditions

December 21, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year...the time of the year when I can be transported back in time--three years, ten years, thirty-five years--by the sights and smells and sounds of the season. All of them, all of them, revolve around family. On the shortlist of memories that bring a smile to my face are these.

From My Childhood:

Making the two day drive to Oklahoma, all of us kids stretched out in sleeping bags in the back of the Station Wagon (in the days before we all wore seat belts)

Christmas at Grandma Mayes' with Yummy Meat for breakfast (I couldn't say the word "sausage.")

My grandpa sitting me on his knee every year, singing his favorite song "Silver Bells" to me in his deep, beautiful voice. The song never fails to remind me of him.

My Uncle Mike singing me, relentlessly, "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth" the year I did not, in fact, have either of my two front teeth.

Making the rounds every year to see all of our Oklahoma relatives during our annual Christmas trek--Grandma and Grandpa Noble, Great Grandma Aubrey and Great Grandma Cudd, Uncle Pug, Aunt Euphemie, Aunt Dave....Don't ya just love the names??

Getting to see it snow on Christmas morning at Grandma's.

Lifesavers Christmas "books." Anyone else remember these?

All five of us getting locked in the Master Bedroom together every Christmas night, so that we wouldn't "accidentally" sneak up on Santa. We'd stay up nearly all night, ears at the doors and windows, taking turns listening for the jingle of bells or the stamp of feet on the roof.

Mom writing numbers instead of names on the presents so that we wouldn't know whose presents were whose. She quit that system one year when she lost her master list of numbers and had to unwrap every gift to figure out which kid it was for!

Mom used to love to have spun glass on the tree--it reflected the Christmas lights beautifully. I'm not sure they make it anymore--I think someone figured out it could be dangerous.

I remember the year Gary and I unwrapped all the presents and then rewrapped them, just so we could see what we were getting. We discovered that that made Christmas morning a lot less exciting!

Mom's Christmas lights in the yard were so bright and so plentiful that no one was ever worried about finding our house in the dense Fresno fog.

Everyone piling into the van to see the lights on Christmas Tree Lane.

All the holiday favorites: The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman...

Mom's famous 'Functional Gifts' and Gifts 'with an explanation.': "Okay, you might not be too excited about this; it's a functional gift. I knew you needed new underwear." OR "Okay, I know it looks like just a bike tube, but there's an explanation. I bought a bike for you--a good, used bike--and had it sent to the shop to get it fixed up. They just didn't finish it in time, but it'll be ready in three days. The bike tube represents the present."

My brother Gary and me opening our Christmas stockings.


Visiting Great Grandma.

Sisters by the tree.

Christmas Traditions With My Kids (Since my kids are growing bigger, some of these traditions are moving into the 'memories' category, which makes me more than a little melancholy and nostalgic. I'm working on coming to terms with it, recognizing that new traditions will be born):

Adopting a Star Tree ornament each year. Since the kids were born, we've always adopted a Star Tree ornament for a child whose age corresponds to our kids' ages and gender. Each of my children get to shop for a girl or a boy of their own age, so that they can pick out something they would really like. Even in tough times, I've always believed it was important to teach my kids that there are people with less that we have, and we should do what we can to help out others.

Taking a different route home each day in December, to see where people have put up new Christmas lights.

Leaving milk and cookies out for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer.

Leaving a 'snow trail' of powdered sugar from the fireplace to the Christmas tree.

Singing Christmas music as loudly and as often as possible with all the kids.

Seeing as much of my family as possible on the holidays. The house is always crowded, but it's full of love that way.

Everyone going out as a family to pick out the Christmas Tree.

Buying or making a new ornament for the family and for each individual child each year. That way, when the kids are old enough to move out on their own, they get to take a set of their very own ornaments to start their own Christmas trees with.

Decorating the tree by having the kids take out their own ornaments, remembering the story of what year it came to them, or who made it or gave it to them, and what the significance was while they are dressing up the tree. I LOVE this part! It really lets them slow down and remember our family history.

Getting all the kids together to take the annual family Christmas card picture.

My Christmas elves, a couple of years ago.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Survey 2009

December 19, 2009

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?
Mostly wrapping paper under the tree, but gifts-on-the-go are often in gift bags.

2. Real tree or Artificial?
There’s nothing like the smell of a real tree--it’s such an evocative fragrance. Douglas firs are my favorite.

3. When do you put up the tree?
We got a late start this year, but usually we do it the weekend after Thanksgiving vacation.

4. When do you take the tree down?
I usually take it down a few days after New Year’s. We can even do a week after. I just love keeping the holiday spirit around as long as possible.

5. Do you like eggnog?
I’m pretty sure I used to like eggnog, but now there’s something about the texture that just doesn’t work for me.

6. Favorite gift received as a child?
I think my favorite childhood gift was my Baby Chrissy doll. My grandma and grandpa gave it to me when I was probably in 3rd grade. I still have it.

7. Hardest person to buy for?
Honestly, the person it’s hardest to find a gift for depends on the year. This year Nicholas is the tough one, because I’m trying to find something more meaningful than just the video games he wants.

8. Easiest person to buy for?
Again, it depends on the year. This year, Bree is the easiest.

9. Do you have a nativity scene?
Yes, on my mantle.

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?
I still like to mail cards out, though I haven’t done a great job in the past couple of years. It looks like I’ll get mine out on Monday, though, this year, so most of them should get there by Christmas.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?
I honestly can’t remember the worst Christmas gift.

12. Favorite Christmas Movie?
Depending on my mood, my favorite full-length Christmas movie is It’s a Wonderful Life or Scrooged.

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?
I actually keep my eye out all year for things I think my family or friends might enjoy.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?
I think I have recycled a Christmas present, if it’s something I already had and I thought someone else might enjoy one, too.

15. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas?
I like fudge and See’s Truffles. I also love Christmas ham--yum!

16. Lights on the tree?
White twinkly lights on the tree are beautiful.

17. Favorite Christmas song?
I have several favorite Christmas songs--”Little Drummer Boy,” “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” and “Carol of the Bells” are just some of them.

18 . Travel at Christmas?
For several years, we traveled to Lisa’s, but for the past couple of years, Lisa has come here.

19. Can you name all of Santa's reindeer's?

20. Angel on the tree top or a star?
We have a star.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning?
We open on Christmas morning.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of the year?
Grinchy-spirited people.

23. Favorite ornament?
I adore the ornaments my kids have made me over the years.

24. Favorite for Christmas dinner?
Christmas ham is the best! I also love it when we know someone who can make tamales. I can’t make ‘em, but I love them.

25. What do you want for Christmas this year?
I would love a new camera--a really good one--but it’s probably not in the budget. Ah, and something else too. Mostly, though, I want my kids to be happy and enjoy the giving more than they enjoy the getting.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Another Birthday Boy

December 18, 2009

You know, sometimes, the most simple of celebrations can be the most pleasing. Last Sunday, Doug celebrated his 41st birthday. The kids were at their dad's house, so we picked them up in the afternoon for a little while, so that they could spend part of his birthday with him. We picked them up around 4 and went out to Heart Village, and local frozen yogurt shop we all like. We were the only ones there when we walked in, toting our presents along with us. As we ate our yogurt, Doug unwrapped his gifts from the kids and me--simple stuff, but gifts that the kids had clearly put time into thinking about. Danielle hand-made him an ornament and a bookmark, and both Bree and Nicholas found something that they were really excited to share with him--headphones and some utensils for the kitchen. (Both music and cooking are important to Doug.) I got him a big warm fuzzy robe, perfect for this time of year.

The best part about it all wasn't the presents, though. It was just being together, everyone in a silly, fun mood, laughing and giggling. The kids loved that Doug put on his new bathrobe in the middle of the shop and proceeded to eat his yogurt as if he were at home at the kitchen table, surrounded by his family. Not a bad way to spend a birthday, if you ask me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gentlemen, Start Your Robots

December 15, 2009
Saturday was the big First Lego League robotics competition that Nicholas and his teammates have been preparing for for the past two months. Approximately 85 teams from up and down California came to compete and add to the excitement and fanfare. Our boys, the Lego Ninja team, would have an opportunity to show their programming skills and their problem-solving abilities, as well as research, presentation, and team work efforts.
We knew we weren't going to place well. We knew going in that our robot was not going to be the shining star of the competition. Our robot was obstinate and resistant to all our programming efforts. It didn't like to run the same way more than twice, so we weren't convinced at all that it was going to perform the way we wanted it to at the competition. After all the efforts of the boys (and honestly, the effort was sporadic throughout the process--the boys were more interested in building cool Lego creations than working with a perpetually erratic robot) we only got it to respond occasionally to one of the ten or so possible missions. It was unpredictable and fickle, just like a 12 or 13 year old boy. Our robot was the perfect match to our little rag-tag group of adolescents.
So we didn't hang all our hopes on the robot. We focused more on what we hoped the boys would get out of the process and out of the experience of being in a place which rewards and celebrates our kids for thinking a little differently, for being the non-traditional kind of kids who aren't necessarily the Student Body Presidents or the Captains of the Football Team. (As our fabulous MC, Retro Bill, said to the kids, "You might be picked on, you might be bullied sometime in your life. When that happens, and someone calls you a nerd because of what you're into, just tell 'em, 'Nerds change the world!'") I love that we have an opportunity to immerse Nicholas in a world where being smart and quirky and different is cool.
In addition to the robot run, the kids also had an on-the-spot teamwork challenge. They walked into the competition room and were given a challenge where they had to come up with a creative solution. They really exceeded my expectations, and I think their own, as well. They had only a minute to plan and four minutes to execute. Without hesitation, they worked together, shared their ideas, and were incredibly focused on the task at hand (no small feat for this group of young men!). They judges told them they were one of only a handful of teams who had even been able to complete the task, and as of that time in the day, had the fastest completion time. Seeing the way they were able to come together and succeed in that little competition room was worth the price of admission (so to speak). Seeing the high-fives and ecstatic yelps they shared coming out of the room just made my day.The final piece of the competition was presenting the research they had worked on in preparation for the big day. It's another way they can show practical applications of creative 'thinking outside the box.' The assignment was pretty straightforward: find a real-world problem (this year's theme dealt with energy efficiency), brainstorm and research potential solutions to the problem, and then decide the best way to present the proposed solution to people or organizations that might be able to effect change. It's a really practical way to illustrate to the kids how the research process that they learn in school can have real-world consequences. It also shows them that it's real people--people like them--who are going to be solving the issues that face our society. But again, the ideas were only a part of the task. The kids had to present the information, calling on their public speaking skills. In preparation, they practiced eye contact, taking turns speaking, projecting their voices, enunciating, and appropriate pacing. Just like in the teamwork challenge, the boys ultimately came up with a presentation they (and we, the parents) could be very proud of.

The Lego Robotics tournament is a long tournament. It's an all-day commitment, and by the time awards were over and we were walking out to the parking lot, we were exhausted. But for everything Nicholas put into preparing for that day, he came out with a lot more--a sense of pride, accomplishment, and most importantly, anticipation (already) for next year's competition.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Julie and Julia and Julieann

December 14, 2009

I absolutely love my good friend Julieann. She's silly and funny and fun, and has a beautiful spirit and zest for life. Every once in awhile, Julieann decides it's time for all her girlfriends to get together and celebrate friendship. Whenever one of Julieann's girls' nights is on the calendar, I know that she'll be going all-out to make it a memorable one.

Not long ago, Julieann saw the movie Julie & Julia and was so inspired that she wanted to share the experience as part of a theme night. Julia Child had an exuberant, passionate way of experiencing life and love. She was also completely smitten and committed to her life-long lover and husband. Julieann loved the example and wanted to remind us all of a life lived fully in the present.

At our screening of Julie & Julia, we all brought our favorite appetizers to share (in keeping with the spirit of good friends and good eating). Prior to our arrival, Julieann had printed out favorite pictures of Julia Child and her husband and posted them around the kitchen. She had also typed up some inspirational 'Julia' quotes. Each of us chose one to share aloud a la Julia (imagine the unmistakable pitch of her voice). After each, Julieann shared what she loved about the quote, and why she felt it was applicable to all of us, a room full of forty-somethings who could be inspired by the words of Julia.

Then, of course, we watched the movie, twelve or so of us laughing and enjoying not only learning about Julia Child's life, but the life of Julie, as well--the woman who was a little lost and floundering in life who decided to 'cook her way through' Julia's cookbook while blogging about her successes and failures along the way. (The movie, by the way, was based on a real-life woman who did just that.) It gave her a sense of accomplishment and purpose, gave her confidence to become a better her.

It wasn't just about the movie, though--it never is with Julieann. She was inspired by the fact that as successful as she was, Julia didn't even start cooking until after she was forty years old. Julieann challenged us all to push ourselves to reach out for something we had always wanted to do but never pursued due to fear, or circumstances, or merely perceived lack of support. We were asked to look beyond weight loss (common, predictable) or something for our spouses or kids (many of us already focus so many goals in these areas of our lives that we forget to give permission to ourselves to seek out new personal challenges to help us grow as individuals). We each filled out a reminder notecard for ourselves, while Julieann made a master list of our goals, which ranged from learning Italian to taking up golf to finishing a screenplay to completing a doctorate.

We will be a support network for one another as the year goes on, holding each other accountable for our progress and being necessary resources, celebrating successes and being encouragement during the inevitable bumps along the road.

Was it a great film? Perhaps not. It was a good movie, though, with a great message. Even more than that, Julieann's vision for how to share the experience with us, her girlfriends, was creative and inspiring and productive. In an ideal world, that's what we should take away with us when we partake of a movie or a book or a play--something that we can internalize, relate to, and learn to grow from in some way.

I've got to wrap it up now. I've got a goal to reach, and a few good friends who are cheering for me to get there. I have a feeling they'll be checking in on me soon.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Little Jingle in the Pockets

December 8, 2009

We now officially have a new member of the work force living under our roof. Bree's step-mom is a district manager for Jack in the Box, so she was able to get Bree an interview at the Jack in the Box close by us. (Lucky for us it's within walking distance, since she's still operating under a driver's permit, rather than an actual license.) She interviewed last week, and today she walked through the doors a bonafide member of the working class. Four hours of health and safety and sexual harassment videos later, her first shift of orientation for Jack in the Box is over, and she's on her way to her first paycheck. It's a good time of the year to find a little extra jingle in the pockets.