Maybe it was a mistake, sticking one of our biggest, "let's get together-iest" holidays in the middle of winter, right after the solstice and smack dab in the middle of snow-, sleet-, and ice-time for much of the country. But at this point, there's no taking it back: Christmas travel comes when it comes, and we're left trying to figure out what that means.
In the Upper Midwest where I live, the general gist of weather headlines right now is "Mother Nature's Christmas present: Cold, snow." As per usual around here, the travel decision isn't an easy one, and it depends upon the distance to travel, the route, and the expected conditions.
This year's Christmas Eve weather craziness is particularly bad, but it plays up an annual discussion that I've been familiar with pretty much since birth.
The "Do we drive for Christmas?" talk balances a lot: on one hand you've got the precious (and in some ways irreplaceable) lure of holiday time with your family, and on the other you've got the trip, which can be anything from easy to exhausting to physically dangerous, depending upon the weather and your current level of exhaustion.
Our family is wrapping up a tiring year, featuring the birth of our first baby. We're in cold and snow territory, so we're skipping the 500-mile round trip from Minneapolis to Madison – no small thing, considering that this is the first time ever my wife and I will not to be home with our parents for Christmas.
We're looking forward to a few days of rest, popcorn, jigsaw puzzles, hot cocoa, and red and green pasta for Christmas Eve, a tradition for my wife’s family. And we're really, really looking forward to not driving for five hours on sometimes dodgy roads, worried about potentially hitting an ice patch and skidding into a ditch.
That said, we're going to video chat a lot on Christmas, making at least a digital connection with all the grandparents and aunts and uncles we're missing by staying home. One of the upsides of modern technology is that while we can't yet teleport, we can at least share our voices and faces long-distance without the need to negotiate icy roads. It's not a replacement for the trip, but it's a way to be there, together, at least a little bit.
And, more heroically (or foolishly, or however you want to depict it) we'll be back down in Madison next year, to see everyone in person. It's too important a trip to give up on it for good just because it's difficult. That said: weather allowing, of course....
No sooner did I write about the virtues of "Duck Dynasty" for its good, clean fun and quirky family watchability, than the head of the Robertson clan got any mention of the show entirely banned from our home.
It started when "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson paraphrased the Bible in a GQ interview: "Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers – they won't inherit the kingdom of God … Don't deceive yourself. It's not right."
"We never, ever judge someone on who's going to heaven, hell. That's the Almighty's job," he added. "We just love 'em, give 'em the good news about Jesus – whether they're homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort 'em out later, you see what I'm saying?"
Holy smokes, Duckman!
Later, Mr. Robertson issued this statement: “My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the Bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together. However, I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other."
Not to join the Duck hunt here but, how does that foster love of all humanity and loving each other?
To really get the Ducks in the soup, Robertson then went on a spree about growing up in pre-Civil-Rights-era Louisiana, claiming African-Americans he’d met were happier under Jim Crow laws because he never heard them complain about poor treatment by whites.
The reality check there is that in those days in the cotton belt, an African-American could get brutally murdered for complaining to a white person.
I don’t know Robertson beyond what I see on TV or read in a magazine, so I can only guess where his heart truly lies.
We have only his words to go on – and that’s the point to make to kids, when discussing how we make our opinions known.
This has become a powerful lesson for kids on thinking twice before they speak and being mindful of how their words affect others.
In his workshop out back, my husband passes on to our sons the lesson his father, a carpenter, taught him: “Measure twice, cut once.”
I suggest Robertson apply the words of our family carpenter when preaching the words of another carpenter whose birth many are about to celebrate.
Robertson hacked up his family’s reputation and ran our family unity through the buzzsaw because he didn’t measure his remarks before running his mouth.
As a parent, I can see the silver lining. I get to teach a quote from Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”
This is also a chance to teach kids to turn away from hate and intolerance, without becoming hateful and intolerant ourselves in the process.
My husband detested “Duck Dynasty” before and now has banned even the mention of it from the house.
“If I see it on my TV, I will unplug the set,” he said in fury after reading about Robertson’s remarks.
So, while I preach tolerance of the intolerant, my husband has gone the more difficult route of trying to ignore something that is everywhere you turn, from TV to the internet, and even a trip to Walmart.
Those are the family challenges that “Duck Dynasty” has brought into our holiday home.
My hope is that our sons hold to what I have preached: “Just because we believe it doesn’t mean that saying it isn’t hurtful.”
While I am not asking Robertson to recant his religious beliefs, it would be appropriate for him to admit that restraint and being mindful of the feelings of others are sacred responsibilities, too.
I would consider that a Christmas gift to all family viewers.
Those who grew up thinking of fruitcake as either a wonky relative or a colorful brick that smells of molasses should spend a little time with Haifa Habib, whose famous 100-year-old secret recipe takes the cake and makes it mean family.
“Three days before he died my father-in-law passed me the fruitcake recipe. For me alone he wrote it in Arabic that fruitcake recipe and in that moment I knew I was truly a daughter to him,” Mrs. Habib, 84, originally of Lebanon, explained as I stood in the tiny, hole-in-the-wall, old school, French Bakery and Deli in Norfolk, Virginia.
It is a French bakery that has been in Norfolk the past 100 years, run exclusively to old world standards by a family from Lebanon and their sons who were born here in Norfolk.
My husband and I ended up in this bakery because we needed a flat fixed at the tire place next door. I seized on the chance to peek into the bakery. We went in for coffee and a croissant and came out with an education, a fruitcake, a hot pastrami sandwich to die for, and a new extended family.
I have lived here for 10 years and the bakery is one of those places I always meant to explore. However, diets and scheduling have kept me from making the trip until the tire went flat.
Habib and her two sons (one runs the bakery and the other the tiny deli) operate the establishment, which can best be described as a hybrid of a Seinfeld episode and a Food Network special on family run eateries.
There was a line of customers – most of them there to buy the fruitcake – which sells for $35 for a 3-lb and $85 for a 5-lb loaf. I met a couple from New Jersey and another from San Francisco, Calif. who has made the trip to see relatives with part of their missions being fruitcake acquisition.
Apparently, as the framed news clippings on the wall attest, this is no ordinary fruitcake, this is the best fruitcake around, according to both popular and contest standards.
“People come from Boston and all over to buy the fruitcake I make,” Habib said. “Here. You try it. Take one bite and you know I am right.”
While Haifa launched into the story of the 100-year-old oven and the history of the place, one of her sons extolled the virtues of the hot pastrami to my husband as if he were selling Sham-Wows at a carnival, and the other rolled his eyes heavenward for strength as he quietly filled orders.
While so many places crow about being “family owned and operated,” this is one of the few where you can go and actually talk with the family.
I was hesitant to try the cake because my grandmother's fruitcake was so dense and kept for so long that one year my grandpa Frank attacked one with a hacksaw in order to save the poor kitchen knives the humiliation.
“Come on,” Habib coaxed. “This is a family cake we make and I make you part of the family now that you taste it with me.”
I gave in and became not only an an honorary Habib, but also a fruitcake fan in one bite.
Across the room the deli-serving son held a sliver of pastrami aloft and insisted to my husband, “You try it. Take one bite and you will never want anything else! Come on. You know I'm right.”
For a moment I could picture how Habib had gotten her boys to eat new foods, “Just one bite. Come on try it. You know I’m right.”
While I am only related to the Habibs by fruitcake bond, I suddenly felt like I had found my people, a lost part of my tribe.
I flashed back to Christmas at my maternal grandparent’s place in Passaic, NJ with grandma’s four sisters and two brothers, mom’s sister and her two kids, neighbors, extended relatives, and babcia (pronounced bob-chi) great grandma, who wore a babushka, house coat, a pale pink sweater, and handmade woolen slippers.
It was a plethora of Polish women all baking, fussing, guarding their recipes, and knowing best. In the living room the men smoked, swapped stories, and used the kids as carrier pigeons to deliver news from the kitchen about when dinner would be ready and snacks to hold them over until the meal.
Sadly, my husband and I didn’t carry on with that tradition. We moved from Jersey and became an isolated, four boys, mom, and pop operation.
Recently, our boys began asking why our family doesn’t do big crazy holiday gatherings. My husband immediately took time off to make the trip.
However, since all my relatives except for mom are now gone, I had not been very supportive of my husband’s willingness to make the expensive trek.
The fruitcake experience at the French Bakery changed that for me by placing me right in the kind of generational, family unity that I wished I had given my kids.
So, we are hitting the road for two days to New Jersey on a mission to bring Christmas past back to the future for our sons.
With us will go a fruitcake that I am going to make, with some help from Habib, as a symbol of family – for its colorful nature, spice, weight, and restorative properties. Here’s hoping my husband doesn’t need to buy a new hacksaw blade.
Here’s a conversation about social media that would be good to have with our kids. You could headline it “Instagram envy”; The New York Times dramatically headlined it “The Agony of Instagram” (oh, brother). The fact that the article appeared in this week’s Sunday Styles section I guess confirms that it’s fashionable, at least for newspapers, to be dramatic about social media.
“For many urban creative professionals these days, it’s not unusual to scroll through one’s Instagram feed and feel suffocated by fabulousness,” the Times reports. (Perfectly appropriate to roll your eyeballs.) It’s not only urban creative professionals who might feel thus suffocated. Young people might too – though it’s only fair to add that many teens who tire of social media showboating seem to be smart enough to move on to the more spontaneous, less showy Snapchat, where any showboating usually goes away really fast and is mostly just for fun. This would be great family discussion for when kids first start using Instagram (in many cases, when they’re 4th- and 5th-graders, apparently [see this]).
‘Instagram envy’ nothing new
But back to “Instagram envy.” First of all, only the Instagram part of this is new (and not actually that new). It was preceded by “Facebook envy,” which was preceded by many other media-related and in-person kinds of envy, going back to the version addressed in Judeo-Christianity’s 10 Commandments (referred to there as “covetousness”) and probably in the wisdom literature of all the world’s faith and ethics traditions. So it wouldn’t hurt to revisit envy using activity in social media to help kids get a little perspective.
Second of all: Obviously, social media isn’t the only place where envy can happen; but social media presents a great opportunity to apply a little critical thinking both to what’s being seen in it and to how we’re reacting – at least to notice how we’re feeling and responding. It’s the noticing that gives users a little emotional space (i.e., freedom from envy). We can help our kids think about how the images they’re seeing and sharing are just the surface – and barely that – of who they and their peers are. They usually know this, once they’ve had a few moments to think about it.
So the predictable pronouncement about Instagram in the Times piece is that “it’s as if every last image is designed to call to mind Norman Mailer’s book title ‘Advertisements for Myself’.” Maybe, maybe not – it depends on the image sharer. It’s the generalizing about Instagram and all social media use that’s so predictable. What happens in social media is highly individual. So the experiences of Instagrammers in this piece say very little about all Instagrammers, including our kids, and using social media can just as likely be fun, creative, social self-expression – or ads for ideas, causes, or others – as “Advertisements for Myself.”
Exercising our options
But I love what Times writer Alex Williams ends with: pointing out that social norms and manners are developing in Instagram (not a big surprise, since they develop wherever people socialize). The article concludes with a user who chooses “not to inspire envy but simply to inspire.”
I suspect most kids know that nobody’s all fabulous all the time, in or out of social media, but it doesn’t hurt to remind them that – if that’s all they’re seeing from someone – they’re not getting the whole picture, which usually has some flaws. So if our kids have little spikes of envy, it may be helpful for them to…
- Notice the envy when they feel it, which helps them get a little distance from it
- Know that there are things about themselves and their lives that are fabulous (seriously wonderful) and enviable too, and…
- Be themselves in social media and not only fabulous, because feeling envy can get annoying, and why annoy people when it’s ultimately more fun to be real than annoying?
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at www.netfamilynews.org.
Every December, when our friends and relatives send us family portrait Christmas photos on holiday greeting cards, my children pass them around as a form of good cheer, but also a bill of indictment. The pictures are a reminder that another yuletide has come without our family making its own formal portrait.
The usual distractions of life with two careers and two teenagers conspire against us. And by the time another Thanksgiving brings the idea of Christmas photos to mind, we figure the schedule’s too tight to make a picture and mail it out before Dec. 25. Our good intentions get postponed another year.
“Next year, I go to college,” our 17-year-old daughter, Eve, told me a few weeks ago. “It’s my last Christmas living at home. Are we ever going to get our portrait made?”
Chastened, I asked my friend John, a professional photographer, if we could press him into service. And my wife and I decided our portrait didn’t really need a holiday theme; the real goal was to create a lasting memento, even if the picture never landed on a Christmas card.
What I tried to remember – and what I so often forget as a father – is that the quest for perfection in parenting can paralyze good plans. Even so, we tried hard to make our Sunday portrait day seem special. My wife and I scouted out locations at a local park. I made sure that my best white shirt was dry cleaned, ironed, starched, and waiting on its hanger in the bedroom closet. We insisted that Eve and our 13-year-old son, Will, go to bed early on the night before The Big Shoot so that they wouldn’t be grumpy in front of the camera.
But here’s what happened on picture day:
I unshrouded my shirt from its plastic bag and discovered an ink blot, as vivid as a bloodstain, across the front. Meanwhile, slipping an arm into her sweater, my wife noticed that Foster, our terrier, had used it as a blanket, leaving a fine layer of his hair across the sleeves and shoulders.
We sorted out our wardrobe emergencies and jumped in the car, where I glanced through the rearview to spot Will’s hair, which seemed as if it had just emerged from a wind tunnel. Eve looked fashion-model super, but like most cover girls, she had fashionably underdressed, guaranteeing that she would shiver through our photo session on a brisk December morning.
There was also the problem of the weather, which was, ironically enough, too gorgeous. The bright sun proved less than ideal for outdoor photography, which tends to work best when the sky’s a bit overcast.
But John soldiered on, expertly directing us through our paces. First, he posed Eve and Will by themselves while my wife and I stood nearby as supportive bystanders. In a few moments, we began to look at our children as John did – as striking works of art.
I realized, standing behind John as his shutter clicked away, that I although I see my kids every day, I hadn’t really looked at them in a long time. “We made two beautiful children,” I told my wife, Catherine. “Things didn’t have to turn out so well.”
Eventually Catherine and I joined Eve and Will for group shots, with John suggesting that we hold hands, or sit closely, or stand and lock arms, shoulder to shoulder. John was asking us to play the part of a close family. The more we acted like a family enjoying each other's company, the more we actually enjoyed each other’s company.
My family’s time in front of the camera this yuletide was the best gift I’ll get this year. Whether the picture ever ends up on a greeting card is still anybody’s guess.
As Hollywood gears up a film adaptation of “Gilligan's Island” and fans argue over who the stars should be, one thing you can count on is that if they want the movie to succeed the cast must again become a mismatched, instant family.
In both film and family, it’s the ensemble effect that makes the experience happily memorable, or something you wish you could forget.
I remember the original “Gilligan’s Island” TV show from childhood and the many ways it re-entered my adult life and family scenarios.
As a kid, I watched all 98 episodes of “Gilligan's Island,” which followed the zany misadventures of seven people stranded on a desert island. The castaways included dim-witted Gilligan, the always-exasperated Skipper, the girl-next-door Mary Ann, the Professor, the redheaded bombshell Ginger, and a wealthy couple named the Howells.
As an adult, my husband took me and the kids on a sailboat from New Jersey to Florida. Many times I got through a terrifying storm on the sailboat by singing the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song in order to keep from panicking.
Once we began living aboard, I would frequently repeat this theme song verse under my breath:
"No phone, no lights, no motor cars,
Not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
It’s primitive as can be."
Today. I have a friend Wes Cheney who makes bikes almost entirely out of bamboo at VeloBamboo here in Norfolk, Virginia. Every time I see him cruising down the lane on a bamboo bike the song is stuck in my head for hours.
Over the years, since living aboard, when we sailed to islands and ate some variation of fish and coconut at every meal, I have given “Gilligan’s Island” a lot of thought from the family and parenting perspective.
While each character began the adventure as a part of his or her own family, the moment their shipwrecked the adventure began, they became a new family unit.
In the cruising community of boaters, strangers become family in a heartbeat. We once came ashore in the Dry Tortugas, stranded by a storm, and we shared unique methods of cooking, fishing, and surviving with total strangers who were suddenly family.
In the show, the Skipper and Professor seemed to share the parental roles, although who was “Mom” or “Dad” at any given moment is debatable.
Parenting is a sea of adventure we all hope to survive as we are beset with storms and use our collective ingenuity at a moment’s notice.
In the show’s theme song, their boat, the S.S. Minnow, is a family metaphor.
"The weather started getting rough,
The tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost."
Perhaps I view Skipper as “Dad” and the Professor as “Mom” because they try to manage an unwieldy bunch through trying times, with often hilarious results.
Gilligan would be the awkward teen son, always wearing the same outfit, trying to make good to the demanding dad.
Mary Ann and Ginger are like sisters who are polar opposites.
The Howells could be seen as the babies of the family, spoiled twins who could be both demanding and lovable.
The precursor to my married life was actually a “Gilligan’s Island” family joke made (constantly) by my late father-in-law.
The first time I met him, he began the conversation not with “Hello” but by saying: “You need to know that my son is brilliant. If I was stranded on a desert island and could choose one person to be there with, who I knew could get us off, it would be Robert.”
Just as I smiled at the glowing praise for the love of my life, Mr. Suhay dropped the other flip-flop, “Of course he’d also be the one who got us stranded in the first place!”
Apparently this had actually happened once during a canoe trip.
The “Gilligan’s Island” song was always whistled by my husband’s father. The song informs us:
"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailing man,
The skipper brave and sure.
Five passengers set sail that day
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour."
Whenever he disagreed with my husband’s life choices, my father-in-law whistled the tune for the refrain, “A three hour tour. A three hour tour.”
The man whistled it each and every time I was in a room with him. Apparently I was the “Three hour tour.”
My father-in-law may also have been the only person in America who knew that the actual words to one verse that most people mumble:
"So this is the tale of the castways,
They're here for a long, long time,
They'll have to make the best of things,
It's an uphill climb."
When it comes to parenting and family relationships, it can be an “uphill climb.” However, if you can see the humor and adventure of bamboo bikes and a coconut cream pie in the face it’s worth the trip.
I have been baby proofing my house to defend against a two-and-a-half foot tall de-decorator for the last week. I place a decoration – heirloom or otherwise, there is no set criteria – within reach, he dutifully removes it and delivers it directly to me, drops it on the floor, or carries it around and chews on it until the paint has begun to peel off. Nothing tastes quite like success!
The tree has no ornaments below average adult waist height, everything on table tops has been pushed together, as if the decorations have warned each other of the perilous consequences of standing too close to the edge. And every gift under the tree is his gift, as it doesn’t matter who’s name is on the gift label when you don’t know how to read.
The tree security fence now consists of seven sections of plastic baby (or pet) fencing, secured to the staircase on one end and lodged against the TV stand on the other end. We have wooden floors, which turns the tree fence into a sliding tree sweeper, shaking all of the ornaments left on the tree with each push, and rattling my nerves as I wait for everything to hit the floor.
I tell myself there is Christmas joy in this process of defending my decorations. It comes from the glint in his eye and the spring in his step as he lunges like a drunkard toward the untouchable objects. Some things have simply been sacrificed to pacify him. Plush decorations are now chew toys.
Despite my husband’s wishes, the creepy (but sentimentally valuable!) Annalee characters have been spared, and they watch my defensive dance with their thin, shrewd, painted-on smiles. My husband is convinced they will come alive in the night to murder us all, but I’m too busy wrangling ornament hooks out of the mouth of a 1-year-old to notice.
We are practicing our sign language and the sign for “no.” My hand snaps firmly into a crocodile snout shape, signaling a yellow flag called on the play. I’ve done it so much It now looks like I am just doing shadow puppets.
I know this too shall pass. The new year will come and I will take down the decorations and return to the usual set-up in the house. But this holiday experience has given me pause as I consider another child. Results from a parenting poll (or three stay-at-home moms sitting at a holiday party discussing toddler behavior over copious amounts of desserts) report that April is a good month to shoot for when thinking ahead to Christmas celebrations. Children born in April exhibit just enough personality to willingly wear a Santa suit for Christmas number one, while building just enough common sense by Christmas number two to know that no, I am not making shadow puppets of a crocodile, but rather pleading with you to stop eating the plastic garland.
Barbara Walters may have named Hillary Clinton and nine others as her most fascinating people of 2013, but to parents with kids teased for their idiosyncratic speech and a dream of public life, it is the host herself who should be celebrated.
"We don't use the word important that's why we say fascinating. They make us look at them," says Ms. Walters.
While Walters prefers to stay behind the scenes reporting on those who make us look, such as Miley Cyrus and Pope Francis, she herself has earned the respect that makes us listen.
A woman once mocked by the world after Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner embellished Walters’ idiosyncratic speech and dubbed her “Baba Wawa,” she is now someone the world stops to listen to when she names who is most fascinating.
I regret today that as a teen I joined the crowd doing my impression of Radner impersonating Walters. I pay for that lapse in judgment every time someone makes fun of my youngest son, Quin, age 10.
Quin was born with Asperger's syndrome and some added development issues and did not speak a sentence until he was age three.
When he began to talk we needed speech therapy three times a week to help him become intelligible.
Yesterday, I was called to his school for yet another team meeting to try and help him overcome his most notable issue – “the lisp.”
Quin doesn’t say the letter “S.” Instead he says “TH” in its place. If he were voicing the character Woody in Toy Story he’d exclaim, “There’s a thnake in my boot!”
It seems that little difference in speech makes a big difference in how much a parent worries about their child’s success.
Quin dreams of being a scientist on TV – the next Bill Nye – teaching the world about everything from chemistry problems to what color a mirror really is and why.
However, when Quin tells people he meets about his dream, they tend to give me a sympathetic eye-roll that says, “Oh that’s too bad. The lisp will hold him back.” Often, other moms will actually say those words to me along with the look.
That’s when I have to go breathe into a bag and try not to drive the poor kid nuts by becoming the pronunciation police, making talking a misery for him.
In light of yesterday’s speech therapy meeting and Walters final special, I’m thinking I need to bring some attention to Walters herself.
Perhaps if I do, parents will not knuckle under to peer pressure and end up steering their child away from a dream just because their child does something imperfectly.
Walters, the adoptive mom of one, said last night during her special, "I regret not having more children. I would have loved to have had a bigger family."
She may only have raised one child at home but her life’s work and the example she set should be part of many families.
That’s why I am naming Walters my MVP of 2013 – Most Valuable Parent.
Despite the mild speech impediment that the camera added a million pounds to, Walters was able to muster unruffled, dignified delivery of the news that commanded attention and respect.
Walters became the first woman to co-anchor a network evening news program in 1976 and then co-hosted “The Today Show” in 1977.
She famously conducted the first joint-interview of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Walters was also the first female news anchor on national US television, and possibly the first news anchor to make more than $1 million a year.
Her mild speech impediment didn’t break her, but rather became a footnote to her resume as an icon.
Today how Walters pronounces words means nothing.
All that matters is the fact that she says things we need to hear.
It was her classy bravery through being mocked and bullied over her speech, plus her innovation and commitment over the years, that gives her more street cred than any parent can hope to wield.
If you want to be fascinated, go look at Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball. If you want to know what success sounds like, listen to anything Walters has to say.
Your Christmas tree says a lot about your family; between the decorations and height, shape, and light color, these holiday symbols are the stuff of family tradition and urban legend.
In our house, the height of the tree said it all this year when our 10-year-old begged to be the one to choose it and our 18-year-old joked, “Sure. If you can lift it up over your head you can pick it.”
So this year we have a rather petite Christmas tree, only slightly taller than our youngest son, Quin, who hefted it over his head at Walmart and also carried it to the minivan, in which it fit neatly inside.
“BOOM BABY,” Quin crowed beneath the full moon as he put down the $18 tree outside Walmart. “Owned! Served! Yeah!”
While I shot photos of the moment and of him placing an angel atop the tree (without a step ladder) no camera was really necessary to preserve that memory.
This prompted me to realize that if you shoot a picture of your Christmas tree and send it to a total stranger they can probably tell your parenting style, if you are image conscious, and even how old your kids are by the color, size, and decoration of the that tannenbaum.
Our kids may not remember what was under the tree in years past as clearly as they recall Christmas tree-related incidents in the history of our family.
One of our incidents was the year we were in New Jersey and after buying the last tree in the lot and strapping it to the roof (the night before Christmas) the car battery died because one of the kids hadn’t properly closed the door and the inside light stayed on. The owner of the tree lot took us inside the hot house (just like in Frosty the Snowman!) for hot cider while he and my husband jump started the car. We sang about 20 choruses of Frosty the Snowman before the car started.
There is also the real or artificial tree issue. I’m not going to be a tree snob, but I will note for the record that you miss a whole lot of memories by not having the annual tree-buying experience.
At our house if it doesn’t rain needles, smell good when you saw too much off the bottom while trying to keep it from keeling over, and require a kid to be the “waterer,” it’s not symbolic of Christmas cheer.
When it comes to tree adornment, there are always telltale decorating styles that identify its owners, no matter what the tree itself is made of. A few tree styles come to mind:
All unblinking white lights with one uniform ornament color screams either “childless” or “control freaks who wish they lived in a Macy’s window.”
Breakable ornaments begin above toddler height? Either you have a toddler or a cat. Looking more closely at the decorations and determining if they say “Baby’s 1st Christmas” or are all mice and various cats can sort this out.
The ornaments themselves – Harry Potter on a Nimbus 2000, Dr. Who Tardis or Nascar – reveal what the family watches together and perhaps favorite books.
Having multicolored lights, blinking bulbs, and homemade ornaments is the dead giveaway that it’s a kid-oriented home. By “kid-oriented” I mean you not only have kids, but also let the kids have that little bit of control over family life by allowing them to have fun decorating the family tree.
If you have bulbs shaped like chili peppers you either have teens, a favorite band of that name, or both.
Parents and grandparents look at the tree and see a timeline of their children growing up woven through the branches via ornaments kids made in school, many of which have a photo on them.
The ongoing hilarity of a bad school picture when it becomes the head of a snowman ornament gives everyone decades of laughter and recollections to share.
In our house each person has his or her own “special” favorite ornament that nobody else is allowed to apply to the tree.
At our house it’s the four long glass icicles, one for each boy in his favorite color.
Zoltan, 20, came home from college last night and his first statement about the tree was not about it’s Lilipution size but, “Hey! Who put my blue icicle on the tree?”
I actually took the thing off and handed it to him to replace. It’s likely I will be doing that with one son or another when I am old and gray.
For most of us Christmas has become a time of tangible item acquisition. This year I suggest something harder to wrap, like taking time to sit with the kids and tell them about your childhood tree moments, maybe call the relatives or Skype them for a multi-generational chat about the family trees.
I want to read about your "treeditions" and see those photos from Christmas past and present. You can Tweet photos and incidents to @ModParenthood with the hashtag #familytree or leave your story in the comments.
For a long time in America, the income inequality problem has been obscured by Americans' baffling belief that they, personally, were among the country's wealthiest people, or (even more often) right around the corner from becoming wealthy. But a recent push for a significant bump to the minimum wage seems to suggest that income inequality and its downsides have become more widely acknowledged.
Here's a helpful snapshot of the situation, via a Washington Post story on the national push for a higher minimum wage:
"Whether calculated by comparing the growth in wages of the highest-income Americans with the lowest, or the proportion of wealth controlled by the richest Americans, or the ratio of wages for production workers to those of chief executives, inequality has grown."
The fact of the matter is that the nature of work has changed radically over the past 20 years, and the advice I'll give to my son is going to be a little more dour than the advice I heard as a teen. It'll start with the following:
"Contractor" means "cheap and disposable"
The new model for work seems to be a small, tight core of full-time employees surrounded by a soft, fluffy, pliable layer of contractors, people who can be paid market rates to do profitable work and then discarded whenever conditions warrant. Particularly in creative fields, if you end up as a contractor, get ready to be discarded – a lot.
"Job security" is an illusion
My father grew up in the '50s and '60s, and consequently had a perception of work as social contract: if you did a good job and showed up on time, your employer would maintain your full-time position as long as financially feasible, probably for life or close to it. After 30 or so years of hard work, a reasonably generous pension would kick in. The current model is far more frenetic, and the pensions a little more scarce.
Degrees are not guarantees...
Once upon a time, a B.A. or B.S. meant that you were skilled, educated, hard-working, and ready for most challenges any given job would throw your way – you were highly employable. Now, the average undergraduate degree is little more than a stamp reading "acceptable for consideration," and even advanced degrees are losing clout as signs of employability.
...and the tenure of security in academia is fading.
I grew up in Madison, WI, and the academic life led by my friends' parents seemed like a dream: good pay, great benefits, meaningful work, and ample opportunities to travel, teach, and explore the world.
Now, the "adjunct faculty" label has been stamped upon more and more aspiring professors, condemning them to years of low-paid teaching work while they queue against dozens or hundreds of competitors for extremely scarce tenure-track positions. There's no question that meritocratic competition has a place in academia, but the near-minimum wage exploitation of talented aspiring faculty seems to be begging for some sort of reform.
Guard your time like a hawk...
Part of the secret of being a bad employer is not compensating employees for after-hours work, for time spent doing work email from the road or home, for time spent changing into uniforms or cleaning a work space, and so forth.
...and seriously consider starting a plumbing business
The skilled trades seem to be one of the last refuges for people who want to enjoy steady work to earn an honest living. A good plumber, electrician, or carpenter is always in demand, can generally set his or her hours, and can count on being compensated for his or her time. For a long time, work in the skilled trades was (unfairly) seen as a sign that you settled – now, I suspect, the trades will get their due.