Friday, October 31, 2014

Merry Almost Christmas

The makings of my son's Shrek
Halloween costume.
It's Halloween. So I ordered my Christmas cards this week. Makes perfect sense, right?

Well, to me it does. I know a lot of people out there get really upset when they start to see the holiday "creep" that happens every year. It seems that as soon as July 4th is over, the malls are filled with Halloween ghosts and goblins. And just when it really starts to feel like Fall outside, those decorations are cleared from the shelves to make way for Christmas trees and fake snowmen. 

Here's why I'm not one of those people.

I like to shop for the holidays all year long. I try to pick up Christmas gifts here and there as I see them, no matter what time of year it is. I stash them away in a closet in my bedroom and then when December comes, I enjoy rediscovering them and realizing I'm actually farther ahead on the gift buying than I thought I was. It's like a little present for myself - peace of mind knowing that this busy stressful time is a little less busy and stressful because I planned ahead. At least a little.

And speaking of December, have you ever really thought about how long it is? One little ol' month. Thirty-one days. That's it. Out of the entire year, it's just 31 days stuffed to the top-of-the-fireplace with shopping, decorating, cooking, parties, more shopping and more cooking, entertaining, wrapping, etc., etc., etc. And it seems like we spend the entire month, maybe except for a day or two, feverishly working to get it all done. And as soon as we do, it's over. Done. The presents are put away. The tree comes down. The decorations are stashed away in the attic for an 11-month hibernation. It's kind of sad really. Isn't it?

I enjoy my house when it's decorated for the holidays. I enjoy spending time there and sitting by the glowing Christmas tree while a simmering pot on the stove fills my little brick house with the smell of cinnamon and cloves. And I love buying fresh greens to swag above my kitchen cabinets, down my staircase or outside on my porch railing and how it looks covered in the season's first snow. I love making gingerbread houses with my kids and, after getting frustrated with the sticky, sweet icing, pulling out my hot glue gun to finish the job. I enjoy it all. And I'm sad it only lasts one month. One very short, quick, exhausting month.

So that's why it makes sense that I ordered my Christmas cards this week. 

Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

P.S....on friendship

A few days after my last post, I learned some more about friendship. My mom and three of her friends came to visit for the weekend and I played tour guide. But these weren't just any friends. These were friends she had known for more than 40 years. Friends that were neighbors in the two-block, suburban Washington, D.C., neighborhood we lived in. Friends who knew me before I was even born and saw me grow up, every step of the way. 

Their annual trips started years ago as an annual pre-Christmas shopping extravaganza. Their destination was usually a town heavy with shopping outlet malls, like Williamsburg, Va., or Reading, Pa. Some years they shopped so much that they drove home with packages on their laps, under their seats or stuffed wherever they could. Other years they would take a neighbor's RV, filling it up with all their treasures. They would eat out at nice restaurants ("No McDonald's for us!") and share hotel rooms (Connie snores, Angela never moves.) They would joke about their husbands at home figuring out what to cook for dinner ("I left mine a pot of chili," my mom would say...) and gossip about other neighbors (you know who). They would argue about directions, then laugh so hard they'd nearly cry. And each time, on the last night of their trip, they would exchange gifts with each other. 

As the years turned into decades, all their children grew older and moved away, having children of their own. Husbands and wives retired. One dear husband passed away. Their hair grayed. And they each moved away from the neighborhood. But still, the trips continued.

There was less shopping during this most recent trip. Who needs one more kitchen gadget or holiday decoration, they'd rhetorically ask? This year it was about stopping to smell the flowers - literally - as we made our way through the city's botanical gardens, took pictures overlooking the skyline and shared extra large and decadent ice cream sundaes. They joked about my driving (slow down!), we talked about cooking, laughed over game shows and later they helped choose a spot on my wall to hang a new piece of art. It was like spending the day with four moms!

And on the very last night, these four friends gathered in their hotel room to exchange gifts. But not before one of them pulled me aside and asked me to help. She had crafted lovely cards for the other three and wanted to write inside just the right thing for each of her dear friends. How they were thoughtful and caring, helpful and kind. How they had always been on her side for so many years. How despite the passing of time, they were her friends. And she was so grateful to have them in her life.

For me, that was the highlight of my weekend. It wasn't the sightseeing or the good food we ate. It was the realization of how important and special their friendship was, and I was honored they let me be a part of it.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On friendship

I've never been particularly good at friendships - yet I've always desperately sought them out as if I was was missing something in my life.

I recognized this pattern early, as far back as middle school actually, when an argument broke up the best friendship I had ever had. We even shared a first name. For about a year, we did everything together. And then we split. I would lose my best friend from high school in a similar way soon after graduation (We would reconnect 18 years later - and now are best of friends again). And in college, a falling out my sophomore year left me again searching for connections.

Me, in my 40s. And not caring.
In each case, the "why" was different. Maybe it was over a boy. Or a betrayal. Or just mistrust. But my reaction was always swift and stubborn: They would be gone, and I would cling harder to other pieces of my life. And I would start the search for friends again.

In my 20s, I discovered work friendships, a kind of camaraderie that grows from a common, shared experience. Like hating your boss. Or grousing over a menial task. Work friends were plenty, always around to commiserate about anything. The circle changed from job to job - widening here, narrowing there. Some would grow into real friendships. Lasting friendships. But always, there were work friends.  

At home, they were harder to come by. I'm talking about those neighborhood friends. The ones that just pop over to borrow a cup of sugar, a romantic notion likely fueled in my mind by Hollywood but nevertheless something I always longed for. And perhaps because I felt I could never find it. In one neighborhood I lived in, I was too young. In another, I felt like everyone around me had plenty of friends and no need to add one more. So I kept trying. I'd host Pampered Chef parties, chat people up at the playground. Even try the whole sugar routine myself. What the hell. It could work. Maybe?

In my 30s, there were the "parents of your kids' friends" friends. You know, the mom that you meet through a playdate or by volunteering at your daughter's 1st grade school Halloween party. The other dance moms. Your fellow Girl Scout leader. I had some success here, and count a few of my good friends from among this list. But still, it was a challenge to make real connections.

But now, in my 40s, I think I made the best discovery of them all. And it happened at a PTA fundraiser at my son's elementary school. That had been the annual place where a lot of my circles collided - work friends, neighborhood friends and parents of my children's friends would all be there. So I would care and I would try. It was a breeding ground for new friendships. Except this year, older and wiser, I walked in, look around at all the faces and realized: 

I didn't care.  

All these years of searching and looking, adding and subtracting friends, and I didn't care. I had friends. Old friends. New friends. Work friends. And tons of family friends - a category I didn't even mention above but that is probably the most dear to me. 

And so it just occurred to me, finally. Finally. Finally. That I don't need to chase anything. I don't need to always be on the hunt. That it's happened already - whether by my working at it or just organically. It's happened. And my days are full - actually, overflowing - with work and family. 

And friends. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

And just like that

It was fall. 
So I painted plastic pumpkins and used door knobs as stems. 
Isn't that how everyone welcomes Fall, or is it just me?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Thump, Thump, Thump

"Do you think I'm having a heart attack?"

That's what I typed in a private screen message to a co-worker last week, after sitting at my desk while my heart seemed to be racing to escape my ever tightening chest. The pain hit after a week of having headaches and jaw pain so bad that I was nauseous. And I was searching the web - you know how accurate that can be - and plugging it all in and it occurred to me that maybe I was having a heart attack. 

Thankfully, when you work for a healthcare organization you have lots of support. So just a few short elevator rides later and I was sitting on a doctor's exam table, a blood pressure cuff pumping away on my arm, thermometer in my mouth and a nurse in my ear. 

"Do you take any medications?"

"When did these symptoms start?"

"You don't have to answer. Just nod."

My blood pressure was 170/80 and they calmly gave me a choice: I could have someone drive me to the hospital, or they could call an ambulance. Before that happened, the doctor listened to my  heart. And then we talked. About the stress I was under at work. About the demands at home. About the extra large Dunkin' Donuts' coffee I had just sucked down an hour ago. Then they checked my blood pressure again. It had come down. 

(So there's another interesting thing about working in healthcare. Not only do you have easy access to care and people willing to help you out, but you also learn a lot about how the body works. Or sometimes doesn't work. You see the best of the best, and the worst of the worst. And it all makes you very paranoid. Sometimes that's a good thing and truly makes you listen to your body in a way that you never did before. But it can be a bad thing, because you can self-diagnose everything from angina and aneurysms to tumors and transplants without really having any idea  what the hell your're talking about.)

A couple of days later I found myself back on a doctor's exam table, recounting my symptoms, having my blood pressure checked (it was high - again) and taking deep breaths as a stethoscope  was moved from place to place around my back and chest. This time, though, I was with my primary care doctor, a physician I had been regularly seeing for several years now. She knows me well, medically speaking. And after I word vomited all over her about what was going on in my life, she didn't take long to come to a diagnosis.

"Jennifer, you are depressed."

This wasn't the first time I had ever considered that possibility. However, hearing it from a physician's mouth makes things seem a little more plausible. I always just thought I got the sads. You know, from stressful life stuff like work and family and bills - and late notices. Just a little down from time to time. My doctor handed me a two-page questionnaire, and left me alone to answer the questions. 

Yep, that's me. Yep to that one, too. Check. Check. Oh, no. Not that one. But check to that. Yeppers. 

So there it was. I wasn't having a heart attack. Or in need of a transplant. Or thank God, not suffering an aneurysm. No need for any transplant, either. I was simply being depressed. And doing it very well, while highly caffeinated. It was like having a case of the sads but just having a really hard time lifting yourself out of it. 

I left the physician's office with a plan that includes seeing her regularly - and cutting out the caffeine. And a bunch of other stuff, of course. 

Oh, and I decided to lay off diagnosing myself on the web for a while, because that just seems like a smart thing to do.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

That's my girl, and she really can fly

My daughter started high school two weeks ago. And last night, we had our first argument.

In middle school, it wouldn't have taken that long. Every morning when I'd go in her room to wake her up, she'd open her eyes with a scowl on her face, sometimes telling me to stop talking or to leave her alone. She'd complain about having nothing to wear. Her homework wouldn't be done. Her teachers were awful, she'd say. I'd remind her five times to brush her teeth. And then still sometimes she would forget. 

But for the last two weeks, I had seen a different girl. A more mature girl. Setting her alarm and waking up on her own. Wearing cute outfits she picked out - and often bought - by herself. Spending time on her hair and brushing her teeth, without being asked. Doing her homework, also without prompting. Making her own lunch. 

Yes, we were off to a great start. 


"I hate my math teacher," she said.

That had been her way the last few years. If she didn't like a teacher, I knew what was to come. Fighting over homework, doing poorly in class. I didn't want this to be the way. It was high school, after all. And something had to change. This counts now.

"If you are having trouble with math we can help. We can get you a tutor," I offered, my voice stern but calm. I told her if there was a problem, that we wanted to know now, instead of finding out too late that she wasn't doing well. I told her that just getting by wasn't going to work anymore.

She became defensive. She got angry. It was the way he teaches. And she doesn't like math anyway. And then...

"It's because I'm stupid."

She used that "s" word over and over, talking about how others were in calculus while she was in geometry and that she'd never be the valedictorian or get straight As. That we needed to lower our expectations. And each time she spoke, my heart broke. She wasn't stupid, I told her. Over and over. She wasn't. Why would she think such a thing? But more importantly, how could I convince her she wasn't?

She's not. I know she's not. She's bright, creative and funny and has always been a little too grown for her own good. Her kindergarten teacher said it best when she labeled her a "free spirit" - a little blonde hair, blue eyed beauty who seemed to flutter like a butterfly from thing to thing, never stopping too long. 

To me, she is extraordinary, possessing the fearlessness I never had. 

Yet, in this one thing - this hugely important thing called school - she lacks confidence. And I can't let that be. I can't let that be what she thinks. As a family, we can't let that be. It's our job to find that mirror into her soul so that she can see what we see. 

Because we all see it. The girl that's the valedictorian. Or the straight A student. Or whatever she really wants to be. Anything at all. And she needs to see it.


The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, 
but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there - John Buchan

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What little boys are made of

Warning: this post contains lots of references to flatulence. Also known as passing gas. Or, more commonly, farting. After all, I'm talking about spending an entire day hanging out with my 6-year-old son. And when you talk about little boys, inevitably you talk about, well, a lot of hot air. Coming from your behind. Because little boys think that's funny. And admittedly, sometimes so do moms.

So it all began one day this week when I worked from home, my son literally by my side all day like an extra appendage. Despite having two couches and a comfy recliner in the family room, it seems no matter where I sat he snuggled right up next to me playing his video games, or watched a movie perched on my lap.

"You know," I'd say,"there's a big empty couch over there."

"Yeah, I know," he'd say. "But I like you."

Well, can't argue with that now, can I?

So there we sat, intertwined all day long while I worked on the computer and made a few phone calls, and he puttered on his electronics playing golf or destroying evil villains. He found a movie on TV at one point, and we laughed together at the silly parts. Later, he accompanied me to the dentist, the only time he wasn't physically at my side, but still intent on being as he says "up in my business" as much as possible. He sat quietly in a chair in the corner of the dentist's office, and out of the corner of my eye - with my mouth wide open and metal tools scraping my teeth - I could see him once in a while stand up to peer around the hygienist and get a better view of the excavation taking place.

Back at home, he helped me do a few loads of laundry. I tried to make a game of it, convincing him to pick up dirty clothes and throw them in the washing machine as if he was dunking a basketball. Laughter ensued. Inspired, he decided to make his own game, too.

"So every time we fart, we get a point," he said.

"That's the game?" I asked.

"Yes, that's the game. The first one to 20 wins."

Hmmmm. OK. I had never played this game before, but I was certain I could be a contender. So we went about our business - me working on the computer and he playing video games. Every once in a while out of the quiet, he'd say:

"Two.... No, I think that was three."

Sometimes it was obvious. Other times, not so much. And believe me, the latter was fine by me.

We went about the rest of our day. My husband came home. We had dinner. I did the dishes and checked the laundry. We all watched TV.

At bedtime, I went upstairs to lay down and there came Matt, laying next to me. I put on one of his favorite TV shows and we laid down in silence, both of us tired from a long day. No one said a word. Eventually, when his eyelids started to fall, I turned the TV off, shut off the light and closed my eyes. And then, I let something slip. Out of the dark, quiet room, I heard a tiny voice.

"You win."