Trying Hard Not to Rearrange Furniture

I texted friends yesterday that I might need them to come help me move furniture. By the time they replied their faux excitement about the prospect of carrying my stuff around the house, I told them it might not be necessary.

Maybe.

When I’m stressed, I rearrange furniture. As a child whose family relocated a lot, and as an adult who has moved 17 times since freshman year of college, I learned that change comes in big, obvious, irreversible phases that look like new opportunities amongst the rearranged furniture. Moving to a new place was always about hope and new starts and gentle change. Because everything’s still there, just the space is different.

When my adrenals rattle my teeth with doses of neurochemicals that say I should panic, I connect the sensation with living somewhere new. So I either move or I change the whole layout of the house. I don’t actually plan to move right now, so I need to make my house look as though I’ve moved.

(Totally not my house. I love how that weird suburban McMansion photo shoot used light and a throw rug to make me think they really rearranged. False. My kind of rearranging means this room would have the furniture from another room and all this fly-fishing-cabin stuff would be in the kids’ room. Or garage. Rearranging isn’t moving something two feet. It’s relocating and purging until you don’t recognize the room at all.)

But didn’t I just rearrange a few months ago? Some of the furniture left to go to Spouse’s new apartment. Some got sold. And some went downstairs this week because I’m getting a new roommate.

Yep. I’m 41 years old, newly single parent, and I’m taking on a boarder to help cover the rent. All I have to do is start cooking cabbage and washing neighbor’s laundry and I’ll be a set-piece in a late-Nineteenth-Century American novel.

School started last week, which has unnerved me, too. So the need to rearrange is likely stemming from big changes. But still everyone is healthy and reasonably happy. Despite the separation, the boys’ dad spends a lot of time at our house being a parent and showing the kids that he’s not leaving.

That means, though, his admirable efforts at making the boys feel loved and safe are all. up. in. my. face.

Poor guy. He came over last weekend so I could work. And after a long day of chasing after kids and bikes and scooters, he took a shower.

But he put a new soap in the shower. After I opened the shower door and saw it, I called him to the bathroom and extensively explained the concept of leaving things as you find them. He has thoughtfully moved tons of my stuff in the past few months, and it’s driving me crazy. I put my running shoes by the door so I don’t forget them, he puts them in the closet where they belong. I put the kids’ lunch boxes on the counter because they need to be washed, he puts them in the cupboard where they should be. I hang a jacket on a doorknob because it needs to go into storage, he puts it back in the closet where it used to live. I might have used the phase “You’re welcome here, but you don’t live here, so stop deciding where stuff goes,” instead of biting my tongue, as I should.

For years we’ve been using the nicer downstairs shower. But that is now part of the in-law rental unit, and I’ve consolidated everything from both bathrooms into the smaller one upstairs. And it felt nice and grownup and efficient to finally have a space that nobody in the whole family uses but me.

My shower.  MY shower.

And then I come home after banging my brains against a federal grant proposal, and there’s a soap MY SHOWER.

I am fully aware that he didn’t do anything wrong. The guy wanted soap. It doesn’t matter whether he thought I forgot or couldn’t find the soap, or whether he didn’t think anything at all except “I need soap.” It’s a fair desire, that of having soap in a drenching cubicle whose primary purpose is cleaning. I can’t fault him for wanting, finding, and getting soap.

Except it was my shower. MY shower. Was. Now it has ex-partner-who-wanted-soap-and-found-soap-and-added-soap tainted idea-germs all over it. I don’t want his ideas in my shower.

That’s so stupid I can barely type it. But this is my blog and my truth, so I’m willing to be crazy here, even if only for a little…well, okay, most of the time.

But it comes down to this simple and difficult reality: separating from a partner with whom I will coparent for a long, long time is genuinely challenging. I like the world black and white, not grey. I want extremes. And when I am part of a relationship that ends, I want it to actually end.

Surprise that’s not a surprise: there’s no ending a relationship with a co-parent. We’re not teenagers anymore and we can’t just stop calling each other and avoid each other at the mall. This is joint-back-to-school-night territory, y’all.

For most of my adult life, I’ve been prepared for the apocalypse, as long as that catastrophic upheaval involves the complete inability to buy soap. I once had a roommate laugh, “Well, at least we’re prepared for the next Great Soap Famine,” unwittingly insensitive to the hoarding tendencies that make me collect soap in neat rows at the back of bathroom cupboards. I had rows and rows of soap in the hall cupboard of many of those 17 apartments, but I’ve been working to whittle down the stock since moving back to the Bay Area several years ago. I don’t need to prepare for the emergency poverty that might strike and leave me without soap (or any means of buying soap). I don’t need to imagine a time when there’s no soap at the store or no open stores when I need soap or no…I don’t know what. I don’t know why I hoard soap. It’s not as though I shower that much. I just know I need to stop hoarding soap. I have enough, I tell myself as I pass the soap aisle. I have enough, I am enough, I will always have enough, I will always be enough.

Don't worry...I would never ever hoard unwrapped soap. They get goopy after a while, you know.

Don’t worry…I would never ever hoard unwrapped soap. They get goopy after a while, you know.

But since Butter was conceived five years ago, I’ve been hoarding shower gel. Not using it, because I do prefer soap. But paring down the soap collection has me compelled to build a shower gel stash. I shouldn’t call it a hoard. That diminishes the mental illness that genuine hoarders have. I only have six or seven half-gallon bottles of shower gel. Whenever Grocery Outlet has the big 32-ounce size of my favorite brand of natural, toxin-free beauty products, I buy the shower gel. And shampoo. And conditioner. But not compulsively. That would be crazy. I only buy another jug of organic cleansing products if the scent is right. There’s no use hoarding gardenia shampoo or rose conditioner. I don’t want my apocalypse miserable, people. I just want to be prepared. And really, really, really clean for the zombies. Or maybe prepared in the event that bake sales in the zombie age become soap sales.

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I only have three half gallons of shampoo, four of conditioner, and six of shower gel. And that’s totally normal and not at all weird.

So my new shower, my space that meant embracing change and taking a deep breath and accepting hard choices…that shower had shower gel but no soap. That shower, the one we haven’t used in the three years since we moved in, was old and small, but refreshing and cozy and mine. And grownup. So I pulled out of the cupboard matching half-gallon pump bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. No soap so that the tiny soap dish could be for a razor. So that I wouldn’t have to clean soap-drip off the cramped walls. So that I could freaking have something in this world the way I want it without worrying about sinking into soapless poverty.

And now the man who is permanently part of my life but not of my future, who is a committed co-parent but a distant memory, who is familiar but now a stranger—that man put soap in my shower.

So I told him not to put soap in the shower. I explained my plan and my shower gel and my need to feel like I own something. And to fight the panic of that by embracing a decrease in the shower gel stock.

He understood. And he was gracious about it. He is back to being gracious about my brands of crazy, now that he gets to live somewhere else. Or stay somewhere else most of the time and come over to be with his kids and hear theories on soap use now and then.

I was glad he understood.

But then the next day he rearranged the shower gel and the shampoo and put them in the wrong places and now the shower is ruined.

I just can’t even.

Poor guy. He’ll never understand. He just doesn’t get it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. He doesn’t have to understand my kind of crazy.

I just always hoped he would.

And last night, when I mentioned the text to my friends asking for furniture help, my co-parent offered to help me rearrange the garage. Full on “pull everything out, purge some stuff, reorganize the rest, and put it all back” hour-long garage shuffle. The type he’s fought for years.

I told him that he’s a very kind person to help me engage in my favorite form of free therapy: work out panic with heavy physical labor.

Maybe he does actually understand my crazy.

Or maybe he feels guilty about the soap.

I'm starting to think I have a real problem, because this photo makes me twitchy. The soap is broken. The. Soap. Is. Broken. That is very bad.

I’m starting to think I have a real problem, because this photo makes me twitchy. The soap is broken. The. Soap. Is. Broken. That is very bad.

 

Teachable moment about “gay”

index

The phone rang and I hit dismiss because I didn’t recognize the number. A few minutes later I  listened to the message.

“Can you please meet me after school with your child,” said my seven-year-old’s teacher, “because he has been acting out today in ways that are just not like him. There were a few incidents in the classroom, and then he was calling kids names, including calling someone gay.”

Needle across the record: He WHAT?

We are a relatively progressive family. We talk openly about equality and tolerance and people being accepted for who they are. Heck, today, when I couldn’t find shoes to match my pants, he sighed and told me, in his most bored pre-pre-teen voice, “It doesn’t matter what you look like, Mom. It matters how you treat people.”

So when I heard that my son had teased other kids, including calling someone gay, I prepared to give an epic lecture.

As I thought about the impending conference, though, I wondered if my son even knew what the word gay meant. Both my boys know all kinds of families look different from ours: we know families that have one parent, others with two moms, some with two dads; we know families that include one child, three children, pets, no pets, humans with dark skin, light skin, everything in between, and some of all of the above. There are so many kinds of normal constituting our village that I don’t know if my son knows what to call any of them. We don’t label our friends, so maybe he was just repeating a word he heard at school. Maybe.

So I planned how I would approach The Talk.

First, obviously, I had to ask what happened and why?

Second, I had to ask what he thinks the word gay means.

And the rest would pivot from there.

Except that it shouldn’t, I railed inside my head. Even if my son didn’t know that “gay” has been cruelly hurled as an epithet to make people feel bad or not, he will learn today. I’m going to tell him that trying to make someone feel bad by criticizing who they are is mean, not just to the person called gay, but to all the people nearby who hear that word and infer from the context that gay must be bad. Because there is nothing bad about gay. This is indicative of a culture that demeans with words like “girly” and racial slurs precisely because words buttress power structures. When child calls someone gay, it begins a process where an entire peer group learn to categorize gay in the “thou shalt heed this word and feel shame or disdain when you hear it” category. And all I can say is, “no way.” Not after all the hard work the LGBT community has done to fight for civil rights. Oh, hail no.

All human beings deserve respect and fairness. So my family will not use words that make people feel less-than. A new mantra was brewing. “There are no greater-than or less-than symbols in human interactions, children. We will not even practice using wavy lines to hedge our bets a bit and suggest that some humans are ‘approximately equal to.’ No. We will only use straight equal signs in all our interactions, so help me Math!”

“WAIT! I didn’t mean straight!”

“Wait again! I didn’t mean that straight’s not okay. Everything is okay! Different is good! I’ll just wear these shoes because they’re closest to the door!”

Sigh. My mantras need work.

Ahem.

We will not try to gain power by making others feel bad about who they are.

And that is the righteous banner I held aloft as I marched to my child’s school. The doors swung open and I prepared for an epic lecture on historical repression with…my small, tired, slumping little guy with the too-big backpack and the bedraggled hair.

Oh, pumpkin. I think I’m doing this wrong. This isn’t a battle. This is a talk about kindness.

Reboot parent mode. I climbed off my high horse and sat in a tiny chair at a tiny desk so I could listen to my sweet, sensitive, wonderful little guy.

What happened?

Teacher: I was at the sink when I heard voices saying, “Quinn is gay. Quinn is gay.” When I turned around, Peanut was one of the kids saying it.

Me: Why did you say that Quinn is gay?

P: What? He is gay.

M: What makes you say that?

P: Jason told me he’s gay.

M: I see. Um…what do you think gay means?

P: I don’t know.

M: Oh. Well, gay is when a grownup wants to start a family with someone of the same gender. So our friends M and K are gay, J and N are gay, and M and L are gay.

P: Oh. [beat] But G and K don’t have kids.

M: Family doesn’t mean kids. Family means who you love. But who we love is not all we are. When we go to M and K’s house for dinner, I don’t say “we’re going to our gay friends’ house,” right? I say, “we’re going to our friends’ house.” And when someone is meeting T, I don’t say, “This is my gay friend.” I say, “This is my friend.”

P: I know.

Teacher: If you are kind of teasing, saying “Quinn is gay, Quinn is gay,” he might think there’s something wrong with being gay, and there isn’t. We don’t tease. Just like you don’t say, “Quinn is blond, Quinn is blond.”

M: Right. If you did say that, Quinn would think there might be something wrong with being blond, but he can’t change that. And if you say that he’s gay, he might think there’s something wrong with being gay. And all the people around you in class start to wonder if blond or gay are bad things for them to be. So calling someone blond or gay might not hurt their feelings, but it might teach other people to feel bad about being blond or gay or tall or thin or whatever the tease is. Gay isn’t who someone is. It’s part of them. Like their hair. Brown or blond or gay doesn’t change, so teasing about those things is making someone feel bad. And it’s not okay to do something to make someone feel bad.

P: Okay.

M: May I also point out, really, that the things Jason tells you usually aren’t true. He told you girls aren’t allowed to play soccer. He told you that boys should like dogs because girls like cats. He told you “every single person in Mexico, even the old people and babies have machine guns.” None of those things is true. In fact, they’re pretty ludicrous. So I’d do some serious fact checking before I believed anything Jason said.

P: Okay.

We left the whole discussion at the door. I didn’t bring it up again, which took a lot of restraint. I still had many, many words I wanted to use. But I have to let the poor child breathe.

And I have to breathe, too. I don’t think he was trying to hurt Quinn or to cement hatred against the LGBT community. I think he was trying out a new word. And I think my son just learned that some words are simply unacceptable. I still remember my mom walking me through a whole list of racial slurs I may not ever use, including definitions and an explanation of how horribly each group had suffered under that epithet. Looking back as a parent, I wonder if she unleashed that lecture because I had used one of those names. Or someone said one to me.

So can I maybe relax and realize this is just a rite of passage, just the first step in a long series of conversations about how words have power, and how some people use powerful words to bully other people. A long, evolving conversation about finding your own power rather than taking it from others by devaluing them.

I take really seriously…perhaps too seriously…okay. definitely too seriously…my job of raising people who make the world a better place. I really hope my sons and their peers grow up knowing there’s more to people than their skin color or sexual orientation or gender. Allowing people to be more than the single words we use as labels builds the holy grail of attributes: kindness. Thankfully, that one comes from nurture.

Or lecture. I’m not sure which, nurture or lecture, but I’m going to try both.

Side note: heaven help me when I have to explain that sometimes, when people are old enough and their hormones tell them to, they change their hair color. Then all my metaphors are going to crumble and with them my authority over empathy and tolerance. Maybe.

Midlife realities

When I marked the new year in 2012, I was excited about having a whole year in which to contemplate turning forty. There is so much excitement and hope in that number, I thought. I planned for several months how I would celebrate and what intentional shift of priorities I could orchestrate to begin the second half of my life.

I remember my mom’s friends celebrating her fortieth with black balloons and over-the-hill nonsense. Baby Boomers are not known for either perspective or subtlety and over-the-hill parties were very chic. Also the life expectancy was much lower back then and people really thought that 40 was more than halfway to dead.

Now, we are told by dreadful checkout-line magazines and gerontologists alike: fifty is the new forty.

Well I happily anticipated forty, hoping with the milestone that I’d get my life together, get a few more adorable grey hairs, and finally think of myself as adult. I thought a midlife crisis was impossible for me, not just because of this delightfully plucky attitude, but because I have at least three midlife crises a year, and my brain must certainly have hit all the low points of existential crisis by now.

What I didn’t foresee about 40, what I didn’t appreciate about midlife until I got there, is this: the inescapable and rude reality is forty isn’t about goals and perspective and living your best life for the rest of your life.

Forty is about everyone around you slowly dying.

Parents. Friends. Colleagues. The people I care about are having surgeries and tumors and divorces and memorials, not babies and graduations and new jobs. The downward slide of forty isn’t about “oh, boo-hoo I’m not vital anymore.” That’s ridiculous. The reason behind many midlife crises, I’m now finding, is that forty seems tips life from waxing to waning.

We all know mortality as a fundamental truth of the human condition. But we don’t know it as intimately as we will. I remember when my grandparents were in their seventies. Three of four died.  And their friends died. And to me, in my twenties, that was something that old people did.

And they do. Don’t get me wrong. Old people do, in fact, die.

But the shock of forty was that grandparents aren’t the reason we’re at funerals any more. Parents are dying. Contemporaries are dying. Forty is a slap in the face that says, “Guess what? There is very little distance any more between you, those you love, and death. We’re going to fall off this cliff together, and soon.”

Forty is about certainty and camaraderie falling away as one by one the people we know intimately, not the loved ones removed by several generations but the people we need and enjoy and talk to every day, get divorced and sick and sad and angry and, eventually, dead.

Forty means everyone gets dead? Certainly that’s not what I’m saying, and not just because it’s grammatically clunky.  There are still graduations and births and marriages and joy and life left in life after forty.

But we’re not having those moments. We’re watching younger generations have those moments. We’re bystanders. We’re wise, knowing, grey, and wonderful. And we’re attending other people’s joys while engaging in our contemporaries’ decline.

It’s a long march, this life. And there’s a sharp turn at forty after which we must choose to constantly pivot one way to support those we love as they struggle and age and die, then the other to watch those we love grow and become adults and choose their own way and then age and die.

Being the sandwich generation makes it sound as though we’re smothered and gooey and limited on two sides. The reality is much more like standing at the top of the diving platform. To one side there are people climbing and progressing and anticipating. To the other there is an exhilarating plunge into darkness. Forty is standing on that high dive and looking right then left then right then left thenrightthenleftthenrightthenleft and knowing there is limited time to choose. There is no option of climbing back down. The only choices are to enjoy the leap or to clench everything and hit way too hard.

Please don’t tell me that there is plenty of life left after forty. I know that. I’m genuinely happy with the priority shifts I architected before my milestone birthday, the progress I’m making toward goals, the willingness with which I’m ditching expectations and emotional detritus from my life, and the care I’m showing friends and family who are sick or dying. Of course there’s time left for some of us. Lots, in fact.

Somehow I thought rounding that corner of forty would make me grownup.

It did. But not in the way I’d hoped for.

Now that I have glimpsed the reality of growing up, I am watching through tiny cracks between my fingers as we all slide, slowly at first and then more quickly, to the craggy rocks and alligators and piranha and icy waters below.

 

Decembexpectations

Maybe it’s the lack of vitamin D. Maybe it’s the cold, the dark, the crush of humanity in every corner, as though the calendar hits December and millions of residents normally housebound show up and get in my way.

Whatever it is, something has put me in a MOOD.

I don’t much care. I stumble upon moods regularly. They sneak up on me with surprising regularity and it’s only because I am oblivious to the rapid passage of time that I’m shocked. Oh, look!  A rotten mood! Why, it’s been ages, since…oh, well, yeah. That makes sense. My moods are rarely perky or cheerful or celebratory. The best I do is grateful. Grateful and industrious are my two best moods. My worst moods are downright malignant. I don’t think I technically reach down to depressed, but I definitely mood along like a fungus, infecting everything in my path, nurturing morose and disaffected as though they were teeny tiny balls of cynicism and depression in need of snarls and unreasonable reactions to survive their nasty infancies. Oh, how I coddle those moods.

So I readily admit that I get malignantly depressive often enough.  But I believe I save my genuinely misanthropic worst for December.

It’s not my fault. Everyone else’s is culpable for my mood. They‘re the ones driving through parking lots and stopping just because someone else is walking, maybe toward a car, maybe to get in the car, and maybe to leave. That’s a lot of maybes, jackalopes, so drive your stinking car until you see white tail lights.

Everyone else is the problem in part because they feel they have to be out of their dens, forcibly creating merriment and cheer for their own families but in the process obliterating all the joy and peace in my life.  Get out of my way, people. Don’t frown at me. I summoned all my social-expectation training and smiled at you, bastard.  The least you can do is smile back. Or look down. Don’t effing sneer at me or I will break off my own femur at a dangerous angle just so I can use it to CUT YOU!

[Did I tell you the lovely story about New Year's in Boston? New Year's Eve morning I'm in California, and walk to the post office. I lamely wait in line until some nice people point out that I can take my stamped letter to the slot over there. I thank them, note embarrassingly that I've forgotten to wear my glasses, and drop my mail in the out-of-town slot. On my way out the door, two stop me.  "Since you don't have your glasses, we can drive you home. It doesn't seem safe if you can't see." Thank you, you delightful people, but I walked. I'll be fine.
Fast forward fourteen hours and I'm in Boston walking to the T from a performance. Red light, all revelers stop and look around at the magic that is Newbury at 2am the first day of the year. Green light, walk. And I hear someone say, "Why the hell are people smiling? Can't they look down like the rest of us and get on with their day?" Ah, Boston. Would it kill you to lighten up a bit? Say, for instance, spew grouchiness about the people who don't smile, as I'm doing so well in this post?]

Everyone else ought to try just a bit harder in December. I’m not talking the poor people working retail and food services. There’s a special place in the Universe full of sunshine and purified Martian water for people who have to work with the public in December. No, when I demand more effort, I mean the jackasses who are barking coffee orders and complaining about stores’ blazing temperature and sneering about tips and generally making humanity look bad. Yeah, I’m talking about that guy, but I’m also talking about all the people around him who ignore that he’s being a jerk.

Look, people, it’s time to step in. When someone’s yelling at a clerk, please, for the sake of all that’s hopeful about December, ask that rude s.o.b. politely if it would help for you to find a manager. When he says, “No, it’s not that big a deal,” please tell him, “Yes, it is, because you’re being abusive and I want to help that poor clerk.” When someone is whining about being in a line, please, for the sake of all of us who have to be in the crush of humanity this time of year, tell that whiner that even though it’s frustrating, everyone else tries their best not to make the situation worse and could she please put a sock in it before you take a poll amongst the other residents in the world’s longest line whether to vote her off the island right now.

I’m so tired of people! I want all them all home, shopping online, giving to charity online, shipping packages online, paying bills online, and socially interacting online. I’d like more of them to consider grocery delivery. And muzzles.

Because seriously, y’all, humanity is working my last nerve this December.

Descriptive linguistics FTW!

Last night after a Board meeting, I was talking with friends and one expressed shock bordering on horror that I text using abbreviations and conventions created and commonly accepted within that linguistic space.

“I’m rather surprised to find out you’re an LOL and OMG and emoticon person.”

Well, I’m a linguistically adaptable person, actually. I don’t use those conventions outside texts and social media, in which characters are constrained and, generally, keyboarding is limited. I don’t say “LOL” in conversation, nor when using a keyboard. I do, though, use LOL where it is a standard part of the lexicon, because I’m speaking in a colloquial language and don’t feel the need, surrounded by LOLers, to destroy my reputation and thumbs with “oh, wow, that is truly funny.”  Recall David Foster Wallace’s review of Bryan Gardner’s Modern American Usage (which review appears in the nonfiction essay collection Consider the Lobster, and which review reiterated the annoying grammatical tic in which Wallace uses “which” in ways that make me itch ), in which Wallace explains that, when talking with Midwestern friends he uses expressions like “where you at?” because conditional, situational lexical conformity performs significant social functions including masking an erudite prescriptivist snobbery amongst those who disdain such ridiculousness. You know the type…for instance, the raised eyebrow of disdain arched toward a friend who fully embraces emoticons in text messages.

My friend last night seemed to believe that my using LOL and winky emoticons made me shockingly deviant in my linguistic standards. But am I actually failing the language because I OMG when I reply to a text about how awful I am at karaoke? Of course not. (I am, however, failing both George Michael and Rick Springfield when I belt their songs in a key somewhere between those singers’ ranges and my own. Said performances deserved several horrified OMGs.)

The older I get, the more I tend toward descriptivist linguistics. I have been out of academia long enough to know we can’t stem the tide of language shifts, texting enough that I appreciate the culture’s willingness to embrace an abbreviated language parallel to government employees’ acronym dialect, and old enough to know that my pedantic “kids these days are ruining the language” tendencies unveil a knowledge that kids these days are actually going to rule the world. And I, for one, I don’t want to be railing against their language from my rocking chair, cane aloft, countering every miscast objective who with “it’s whom, you linguistic hoodlums!”

Okay, yes, I do.

But I am in my old age moving toward the point of linguistic early adoption, at least within technological theaters.  I gleefully read the Atlantic’s piece about the new preposition, used in online English. Though I was late to OMG and LOL and LMAO, I have jumped on the prepositional-because trend, thanks to my social-media bestie, Twitter.

I love Twitter. I don’t read my feed as much as I used to, for in the land of “may your days be merry and bright starting next week with a rare Thanksgivukkah,” I don’t have time to get my Twitter fix. But I’m quite fond of the prepositional-because.

I do plan, however, on shaking my cane from my rocking chair and bellowing, “it’s not a ‘because-noun!’ Because grammatical naming conventions!”

Go check out the article, whether you find my texts irritatingly colloquial or not. The Atlantic has posted as pleasant a read on descriptive-linguistic developments as possible, and that’s saying a lot.

Which language deviances do you commit in limited settings? Do you eschew LOL unless you’re actually laughing out loud? Will you text a “K” to avoid all those messy characters in “okay”? Do you reject all emoticons or employ them with reckless abandon? Have you crossed into “srsly” and “pls” to save characters or do you share Steve Martin’s insistence on proper spelling in Tweets?

Wise, wise women

A group of friends, sharing cheese, wine, sourdough, roasted garlic, and kale the other night asked each other what they remembered from childhood.

After we all answered, one woman said, “But what do you remember most, the good or the bad?”

In unison, we all answered “bad.”

My friend then explained her theory that if we remember moments of bad from our childhood, it’s because the bad was shocking and abnormal. That most of our childhood was kind and calm and uneventful because we were loved and supported and able to do the play and learning and exploration of childhood. This is not the reality of many children in the world.

The bad bits we remember, she argued, are anomalies. And that’s why we remember them. So, too, our children will remember the stuff we agonize over: the moments of short temper, the unreasonable “no,” and the time we’re too busy to play. But they’ll remember that because their lives are full of patient “yes”es when we do whatever they need.

When I got home that night I had a link to this post from another friend. In it, a mother discusses how doing her best is exactly enough for her children, who need her more than they need perfection.

It’s a good read and I recommend you click over, because remembering to cut ourselves some slack is a really good idea.

Earlier this week someone asserted that my best wasn’t good enough. A friend who knew about my effort and about the criticism emailed me, “You’re doing so much, and fuck perfect.”

Do you think we can get this month National ‘Fuck Perfect’ Month? It’s just the right time of year for kicking should to the curb, I think.

Would you choose another month for Fuck Perfect or is November okay with you?

Dental guilt

Raised by a dentist, I have always held dental hygiene higher in importance over most other personal hygiene. I’ll skip shampoo more often than advisable and I’ll forgo shaving. But I have to brush and floss twice daily. Because that’s what people in my family do.

And I’ve brushed my kids’ teeth since the very first one erupted July 9, 2006. I did not need to look that date up, because I know my children’s dental histories.

When Peanut was diagnosed with a cavity at age 7, I felt shock and sadness. We’d been slipping a bit on the brushing, and had remembered very few morning toothbrush communions that year. We had split parental duties a bit and I brushed the younger child while Spouse monitored and rebrushed for the eldest.

But Spouse is not as dentally retentive as I am. And he let two minutes become one. Or less.

So after the cavity was filled I resolved to do all the brushing myself.

At night.

In the morning, though, I reminded Peanut of his jobs and wrote (and drew) a morning chart as suggested in The Secrets of Happy Families. His jobs were to get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, pack his backpack, and check the weather to decide on shoes and jacket. But he rarely brushed in the morning. And I started to rely on Spouse again during the interminable evening routine. Chaos. Screaming, wailing, running, tickling chaos. So once again I brushed the little guy while Peanut increasingly took on his own dental hygiene.

Second cavity at age 7.5.

Both have been in permanent teeth.

Both, I have to note, have been without dental insurance.

And both are my fault.

Yes, I should be able to give a seven-year-old child a task and expect him to do it passably well. But I suppose there’s no need to get petulant at having to ask repeatedly and remind and plead and cajole and glare and remind again. I suppose I was wrong and it’s every parent’s job to ask seven times every single day for a basic and important task to be done, right?

Yes, I should be able to trust his father to brush him well after the initial juvenile pass. But I guess there’s no need to rely on other parents in the family to do a good job with something as important as dental health. I guess I should have to brush three mouths three times a day if I want us all to be cavity-free.

I guess.

So for at least a night I laid awake, terrifically disappointed in myself that my small child, for whose health and safety I am wholly responsible, will for his entire life have two molars that have been drilled and filled with foreign substances. And that will probably, in decades, need to be further drilled and additionally filled. It’s my fault that he will probably also have potentially toxic (though BPA-free) sealants on his teeth.

That he is broken. Invaded by bacteria. Vulnerable. Weakened. Compromised.

All because of me.

And then I woke up and thought of all the things I try so hard to do right. Food and kindness and respect and exercise and reading and science and math and listening and vocabulary and five-point harnesses and non-toxic lunchboxes and lead-free backpacks and friendship and history and family and sunshine and sunscreen and connection and nature and…

I stopped.

And thanked goodness for dental science and dentists and glass ionomer and resin composites. For disclosing tablets and timers and hygienists who teach what a child will not believe from his parents.

For lessons learned from making mistakes.

And for peace following acceptance and a plan to move on.

Maybe I’ll sleep better tonight. Right after I brush my teeth.

BlogHer ’13: Don’t whine. Find solutions.

In many ways, BlogHer ’13 was what I expected. I never thought (despite the frenzy  on Twitter) that this international blogging conference focused on celebrating the power of voice would feature unicorns and a keynote from She-Ra. I hoped, just a bit, but my rational side rejoiced in calm, reserved expectations. But it seems as though not everyone shared by approach.

As with other conferences I’ve attended (in other fields), I expected a diverse group of people with varied goals attending panels and workshops of varying levels of professionalism and usefulness. I expected to meet a few amazing people, hear a few snippets of mind-blowing advice, roll my eyes several times, and experience my share of frustration. And exhaustion.

More than 5,000 humans with nuanced lives, experiences, and personalities attended BlogHer ’13 for different reasons and with varied goals, and I was able to get lost and to be found in that crowd.

All this I expected.

What I didn’t expect was the complaining.

“That celebrity writer is just an a–hole! Why did they choose him?”

“I can’t believe we have to listen to her! She’s so annoying.”

“This is a joke, right? Who considers vegetables and hummus a meal?”

“Who the hell planned to have these two sessions at the same time? I’m so mad because I want to attend both.”

Unreasonable expectations? Unfettered sense of entitlement? Undeveloped social skills?

[Note: The only complaints I heard were from women. I refuse to generalize to a gender-specific propensity toward complaining or to a statistical assumption about the odds of hearing complaints from a minority group at a large conference. Simple statement: the only people I heard complain about the programming, the food, the sessions, the structure, the convention center, the bathrooms, or the conference planning were women. And a *lot* of them were complaining.]

Ladies: I have a suggestion.

No, it’s not “get over yourselves.” I wish it were, because I lean toward that reaction. This was a very well-planned conference that attempted to meet the needs of a remarkably diverse group of bloggers. So I wish I could say, “get off your entitled high horse and appreciate what you have.”

But that’s not instructive. And it is fundamentally the same as the whining I heard. My demanding that someone share my perspective (in this case “I command you toward awe and gratitude and joy”) is similar in both tone and dismissive self-centrism as someone else’s whine that they didn’t like the heavy marketing presence at BlogHer.

My suggestion, actually, is that they write a letter.

BlogHer focused programming and seminars and workshops and presenters and conversations and awards and keynotes around using our voice. And most of the sessions focused on finding the right audience for that voice so that it’s heard by the right people.

Complaining to fellow conference attendees gets you nothing. It annoys your fellow writer and squanders your power.

If you don’t like something, speak up. If you felt dissatisfied with the proceedings in Chicago, tell the conference planners at BlogHer 1) what you didn’t like, 2) how a situation didn’t meet your expectations, 3) how you would fix it in the future, and 4) how you will help.

Complaining is rarely effective if you don’t show that you’ve analyzed the situation, your expectations, and the possible solutions. Note that in the above solution you have to do some serious work around honestly examining  your reasoning, articulating how a situation fell short, and developing a workable solution.

You do this at work when you write a memo that explains why your old computer hampers productivity, how your computer fits into the company’s larger technology picture, what options you’ve identified for upgrading, which are your recommendations for a technological change, and where the money will come from.

You do this at home, too. When the family is bickering about the same things or getting stuck at the same time of day, you have a meeting to explain what you see, solicit ideas for change, aggregate recommendations for a new approach, create a plan, and garner approval for the new plan.

If you didn’t like something about a conference, you have to speak up. But complaining, especially to fellow attendees, does not change anything. Examining expectations, stating problems, and offering solutions changes everything.

Use your words, people. Because I want to help you but I can’t understand when you’re whining.

 

 

Four weeks? Shut the front door!

When we agreed to host a foreign exchange student because she’s lifelong friends with a lovely couple whose company I enjoy, I thought in abstract terms about timing. A month or a while or a summer or a few weeks is how I somehow imprecisely framed it in my mind. Right before she arrived I started understanding the math of having a new housemate for eleven weeks.

It’s not that this situation is getting old. And it’s not that we’ve stopped learning from each other. But the novelty is starting to wear off. A little. And being only a third of the way done is definitely overwhelming.

Before Rosí arrived from the DR, I told a friend that we’d probably have a great time the first week, hate her by the third, find new and exciting ways to learn from each other weeks four through six, despise her again by week eight, enjoy each other for the last few weeks, and have mixed feelings when she left. So by now, after week four, things should be swinging from “oh my gawd, what have we done?” to “hey, this is cool!”

Um…well…we definitely didn’t hate her during week three. That’s something, right?

This whole experience has a been a roller coaster. I don’t see, so far, many differences from moving in with a roommate. When we met everything was exciting. That phase ended very quickly. Then we realized what living together was like and had to have several talks about expectations. Then I realized what I’d really done was adopted another child. A teenaged child. Once she ceased to be an idea of cross-cultural exchange and became a human in my shower when I had only five minutes to spare, she was not a fun experiment in altruism. She was an extra set of strong opinions and pressing needs in my house when the last damned thing I need is another set of opinions and needs. In my house. A lot of the time.

Now that we’ve settled into our patterns, we’re carefully negotiating whether we’re a host family or landlords. Spouse and I agreed to bring this new friend into our home, thinking that she could stay with us in a downstairs room that has its own bathroom and separate entrance. We knew we’d have meals with our dormer, and we knew she’d stay rent-free (because we’re masochists, really) in exchange for cleaning the house.

But we didn’t know that she envisioned that we’d be surrogate parents.

Rosí is a university student in her native country, so we assumed she’d be independent and keen to explore. But the more conversations we have with her, the more we think that society in the Dominican Republic, personality, her family, or all three have made her timid about taking risks. She wants someone with her all the time, despite her strong English skills, the safety of our neighborhood and city, and availability of fabulous places within walking and public transit distances.

The problem might be that she’s overwhelmed by how much there is to do. Or that she hasn’t shaken the sense of unsafety that she says she has in her home country. Or, more likely, that we have a misalignment of expectations. We want to engage with her about her work, her studies, our work, our life, her country, and our country. We want to show her what we love to do and involve her when we can. Ideally, for us, we’d take her with us on our weekly hike, take her to museums, explore the wonderful sights in Berkeley and San Francisco. But we also want time to pursue our lives separate from her. And I don’t think she wants to be alone. Ever.

The times we’ve included her in museums, hikes, picnics, and travel, she hasn’t had fun. She doesn’t enjoy the things we do. And I think she’d rather we start doing her favorite things so she’ll have someone to do them with her. She’d like someone to shop with her, to see tourist attractions, to take her to the movies.

I hate shopping. I think retail as entertainment is one of the worst choices available, barring perhaps nuclear waste cleanup. But even this latter option helps people, and I’m all for pitching in when necessary. Not so shopping.

Tourist attractions make me itchy. Because they’re full of tourists and have no compelling reason to be so attractive, except that they’re full of retail entertainment which makes people think they’ve experienced something local. Because they can buy a T-shirt that says, “I’ve done something local.”

I do love movies. But we have two small children, and we’ve seen maybe four movies in the theater and two live performance events since the eldest was born. I can name them right now, without much effort. I’m not interested in playing subtitles for Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing right now, thank you. (It was compelling, by the way. You should see it. Crazy what a group of artists can get done in two weeks when they want to.) The bottom line is that I want to be with my family doing the things we enjoy, or with close friends doing the things we enjoy.

I don’t want to be with my roommate doing the things she enjoys.

That makes me a bad person, I’m sure. But it’s my truth. And my blog, so I can kind of owe the truth here.

Look, I’d gladly take someone new on a wild tour of the Bay Area, exploring as much of its fabulous offerings as possible. And I do, with my kids. During the week. But the weekend is crammed with things for the family to do together and with time alone to write. Because these are the things we can’t do on weekdays.

And because it’s little bits at a time. Not eleven weeks of “this is your only chance so hurry and do something important!”

Three months is a marathon visit, and I have lots of work to do. Raising two boys full time is a raucous and exhausting job. Trying to nurture each of my other careers in the few hours of solitude at night and on rare weekends can be both draining and rewarding. All of that put together sometimes borders on too much. But I thought we could fit in having a roommate since she’d take some of the housekeeping tasks. I wanted to help give her an amazing opportunity where she could pursue her passions and learn as much as possible about American culture.

But I don’t want to do sightseeing tours. I don’t want to know that our food is gross and our hobbies are boring and our friends are unimpressive and our focus on our kids is weird and annoying.

I assumed a young person from another country coming to the United States to learn about the culture and language would want immersion in real American life. Not in pursuing typical activities from home in a new location.

I try to remember that, of course she wants what’s familiar. She wants what is from home because that’s what she knows and likes. This is a huge change for her, 24 hours a day. And to be fair, our food is probably gross and our hobbies are probably boring to some people. [Our friends couldn't possibly be unimpressive to anyone. FACT.]

But I don’t think it has set in yet for her that this is what she gets for the rest of her stay. Unless she takes the initiative to venture out on her own.

Because this is who we are and we’re doing what’s important to us. Going to another country means learning what there is to do and see and eat and experience. So if this household and this way of life—cooking fresh local food, hiking, going outside as much as possible, seeing friends, pursuing beauty and fun—are not your cup of tea, by all means, explore until you find something in this incredible area that floats your boat.

But please, don’t expect us to find your passion for you. We’re doing that for ourselves right now, as boring and gross as it may look to outsiders.

Oh, no. You did not.

One pound of sugar a week.

Eight ounces of salt a week.

Five hours of Skype a day.

Three exclamations pronouncing American weirdness each day.

All of these I take in stride from our new housemate. Even though those numbers only represent the few hours she’s here at home. Heaven knows how much sugar and salt her employer is having to buy this summer.

But when our adopted friend from the Dominican Republic found the best parts of Say Anything outrageously funny, I had to draw the line.

Some cultural differences are simply unacceptable.

Now I refuse to show her Office Space. I don’t think she deserves it.

Instead I’m letting her watch The Wedding Planner. It’s the closest thing to torture I think I.C.E. will allow in our situation.

Mother’s Day: A New Perspective

I’ve written often about being torn between the Hallmark ideal of Mother’s Day and the “same day, same frustrations” reality of Mother’s Day. At length and too many times. So have friends.

But this year is different.

I have a healthy, adorable, smart, funny grandma who lives an hour away. I visited her today while the kids were in school. Being with her infused me with wise, cross-generational “aren’t we lucky, even though the first years with small children are challenging, they’re a blip in the grand stretch of your life” perspective. Being grateful to have her makes a pretty nice Mother’s Day.

I have a healthy, sassy, energetic, interesting mom who lives an hour away. I saw her last week and will see her again for Mother’s Day. That’s a pretty freaking big deal after having lived the first two years of my son’s life in an isolated pocket of Hell (Los Angeles). Being grateful to have her, too, makes an increasingly sweet Mother’s Day.

And I somehow stumbled onto the best idea ever for a Mother’s Day gift. Beginning a few years ago, I forced my husband to engage in this ritual with my kids:

Buy or find the prettiest, smoothest rocks you can get your hands on. If possible, send partner and kids to beach by themselves to collect rocks.
Take dictation from children in Sharpie on the rocks after asking them, “What do you love about Mommy?”
Keep writing their answers on rocks until they have no more interest.
Have children decorate a plain box (wood, cardboard, glass, whatever). As big or little as you want.
Put rocks in box and hand them over on Mother’s Day.

IMAG3028

Throughout the year and whenever I want, I can reach in and read a reason, in my sons’ own words, why I’m the best mom they’ve ever had.

And I can’t wait to see what they write this year. Really. That “thanks for cake” rock is begging for a “thanks for 1,092 healthy meals a year” companion. We’ll see.

Mother’s Day. It’s not about sleeping in (as if), or breakfast in bed (ew, the cleanup), or peace and quiet (insert uncomfortable laughter at the realization that it’s never going to happen).

It’s about asking your kids (and partner if you have one) to make the present you want. And need.

And since they can’t build a Krasinski/Rudd/Fiennes/Gosling four-sided hologram, have them build you a box of love notes.

How? Seriously. How?

I woke early because the boys were fighting about whether one of them should be allowed to cough at 5am.

We stumbled grouchily through our morning and got everyone to school in clothing with food in their bellies. The principal cornered me to ask if I’d proctor one of the loathsome State Standards Tests mandated by No Child Left Behind Or Lovingly Taught Much Other Than Tests. I was in a fog trying to catch up of errands on this, my child-free morning, and finally got to email at noon.

Please pay your bills, please comment about this idea about the soccer team pizza party, please reply to the doctor’s office about whether your kid’s new allergies are responding to the new medication, please buy stuff at our exclusive, super special sale, please offer to proctor the state test, please proofread this white paper, please edit these case studies, please subscribe now to the children’s theater season, please submit emergency contact forms or your kid can’t come to camp this summer, please sign this petition, please double check your automatic order before we send it, please pay for preschool, please share this committee plan, please go to the Board meetings, please send the school money because we’re underfunded, please respond about your preferences regarding the temporary buildings, please look at this budget so we can talk at the next budget meeting, please read this thread so we can position ourselves for the next funding round, please send a proposal that includes high level strategic work as well as simple deadline-crunched writing, please read this book, please sign up for soccer for Fall by Friday because fees go up next week, please use your reward points before they expire, please bike to school tomorrow a part of the massive community effort to minimize local car trips, please plan Mother’s Day so you’re not doing it last minute again, please look over the lease and sign it by Friday, please return or renew your library books, please return or renew your kids’ library books, please let us know when you mailed your Netflix disc, please upgrade your software, please take care of our cat while we’re away for a week, please rate your experience…

That list of emails, which was tame for the middle of the week, put me in a major, shoulder-slumped funk. I certainly don’t have to answer all those requests, and those that need replies can often get a “no.” But a lot of the things on my list I actually *do* need to do.

Please tell me how people do all this? How do they or you or I fit it all in? I want to do a good job on the projects I’m being paid to write or edit. I want to do a good job rewriting my book. I want to submit a proposal for a conference because I’ve had a paper brewing for four years and still haven’t written it. I want a clean house and don’t have the option of making someone else clean it. I want to run several times a week and go fencing at least twice a week and do yoga at least every other day. I want to actually play with my kids when they’re here. I want to prepare and cook good food for at least three meals each day. I want to see my friends and read a book and watch a movie or two. I want to reply to letters written me by dear friends. I want to take the kids to museums and play word games and develop their science and math skills and remind them about gratitude and teach them patience and kindness. I would like to learn another language or two. And I want to sleep more than four hours a night.

So tell me. How do I do that?

How do you do it?

Oh, HAIL no.

I just got home from volunteering in Peanut’s first grade class. I’ve wanted to do this all  year, but my schedule hasn’t allowed it. Until now. I’m giving his sweet little face and adorable friends an hour of my time every week. They’re reading to me. I could eat them up.

Most of them.

But right now I’m so freaking mad.

Not at the teacher. She’s heaven and perfection wrapped in a package of cuteness. She might actually be the world’s most ideal first-grade teacher, but I don’t want to sway the judges in case she’s actually second or third best.

I’m not mad at the school, though I always have complaints. Shocking, I know. Naptime Complaining is the name wordpress always offers me when mine’s about to expire.

No, it’s not the institution that has riled me. I’m enraged at whoever is raising those two boys who debated with me today in class.

One came right out, apropos of nothing, and told me that girls can’t play soccer.

Um, yes they can. May I introduce you to the tale of the US women and the 1991 World Cup? I’m sorry, what, punk? Did you just say no to me? How about a little thing called the women’s Olympic team? No? Never heard of it? Hmmmm. Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain have a little something to tell you, boy, about the four gold medals the US has won playing against seriously talented female soccer players from all over the world.

His tablemate joined in. “Yeah. Did you know girls can’t play with boys’ toys?”

Ah, hello, 1940. Yes they can. “Well,” I said, “that’s not true. What do you consider boys’ toys?”

“LEGO,” he said.

“Girls play with LEGO,” I said. “I play with LEGO, my nieces play with LEGO, our neighbors play with LEGO. Building is not just for boys.”

“Sure it is, he said. “Girls can only play with LEGO friends.”

I’m assuming those are the asinine pink LEGO sets I railed against when they were introduced…until I found out girls loved them and were introduced to building and physics and architecture and spatial relations due to pink LEGOs. So I shut the hell up and found another cause for my feminist-consumerist rage.

Never once did it occur to me during this classroom bickering, by the way, that they were taunting me just to get my goat. First-graders don’t pick fights just to get a rise out of someone, right? That’s what husbands are for, I’m pretty sure.

Who is raising these little misogynists? I told my son, who was reading a soccer book, that the jerk boys at another table said soccer isn’t for girls. I didn’t say jerk boys, since I’ve told him repeatedly to stop calling those two particular boys jerks, a parenting practice I will now cease.

“Well, here’s one,” he said, pointed to a girl playing soccer in his book. “And C, D, and N and O all play soccer.”

“Right,” I said. “And there are professional women’s soccer players and Olympic women’s soccer players.”

“Yeah,” said one of the friends who has been to our house once and now gets a permanent invitation. “Women play soccer really well. All over the world. The American team was even in the World Cup.”

“Damn skippy,” I totally didn’t say. I probably “Yeah”ed him, but I don’t remember. My affirmative replies are funnier when I write them in Jazz-era-colored hindsight.

I can’t stand it. I want to go fight with those six-year-old boys. I want to call their parents. I want to write a letter and a school-wide presentation and host a sit-in.

Seriously. What the hell? Who still believes women can’t play soccer or play with blocks?

Of course this is coming from their parents. But are they isolated cases of ignorance and small-mindedness or are there whole cultures who still believe this? There were four boys who chimed in about grrl power. There were two boys who insisted girls can’t do what boys can. Aside from knowing whose mom I need to take out for drinks and whose dads and uncles and brothers need schooling, how do we change this? Do we hope the four educated boys talk some sense into the misogynists? Do I make it my goal—instead of going back to work, finishing my books, publishing my academic articles, and learning a few foreign languages so that finishing my doctorate is a real option—to teach all of the school district that boys and girls can both do anything they work hard for? To reassure both genders that they don’t have to compete, but to recognize each other as individuals? To build teams that are gender-blind but that reach to cover the whole gamut of talents, from interpersonal skills to knowledge in hard sciences to sportsmanship to verbal acumen to creativity to mathematic excellence?

Do I need to take up the standard that the Third Wave has shrugged off because they have ten million other things to do (and because seriously with the all-or-nothing guilt, First Wavers). Do we need to have more open talks in this country about race and economics and gender and assumptions and hatred and ignorance and teaching your kids some manners when talking to a delightful school volunteer?

The teacher overheard one boy and asked me what prompted his statement about girls being less than equal. I explained. Her eyes widened. “Oh, we have a new book to read after we get back from the library,” she insisted, promising with her tone that the rest of the day would be about grrl power.

Damn skippy, I say.

Holiday gifts

Hey, there.

I haven’t posted in forever because I’m crazy busy.

But I have something for you. A gift, perhaps.

Go to HealthyStuff.org and check out the toys you’re going to give the small people in your family. Or use it to check the stuff you’d really rather donate to charity, under the guise of making room for new toys by getting rid of the old.

Our government and our corporations do a really horrible job of making sure we can buy things that won’t hurt us. At least one major company has resolved not to use carcinogenic, hormone-disrupting chemicals in products for children. Good for them. But there is arsenic and lead and PBDEs and PVC in a lot of the stuff you or your loved ones can buy, gift, use, and enjoy this time of year.
Toxic phones, toxic car seats, toxic household products, toxic sunscreen, and toxic makeup and shampoo.

Some of the data is old, and a lot of new toys aren’t on the Healthystuff.org reports. But still. Do what you can. Nobody wants to give their niece a toxic piece of chemical waste for Winter Solstice. Right?

Find some healthier alternatives at Safe Mama. Her cheat sheets will help you find safer toys, lunch gear, backpacks, bug repellent, and more.

Be safe out there. It’s a gross mess of lead-tainted wrapping paper and tape and poison-PVC tinsel and lead-filled holiday lights out there.

It’s still an awful lot of fun though. Happy holidays, and enjoy all the fair trade gelt and organic candy canes, and whole-wheat winter solstice gingerbread you can eat!

In case you need this

Many fine bloggers handle In Case You Missed It posts, wherein they point us to lovely writing, hilarious rants, and cultural memes. They keep us abreast of the words and images that we might enjoy.

In that spirit, for this season of catalogs full of stuff nobody needs, pleas to spend money few of us have, and pressure to cement relationships that none of us really want, I offer the following.

DJ Cat Scratching Pad at Uncommon Goods

The cat scratcher guaranteed to get your cat a job. Tired of your pet lounging about, leaving hair everywhere, and whining about it being “dinnertime” and “cuddle time”? Get your cat this scratching turntable. And get him out of the house for a new career in the club scene the kids are all talking about. In the ’80s.

Potager Coffee Table at VivaTerra


The toddler entertainment center. Wondering how to occupy your toddler while family gathers to drink heavily and scream at each other? Get this gorgeous coffee table complete with sharp corners, potted plants, and unattended wine glasses. Your wee one can learn valuable lessons about the physical world by scattering dirt all over the living room, sipping adult beverages, shattering glass, and uprooting cacti. The highly sought-after blood-snot-tears sprinkler effect resulting from her profusely bleeding head-wound, thorn-implanted fingers, and wrought-iron-pinched fingers might even stop the family bickering for a while. I hear the well-lit and bustling E.R. is a great place to spend the Winter Solstice.

Out of the Woods Tool Kit from Sundance Catalog

A gorgeous reinterpretations of an old classic. Why get simple, functional tools for someone who needs a screwdriver, ruler, level and flashlight, when you can get simple, functional, expensive tools? Levels are wonderful for fun and sport, especially when one of the three axes is replaced with a logo. Flashlights help in so, so many darknesses, and wax even brighter when set in sustainably grown beech wood. Multi-tipped screwdrivers are endlessly useful, but even more so when included in a canvas carrying case. Four tools *plus* a carrying case for $95? Oh, the value.

Okay. That’s all I care to share. The secret to shopping this holiday season is finding gifts that show people you care, that you think of them, and that you want to leave a glow of joy in their lives. To that end, my kids and I will spend hours deciding who on our list will get what from this catalog.

Oxfam Unwrapped Catalog

It might not be a job for our cat, a party in the ER, or a wildly useful reinvented bag of simplicity, but giving a family whose needs outstrip those without sustainable beech artisan tools something useful like a goat, a flock of geese, a piglet, or a hive of bees can feel pretty good. As a survivor of a couple of natural disasters, I might choose to send emergency supplies to those in need as a gift to my family and friends.

And for the cost of a cat scratcher, a potager table, and an imported tool set we can give families in need a pig, a cow, honeybees, a dozen chicks, a couple of goats, a donkey cart, and a bicycle. For a few people on our list, we’ll send a a pile of crap in their name.

Or a for the same cost we can buy a six backpacks full of food for six hungry American children. For a YEAR.

Or more than 200 pairs of socks dropped off at our local homeless shelter.

Or more than 75 bags to hand out to homeless people in our area, each with peanut butter, bread, plastic utensils, and a bottle of honey. Everyone deserves a peanut butter and honey sandwich in the cold, dark days of December.*

*Except the peanut-butter allergic among us. Dudes. I’m so sorry. Peanut butter is cheap and full of protein, but you deserve to be safe. You’re welcome to a bag with sunflower seed butter instead. Be careful out there in this season of peanut butter donations, friends. I’ll have a couple of bags without any nut products just for you. XOXO.