Monday, January 2, 2012

The best and the worst.

We all have our best and worst gifts from the holiday season. Maybe you received a strange porcelain frog with fake eyelashes and a bikini? (worst) Or maybe you got a BRAND NEW CAR (cue game show host voice). It doesn't really matter what your best and worst are because normally they aren't found in the same package. Right?

This holiday season my preconceived notions about bests and worsts were turned on their head by none other than Child #2.


On Christmas morning he paused from ripping paper off of boxes long enough to deliver a wrapped box to my lap. "This one's for you, mom," he said. "Here, let me open it for you." He ripped the paper off of the box and we discovered another wrapped box inside.

"Don't open this one," he said. "You have to read the card first."

Inside the card was a xeroxed copy of the following poem.

This is a very special gift
That you can never see
The reason that it's special
It's just for you from me

Whenever you are lonely
Or when you're feeling blue
You only have to hold this
gift and know I think of you

You never can unwrap it
Please leave the ribbon tied
Just hold this box close to your heart
It's filled with love inside

Awwww. So cute, so sweet. Clearly a great gift to a mother from a son. But then he added, "I was thinking you could wear it on a string around your neck. That way it would be right next to your heart whenever you need it."

For those of you that know me, and those of you that don't, the chances of me wearing a box on a string around my neck are, well, next to nil. I'll do a lot for my children but I draw the line at wearable art, especially when it's the cardboard kind.


After a quick round of negotiations, we settled on my purse as an appropriate place to keep my box of love.

In the days that passed after Christmas I was busy, along with every other parent in the United States, trying to occupy my children before they went back to school.

We went roller skating, ice skating, to the movies, swimming and hiking. During every one of these activities Child #2 would suddenly ask, as though he suspected I was trying to put one over on him, "Mom! Where's your box of love?"

The love box demands took on the feel of those random sobriety check points that pop up during the holidays. Every time he asked for it I managed to produce the box, although after traveling in my purse for just a week it was already beginning to look squashed. 

The random love box check points were also accompanied by a love box inspection. "Mom, you've got to be careful with your box," he told me after the last inspection. "Do you see this corner here? It's squashed. If it gets torn some of the love might leak out. You wouldn't want that, would you?"

No, no, I absolutely wouldn't want that. And there you have it. The best and the worst all tied up in one, not-so-small, package.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Free Fall

The second commandment of Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project is to Let It Go.

Let. It. Go.

This is good advice for most people. It's even better advice for crazy achievement-oriented Type A people in the heart of the holiday season.

The holidays are full of opportunities to not let it go. There are parties to host and attend. There are cookies to bake, presents to wrap perfectly (as though Martha Stewart was watching and taking notes), fabulous meals to be made and sparingly consumed lest one won't be able to fit into the equally fabulous dresses that were purchased for previously noted parties.

There are traditions to be upheld, the holiday tea, the Christmas tree, the eight days of Hannukah, the youth choir holiday concert and, of course, the frameworthy cards with accompanying witty letter.

That's all in addition to the daily task of writing, editing and keeping up with many and varied social media outlets. Most holiday seasons I flit through November and December like an overcaffeinated bumble bee until suddenly I land. Usually, it's on the couch. Sometimes it's in bed. I'll rest for a few hours and then spring up, ready to tackle more traditions, more parties, more cookies, more, more, more.

This year is the same in a lot of ways. There are the same traditions and host of obligations (joyous and otherwise). There are the big, bright holiday-lit moments and the quieter ones that make you remember the meaning of the season. Except this year there is one difference.

This year I've let things go.

The cards went out (minus the letter), only one batch of cookies were baked (maybe I'll make more, maybe I won't), the parties were attended but I wore old outfits and I've abandoned my love of Bon Appetit's holiday dinner plan in favor of something simpler. That's right. This year I'm ordering in Chinese food.

Something else has happened this year. I feel more relaxed. There have been no temper tantrums (if only I were referring to the kids). Maybe it's my pretend zen, my uber-clean refrigerator, saying yes to the things I love, the check mark system or trying to live in the present moment.

 Or maybe it's just turning forty.

Whatever it is, I'm feeling calm, resilient and ready to kick off one hell of a New Year.

Let it go! It's a little like free-falling upwards.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Fulfillment Project Goes Big

Here's my confession of the morning. I'm Christmas tree expedition averse.

I'm not sure when it started. Maybe it was when we lived in New York City and my husband refused to pay the tree delivery fee because "it's not far from Union Square to our apartment." Twenty blocks is a long way to carry a perfect Fraser fir. In fact, by the time we dragged it all the way home, shoved it in the elevator and put it up in our apartment it was far from perfect.

Maybe my aversion set in later, like the time I threw up at the Christmas tree lot and realized, with a sudden flash of clarity, that I was pregnant with Child #2.

Maybe it is deep-seated, a childhood remnant from too many hiking expeditions that left me with numb feet and a desire to just, "pick the damn tree already!"

I'm not sure where my aversion came from but there it is. I never go with my family to pick out the yuletide tree. This year, I paid the price.

It started with a telephone call. "Honey, we got a BIG tree," said my husband.

"Great!" I said.

There was a moment of hesitation, then he added. "It was too big to fit through the tree netter, so we're going to have to take back roads home. I'm afraid it'll come off the roof if I take the highway. But it's going to be an awesome tree?"

"Great," I said with a little less enthusiasm.

An hour later they returned. My husband's mood seemed to have gone from Christmas cheer to Grinch. "I need some help getting this tree up these steps," he yelled.

The two of us dragged the tree up to the front porch. You know the scene from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, where he's shoving the tree up the chimney? That was us in reverse, trying to get the tree through the front door. Needles were flying and tempers were flaring. We got it inside only to realize that our oversized tree stand was too SMALL for the tree.

"That's okay," said my husband. "It almost fits." He ran out to the garage and returned with a hedge trimmer.

I looked at the hedge trimmer and then at the tree  trunk and said, "You know, I think I'm going to go fold some laundry."
Not ten minutes later the tree trunk a la hedge trimmer project came to an abrupt halt announced by a stream of unprintable curse words.

I came back upstairs, looked from the broken hedge trimmer to the stump of our Christmas tree, now shaved clean of bark, as though my husband was the aesthetic technician of Christmas trees. "Hmm," I said. "I bet that hedge trimmer cost more than a new tree stand."

He growled something, stomped off to the car and fifteen minutes later was back with a new tree stand.

"I'm Ellen Griswold from Christmas Vacation," I texted to a friend. "Is there a squirrel in your tree?" she replied.

Happily, there are no squirrels. The tree, with it's freshly shaved trunk drinks approximately five gallons of water a day, but I have to admit it's beautiful.

Oh, one last thing. Did I mention my husband is Jewish?

 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Pretend Zen

It was the morning of the big Girl Scout meeting and I was a little worried my smile and the world smiles with you approach might fall short. I decided to call in the big guns, or more precisely the 'pretend I'm on Prozac' approach where (as I imagine it) problems, big and small, are no problem at all.

The girls arrived and crowded around my kitchen table to prepare their shopping lists. When I told them they'd be doing their shopping by themselves they had lots of questions:


"Can we stop and get the free cookie?"
"Should we buy organic ingredients?"
"Do we each get our own shopping cart?"

My answer in Prozac-inspired style: "Good questions! I think you should come to your own consensus." A consensus was quickly reached about the free cookie (no surprises there) but there was a little more discussion about the second two issues.

At the grocery store, my fellow sister leader and I had the pleasure of watching from the front of the store as the girls trailed up and down the aisles. It was surprisingly amusing to watch them search for taco seasoning in the cookie aisle. After 45 minutes they had collected their ten ingredients, calculated the cost (discovering in the process that organic costs more) and we checked out and headed home.
The girls went to work. Milk was spilled. Eggs were cracked, sometimes in the bowl and sometimes on the counter. My kitchen floor developed a coating of cocoa powder and flour that combined with the few chunks of hamburger meat that had flipped out of the pan.

"Ewwww," said the girls. "That's disgusting."

"Yes," I agreed, still on my pretend Prozac. "Someone should probably clean it up before you step in it. It'll be really gross if it gets on your socks."

They stared at me blankly for a moment. Then one of them grabbed the cleaning spray and another grabbed the paper towels.

Onions were chopped. Tears were shed. The decision was made to wear goggles to protect from onion fumes. The jury is still out on whether it was effective.


My husband ventured in from outside where he was hanging Christmas lights just in time to witness one Girl Scout wielding my Sabatier cleaver over the head of another Girl Scout.

"Umm, honey, do you think they should use those knives?!?"

I could see the panic in his eyes but I held on tight to my pretend Prozac zen. "Girls, remember, those knives can cut through bone," I said and calmly took a sip of tea.

After several hours we all sat down, happily unmaimed, to a delicious lunch of tacos, cornbread and chocolate pudding cake. We were a little behind schedule, but hey, timing IS one of the hardest things to get right in cooking. As for me, dare I say it? I had FUN! Smile and the world smiles with you. Fake it 'til you make it. Or maybe, just pretend you're on Prozac and the zen will follow!
It was all edible! Some of them even wanted seconds.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Simple Plan

Where were we? Oh, that's right. Girl Scouts, Junior Drench Camp, I have to force myself to think about it even when it's the subject of my blog.

Fortunately, for everyone involved some of my Sister Leaders (yes, we really refer to ourselves like that) volunteered to chaperone Junior Drench Camp, which only left the little matter of preparing our group of nine year olds to be self-sufficient in the wilderness for a period of approximately thirty-six hours.

Sister Leader Sara, who knows how to pitch a tent, divided us up by skill set. Guess what I got?  Cooking!

Maybe I underestimated my uselessness in the event of a Zombie Apocolypse because cooking is something I can do. In fact, I love to cook. I'm the kind of person who makes holiday meals from the recipes in the pages of Bon Appetit or (the sadly defunct) Gourmet Magazine. Someone who loves to cook as much as I do should easily be able to lead a meeting where a bunch of nine year olds prepare a meal.
I started by lowering my standards. The girls weren't going to recreate a Jamie Oliver meal in the wilderness. They just needed to eat. Something filling and substantial that would please even the picky eaters. I settled on tacos, corn bread and something called pudding cake that, according to the recipe, can also be cooked over a campfire.

My plan was to break the girls up into three groups. Each group would be given a recipe. They would make a shopping list, then we would go to the local grocery store where they would find all the items on their shopping list (while keeping track of how much each item cost so as to be able to ask me for exact change), return to my house, prepare the meal, set the table and eat.

Fairly simple, right? I told parents to drop their daughters off around 10:00 and pick up at 1:00, assuming that the girls would probably finish early and have a little play time afterwards.

On the eve of my first 2011-2012 Girl Scout meeting I experienced a first. My plan was working. I was calm. I was collected. And, I was even looking forward to the next day. Maybe, the whole fake it 'til you make it, play to your strengths thing was going to transform my most dreaded time of the year into something fun?

Stop by on Thursday. I'll have all the details of the meeting. Plus pictures of the girls in action.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Most Dreaded Day(s) of the Year

In Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project, she talks about acting the way you want to feel. If you want to be happy, smile. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Fake it 'til you make it. And so on...

I decided to take this advice to heart for two events that don't make me smile. In fact they're something I dread. At the beginning of every school year I put these two dates in my calendar and then I try not to think about them too much until the moment they are upon me.

Then, unprepared and stressed out, I run around the house like a crazy person trying to get organized for the ordeal.

What are these two dates?

They are the two Girl Scout meetings I lead every year. My daughter's troop is a co-op, which means all the moms take turns leading. This is great, wonderful, phenomonal...until it's my turn. My problem isn't exactly with the meetings. Wait, actually it is!

Here's the thing. I'm not a Girl Scout. I don't know how to tie knots or pitch tents. I'm not outdoorsy, I can't sew and crafting is one of my biggest guilty unpleasures. Umm, yes, I realize I've just admitted to being absolutely useless in the zombie apocolypse but let's ignore that!

In years past I've had the "pleasure" of leading fourteen first grade girls through a yoga class.

Me: Girls, stop talking and clear your mind
Child #1 (shrieking): I can't! I can't! I don't know what you mean!!

I've helped put together an exhibit about Kenya that required me to be up until midnight cutting out pieces of paper for the Kenyan flag and I've been a chaperone on a trip to an indoor water park.

Me (over-and-over): Where is Non-Swimmer Girl? Who's her buddy? Girls! Stick Together!! PLEASE, Remember your buddy system!!

Girls: AIIIIYYYAWER (which is the sound of them running around, ignoring the buddy system and screaming unintelligibly over the sound of BreakNeck Falls).

That's the background. Now here's the issue. Every year it seems like the Girl Scout Council has something new and "fun" up their sleeves. This year it's Junior Tent Camp.

Junior Tent Camp is an overnight outing that takes place somewhere in the wilderness in April. That's right! April! We live in Oregon. An Oregon April is rainy and cold, which is why Junior Tent Camp is affectionately referred to as Junior Drench Camp.
The girls are expected to do everything for themselves at Junior Drench Camp. Which means that this year's meetings are devoted solely to the purpose of turning a group of nine year olds into self-sufficient campers.

Tomorrow, I discuss my fake it 'til you make it strategy and how I'm going to apply it to Junior Drench Camp.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Popsicles and Poopsicles at The Fulfillment Project

A reader of The Fulfillment Project suggested I read Martin Seligman's book Flourish. So I did. I'm remarkably suggestible that way. Send me your favorite book and you will soon find it on my to-read list.

I know I promised you this would be a not-very-well researched blog about my quest to make my pretty good life better, but sometimes I can't help myself. I mean, a little research is okay, right? Especially when it yields treasure.

Treasure, in the form of an idea, is what I found in Flourish. My favorite idea, so far, is the idea of writing down three things for which I am grateful. According to Mr. Seligman, it's not enough to verbalize your gratitude. You have to write it down. It can be big things, like I'm grateful for my healthy family or little things, like I'm grateful for peppermint hot chocolate. The most important thing is that it be specific.

This idea seems especially appropriate during the holiday season when most of us rush from one place to the next without taking time to let the good things sink in. 
What better way to celebrate than by writing down a daily list of three things for which I am grateful?

But first, a little more about this exercise. It was first tested on people suffering from severe depression (meaning they had trouble getting out of bed). Within a few months of writing in a gratitude journal something like 95% of the subjects were categorized as only mildly depressed. I'm hardly ever depressed so this should fit nicely with my goal of making my pretty good life a little bit better.

Not only that, we already kinda do this as a family. My kids call it poopsicle and popsicle. Every night we go around the table and say one bad thing (the poopsicle) and one good thing (the popsicle). I've noticed that, in general, my husband and I always have a poopsicle.

A lot of times the kids don't have anything at all...apparently their lives are all popsicles. That's great for them, but what about us? Why do we focus on the bad more than the good, the poopsicles more than the popsicles? I'm hoping the gratitude journal will help me focus on the positives and less on the negatives so here goes.

Today I'm grateful for the following three things.

1. Listening to my daughter help my son practice piano.
2. That my husband regularly texts me throughout the day.
3. That my local bookstore sold out of their copies of Losing Beauty and ordered more.

That wasn't so hard. I promise! Now I'm really hoping you'll leave me comments with the things that make you grateful. What's your popsicle today?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Fulfillment Project Dinner Party

I haven't touched on the social aspect of The Fulfillment Project yet, but given that the holiday season, with its many, many parties, is upon us, it feels appropriate.

Life isn't complete without friends!
An important part of making my pretty good life even better is extending myself socially. If you haven't already guessed, I like to talk to people.

But lately, I've noticed that I stick mostly to my established friends. I don't make much of an effort to meet new people. The Fulfillment Project has made me wonder whether making a new friend or two isn't an important component of making my pretty good life even better.

The only obstacle to this goal is that grown ups don't make friends the way kids do. We don't look at each other in coffee shops and say, "Wanta be friends? Okay, let's play." We're a little more cautious. Which means acquiring and investing in new friends can be a time-consuming project. I have to make time and space for new people in my life. After I've made that time and space, I have to hope we are a fit. It's like dating without the physical component.

I was discussing this issue with some of my friends at lunch the other day when someone hit on a brilliant idea.

"You should do a speed-friending dinner party," she suggested. "Invite all the people you think are interesting but don't know very well, then spend three minutes talking to each other. If both people want to continue, than that person goes into the dinner party pool."

Genius!

Like speed dating, but for friends.
I promise I won't make people compete for seats at my dinner table (after all, who would subject themselves to that) but I love the efficiency of the idea. It seems like the world is ripe for speed-friending. I can already envision women meeting in a church basement and whipping out their iphones to schedule lunch dates with compatibility matches. For that matter, men could be included too. Women aren't the only ones who stand to benefit from expanding their social circle.

Any ambitious souls want to organize one in Portland? Going once...going twice....what, no takers? I guess I'll just have to do it the old fashioned way.  

Monday, December 5, 2011

Damn You, Kate DiCamillo!

Yes! I said it! You'll understand in a minute, but first let me backtrack a little bit!

I'm a crier. You know, the kind that cries at coming attractions and sappy commercials. In college a group viewing of Terms of Endearment reduced me to such a quivering, sobbing mass that I overhead a  male voice whisper to someone else, "Do you think she's going to be okay? Should we do something?"

Nope, there was nothing to be done. I was still in the process of learning to avoid tearjerkers.

I've discovered that Child #2 is cut from the same cloth. A recent viewing of E.T. reduced us both to tears. There's that scene in the middle where E.T. dies. He really dies! Child #2 looked at me, his eyes full of tears.

"Mommy, you promised he wouldn't die."
"I know," I sobbed. "It's not fair. E.T. can't die."

We curled up in our corner of the couch sobbing while my daughter and husband looked on with bemused expressions.

"They understand it's just pretend, right?" my daughter said.
"I think so," said my husband.

Cut to Kate DiCamillo's book, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Even though I didn't know much about this book, I'd heard it was good and I know Ms. DiCamillo is a fabulous writer.  I couldn't wait to read it to Child #2. Midway through the book, it became apparent that my husband (the noncrier) should have been reading this one. Edward the bunny has found his way into a depression era destitute family and the girl he loves dies. Let me repeat that. She dies! For real. There is no E.T. type coming back to life scenario. No softening the blow. She dies and Edward mourns her.

Edward wasn't the only one to mourn. Child #2 and I were beside ourselves. I was crying so hard I could barely read the last sentences of the chapter. Poor Child #2's pillow was all wet.

"It has to get better," I promised him. "Things will get better when they go to Memphis."

Except they didn't. Edward is broken, and then repaired. He sits on a shelf with a broken heart only to be reclaimed by the daughter of the girl who was his first love. Which is sort of a happy ending but in the Garth household it was a tearful disaster.

"My heart hurts," Child #2 told me.
"Mine too!" I said.

Child #1 came in and turned a cartwheel. "It's a happy ending," she said glancing skeptically at our swollen, tear-stained faces.

So what did I learn from Edward Tulane and how can I apply it to being in the present moment? Sometimes in order to love, you have to be prepared to have your heart broken. And sometimes, if you are fully in the present moment you (meaning me) will shed a lot of tears.

Don't mind me Ms. DiCamillo, I'm just the one in the corner, loving your books and sobbing! Maybe, just maybe you could put a warning on them...not for the tearfully inclined!