Archive | November, 2012

It’s beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah

29 Nov

It’s Christmas time! That holly jolly time of year that we await eagerly. Houses are decked, trees are lit. Children are half out of their minds with anticipation. Radio stations play carols around the clock. Every night, there’s another holiday special to watch.

And every year, Christmas makes me glad there is Hanukkah.

Hanukkah really shouldn’t be compared to Christmas but they happen at the same time of year so I guess it’s inevitable. Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, not like Yom Kippur, which is the heavyweight. Someone joked once that many of the Jewish holidays follow the same theme: “They tried to kill us; we won. Let’s eat.” Hanukkah is one of those holidays.

Christmas exhausts me.

I start thinking about Christmas gifts for friends and family some time in August. I do this not because I’m particularly organized, but because I can’t afford to make the entire Christmas sacrifice in a single month.

Hanukkah? We don’t do gifts at Hanukkah.  I tried doing treats for each night when my son was very young. Every night, he got some dumb little thing. On the ninth night at sundown, he said, “Where’s my present?”

Since then, the kids have had parties for Hanukkah; one year we made pretzels. This year, we’ll have a small dinner party with brisket and latkes. I might even make rugelach. I will make this dinner once, even though Hanukkah lasts eight days. My daughter is inviting her best friend. My son is inviting his girlfriend. My daughter’s friend is invited to sleepover, too. My son’s girlfriend is not.

Christmas decorating takes three days, but it takes me at least three weeks to build up the momentum to accomplish it. I keep all holiday decorations in big plastic bins in the crawlspace. Halloween has a bin, as do Passover, Easter and Chinese New Year. Christmas has eleven bins, not counting the box—large enough to hide a small body in—that contains the Christmas tree.

It takes at least four trips up and down the stairs from the basement to get all of the Christmas gear into the living room. Two people are needed to move the casket tree box. Every year, I’m afraid my husband or son will go tumbling down the staircase should the tree moving go horribly wrong.

Because my husband is Jewish I’m a control freak, only I can put the lights on the tree. It takes me at least three hours, after which my arms are shredded from winding strands of lights in and out of the tree’s branches. I always have either too much left when I get to the top, or too little. It can take me half an hour to get the top of the tree lit to my liking.

The next day, I put the ornaments on the tree. My daughter helps; my son says he does, but I can’t recall this phenomenon. Maybe this year, I’ll take pictures. My son’s greatest contribution to Christmas decorating is his insistence that my daughter and I cease listening to carols while we decorate because, as he says, “Christmas music is crap.” I respond with “Yes, of course it’s crap! But it’s Christmas crap. How else am I going to get in the mood to spend three days decorating the house?”

Decorating for Hanukkah? I bring the Hanukkah box up from the basement by myself. I take out the menorahs; we have one big family one and the kids each have their own. It is necessary for each child to have their own or Hanukkah turns from the Festival of Lights, to the Festival of Whining That He/She Lit The Shamash Last Night.

The extent of my outdoor Christmas decorating is hanging a festive wreath on the door. My inner Martha Stewart demands that an outdoor light display be artistic and neatly applied. This is impossible to achieve unless you are, indeed, Martha Stewart assisted by Santa’s Elves.

Photo: Martha Stewart Omnimedia

Hanukkah display? I’m all over that one with our driveway menorah. We start with one luminaria at the end of the drive near the house. Each night, we add another luminaria until, on the eighth night, there are eight luminarias lining the drive. It’s artistic, it’s neat and it’s easy.

I only have two problems with Hanukkah. Though we start the holiday with the best of intentions—that we will light the candles and say the blessings every night—invariably, we forget at least once.

The other Hanukkah problem is a matter of timing. Because it’s based on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah wanders all over December from year to year. Every year, I check the calendar and every year that Christmas minds its manners and stays away from Hanukkah, I breathe a sigh of relief.

I love Hanukkah because, like Christmas, it brings light to the darkest time of year. But more, I love Hanukkah because its more low-key festivities help me ease into the holiday spirit. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown on December eighth. We’ll light the candles for eight nights. Then on December 17, I’ll polish the menorah, put it back in its velvet-lined box and be ready to begin the hoopla that is Christmas.

My kids say funny stuff, too 9

27 Nov

The setting: a Chinese restaurant. We’ve finished eating, cracked our cookies and are sharing our fortunes.

Daughter: Oh, no! It says, “Welcome the change coming into your life!”

Me: That sounds ok. What change are you afraid of welcoming?

Daughter: Puberty!

My kids–and their friends–say funny stuff

20 Nov

My daughter and her friends were discussing after-school activities.

Daughter: I was in Brownies for a while. I didn’t do Girl Scouts.

Friend: I was going to do Girl Scouts. My mom was even going to be the leader. Then I found out it wasn’t just about the cookies.

What’s your favorite Girl Scout cookie? My year isn’t complete without adding at least two pounds of Thin Mint fat to my thighs.

Welcoming thanks

19 Nov

It’s half way through November and it’s happening again. People all around me are grateful. I have friends who post daily what they are grateful for, everything from goofy co-workers to post-workout meals to husbands returning from out of town trips. One friend is even expressing her gratitude in haiku, but she’s an English professor, so don’t hate.

I asked my grateful friends why they are making these daily gratitudinal adjustments. They said things like, “Gratitude frees me to be a more hopeful, kinder person.” The haiku-writing professor likes being reminded, “to appreciate what I have. I like the daily Facebook project because doing it every day makes me notice the little things. They kind of turn out to be the big things, so I enjoy that irony.”

This professor predicted that I would find all this gratitude annoying. She is right, which is also annoying.

We owe our current focus on thankfulness to the positive psychology movement. Sometime around 2000, researchers found that feeling grateful had a strong and direct correlation to happiness. According to my extensive research on Wikipedia,

Grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships[19][22][23] Grateful people also have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self acceptance.[24] Grateful people have more positive ways of coping with the difficulties they experience in life, being more likely to seek support from other people, reinterpreted and grow from the experience, and spend more time planning how to deal with the problem.[25]

That all sounds good, and like all things good, it gets perverted.

Corporations get hold of gratitude research and suddenly you’re getting phone calls during dinner thanking you for buying a new dishwasher. Turns out that you’re 70 percent more likely to buy from that dishwasher dealer again if you’re thanked than if you aren’t. My favorite corporate perversion of gratitude is the tech support person who thanks me for calling to report my problem then asks how she can give me excellent service. I’ve never said, “Hm. Well, how about making a product that always works so I don’t ever have to make you grateful again?” I’d be grateful for that.

I’ve frequently been accused of over-intellectualizing and seeing conspiracy around every corner. This is why I keep Professors among my friends. Not one has ever accused me of over-intellectualizing. In fact, I’m quite the lightweight in intellectual terms. So, I know none of them will roll their eyes when I opine that gratitude is the new opiate of the masses.

Constantly being exhorted to be grateful for what we have here and now smacks a little too much of the same philosophy that keeps all disadvantaged peoples happy where they are. Add to the “be happy with what you have” message another one promising reward in the future for contentment today and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for enslaving whole groups of people.

Saying “Thank you” implies that something has been given and while I firmly believe that we should be thankful for our blessings, gifts, or whatever you want to call them, the focus is still on what we have. Gratitude gurus and others selling gratitude keep us caught in the goodies game by having us chasing after more and more gratitude. Now we have to ask not just have we been grateful, but have we been grateful enough. The more grateful we are, the more we will have to be grateful for. It is an infinite loop of gratitude.

And it makes me feel that we’re missing something. When I was a kid, my mother taught me that the proper response to “Thank you”, is “You’re welcome.” But we’re so driven to thanks, that hardly anyone says “You’re welcome” anymore.

These days, the answer to “Thank you” is “Thank you.” I noticed it first in radio interviews, where the host thanks the guest for appearing and the guest thanks the host for hosting. They sign off the same way, thanking each other until every reason for the two of them existing in the same space at the same time—even though it is their jobs to do so—has been thoroughly thanked.

I know my “welcomes” are fewer and I’m betting yours are, too. Listen to yourself the next time you pay for something. The clerk thanks you as she hands back your change; you thank the clerk as you accept it. Hell, I even say “Thank you” instead of “Goodbye” when ending a phone call sometimes.

But what difference does it make if we say “You’re welcome” when we are thanked or if we respond to thanks with more thanks. Aren’t we still spreading the love?

“Thank you” is all about getting goodies, even if, as is the case with getting change back, they are goodies that are yours to begin with. “You’re welcome,” in comparison, is about giving. When we say, “you’re welcome” we acknowledge thanks but avow that there is no indebtedness, nothing to pay back, no need for gratitude at all. “You’re welcome,” opens our lives to a more authentic feeling of bounty. I don’t just give to you; I welcome you to take from what I have.

Every year, family and friends gather at my house for Thanksgiving. I’ve done it so many years that it no longer causes any anxiety. In fact, it’s Monday and I haven’t even bought the turkey yet.

I’ve had anywhere from ten to more than twenty people at my tables, because it usually takes more than one. Not too long ago, I had planned for twenty-two guests. Thanksgiving morning, my niece called begging to bring one more person, an exchange student from Sweden, to the feast.

Much as I love the baking, cooking and decorating for Thanksgiving, I love the gathering. Of course, the exchange student came because, for me, it’s the welcoming that matters when we’re giving thanks.

Writer’s Block

16 Nov

Write a sentence.

Let the dog out.

Pour a cup of tea.

Let the dog in.


Delete a sentence

Read email.

Check Facebook.


Write a sentence.

Scrub the floor.

Wash my face.

Pour a cup of tea.


Write a paragraph.

Do backbends seated in my swivel chair.

Pull my hair by the roots.

Delete a sentence


Let the dog out.

Write a sentence.

Brush my teeth.

Write a sentence

Let the dog in.


Write a sentence

I had hoped for something longer today. This will have to do.


My students say funny stuff, too

13 Nov


I provide enrichment in Math and English to students from preK through 6th grade. Recently, I was helping a kindergartener learn how to do two digit addition. The problem causing a problem was 16 + 7.

Him: Sixteen plus seven is twenty one.

Me: No. Let’s try again.

Him: Seventeen?

Me: I don’t think so.

Him: Twenty?

Me: No. Let’s try it this way. Sixteen is the same as a ten and a six, right?

Him: Yes. I know.

Me: Well, let’s take the ten part away for a minute. What’s six plus seven?

Him: (long pause, lays his head on the desk, sighing) I don’t need to know.


Where do babies come from?

12 Nov


Nicole Kidman, Edie Falco and Sharon Stone did it. Sandra Bullock, Charlize Theron and Katherine Heigl did it. Barbara Walters and Diane Keaton did it. I know someone who was with Meg Ryan when she did it.

It isn’t only women who do it. Tony Shaloub and even Ozzy Osbourne did it.

And I did it, too.

Nine years ago, on September 15, I, with my husband, adopted a baby girl from China. I’ve written about adoption before; it was an angry—some might say “snide”—response to the idiocy many people express about adoption and to those on all sides of the adoption triangle.

But adoption hasn’t only exposed me to idiocy. It has brought me an overabundance of joy. My daughter is beautiful, smart, funny, loving, generous, and kind. We adoptive parents like to joke that it’s ok for us to brag about our children ‘cause it’s not like we’re patting our own genetic code on the back. But I will gladly tell you that my son, who came from my womb, is handsome, smart, funny, loving (in a teenage boy kind of way), generous and kind.

Adoption has changed my vocabulary. My daughter isn’t adopted, she was adopted. As soon as the papers were signed, she became my daughter. I don’t usually say my son come from my womb, as I did above, though I prefer that description. I refer to him as my “biological son” if anyone asks and people frequently ask when they see him and his sister together. He has some smart-ass comments he keeps for people who ask if she was adopted, but he has a smart-ass comment for just about everything. Calling my son “biological” seems to imply, to me at least, that my daughter is somehow not made of the same stuff. Calling him my “natural” child is equally strange for me. Is my daughter then “unnatural?”

Adoption has changed the way many people see me. Because I’ve adopted, many people think I’m brave. They consider the things I’ve done—traveling to China, adopting “someone else’s child”—to be scary things.

Becoming a parent was scary. Deciding to try to get pregnant was scary, in a jumping off a cliff and hoping for a soft landing sort of way.

With adoption, there was no fear. We took one red-tape filled step at a time, confident that there was a child for us at the end of the journey. Traveling to China? With an eight-year old boy? Immediately following lifting of the SARS travel ban? Didn’t faze me. Trying to get pregnant is a tentative sort of venture. Who knows how it will end? Adoption is a deliberate process. Every form filled out, every interview, every trip to a consulate, state or county official says, “We will have a child.”

Adoption has brought me close to people I might never have bothered to know. I don’t usually go out of my way to befriend people whose politics and principles are so different from my own. My adoption community includes people with dramatically different politics and principles.

When I was pregnant with my son, a good friend was as well. We had a bump bonding moment in the ladies’ room at a restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana. She showed me her distended belly button and I showed her mine. I can’t imagine showing my belly button to my adoption community friends. Most of them have never met me in person.

But though our world is mainly virtual, our friendship is very real. We’ve been through the typical things long time friends weather like divorces, illnesses, teenagers. But only my adoption friends can provide comfort when I’ve just held my daughter while she sobs for her real mother.  Only they can assure me that I’ve handled it well, that I’ve done what a real mother does.

People tell me they couldn’t do what I’ve done; that they could never love a child that wasn’t their own. There’s a witty reply: I love her as my own because she is my own, just as her brother is my own.

When my son was born, he was placed in my arms and I had no idea what to do with him. I fell in love with him but it wasn’t an overnight thing.

On September 14, a Chinese woman placed Lin Chun Mei in my arms. On September 15, she became my daughter, Abigail Mei. The next day, pushing her stroller toward the elevator at the White Swan Hotel in Guangdong Province, I knew she was my own, that my love for her was no different than my love for my son.

Before I went to China, I learned a single phrase in Mandarin. When I met my daughter, I told her, “Wo shi ni de mama. Wo shi yung yuan ni de mama.”

I am your mama. I will always be your mama.

The Princess of Snide

Solitude, Invading Molecules, and The Scarlet Pimpernel

9 Nov

There is someone in the house. I don’t have to see or hear them. I know by the way my skin prickles and my brain reels. There is someone in the house besides me. I feel his molecules, because I know it’s a man, invading my space making it impossible for me to work. I feel seen, observed. I feel this way every time my husband takes vacation days.

The problem isn’t that he’s in my hair, though it feels like he’s in my hair. The problem is that he’s here at all. He’s actually leaving me alone. Most of the time you wouldn’t even know he’s here. Except that he’s here. When I leave my office to warm my tea or let the dog out or have a snack, there he is. And he’s doing nothing while I’m trying to do something. I go to my office and he doesn’t follow me but I still can’t work. It’s like the molecules he breathes seek me out and watch my every move.

You’d think that feeling observed like this would make me more productive, but it doesn’t. My husband likes my writing, he supports my writing, but I can’t do it in front of him or his molecules. So I check Facebook, then email, then read other bloggers’ posts. I comment and check Facebook again. I go back to email to see if the blogger has responded to my witty comment and the cycle begins again.

This morning, while I was cleaning the kitchen, he woke and came downstairs. I had spent the morning listening to my daughter wail about how she’d ruined her model of the atomic structure of the iron atom. She wailed about it for fifteen minutes then mysteriously stopped wailing. “I didn’t ruin it after all,” she said gaily. I sighed. She went to school.

I had about a half hour in silence. I like silence. Even the dog knows I like silence and only barks when absolutely necessary. Normally, I have hours and hours of silence. But not this week.

I’ve been tolerant of having another human in my silent house. And, really, my husband has been considerate, only engaging me when I’m within a ten-foot radius. He even listens to his music with noise-canceling headphones.

This morning, though, he interrupted my kitchen cleaning ritual with dialogue from 1934’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I like the movie; we like the movie. We quote the dialogue to each other, particularly the idiotic poem Leslie Howard pens as the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney, who is actually the infamous Pimpernel, fearless rescuer of French nobility following the Revolution. The poem begins like this:

They seek him here,

They seek him there.

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

It goes on, ending with “That damned elusive Pimpernel.”

Today, I rose at 7 a. m. with The Empress of the Fine Chinese Whine. My vacationing husband rose at 10 a.m. and came down for his morning coffee. He was cheerful. He was quoting the Scarlet Pimpernel poem, he thought.

“They seek him high,” he said. “They seek him low. Those Frenchies know not. . .”

“Stop yourself!” I said. “You’re doing it wrong! I think I’ve been pretty good about you being here all week, putting up with your molecules all up in my face, but you have no idea how the poem goes!”

To his credit, he stopped. To my credit, I poured a cup of tea, went to my office, closed the door, and wrote about how my husband’s molecules, supportive and understanding as they are, drive me crazy when they aren’t supposed to be here in my solitude.

Next week, he’ll be back at work and so will I. Alone. In silence. Now, though, my teacup is empty and I’m hoping the Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t waiting for me in the kitchen.

My kids say funny stuff, too 8

6 Nov

Recently, I gave away the cat. Don’t judge me harshly; the cat is really better off in a home where the children play with him, the adults can afford to keep him and the other pets like him.

The children were prepared. They did not protest. In fact, they asked how soon they could get a hamster/pug/poodle to replace Oliver.

It was difficult leaving Oliver at the Animal Care League of Oak Park or, as my son’s friends have dubbed it, The Oliver Factory. I was filled with sadness, guilt, remorse, and self-recrimination. While this is not unusual for me, I don’t normally have to work it out in front of disgustingly understanding and supportive animal-loving volunteers.

On arriving home from school, my daughter began to wail. She came running to me, put her arms around me and cried, “Oliver’s gone!” She cried in my arms for some time. Then, tears dried, she asked if she could come to work with me. “Not a problem,” I said. So, off to work we went. On the way, she said, “Mom, can we go to Staples and get some Post-its afterward? I think it would help me feel less sad if I played school.”

“So,” I said, “You’re going to milk this for all you can get?”

“Well,” she said, “You gave away the cat.”

I sighed and said, “Ok. But after today, you’re done.”

“What!?” she said, “Do you really believe a pack of Post-its will solve my broken heart?”

I have to thank the wonderful people at the Animal Care League of Oak Park. They were kind, loving and supportive of both Oliver and I. If you knew Oliver, maybe you’d like to make a donation.

#Oliver 2012
Remember Oliver

Bloggers for Movember – Official Kickoff!

5 Nov

Bloggers for Movember – Official Kickoff!.

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