Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wild Hare

About this time last year, I got a "wild hare" to do something a little nuts; donate a large Christmas Tree to the Festival of Trees - a charitable benefit for Primary Children's Hospital to help indigent families that cannot afford their child's health care.  Now, I say "wild hare," because the term seems especially fitting here; "It's an American expression meaning to do something at the spur of the moment without really thinking, spontaneity. It originated from "had a wild hare up my ". If you had a wild rabbit in your backside... you'd probably jump without thinking." Yep.

  From the outside, it seems pretty simple.  Get a tree, some ribbon, ornaments and some friends, and set it all up to donate. Sweet! But it is so very much more. Verging on the bonkers.  Kind of like a gateway creativity drug.  

  After attending the Festival of Trees, you get lulled into a sense of simplicity and fun and jump in, then somehow you find yourself knee deep in glue guns, latex paint and floral wire and wondering where it was that you went wrong.  It is a detail heavy, expense laden, frustrating adventure in competitive creativity that will take every ounce of your, and your family's, patience and ultimately leave your self-esteem crushed to powder on the convention center floor.

   It starts... with the tree. In my naivete, I thought about how I would go about this little adventure with four small kids in tow. So I formulated a plan; shop the after-Christmas sales, use someone's tree and do a kind of "decorate-as-you-go" approach that is slow, easy paced, and thrifty.  I got my tree right off the bat off of ksl.com.  It was too big for their apartment and they were happy for it to go to a happy home, especially if it meant freeing up space at the beginning of the year.  Come pick it up!  It was being stored in a large screen tv box. Since all of the branches were NOT attached to the center pole, it all fit in the box! Yes yes yes! I "high fived" myself. BAM!  Tree is DONE.  This is so easy. What a euphoric rush!

  Then I did what many addicts do, start "pushing" to the unsuspecting friends around them.  "Hey Lisa, Reagan and Mish - y'all are fun and creative!  Wanna help me with a little project? I'm thinking of doing a Scottish themed tree for the Festival of Trees.  I already have the tree so it won't be very expensive! This will be fun!"  Poor things never saw it coming, and soon, they were in.

   I hit the after Christmas sales.  I only had an idea vaguely in the back of my mind what I was looking for.  But hey!  For 90% off, you can splurge a little here and there.  Spend a quarter for a couple of boxes of candy canes, some ribbon... preferably in something that matches, some plaid of this, tree skirt for a buck there, and add some huge plastic bells.  Mish can do something with those. Easy easy. Little did I know then that we would only use 2% of those items. And zero plaid ribbon.

  The website for the Festival remains dormant until about June, the earliest you can register with your theme. We tossed around some ideas of what would be fun and settled on, "The 12 Scottish Days of Christmas."  Because that would have some fun variety, and logically follow a triangular, few-items-gradating-to-many-items pattern, and I hadn't seen anything like it at the festival.  It would stand out against all the elf and red/white candy cane tree white noise.  Perfect!  I registered us online, and wavered, for just a second, before I hit the "send" button. In a flash, we were in. Committed to the Festival of Trees 'til donated tree do we part.

I said to myself, "Just follow the pattern, make it Scottish, maybe get a few signs and a "Wee kirk o' the Heather" birdhouse, and hand out assignments. Easy" And my little brain said, "Use a bagpipe as a star on the very top!" and my internal creativity meter said, "Oh yeah! We're strong enough to handle that, with some tiger blood and Adonis DNA, this will be a SNAP!"  That was the highest point of self confidence. Then we got the packet.  And that feeling that you get at the most tippy top of the roller coaster where instinct tells you to suck in a lot of air and grip the bar in front of you hit: The Official Rules and Regulations. And things started to unravel. The feeling that you desperately want to get out, but you feel trapped was settling in.  Just when you think you can get out... they pull you back in!

  Your tree must be new. *eyes bulge*  All of the branches must have been attached to the center pole at the factory. It must have pvc pipe the length of the interior pole.  The outside part of the trunk must be reinforced with rebar, and clamped down with vent hose ties. *sweat springing to forehead*  Each section of your tree must be bolted together at the joints.  And if it breaks, you agree to come and fix it.  At your expense.  Oh... and little note there towards the bottom, the tree stand, must be an official Festival of Trees $30 metal wonder that we will need to pick up at the Decorators workshop.  Where you will be given further instructions...  "Further... instructions?  There's more?"  *acne breakout*
  I nervously started calling and texting everyone, "Uh, hey, um.  We should probably start figuring out what ornaments we're each going to do, so... ah, anybody got any ideas?  I'm starting to get pressure from da guys up there, and its all signed up, ya know? We need to have a good product..."  I was becoming fidgety, and irritated.  Scottish things, Scottish things.  Like, like the bagpipe and plaid... and ah, well, the flag, which is blue and white... not very Christmassy... and kilts maybe? So I researched the daylights out of Scotland... trying to match up the 12 Days song against items that might be considered a Scottish counterpart, and that would ultimately end up with a bagpipe in a Christmas tree.  

   Then I let everyone pick which ornaments they wanted to do, because if everyone took 3 off the list, no one would get overwhelmed.  Because, as I was discovering, there ARE no Scottish ornaments in Utah. Especially not in the summer/fall. And when you add up The 12 Days of Christmas... you find yourself in need of a total of 78 custom made ornaments. "Pick which 3 you feel like your have the creativity and inspiration to do," I cheerily texted with sweaty palms.  I'll just take what's left over at the end.  I can do this.  I'm in control. No sweat.

Which turned out to be 11 bagpipers piping, 9 kimmers (ladies) jigging, and... the one bagpipe. "No one... no one else wants to go find a bagpipe? Its the easiest one, cuz you just have to find one, just one..." Surely someone has one in a closet somewhere that they aren't using, because if I had to buy one, it'd be over $5oo.  I'll just use Facebook, and ask around. *crickets chirping.* Apparently there are NOT a lot of bagpipers out there with an extra set of pipes they want to donate. Weird. 

In the crafting world, everyone knows that there are limits to what you can take on, and 3/4 of our decorators had 4 kids. EACH. And now I found myself scrambling to find a tree topper bag pipe. In a Festival of Trees approved, rebarred and clamped, metal stand, with a surge protector 8 foot outlet cord, and skirted, branches-attached-to-the-core tree. Each ornament would have to be wired to the tree with any wood and/or paper being sprayed with flame retardant.  Oh, I'll just go pull out my stash of flame retardant!  Retardant indeed. "Full Scale Panic" doesn't quite describe how this easy little project started to make my heart thump and anxiety to settle in. "I'm in over my head!  How did this happen?! Why didn't someone have the good sense to warn me about this!?" I needed a crafters rehab facility to detox and get my head straight.

  What saved me in the end was not an escape, but rather an intervention by my friends and family.  And a glue gun and my sewing machine.  And an angel of mercy bagpiper named Brian who ordered a "set o' pipes" from Pakistan that were supposed to have ebony pipes, but which turned out to be painted wood, so he donated them. And Spot Technology Inc. that was willing to front the cost of the tree after Craig Johnson pled my cause.  As I clawed my way back from the brink of crafters oblivion, everyone stepped up to my wild hare cause and donated time, talents, ornaments, vinyl, the tree, a quilt, signs, frames, pearls, an original signed comic strip, and yards and yards of plain red ribbon to counterbalance all of that plaid.

  Its all set up now. We are the little 8' tree in slot O-02, next to the Brighton Ski Resort panoramic double-occupancy space with the ginormous custom built dog house, tree full of Snoopy dogs with Woodstock topper, against a faux mountain backdrop and miniature ski lift with airbrushed waist-high cutouts of all of the Peanuts characters. Yep, that's us.  And its the only one with a bagpipe. 

And: 12 Drummers Drummin, 11 bagpipers pipin', 10 Lords a Golfin', 9 Kimmers Jiggin', 8 Argyle Stockings, 7 Loch Ness Monsters, 6 Scots Grey's layin', 5 Scottie Dogs, 4 Shortbread Rounds, 3 Plaid kilts, and 2 Wooly sheep on a Spot Techonology's donated Christmas tree. 

The Festival of Trees will be in need of someone to fill that space next year.  I've learned my lesson.  This hare is now tamed, subdued, and properly humbled by the sheer goodwill of friends, family, and community that do this successfully year after year.  I think its a worthy cause, and the lessons I take away from this are valuable and unexpected.  Nollaig cridheil huibh everybody.  That's a Gaelic "Merry Christmas."   Peace out!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Musical Chores

Parenting, for me, has been an evolution of "figuring it out."  It took me a while to understand that a mom without a game plan is just about as useful as a poopy flavored lollipop.  Recently, I have become more philosophical about the whole process of raising a family of 6, and making some informal inquiries about the way different people cope with raising their children.  I have learned a few things about expectations and technique.  

First: You can not just "get along go along," with four small kids.  Or at least MY four kids.  Though running and crying in the bathroom often seems like a good option, the problems that sent you there will still be waiting for you when you emerge from that sanctuary.
Second: You need a game plan.  And a flexible one at that.
Third: Good habits are hard to make, but easy to live with.

As a stay-at-home-mom, or SAHM, I am offended by the general malaise out there that says that all we do is lounge around in pajamas and frizzy hair.  Not so.  This is the nitty gritty of living and raising humans. You have to be on top of your game. All day. Every day.  In essence, to keep it altogether, you must become like the plate spinner who must keep an eye on a lot of things simultaneously to keep it working smoothly, lest it all come crashing down on you. Not for the faint of heart.

So I am trying something new. I am trying to transition my children from simply resource consumers to participating citizens in our household.  With good habits.  And I'm using music.  I happened upon this technique after observing a number of parenting style options and an ad from http://choresgetdone.com/.  I have been evolving through these parenting styles:

1) Mom Does It All: This model is one that looks at children as mere consumers of mommy and daddy's time, patience, and other resources.  Kinda like Veruca Salt of Charlie's Chocolate Factory fame.  Since birth, the only expectation is that they will come when called, and maybe eat the broccoli off their plate.  They are pampered and frequently peppered with suggestions about what they want, and begged - more than asked - to do things to help themselves out. This works with a small child or two. This does NOT work with crowd control.

"Would you like some milk? 2%, 1%? Skim?  Want some chocolate milk?  How 'bout I get you some chocolate milk, hmm?"

These kiddos are not expected to help out, and wake up with everything having been done for them.  If left unchecked, they tend to operate independent of any understanding that their upkeep requires a lot of work. And when they enter the big wide world on their own, they have nary a clue how to take care of themselves because Mummy did it all. A bad egg indeed.

2) Mom Supervises It All:  This model is a hybrid of the Consumer/Citizen.  And this is where we have been living most recently.  Some kids are old enough for chores, and some are not.  The children outnumber me 4:1.  They have chores that they are expected to complete, but if no one is going to check up on it, then the children scheme for how to have an "out." The modified rules are,  "You have to do what mom asks you to if you are directly under her gaze, but if a request is sent from a distance, like, "GO BRUSH YOUR TEETH!" you can weigh the probabilities that you will ACTUALLY get checked on to have to complete the task."  Multiple requests from mom for the same task become a "cat and mouse," game to see who will last, who will get it done, and who will get caught.  And the more children there are in a family, the safer it becomes to just wait for the request to blow over.

After all, dinner will still be on the table, and if you feel like bowing out of clean-up time, just dawdle, and maybe stay in the bathroom for a while until someone notices that you are gone.  There is the occasional time when mom's frustration mounts to the point that the children see their mother's face become detached from her skull, and at that point most kids will just get out of the way.  But even that will, more often than not, only get you sent to your room - NOT on the road to completing the task.

Though not ideal, this is a workable plan for moms, but something usually gets lost along the way: Mom's personality.

Much like "Bootstrap" Bill Turner who became enslaved on The Flying Dutchman, "I am the ship, part of the ship, part of the crew," running a household can suck you in and remove any traces of your former identity. There is more work to do, than time to do it in.  And it is relentless, unchartable, and unstable. Sickness, forgotten homework, emergencies, and kids bouncing on the bed can throw a typical day onto an ad hoc schedule.

When you have many young children, there are also a lot of needs, but very few helpers.  The tedium really starts to drag you down, and there is no quick fix.  The work you just completed is undone moments after you thought you were finished. Cheerios, in the hands of a toddler, can become everything from glue to a hail storm of pellets and powder.  You mournfully think back to the days when you would read a book, take a karate class, or do ANYTHING creative and fun.

After all, that's what you were when you got married!  Fun, vivacious, full of ideas and energy.  Now, you feel like a warden-banshee roaming through the house, and you hardly recognize yourself anymore. You think back to the time when you would say to your friends, "Hey! Lets get some popcorn and go see a movie!" With so many things to stay on top of, that gives way to a lethargic, "Get your shoes out of the living room... please.  Now. NOW! *wait* Right NOW! I've already told you THREE TIMES! Just move them for heaven's sake!"

I don't want to stay in this mode.  So I am trying to transition to a new mode.  The, "You are a citizen of this household," mode.  And we will all be doing things to contribute to keeping it running.  "Many hands make light work."

3) Family Citizenship: In this model, you are able to train with positive reinforcement, and self-guidance.  And it involves a playlist, a routine, and a reward.  The children help you select songs that are associated with a specific task.  When that upbeat music plays, each family member completes that task.  If you finish all of the tasks before the music ran out, you get a point that will cumulatively count towards a reward.

We started on Sunday, and I gotta say, I am ELATED with the results.  The kids are racing against the clock.  And since each task is completed each morning, there isn't a huge mess build up.  Laundry is dealt with in a timely fashion, and after the kids skip merrily off to school, everyone is dressed down to the shoes, and I can walk down the hall and peer into one tidy room after another.  I start feeling like myself again.  Contemplating what would be fun for the day, not just how to deal with the overwhelming mess.  Things will evolve when the kids get older.  But for now, this is working for me:

So, for your pleasure here is our first playlist and the tasks we ALL complete before the songs are finished:

"You are my Sunshine" - Get up and meet in the living room
"The Queen of Mars" - Kids take meds
"Good Mornin'! " - Make your bed
"Birdhouse in Your Soul" - Pick up your room
"Vogue" - Get dressed
"A-G-L-E-T" - Get your shoes on
"Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" - put any stray laundry away
"Scripture Power" - Meet in the kitchen for scripture study/ get your scriptures out.
eat breakfast while dressed and do WHATEVER YOU WANT until its time to go. Parents shower and get dressed in a tidy room with kids all ready to go.
"Ray of Light" - Brush your teeth
"So Long/Farewell" - get your backpack/coat/jacket on, and get out to the car.

We still need to get a "vacuum your room" song, but what has gotten us this far has me just over the moon with delight.  No shouting.  No having to say "HURRY!" a bazillion times in the morning. No being left with a trashed house and a depressed momma.  *pats heart* Everyone just gets ready, and does it themselves to be-boppin music.  Am I willing to give my kids a play date every once in a while to maintain this?  OH YES.  Hopefully it will sink in for each child, that the small and frequent things that they do in a day help to contribute to happy home, a happy living space, and a happy mama. Wish me luck.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The "Real" Christmas Letter

Every year about this time of year, I begin to compose, in my mind, a Crane Family Christmas Letter. A general, "Hey this is what's going on in our lives" kinda catch up for those that don't live near, don't visit, and assume that we are living life from vacation to vacation, party to party, and grace to grace.  So in my mind I try and bridge the gap between that imagined reality and my reality.  But the truth just keeps getting in the way.

I wish I could write the "real" Christmas letter where the peek into our lives leaves you with a sense of my day to day and what REALLY goes on behind these closed doors.  Not a horror show, but the real scratch your butt, half pajama wearin', we are-SO-not-perfect - kind of letter.  Why?  I dunno.  Hopefully so we can climb down off of your pedestals and have you say, "HEY LOOK!  They're just like us!"

During the 13 years we've been married there have been rough years, and it never fails that when you are at your lowest ebb that the Christmas cards come in.  They come from those whom you only marginally like, and don't care to vacation with. You can spot the soul crushing Christmas Cards among the bills, notices and fliers because they are so much bigger than the rest.  You kinda use it as a mail platter to carry in the rest of the mail into your hum drum life.

Somewhat out of curiosity, and the realization that you don't have anything else to do, you grab it.  The glittering silver envelopes with embossed paper, embellished stamps and hand written calligraphy making your residence seem akin in importance to The White House.  I get these and I run a dialogue in my mind that can only be considered sarcastic.

"Dear Katrina and Family!"   (why does the wife of my ex-boyfriend insist on keeping me on their card list? I don't think he told her about that one date where a lot of spit was exchanged....).  Well, hooray for you Kristin.  You figured out how to make every form letter look personalized.  Just like the credit card companies and Publisher's Clearinghouse. And the "signature" at the bottom is in the exact same ink as the letter. You're not fooling me!

"Happy Holidays to our friends living near and far..." Oh gosh - please no. Here we go.
"We hope your year was a blessed and delightful one."  OH Shut up.  It has been the year from hell.
"As we ponder the significance of the season, we decided to spend our Holy Day holiday in the Holy Land! It is going to be a Magical Christmas in Bethlehem. We'll be staying in the Inn, and our nanny is so delighted to try out the stables."   Awesome.  Annnnnd I..... hope y'all don't get shot or kidnapped or both.

"After a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem, Mr. Johnson and I will be surprising our 7 children as we usher in a bright 2012 as special guests of the Monte Martre Sailors club to watch the ball drop for the New Year atop the Eiffel Tower!  Oui! PARIE!"

You spelled that wrong idiot. Its Paris.  Even when you're saying it pear-ie.  Why on earth are you allowed to travel to places that you can't even spell correctly?  Too busy having 7 kids and sailing, clearly. Life is SO not fair.

"But right now we are all a flutter! Our 5 girls will be dancing in 'The Nutcracker Ballet with the Chekoslovakian Orchestra and Ballet Troop, with Yale as first alternate for the role of Clara."

Yale.  Seriously? And there's a "z" in Chezech.. Chezk...  There's a "z" in there somewhere!  Idiot. And its a "troupe" not a "troop" like a bunch of scouts.  Still can't spell.  Where is your spell-check woman? Five girls in ballet.  That's a lot of tutus.  And hairspray.  Better keep all of them away from an open flame or they'll all spontaneously combust. *evil giggle*  I don't even know if Czechoslovakia has a decent orchestra.

Reading line for line stops, and then you  start to scan, "boys, in band... electric guitar... blah blah, debate, chess club, Honor Society... perfect perfect, kids memorizing "The Family, A Proclamation to the World," awesome, and she is keeping up with everything by running. A full marathon. Every month. Freaking Awesome. I only run when chased. OH!  Designing a new house with 4 car garage for the new boat.  Of course.  Skip to the end.

I used to lay on the floor after getting these letters and just drift into a full-on depression until some child stepped on me, "MAM! Where's the JUICE?!"
"Your sister drank it all.  We're OUT of juice."
"Why are you on the floor?"
"Mommy's just looking for... something."

Then one day, I lamented this very sentiment to my friend, Melanie Steele, who gave me the perfect solution: Burn 'em!  She said to me, "Just take all of those cards and burn 'em in the trash. It's very soothing and cathartic to watch those glitters go up in smoke!  Just don't do it around the smoke detectors... You'll be letting in subzero air to try and get those smoke detectors to turn off again."

*sob!* Oh soul sister!  You understand!  You understand that when you think of all the wonderful and truthful things you could say about the family this year, you realize that it is not exactly flattering Christmas Card material!  "We went up to Yellowstone and saw a big brown bear sleeping on top of an Elk carcass!"

I mean, how can you put a good spin on the fact that your 3yr old eats boogers and laughs his butt off when you scold him not to do it because it is SO GROSS!?  He may, in fact, be doing it TO gross me out!  Or that one of the kids cut their own hair up to here, and the other had a picture perfect bedroom suite until they flung pulled pork on the fake peau de soie curtains and melted laffy taffy on the light bulb of their reading lamp just to make the neighbor kids laugh?  And even the good news has a rotten side, like the fact that even though you set up a tent for the first time in a decade, you waited too long to take it down and now have a perfect square of dead grass in the back yard! You can't really spin that! 

But everyone else seems to be doing it.  And effortlessly.  If someone asks me one more time if I'd like to contribute my creative genius for projects, and have a super good camera to blog about my amazing kids birthday parties that I was supposed to have planned with antiques, a Cricut machine, a riding saddle and .... TAPE, I think I'm just gonna LOSE IT!  Melting into a puddle of my own mediocre shame, I have had to devise a plan to get me through this year. There is only only one way out.  TO LIE.

"We are having a banner year!"  Maybe we could do a Christmas card theme with banners. Abigail won first place.... for .... ARBOR day for her short story about a TREE.  Benjamin can spell 90, no 900 words PERFECTLY, and Sam and Za play... EDUCATIONAL games together.  Because Dora the Explorer enhances a child's learning of the world around them and... Spanish and ... SWIPER NO SWIPING!!! Ethics!  And then what do I say about me?

Oh man. Truthfully I am at a stage in my life where my car and appliances are just about the most dear and important things in my life - like next to air.  I can not have a vacuum break, or a fridge, or a dishwasher, and heaven forbid it, my washing machine and dryer go out on me.  It would only take 3 days to go from "tidy-ish" to "Hoarders - Buried Alive!" candidate. 

What did I do this year? Well, I've worked my appliances like galley slaves. They run a couple of times a day, every day. Its not like those young married days, or I assume Old Farty days, where you can just go without one if it breaks until you save and/or research to get exactly what you want.

A clink under the bumper makes me break out into a cold sweat, and finding a hammer in the dryer is actually a relief because at least I know how to fix that.  It is a 180 degree difference from what it was like when we first got married.  I didn't need a vacuum.  I think it was actually years before I actually bought a vacuum.  We just borrowed our neighbors vacuum once a week to get the dust bunnies that collected around our apartment since we were both gone all the time.

Now.  Now we vacuum daily, and if someone is coming over, we start to vacuum HOURLY. Instead of sucking up dust bunnies, this powerhouse has to take down legos, cereal, dry wall, play dough, ribbons, yarn, shredded paper, pencil shards, screws shaken from various chairs and chunks of food that the baby could not be coaxed into eating and the children could not be imposed upon to pick up. With a severely skewed ratio of messers to tidiers, it is a marathon of picking up, loading up, cleaning up, and putting up with a lot of crying. When I go to the bank and they offer suckers, I say, "Yes, just please make them all the same color!"

*siiiiiiiiiiigh* And after all the angels are in bed, and my brain tells me that, "ITS NOW OR NEVER!  JUST WRITE IT! WRITE THAT CHRISTMAS LETTER!!!" Suddenly lying about it all seems like such an effort. And I wonder, can I do the OTHER option, and just not send any at all... is it possible to GET cards without sending them?  My brain hurts thinking about it, and now that I need to get that next load of laundry out, I think I will just have to pull a Scarlett O'Hara, "I can't think about that nawh. I'll think about it tomorrah..." But in the meantime, please don't kick me off your Christmas card list just yet.  We're running low on tinder...