Monday, November 27, 2006

Writing Your Way through the Holidays

A pleasant surprise awaited me today when I opened my first red-and-green Rubbermaid Christmas box during our annual decorating ritual: written instructions as to what went where. I had completely forgotten that I had stapled instructions as to where to place holiday decorations the year before; when I opened up each box, I didn’t need to scratch my head wondering what I did with the snowman, Father Christmas, angel or feather tree in years past. I just followed—lazily, I might add—my own prescriptive for how to do things in the status quo. That the angel went in the kitchen and the snowman went in the family room; the Father Christmas went on the tea table in the living room and the garland went on top of the dining room welsh dresser.

Now, this may not seem like a big deal. “So what,” you probably ask. OK. Well, here’s the deal: as we get older, life gets more complicated. It’s not filled anymore with just carpool and homework drills, or job-juggling and dinner preparation. It’s filled with bigger kids, bigger appetites, bigger shopping trips and bigger laundry loads. College applications. Tuition. More travel. Harder violin concertos. Life just gets busier. Hectic-er.

And so having someone or something tell me what to do—even if it’s just a silly index card stapled to an artificial ivy skewer with directions on where to put the thing—it helps my already overloaded brain. And it will yours, too.

So here’s my big Holiday tip: write stuff down. Everything. Journal everything. Gifts you need to buy for whom to ship where. Menus you need to plan. Trips to which stores you need to shop. Parties you need to squeeze in when and where. Obligations you need to fulfill to whom.

Let’s face it: the holidays can be stressful times. We all feel over-stretched, over-extended and over-worked. It doesn’t really matter where we find ourselves. At home or at work, we are committed to the max. School parties and neighborhood dinners and business lunches spread their dates across our collective calendars and keep us on our toes. Wiped out physically, emotionally and even financially, we collapse into bed each night wondering how we’re going to get through the next four weeks or so. Gift buying and wrapping and shipping and lines and credit card swipes get us completely whigged out just thinking about them!

These next weeks ahead call for nerves—and buns!—of steel. So go into them with the organizational finesse typically reserved for the pro’s. Planning a party? Write down the menu and the guest list and stick it in your Filofax or your Blackberry. Record menus in your recipe box and refer to them year after year. Write down every gift you purchase for whom. Check your list so that each year, when you prepare for the upcoming Holiday shopping trips, you’ll have a record of every single person on your list. And also record who gave you what. It’ll help jog your memory when you do this year’s gift buying.

Make a plan. Stick to your plan. And write write write. Trust me: when next year comes, you’ll breeze through these days with extra energy and extra time on your hands so that you can truly enjoy this month.

The month of December should be amongst the best of your year. Friends and family gatherings should be the happiest celebrations you could plan and attend. But you need to be prepared. Organized and fortified.

So go get ‘em. Go to the end–of-year concerts and recitals and block parties. Bake those cookies and decorate the gingerbread men. Indulge in gorgeous gift wrap and put the curlicues on the cards.

And if you figure out how to do all that each one of us rocket moms needs and wants to do AND get dinner on the table: please send me an email with exact instructions. It remains the most elusive of my daily responsibilities. And if you can get it on an index card and staple it somewhere….well, you’ll move to the head of the class.

Blessings on your week!


Monday, November 13, 2006

Celebrating Traditions—or Why Hosting a Quinceañera is a Grand Thing

Several years ago, while we were living in Miami, our son, Nick, took part on the court of a Quinceañera party (a “Sweet Fifteen” for Latin girls) of a gal who was a friend, to be sure, although not necessarily a “best friend.” Never having encountered a “Quince” before, we had not the foggiest idea of what was involved.

Turned out, this was ”the event.” Private dance lessons were on tap for everyone involved—everyone being the Quince princess, the seven fifteen-year-old girls on her court (think homecoming) and the accompanying seven fifteen-year-old boys. And not once, but twice, a private dance instructor gave them all private dance lessons so they would all dance perfectly when the appropriate time came (as in private dance instructor came to their house and gave private dance lessons for a couple hours each time…you do the math.) Girls wore floor-length gowns, coordinated to the white Cinderella-esque wedding style gown of the Quince girl; boys wore rented tuxedos. Nearly three hundred guests were invited to a sit-down dinner and professional photographers, cake makers, dance instructors, set designers, make-up artists and hair stylists all played their own distinct roles.

Now, my husband and I attended, invited as we were by virtue of the fact that our son was on the court. But our other children were not; they were simply told of the event after it occurred.

Fast forward five years. Our daughter vividly remembers every single detail of that Quince…lock, stock and barrel…and, now fifteen-years old, wants a complete and total re-enactment of the whole Cinderella bit.

Given that our pockets are not that deep, that we have no intention of doing the whole pumpkin-turns-into-a stagecoach thing on a revolving platform (no, I am not making this up), we have told her that, yes, she may have a Quince and yes, it can even have a Cinderella theme (she is our only princess, after all) but that the line needs to be drawn in the proverbial sand by mom and dad with clearly-delineated markings.

Well, “clearly-delineated,” “pockets-not-that-deep,” and “Cinderelle-esque” are all relative concepts.

To live in Miami, which, let’s face it, has a clear majority of Latinos from all Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries of the world, one embraces Quince parties because they occur each and every weekend in each and every year. To attend a Quince there at some point in your life is like, well, living in South America and celebrating “sweet fifteen” as a fact of life. Like breathing. To live in Fairfield County, Connecticut and host a Quince party is like living in the North Pole and hosting a luau. There ain’t none.

So when our daughter announced that she was having a Quince, to all non-Spanish- taking high school freshman, they had no idea what in the world she was talking about. But to those who took Spanish in middle school, they had some inkling of the impending brouhaha. But as these girls had never lived in South America—or heck, even Miami—they truly had no clue.

OK. So she chooses her court. Seven girls. Seven guys. (Can you imagine what that was like?) We order the gown, and it is, indeed, a wedding gown. It’s very Cinderella-y. Billowy. Lots of tulle. We order the dresses for her court (with the tearful note that her dearest friend from Miami who was to hold center court cannot make it up here for the event as she’s in the middle of exams. A sad late note for both girls.) We order the shoes (yes, they have a glass-like heel). We order the invitations. (An ordeal in and of itself. Have you noticed the cost of stationary lately?!?) Order the jewelry for each girl on the court. Ditto on the venue, the food, the DJ, and yes, if you can believe it, the dance instructors.

And then we start looking at tiaras. Now, I’m not Latin. (Nope. Pure-blooded Hungarian.) But even I know that Quince girls wear tiaras. And they are like, very expensive. And I’m saying: “Cristina, can’t we just go to the mall and get you a cheap one at Claire’s?” You’d think I had committed heresy.

So we look at every friggin’ tiara on the display shelf at David’s bridal shop. They make these things from Swarovski crystal, you know! And I just had to draw the line. I mean, this thing was getting out of hand. So I start pacing back and forth and back and forth on the floor of the bridal shop, turning over and over in my mind what I’m teaching my daughter about money and budgets and celebrations and indulgence and EVERYTHING is now all of a sudden riding on a stupid tiara.

She volunteers to pay for the difference between the one she really wants which is way out of my budget and the proposed one from Claire’s (which had an imaginary value anyway) and I coalesce and buy her the tiara.

And when I talk to one of the court-gal’s mom the next day, we kibitz about these girls and teenage-hood and money and rites of passage. Having hosted two bat mitzvahs herself, she had perspective. And then she said what would hit me like a ton of bricks: “You’re not just having a Quince. You’re preserving a whole cultural tradition.”

And I stopped and thought about how these traditions come and stay. About how generations of children have celebrated religious heritages with bar/bat mitzvahs and christenings and baptism parties; about how American girls have Sweet Sixteen’s and how Latin girls have Quince’s. About weddings. And how these events occur just once in a lifetime. Once or twice in a family.

And I decided that making a big deal about a life event is a grand thing. That it thrills me to no end to have a daughter, and a precious, beautiful one at that. That few of us take enough time out to celebrate life. To enjoy laughter and fellowship and good food and good cake.

We’re getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving next week here in America. Embrace it. And those you love. With good cheer.

For celebrations—Quinceañera’s--are grand things.

Blessings on your week,


Monday, November 06, 2006

The Pluck Factor

Plucky (pluk’e) adj. Brave and spirited; courageous.

Have you ever noticed how few people possess radiating energy? How eyes lack sparkle and how few real smiles there are out there? How almost no one looks you in the eyes when you talk or how few people have truly gracious social skills? One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the lack of charisma or magnetism or exuberance among people everywhere!

So when I met Lorraine and Cam, I was immediately drawn to their energy. To their lit-up eyes, frequent laughter and bubbly personalities. Now they’re not particularly bubbly as in “effervescent.” No, they are actually more on the subdued side. But when one talks to them, their eyes twinkle. They smile when they talk. They maintain fabulous eye contact. Good upbringing? Perhaps. I’ve met both of their parents, even though one set lives in Scotland and the other in England (and we live up here in Connecticut in New England) and they are, indeed, darling people.

It’s even more amazing that we were drawn to each other with laughter and happy-talk considering the common thread that brought us together in the first place: leukemia. Their sixteen-month-old daughter, Katie, was diagnosed just before our seventeen-year-old son, Nick, was. Both children are treated by the same team of doctors. We met, for the first time, in the west wing of Yale’s Children’s Hospital. All of us were scared and admittedly, in a rather sad state.

Yet we continued, throughout treatments for our kids, to help each other get through them. I chased Katie around the chemo clinic when Lorraine and Cam were simply too worn out to do so, or held her when she needed a finger-stick and kicked the nurses too hard to get it done; we read stories together and sometimes she let me rock her to sleep. We colored, watched Dora the Explorer and played with puzzles. Cam engaged Nick in talk or made coffee and bagel runs for all of us. Lorraine kept me company and together, we helped keep each other’s spirits high.

They are back at the hospital, this time at Sloan Kettering, as Katie has undergone a bone marrow transplant this past week. It required weeks of pre-transplant consultations, tests, radiation and chemo. It also required Lorraine and Cam to temporarily set up house in New York City, in a rental apartment a couple blocks from Katie’s hospital room.

Some of us might complain about the difficulty of this situation. About lack of personal time, poor hospital food for weeks on end. Of watching our own children endure rigorous testing and annoying, seemingly endless blood work. Of the unfairness of the circumstances.

But not Lorraine and Cam. They maintain a positive attitude and continue to deal with every little detail with spunky, feisty attitude. They possess an enormously high “Pluck Factor.” They have a “to-heck-with-you-attitude” when people get in their way. They trudge through their days with laughter and verve. Hospital food the pits? No worries. Lorraine brings to Katie’s hospital room a crock pot along with bags full of groceries. When nurses wander in from the aroma of a slow-cooking roast and firmly let her know that she’s breaking all the rules, she tells them that she’s not dealing with the crummy food they’re trying to serve her. When little Katie does something adorable, Lorraine sends out an email blast for all of us to enjoy the moment. During the actual transplant, a video was made and we all got to witness closely (albeit from a distance) what it was really like. The video clips were amazing…..And afterwards? She and Cam celebrated with champagne and scrumptious food at a local French bistro.

Forget sad faces and going along with the ho-hum motions that most people simply accept as part of the circumstances. Lorraine and Cam have decided to maintain a spirit of resolve and a completely positive mental attitude in order to get through these days with grace. They let no one, and nothing, stand in their way. Katie’s well-being is their over-riding concern, and all of their efforts are directed to that end.

Strong-minded people serve as tremendous inspirations for me. When life throws you a curve ball, a U-turn, a disappointment or an unpleasant surprise, the outcome will oftentimes be greatly dependent on the way in which you handle yourself during those times. It takes practically no strength of character to be charming and adorable when everything is going your way. It’s when things get dicey that your true character reveals itself. And that’s when you need a high Pluck Factor. When you need to be courageous, to turn the ordeal into a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. To show your true colors, and your grit and the stuff of which you are made.

Many readers of this Newsletter are going through ordeals at this very moment. I know so because you write and tell me of them, and my heart goes out to each and every one of you. I hope this letter finds you determined to increase the Pluck Factor by just a little bit. To hold your head up high and courageously get through these days as have my dear friends Lorraine and Cam. You will serve as wonderful role models for someone else who, one day, will need to exhibit a high dose of pluck, too.

Please continue to keep me in your loop. Your concerns become my concerns and I will keep your needs closely guarded in my heart and in my prayers. I wish all of you—and especially those many dear readers who have written to me this week—all blessings as you go through these next weeks with as much strength, and pluck, as you can muster.