Reading Our Way to Christmas

I love traditions. Maybe it’s because unlike flossing your teeth or doing stomach crunches, traditions seem like fun habits to create.

Every Thursday evening, we have Backward Dinner night at our house, where we start with dessert and work our way backward through our meal: dessert, entrées, and then onto salads or starters if I’ve managed something that elaborate for dinner.

Mostly, my kids love to observe Backward Dinner Night when their friends come over to our house. Or, if we’re eating out, they get to explain to our server why we need our desserts first.

Another more recent tradition is to plan a tourist day in our own city on Veterans’ Day, which we’ll be doing again this Monday. We’ve taken the elevators to the observation deck of the Columbia Tower; had lunch at the Fairmont Olympic; gone glass blowing or cupcake tasting. In the evening, we set up our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it. No sense in waiting until December to enjoy the lights and ornaments. (Yeah, sometimes the kids talk me into a real tree as well in December.)

On Veteran’s day, we’ll also wrap our advent Christmas books. Starting on Dec. 1, we open one wrapped book (the kids rotate who gets to choose which present to unwrap) and read a Christmas bedtime story each night. The stories range from silly (Santa’s Eleven Months Off) to sweet (Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story); Sentimental (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story) to iconic (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

On Christmas Eve, we read the Nativity story.

I’ve change out a few books each year as the kids have advanced from infants to toddlers to grade school and middle school. The scratch and sniff book, The Sweet Smell of Christmas gave way to Pearl Buck’s, Christmas Day in the Morning. And the list is a blend of Christian and secular.

It’s been years of scouring bookstores and book lists and libraries to find some favorites. In case you need to purchase holiday presents for small people or want to start your own Advent book tradition, I thought I’d share my list with you—25 because it’s a nice number even if it means you’ll have to figure out which book you’ll exclude leading up to Christmas!

In random order:

  1. Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story, by Bill Luttrell
  2. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
  3. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
  4. Snowmen at Night, by Mark Buehner
  5. Auntie Claus, by Elise Primavera (The three Auntie Claus books are my kids’ favorites at the moment!)
  6. Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera
  7. Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays, by Elise Primavera
  8. Penny’s Christmas Jar, by Jason F. Wright
  9. How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss
  10. Merry UnChristmas, by Mike Reiss
  11. Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  12. Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini
  13. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
  14. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
  15. Legend of the Christmas Stocking*, by Rick Osborne
  16. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, by Colleen Monroe
  17. The Legend of the Candy Cane*, by Lori Walburg VandenBosch
  18. A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, by Berkeley Breathed
  19. Santa’s Eleven Months Off, by Mike Reiss
  20. How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Krensky
  21. There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro
  22. The Little Shepherd Girl: A Christmas Story*, by Julianne Henry, Jim Madsen
  23. Humphrey’s First Christmas*, by Carol Heyer
  24. My Dad Cancelled Christmas, by Sean Casey
  25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

(I’ve noted specific Christian-themed books with an ‘*‘ so you can tailor your list in case you want to focus on or avoid the religious books suggested. I’ve also bolded my own personal favorites!)

Urinal Fly: Give Them Something to Aim For

I told my graduate school professors I wasn’t writing a Mommy blog on subjects like potty training. That’s just not my thing. (None of my kids wear diapers anymore; No need to visit those medieval times.) But something’s going on with the alignment of the moon with Uranus or something because there was a definite theme to my day yesterday…and the theme was toilets.

It started in my guest bathroom where I noticed we were out of toilet paper, just the brown cardboard roll, forlornly hanging there, deprived of some soft folds of Charmin.

It’s a simple thing for me to grab a new roll of toilet paper from under the sink and replace it, which I promptly did. But the simpleness of that action annoyed me because it’s a simple task that any one of my four kids all using that very bathroom could have done, too! And suddenly I’m sitting there…no, I’m standing there, lest you’re forming a mental image of this…I’m standing in the bathroom thinking, Why am I always the one to have to replace the toilet paper???

A great wave of indignation and self-pity engulfed me, so I did what we all do when these crazy notions occur to us, I wrote about it on Facebook because my friends needed to know that my children are selfish little creatures, untrained in the art of replacing toilet paper.

Then I arrived at my class last night, and a portion of the lecture focused on communications and behavioral change.

I typed lecture notes into my laptop: “Behavioral intentions, what you say you will do, is one thing, but what you actually do is different. Behavior is usually considered the hardest to change.”

My mind went to Mr. Whipple and his inability to stop squeezing the Charmin and my children’s inability to ease a roll of Charmin onto the toilet paper dispenser. Grrrr.

I was thinking behavior change –> children –> toilet paper and, just like that, telepathically or something, Hanson Hosein (one of our instructors for the course) started talking about the men’s restroom at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.

Apparently, men have terrible aim. Their minds wander. They lose track of what they’re doing, and they make absolute messes of the walls, the floors, whatever surrounds a urinal. And it’s a safety issue because the floors are, as those signs say, “slippery when wet.”

Enter Dutch behavioral economist, Aad Kieboom, who decided they should etch the outline of a fly onto the back wall of each porcelain urinal at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. It’s inexpensive and easy to install. Kieboom’s staff conducted the fly-in-urinal trials and discovered the “etchings reduce[d] spillage by 80 percent.”

The fly improved a man’s aim, gave him something to think about, I guess. Without signs, instructions manuals, or even Siri to guide them, the fly appealed to guys’ sense of target practice or gaming instincts or whatever it is that improved their accuracy and the sanitary conditions of Amsterdam’s lovely airport restrooms.

I love happy-ending stories like this! It’s not just because clean bathrooms delight me. I appreciate simple solutions. Cheap solutions. Solutions that require some out-of-the-box thinking to affect appropriate behavior changes.

It made me recall the children’s book, “All-of-a-Kind Family” by Sydney Taylor where the author wrote about her large Jewish family growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Taylor wrote about the sloppy job she and her siblings did of cleaning and dusting the front room of their house until their inspired mother hid pennies in the room that the children could find if they did their jobs thoroughly, lifting vases and rugs to clean everything.

I’m betting Taylor’s mother knew nothing about behavioral psychology on habit formation and addictions, but she wisely varied her penny rewards, sometimes hiding pennies and other times not, which caused her children to vigilantly, obsessively clean the room every time in the hopes of turning up a reward.

The urinal flies also reminded me of a New York Times piece, “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.” The author relates how she adapted animal training techniques to her husband and marriage.

That was my takeaway from Networks and Narratives last night. I shall figure out my own urinal fly: a simple, cheap, fun solution to getting my kids to replace toilet paper rolls in our home. It might require “approximations” (rewarding small steps to learning a new behavior). I might need to figure out an “incompatible behavior” that prevents my kids from leaving a bathroom if they’ve used up the last square of toilet paper without replacing the role.

No monetary rewards for replacing toilet paper because my children are geniuses at gaming the system and our household will suddenly experience a marked increase in toilet paper usage (or half-used rolls in the trash) if I incentivize them with money.

I’m not sure what modification technique I’ll employ, but I’ll keep you blog posted. Suggestions most certainly welcomed.

Plumbing Problems: My Life Down the Drain

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Conrad. We were talking about writing books, among other topics. Conrad is working on his second novel for young adults. If I was thinking about writing a book, he advised me, I should look for an overarching theme that ties my narrative together.

Well, tonight the theme came to me: Plumbing. Plumbing connects my narrative. I could write an anthology of short stories about plumbing and me.

I’d skip over the mundane events such as the time Ryan and Katie decided it wasn’t terribly fun to merely run through the sprinklers. Instead, they unscrewed all the sprinkler heads in the backyard to create gushing geysers of water.

Another day, water droplets started raining down from the laundry room ceiling. This time, Ryan was filling water balloons in the bathroom and didn’t notice the water spilling over the counter, onto the bathroom floor, which eventually seeped down through the ceiling. But, oh well. Kids will be kids.

My plumbing book could begin the day one of my little darlings flushed something down the toilet that utterly clogged the commode. I have no idea what was flushed, but no amount of effort with the toilet plunger could clear the pipes. (We lost our cat around the same time. Not that I think the two items are related...)

I have skills. Really. Near the top of my executive summary on my resume, I could/should list that I’m extremely proficient with a toilet plunger. But despite my best efforts, that toilet wouldn’t clear. I’d plunge and then flush, and the water would rise. The waters rose for 40 days and 40 nights. Oh wait, that might be another story. I finally had to turn off the water to the toilet and call a plumber who couldn’t make it out to my home for another two days.

The next day, my housecleaner, Ludya, arrived. She’s Russian, and although we can’t really communicate, we speak the universal language of love: Lysol disinfectant spray. She cleans, and I clean beside her because I can’t help myself. I like cleaning. We wipe and spray and smile and nod. Luyda and I have grown pretty tight this way.

That particular day, I tried to explain to her that I needed to keep the toilet water turned off or the water would slowly rise and keep rising. She nodded in comprehension. I showered, changed, and left for a date.

Dinner. A walk. And a few hours later I returned home with the date who invited himself in for coffee which I didn’t know how to brew. He told me I could make him tea instead. I told him his dog pooped in my family room, but that’s another story. I told him I was tired. We should probably call it an evening…as soon as he picked up after his dog. He told me there was water dripping from the ceiling in my study room.

Apparently something about keeping the toilet water key turned off got lost in translation, and Luyda turned the water back on. The toilet had flooded my upstairs bathroom and was leaking through the recessed lights in my study.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the details, but I wanted to share the epiphany of my evening: plumbing weaves together the significant events of my life. I should conclude by tying up a few loose ends:

My date gallantly offered to help me with my plumbing issues. I declined. He asked me if I was ever going to write about our date. I said I wouldn’t think of it.

The plumber did indeed show up the next day. Whistler, who has a need to meet and greet people with gifts in his mouth, rummaged through a pile of laundry when the doorbell rang. He came to the door to meet the plumber with a pair of my underwear in his mouth. And so it goes…

You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy

It was the oddest thing. A few weeks ago, I walked into the restroom on the top floor of Pacific Place in downtown Seattle and was surprised at the remodeling they had done in there. Same nice tiles and all, but for whatever reason, they had added urinals against the walls of the women’s restroom.

I was trying to figure out why the urinals were in there, and how I’d possibly use them, when I realized that a number of guys were standing facing those urinals.

So annoying. First management changes things around. Then these guys decide to use the ladies’ room. I stood there ready to ask them all to leave when it started to dawn on me that perhaps I had walked through the wrong door…

You’d be surprised at how slowly my brain registers things at times. Or not. It might be a reflection of my incredible hubris that I automatically assume that half a dozen guys made the mistake of entering the wrong restroom instead of thinking that the error was, perhaps, mine?

You’d think that I would turn silently on my heels and hightail it out of there, but instead I quite audibly gasped, “Oooops!” The guys turned. I turned…red…and then managed to leave as quickly as I could. I glanced at the door on my way out still hoping I might be right and the rest of the world wrong. ‘Twas indeed my error…

It made me wonder how many other times I walk into situations quite sure that I have it right; that my perception is reality.

A couple of years ago, I attended Harvard’s Program on Negotiation as a continuing education course for managers. You’d think it would be a course on “negotiate to win” or how to out-maneuver your opponent. I was relieved to find them emphasizing empathy. How do you check your assumptions to figure out where you might be overlooking facts and data? How can you figure out what is truly important to someone else so you can reach mutually beneficial agreements?

They showed us some classic films of a basketball game and asked half of us to count how many times the black-shirted team passed the ball to teammates while the other half of our class counted how many times the white-shirted team passed the ball. Half way through the film, a man dressed in a gorilla costume ambled onto the court and began to play. Astoundingly, at least half of the class, engrossed in counting passes, never even noticed a costumed gorilla playing on the court.

Later, they projected a poem up on the wall and asked us to count the number of times a specific letter appeared in the verses. They gave us as much time as we needed to figure out this simple, objective answer. But when they asked for a show of hands to report our counts, we were all over the map.

At first, I thought there was some trick to the exercise, but no, it was a straight-forward example of the fact that even with all the facts in front of you and a true right answer, people could still get a simple thing wrong.

All that to say that old age is starting to slow me down. I’m trying to walk toward my conclusions instead of leaping to them. I’m attempting to listen more carefully with a mind that stays as open as my ears. And I think I’m getting a bit better about putting myself in someone else’s place to see what the world must look like from his or her vantage point…but I could be wrong about that too.

You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic you’re looking for…

Billy Joel

Everyone’s Fighting a Mighty Battle

It started with my dog, Whistler. Most of my troubles can be traced to him. When my son, Ryan, left the breakfast table to use the restroom, Whistler snagged Ryan’s bagel and gulped it down…didn’t even bother to spread some cream cheese on it first. His sister Paige stood by and watched.

It was negligence on the scale of passive observation to the holocaust. Ryan was ready to haul his twin to the Hague and have her tried in front of an international tribunal.

I was brokering peace accords and grabbing jackets and blocking the refrigerator with a chair (battery’s dead on Whistler’s invisible fence collar, so he’s back to opening the fridge for snacks). I climbed into the car, started the engine, and realized Katie wasn’t in her car seat.

So I’m back in the house on a frantic search mission only to find her huddled in the corner of her closet wearing just her panties and crying. She had “nothing to wear.” Hard to believe that the There’s-nothing-in-my-closet gene on that second X chromosome had switched on already. She’s six!

I offered up five shirts and two pairs of jeans before Katie agreed to get dressed for school. By then we were running late, and Ryan’s wrath had transferred from one sister to the other.

We pulled up to the school. As Ryan exited the car, he slugged Katie’s arm for making everyone late. Katie snarled and took off after her brother, slinging her lunch box at him for hitting her.

It was a fine start to a beautiful autumn day in Washington. The leaves were turning red and falling off the trees. My kids were seeing red and falling out of bed. Megan was at home with a cold. Not the full-on symptoms of swine flu, but piglet flu, perhaps?

Thank goodness I’d spend the day in meetings with mature and professional adults.

I work on a virtual team producing a weekly program for public radio. Reporter assignments are made from Chapel Hill to journalists around the world. Scripts are edited in Boston; the show is tracked by our host in Dallas or Chicago; the program is mixed in Seattle and posted to ftp sites for public radio stations across the country to download.

It’s invigorating to work with a group of amazingly intelligent colleagues, but distance has its difficulties. We try to have in-person meetings at least twice a year to plan our shows and work through production and editorial issues. This time, we were meeting in Seattle.

I was planning to start the meetings with a Powerpoint presentation on our program–financials, web analytics, web marketing results–but my computer caught a virus and was in the intensive care ward of our IS department.

Hotel shuttles delayed team members at the airport the night before. The hotel had placed someone in a first floor handicapped room which wasn’t acceptable to her. They were served fake eggs at the hotel breakfast buffet. WiFi wasn’t working at the hotel or in the office for them.

By the afternoon, I was beginning to feel overlooked by the Nobel committee; bitter that Obama had received the honor.

But no time for self-pity. My phone indicated my nanny was trying to reach me. The kids had set off the car alarm while she had taken one child to the bathroom.

By five ‘o clock, I rushed home to placate my frazzled nanny, hand off the kids to their dad, and then back out the door for dinner with my staff. At the restaurant, our server took copious notes of food orders and special needs. Shell-fish allergies. Mushroom allergies. (Just some types of mushrooms. Fine with the hallucinogenic variety.) Gluten-free meals. Vegan diets. Preferences for free-range poultry and locally grown organic ingredients.

I silently wondered if our server would deliver our dishes with napkin-wrapped EpiPens. I imagined our group in a third world feeding center and wondered if I could get them to eat Unimix. Maybe plumpy nut would be a better choice for this team…

In the course of our conversations, I listened as team members told me about a parent fighting cancer; dealing with the aftermath of a spouse’s death; worries over mothers/sons/daughters/spouses; and their own health issues.

That was Day 1 of our week’s meetings. After dinner, I picked up my kids from their dad’s and headed home to read stories, make lunches, run a load of laundry and clean the cat litter. Whistler met us with the cat litter box door stuck around his head like an Elizabethan collar.

I started to pack lunches, only to discover that Whistler had pushed aside the chair in front of the fridge and helped himself to the roast beef for the kids’ sandwiches.

The Shirelles sang, “Mama said there’ll be days like this, there’ll be days like this, Mama said…”

But Plato said it better: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

ImageA mighty battle, indeed.

The Write Stuff

We all have our thing. Some women appreciate men in military uniforms. Others fawn over firemen, sports heroes, movie stars, or go crazy at rock concerts. I develop crushes on men with keyboard-calloused fingers. Not music keyboards. Computer keyboards.

Wit and intellect, a way with words, and I get weak in the knees. It’s no surprise, really, that I think Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, should be voted “Sexiest Man Alive.” In my mind, best-selling author Don Miller could easily be a first runner-up to wear the SMA satin sash. Or maybe the “Sexiest Man Alive” title is etched on a leather tool belt. I don’t know.

For my birthday, my girlfriend Debbie bought tickets for us to hear Don Miller talk about his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I felt like a recipient of the Make a Wish Foundation except I wasn’t going to Disneyland. And I’m not terminally ill that I know of.

I had to promise Debbie that I wasn’t going to rush the platform and throw underwear on the stage. Don was, after all, speaking at the Eastside Foursquare Church. Worshipful conduct was in order. Maybe an alabaster jar and some perfume…

Don spent an hour talking about the components of great stories: the narrative arc, the protagonist and antagonist, conflict, climax and denouement. Well, maybe Don didn’t say “denouement,” but there was a great section on story arcs. Story arcs may not sound humorous, but when Don’s narrating it, characters and conflict are seriously funny.

Turns out the upcoming film version of Don’s New York Times bestseller, Blue Like Jazz strays a bit from reality because Don’s actual life writ large is too boring for the big screen. (That’s not my opinion. I think men in front of computer monitors are studs.) The filmmakers decided Don’s life needed some gentle embellishment.

As Don explains it, great stories–in movies or in real life–are all about a series of events. It’s what someone is actually doing more than what a character thinks or feels. That’s not to say that a good film has to be an action movie—car chases and cool stunts—or that what a character thinks and feels is irrelevant. But no one can see what someone thinks unless it’s demonstrated through actions. You don’t know what someone feels unless he shows you.

To make a movie interesting, you have to a string together a series of events with a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. More than that, what he wants has to matter.

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers…Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful,” Don writes. “The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”

Don went on to talk about how assiduously we avoid pain and conflict in our lives. Yet grand stories are about the transformation of a character; and pain and conflict are the main tools that produce change in our lives.

Nobody changes because they have something happy happen to them, Don says. We change through hardship and pain and through the pressure of difficult experiences.

That’s a concept. Embrace challenges. Welcome pain as an element that’s going to produce a grand story in your life. I’m conflicted over the concept of conflict in my life, but when I’m thinking of lifelong wishes, it occurs to me that ultimately, we really are all terminally ill. Some of us just know the timing a bit better than others.

When the credits roll, it would be nice to have lived a grand narrative. It would be great to invest my time and energy into actions that make a difference in the end.

My life? It’s the stuff that movies are made of. I’ll tell you all about it while I’m folding the laundry…

An Age-Old Story

Next month, I turn 40. Well, technically, I turn 39 in September, but thirty-ten is so close, I can feel it. I think I might just take the plunge and declare myself 40 right now instead of having that number hang over me for an entire year.

I’m already out of that prime target audience for marketers (18 – 35 year olds who have purchasing power and, supposedly, disposable incomes, or at least high tolerance levels for credit card debt). Yeah, they’re still selling to me. But the advertisers have got my number now, and they’re pitching me anti-aging products and weight loss supplements. I’m not sure I can tolerate another asinine Acai berry ad!

I’m trying to take this all in stride. I’ve never been a huge numbers person—I took “Math for Poets” in college, for Pete’s sake! So arguably, I’m not even comprehending how old 40 really is. Is it a prime number? An imaginary number? A negative factor of some multi-variable equation?

What unnerves me are the endless reassurances to women everywhere about aging. There are those overzealous comments to the birthday girl: You’re still a “babe”; You’re waaaay hot; Don’t worry, 40 is the new 30. The sentiments sound suspiciously like mom saying, “It’s okay, honey. The perm’s not so bad.” Or, “You look cute in glasses.”

So even though I’m kinda nonplussed by another occasion to celebrate me, eat cake, and receive gifts, I’m starting to think it is a big deal. The kind of big deal you should be paying attention to. Like a Japanese person in Hiroshima in 1945 watching a plane with the name “Enola Gay” flying overhead. It’s not the moment to be thinking about the ingredients you need to make California Rolls…

I’m trying to figure out what I need to be prepared. I’m about 15 pounds heavier than my perfect weight, so a South Beach diet and a personal trainer are probably in order. Not sure I can afford a personal trainer right now, what with all the Acai products I’m going to be ordering, so I may have to depend on chasing the dog as my cardio routine and lifting those huge paper towel rolls I buy at Costco as a weight-lifting regimen. (Unfortunately, I went south and ate a lot while sitting on the beach, so that diet isn’t working.)

Then there are those stretch marks and the loose skin around my belly button from my pregnancies, notably my twin pregnancy. It’s terribly hard to work for an organization that’s all about saving lives and bringing healthcare, clean water and food to starving children in the world. Just try to justify to yourself thousands of dollars worth of cosmetic surgery for some wrinkles and lines around your navel. I wish I could. I really do want to have my pre-pregnancy tummy back. But we have this darn alternative gift catalog that tells me how many goats or chickens a family could have for the cost of a smooth tummy. Turns out I could probably buy guinea pigs for the whole country of Peru to remove the wear and tear signs of carrying my fearsome foursome. I’m just wearing long shirts and trying not to think about the alien crop circles around my navel.

When my birthday comes around next month, I am planning to celebrate with my family and some of my favorite friends. My favorite older friends. Strange thing is, I rarely notice or think about what they look like; how much they weigh, how old they are, or much of the stuff that crosses my mind about me on the month before my 39th/40th birthday.

My best-est friends are wise and witty and fun. They are authentic and indomitable and loyal. My favorite people have celebrated the births of their stretch-mark-inducing children; managed to persevere through all kinds of life’s challenges, and they’ve learned invaluable lessons of faith and grace by living through the high moments and low moments.

I hope none of my girlfriends (or guy friends) will be disappointed if I don’t call them “hotties” and name them by name here. I know many of them qualify for the title. One thing, for sure, most of the best people I know bear stretch marks all over their souls. Maybe their stomachs too. I just haven’t noticed.