Elf, Schmelf

It’s 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 22, and what am I doing? Making a list of everything I need to buy to pull off our annual family Christmas morning brunch (well, after I write this missive, of course.)

I know I’ll be scrambling to find everything I need at this late date, but screw it – I’m a linear thinker, and I can only handle one crisis at a time.

Every night since I don’t know when has found me baking something or photo shopping something or ordering something or going to a holiday performance of something. That’s why there are no wrapped presents under the Christmas tree but why it looks like Christmas got drunk and vomited all over my house – because when I’m stressed out, I overcompensate somewhere. And this year, it was with the decorations.

So anywho, I’m completely up to my ears in the holiday, which makes me just so thankful that my hubs and I completely and utterly missed the Elf on the Shelf trend.

Not that I’m judging those of you who embrace the whole Elf deal – because I don’t. I absolutely do not judge. No way.

I mean, sure. I’m jealous of your little carefully constructed tableaus of the Elf getting into mischief while he spies on the kiddos to report any of their mischief-making to Santa, the Elf godfather, who apparently will have a sit-down with any kids not toeing the line.

I wish – nay, I yearn – for the time to thoughtfully plan and carry out the whole story line AND to keep my kids’ attention while doing so. That would really be a feat for me. As it is, we cannot even successfully conquer the traditional Advent calendar. We generally quit the whole thing by about Dec. 15 – a little later if it’s one of those chocolate-filled calendars.

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An example of a Christmas failure — it’s Dec. 22, but I’m two days behind.

And who am I kidding? The hubs and I were half-assed Tooth Fairies at best. Sometimes, teeth would be under pillows for entire weeks before the Fairy got around to finding spare change to slip under the pillow.

If we were responsible for maintaining the Elf myth, our kids would have given up on Santa and what have you years ago.

This year, the youngest of our little darlings announced that he no longer believes in Santa. As is our custom, my hubs and I neither confirm nor deny such suppositions. Our mantra is that, “If you don’t believe, you don’t receive.” So to my knowledge, the 19-year-old has yet to declare himself Santa-free. And it might be that the youngest is testing us, as is his wont.

I generally take a “less is more” attitude with my children on these matters and others of a delicate nature. As adults, we want to delve deeper into their questions and give them well-constructed answers when most of the time, they just want something more superficial.

I might be in the minority, though, judging by conversations I’ve overhead among younger mommies lately, as they worry about what to say when their second-grader’s best friend stops believing in Santa, or whether perpetuating the Santa story constitutes lying to your children.

That last one sometimes comes from folks who are wearing themselves out setting up their blasted Elf on the Shelf in fantastical poses every night.

Seriously, people? You’re worried that going along with a centuries-old story about a dude that visits children around the world once a year on Christmas Eve, delivering presents, is lying, but you’re OK with moving a creepy elf around your house and pretending that he spies on your kids and narcs on them when they’re jerks, as kids often are at this time of year?

So, yeah. I’m stressed out and way behind on my baking and wrapping and only half-way through this bottle of wine. But I’m raising a glass to the hubs and me and giving us a fist pump for eschewing that elf.

 

When a bully isn’t a bully

Something’s been bugging me, and I’ve got to get it off my chest. And it’s going to sound crass at first, so hear me out before you start calling me insensitive.

I’m not sure there really is a bullying epidemic.

I know, I know. Just about every morning of the world, you can probably find a news story on television about some horrific incident linked to bullying. Kids have started cutting themselves, committing suicide, committing mass murder – you name it – because they’re the victims of bullies.

I’m 100 percent sure those kids were bullied. I’m not debating that.

What I do question, though, is the statistic put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that one-third of kids in the sixth through 12th grades has been victimized by bullies.

Bullying is defined as repeated aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power. So what that means is that the bully is perceived as being more powerful than the victim, and the aggression happens again and again over time. This aggression can happen at school or at home, with relative strangers or family members. Some of the worst cases of bullying I’ve seen involved parents bullying their own children.

But during the last few years, as I’ve worked among elementary students as a social work student myself and now as a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed a pattern: Kids who have normal, everyday interpersonal conflicts with other kids claim that they’re being bullied. And I don’t always think that’s the case.

I think “bully” is a victim of its own success. Children and parents are so familiar with the term now, so well-versed in the horrific tales of bullying gone wrong, that they view any kind of disagreement or conflict as bullying. And that, I think, is wrong-headed.

Take, for example, an older elementary student I worked with last year. He was somewhat socially awkward but had some friends at school. However, he often didn’t perceive when he overstepped his bounds and intruded into other students’ space. He would get excited and impulsively hug his friends, or take a game of tag too far and tackle another student instead of merely touching his arm. When the student he hugged or tackled asked him to stop – sometimes not in the nicest of ways – he would run to the teacher on the playground and claim he was being bullied. In time, his cries fell on deaf ears, and he earned the reputation of a whiner who cried foul when things didn’t go his way.

I found it extremely difficult to work with this kid because his parents backed him up. They referred to his being “bullied” and never pointed out his own role in instigating the behavior of the other children. I was perplexed about how to help the child see the pattern of his behavior and his misuse of the word “bully.” Time and again in our weekly sessions, I attempted to challenge his use of “bully.” We talked about how friends act, how he wanted his friends to act, and how he could be a good friend to others. The child used all the right words, but he couldn’t differentiate between bullying and just plain not getting along well with others.

And there is a difference. We all have people who rub us the wrong way, people who routinely disagree with everything we say. Maybe we’re the cantankerous ones who always disagree. But when your co-worker doesn’t like you or disagrees with something you say in a meeting, does that mean he or she is bullying you?

Not in my book.

As a parent, it’s easy to assume our children are the ones being singled out for being different, being picked on by mean kids, being made fun of. Sometimes those things do happen. And when they happen routinely and are perpetrated by kids who hold power in some way over our own, that’s when our kids are being bullied.

But when our children, in course of their growing-up years, run into folks who think differently, who act differently and who don’t think our kids are the greatest things since the iPhone, they are not being bullied.

Instead, they are learning to live and deal with other people who are different from them, and that’s a valuable life lesson that I think too often goes by the wayside in this era of the bully.

Santa’s white? Yeahhhhhhh, right!

Megyn Kelly, your little mind is wrong. It has been affected by the pea-brained ideologues with which you surround yourself at Fox News.

You claimed a week or so ago on your show, “The Kelly File,” that Santa, along with Jesus, is a white man. You said it was a verifiable fact that we all just need to accept – kind of like acknowledging that if your dad and granddad went to Yale, you’ll go there, too, regardless of how you score on the SAT.

I’m not even going to touch the Jesus comment, but I’ll let you do the math, Megyn.  Jesus was born in the Middle East, and by all accounts (and by all I mean the Old Testament,) his mother’s people were from the same general area. And his Dad’s peeps – well, I mean, his Dad was God. So it’s pretty safe to say that Jesus looked more like Omar Sharif than Orlando Bloom (yes, I know Omar Sharif is Egyptian, but you get my point.)

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Omar Sharif in his younger days

And I know that rationally, Santa Claus no doubt is white. He’s from northern Europe, right? Well, not so fast, Ms. Smartypants Kelly. St. Nicholas, the third-century bishop who lived in a small town in Turkey and who is Santa’s forebear, was Greek. He no doubt looked like this ancient painting of him:

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St. Nicholas

So, yes. He looks a little like Omar Sharif, too.

Not black, I know. But closer than the lily-white, red-suit-wearing jovial red-cheeked Santa from the Clement Clarke Moore poem and whom you, no doubt, invoked in scolding writer Aisha Harris for pining for a black Santa.

I’m here to set the record straight. Yes, Megyn, there is a Santa, and he (sometimes) is black.

One December day in 1979, my family drove north from our little town in southeast Missouri, searching for snow on our way to my grandparents’ house. In tow we had my 16-year-old cousin, a Florida native who wanted to see snow for Christmas. No luck in our part of the Midwest, so we headed north.

We stopped in St. Louis to show my cousin the big city and to see the lovely decorated windows at downtown stores like Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer and Fuller. At Famous, we set out to find Santa. My younger sister was 7, my older sister a jaded 15. I was 11 and still a believer.

Famous-Barr’s Santa held court at the end of a winding path through Candyland, full of toy trains and beautiful automated displays. As we inched nearer, I remember, my heart pounded, wondering if this was the year I’d get that coveted Tuesday Taylor doll whose scalp swiveled, allowing her to change from blond to brunette in seconds.

When we hit the front of the line, we hit a fork in the road. A nattily dressed elf asked whether we wanted a photo with Santa, and my parents declined. Not sure why – maybe we’d already seen Santa elsewhere. But when we said “no photo,” the elf pointed down one hall and said we could find Santa there.

So we filed down that hallway, turned a corner and went through a door and came face to face with Santa – a black Santa.

I remember the look on his face – utter surprise. Maybe that was aimed at us, because I’m sure the faces of my sisters and me (and maybe my Florida cousin, too,) registered complete and absolute shock.

We lived in a southern town where sharecroppers still existed. Black people and white people didn’t live in the same parts of town. They didn’t even go to the same churches.

Yet there we were, three little white girls and their Florida cracker cousin, climbing onto Santa’s lap and telling him our Christmas dreams.  It was just like all the other times we’d sat on Santa’s lap, only this time, Santa looked like Flip Wilson instead of Mickey Rooney.

So that was that. We promised to leave cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph and bid Santa good-bye. He told us to be good.

And we were. And I did receive the Tuesday Taylor doll, who took up residence in the sorority house that was the Barbie Town House in my room.

And I frankly forgot the incident until recently, Megyn, when your ignorance caused my brain to cough up this memory.

So yes, Megyn, there is a black Santa Claus. And probably a Latino one and an Asian one, and maybe a redneck one, for all I know.

Life on the launching pad

Our oldest is a senior in high school.

As the hubs and I navigate these uncharted (for us) waters, we find ourselves focusing on every “last” event. The last first day of high school. The last band show. The last back-to-school night.

We will drive ourselves batty if we don’t stop, but how can we? We look at our oldest, and all we see is the chubby little baby we brought home from the hospital 17 years ago.

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But now, along with the lasts, we’re dealing with the firsts, too. These are a little easier to handle, though, since with Joe, life has always been full of firsts.

He was the first baby. The first child we potty trained. The first kid to get braces.

Last weekend, the hubs helped Joe submit his first college application, to the University of Missouri, our alma mater. We hold no illusions that he’ll end up there; he’s told us it’s a little too big for his taste. But he humored us, as all good kids do their parents, and dutifully applied to Ol’ Mizzou.

After they completed the online application, Joe wandered off, no doubt texting a buddy or his girlfriend to tell them what dorks his parents are. Matt came into the kitchen, where I was folding clothes.

“I can’t believe our baby just applied to MU,” he said, a little emotionally. “Where did the time go?”

I felt the same. All those years when Joe and his siblings were babies and toddlers and preschoolers – while they were happening, they seemed so long. The nights were so long. Some days were, too.

And then – blip. They’re gone. And here we are.

I nodded sympathetically.

What makes this even more emotional for us, though, is that we know how much our boy has overcome. Not as much as some kids, to be sure. He’s not homeless. He hasn’t lost a parent. He’s not chronically ill.

But from the get-go, Joe was a sensitive soul, full of anxiety. I was, too, and I remember holding him as an infant, willing myself to calm down so my baby would be calm, too. But I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was scared I’d break him.

Childhood was sometimes fraught with peril for Joe. We watched as he navigated things that caused him angst, rites of passage that didn’t throw his younger siblings or his cousins for a loop. We sought professional help and learned to help him develop the calming skills he needed.

And we watched when he wasn’t always able to implement what he had learned. It’s painful to watch your child learn from natural consequences, even as you know it’s the best way.

Elementary school was rough at times, but with each passing year, Joe matured and learned from his past. And he paved the way for his sister and brother, who don’t share his disposition but who nonetheless benefitted from the trail he blazed.

Now he’s facing his first jumping-off point, and we hope and pray he’ll be able to use those skills he’s learned over the years as he takes his first steps into adulthood. He’s grown into such a great kid. I know all parents say that, and I hope they all mean that. I am proud of my son for the person he has grown into despite his parents’ ineptitude and because of the strength of his character. If he weren’t my kid, I’d still want to know him.

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When I think of him leaving for college in less than a year, all I picture is the little boy I took to kindergarten in August 2001. He was scared. I could see it in his eyes. But he was brave, mostly for his dad and me, I know now.

He found his desk that day and waved good-bye. I went out into the hallway and waited where he couldn’t see me. I wanted to make sure he didn’t cry.

His bottom lip quivered. He wanted to cry. But he stood tall as the principal announced on the intercom that it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance. He never looked back, even though I’m sure that he knew I was there watching, praying and crying just a little.

This time next year, he’ll be gone, having left willingly to spread his wings. But I’ll still be there, watching to make sure everything’s all right.

And I think he knows that, too.

What should we do for MLK Jr. Day?

Last year, in an effort to make the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday count for something more than mid-January sales, the hubs, kids and I spent a few hours volunteering at Harvesters, the food bank. After a short presentation about food insecurity, we went to work boxing up food that would be delivered to food pantries.

Hey, we’re not saints, people. It’s a national initiative called the Day of Service. You’re supposed to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive, step outside your comfort zone and work to effect change in your community. Click here for more info.

My kids loved it, and the experience sort of led them to volunteer in similar areas over the last year. So this year, as the holiday approaches, they said they’d like to go back to Harvesters.

Only Harvesters told me today that it’s too late to sign up to volunteer there on Jan. 21. They’re fully booked, they said, but we could come back another day.

Well, we don’t have another weekday. So we’re looking for something else meaningful to do that day to commemorate Dr. King’s work and to expand our knowledge of the needs in our community. And we’re looking for suggestions.

If you’ve got some ideas — serious ones, please — leave them at the bottom of this post. I’ll let you know later this month what we end up doing.

And if you haven’t already, consider marking MLK Day yourself by doing something for others.

No, thanks. I don’t want to smell like I’m hung over.

So I’m in the throes of my yearly panic also known as “holiday shopping” when I hear on the morning news that Pizza Hut has come out with a fragrance.

Now, some lucky gift recipients on my list will be receiving some cologne or eau de parfum, to be sure.

But do I really want to give them something that will make them reek like they just got finished working an 11-to-7 at a fast-food pizza chain? That’s not exactly the mood I’m looking to evoke.

When I was a kid, my dad regularly gave my mom fancy perfumes for gift-giving occasions. She had a dresser-top full of luscious scents with exotic names like Opium and White Shoulders and Paloma Picasso. She had a bottle of Chanel No. 5 amongst the lovelies on her dresser, and each day that I was in high school, I spritzed something precious and expensive-smelling on my pulse points before I headed out the door.

To me, receiving expensive perfume reeks of specialness and decadence. So no. I will not be purchasing anything that makes anyone smell like mass-produced pizza.

Besides, there are so many choices nowadays. Have you been in the cosmetics department of any department store lately? Or how about an airport duty-free shop?

The choices are many, however, but the quality is meh. I mean, these days anyone can have a fragrance named after them.

Hey, who wants to smell like this chick?
Hey, who wants to smell like this chick?

Seriously. Consider an article I read last week in The New York Times. There, big and bold on page E3 of the Thursday Styles section, was a photo of Nicole Polizzi hawking her signature scent at a New York boutique.

That’s right, folks. Snooki has a scent.

Ewwww.

Guess who else has a fragrance bottled up? Lady Gaga. I’m thinking there might be a bit of a bacon bouquet to that one. And who knows what else.

How about Nicki Minaj? You wanna buy a perfume with her name on it? I’m not sure what that one smells like.

Kat Von D, the tattoo artist, has her own fragrance. Hmmmm. So does Paris Hilton.

Are these ladies known for their nice scents?

Even Ke$ha has her own perfume. It’s named after another word for a female dog. Nice. I’ll bet it smells like a meth lab.

Why can’t George Clooney put his name on a cologne? Or get behind a pefume, like his buddy Brad Pitt is for Chanel?

I digress.

These second-rate celebs think slapping their names on fragrances is the next step in their branding scheme. Consider Ms. Polizzi’s assessment of her fragrance, as reported in that New York Times story: “[Snooki] said her new scent has notes like apple blossom and so-called cashmere woods, ‘which I thought sounded classy.’ “

That’s “classy” with a “K.”

 

Mess with my kids and feel my wrath

A week or so ago, Maggie and I were in a take-out pizza joint on a Friday night.

It was crazy busy, and the place was pretty small. We queued to order our pepperoni pie, then waited against the back windows.

Pretty soon the door opened, and a couple walked in. They looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think much of it.

Then Maggie pinched my arm and whispered in my ear that the couple who’d just entered the joint was a former coach of hers and his wife.

Ahhh. I looked anew at the woman, who seemed to have put on a few pounds since the last time I saw her courtside. Her husband’s hair had grayed noticeably. I smirked.

Maggie shot me a sideways glance but didn’t say anything.

Pretty soon, a teen behind the counter called our name, and we picked up the pizza and headed for the door. Just as we got there, the coaching couple turned around and smiled, all Stepford-like.

“Hi, Maggie!” they said brightly.

Bless her heart, my girl has raisings. She smiled and said hello.

That’s my sweet girl…

I, on the other hand, felt that familiar motherly indignation rise within me. All I could muster was a glare, which probably looked more like a squint since I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

Out in the parking lot, I attempted casual conversation with Maggie.

“Man, she looked fat, didn’t she?” I asked. “Didn’t she look fat?”

Maggie just shrugged and smiled, a little patronizingly, I thought.

“Mom,” she said, “you need to let it go.”

“It” was an incident several years ago where the pizza-ordering fatties – back then considerably more svelte but snotty just the same – had conspired to kick my daughter off a sports team so their little darling could take her place.

But no one bothered to tell us that our girl wasn’t on the team until the season began and games started. Then, and only then, did we find out she had lost her spot on the team.

She cried. She cried and cried and wondered why she wasn’t good enough to play on the team she’d been on for several seasons. We had no reason to give, except that that the coach’s kid gets preference.

Then, adding insult, her new team had to play her old team once or twice a season. And the old teammates she’d joked around with treated her badly, led by the snarky mean girl who took her spot.

I could barely watch when Maggie’s new team played her old. I was so angry, I clinched my teeth until my temples ached.

I was proud of the way Maggie made the best of a sad situation and made better friends on her new team, full of girls she’ll play with in high school. I even softened toward the girls on the other team, who I reasoned couldn’t help being the way they were if their parents were so devious they’d hurt an 11-year-old girl to further their own child’s fortunes.

But when it came to the parents, forget it. I give them no quarter.

I’m not proud that I can’t forgive and forget. I’m all the time preaching that the past is the past, that folks need to build some bridges and get over “it.”

Yet I can’t. I can’t in this instance or a few others where adults intentionally wronged my kiddos.

Mess with me, I can eventually give you a bye.

But mess with my kids, and you’re dead to me.