Friday, December 3, 2010

A Little Bit of Christmas Spirit

Today on the phone, my mother informed me they had gotten a Christmas tree. This immediately sparked the question: “It’s not as bad as last year’s tree, is it?”  See last year, my parents decided they would partake of nature’s bounty by venturing into the mountainous woods of Colorado to chop down their own tree. Fueled by hearty enthusiasm, they set off to the forest, intent on bringing home a little piece of Colorado to warm our hearth. Unfortunately, “nature’s bounty” proved elusive, for what came home was a little more sparse than spruce. Though I wasn’t there, I can only imagine the conversation that prompted them to make such a rash decision choosing our tree. I imagine it went something like this, 

Mom: “This is fun, we’re gonna cut down a tree-- we don’t need the girls here!”
Dad: Laughs
Mom: “I wish we had some grandkids”
Dad: Begins to look off into the distance, somewhere in the echoing expanse plays the haunting chorus from Fiddler on the Roof “Sunriiiise, Sunset, Swiftly flow the days….” 
Mom: “Maybe we should set one of the girls up wi-”
Dad: “THIS ONE! THIS TREE RIGHT HERE!” Begins sawing it down.

And that’s how we ended up with a tree that even Charlie Brown would look down on. 

When I came home to help decorate what I thought was going to be a tree, I was understandably shocked. My dad had tried to warn me on the phone saying, “Now it’s a little thinner than some of the trees we’ve had before. It’s a mountain tree.” Unfortunately that description did little to prepare me for what I saw when I stepped through the front door.
I took one look at it and said,  “Where’s the tree?”
Mom: “Well...that is the tree.”
I pointed at it in disbelief, “That?! There are barely enough branches to make a WREATH!” 

After I collected myself, I managed to pose a question, “So, mom… many other trees did you pass by before settling on this particular tree?”

Dad: “Plenty.” 

Me: “Are you sure they were trees, not, you know, pine cones?”
 At that point, though they were laughing, my parents still felt compelled to explain their choice. My mom offered the justification that it, “looked different in the woods.” 
My sister, who had been silently shaking her head in the corner, piped in with “Did it look like a real tree then?” 

Their defense of the tree is something I can only attribute to classic underdog syndrome, some people are just hardwired to root for the down-and-outs. My dad defended it for a good 40 minutes, claiming it just needed some decorations. After positioning it at an angle that hid the more gaping bald patches, we set about putting lights on the tree. Unfortunately the addition of lights did little to mask the raw material. (It’s the classic pig-in-a-dress scenario, you can put it in a dress, but it will always be a pig).  In fact, the lights seemed to comically highlight our predicament: 

Refusing to lose hope, mom and dad insisted that putting on the ornaments would make all the difference. Unfortunately, the thin mountain air produced equally thin branches, which would bend completely under any kind of ornamental weight. But even after the young sapling dropped a few of our more mediocre ornaments, my dad still steadfastly defended it. The turning point came, however, when dad attempted to grace the tree with one of the ornaments from his “special horn collection”. See, somehow we’ve managed to collect a bunch of ornaments that look like this:
Most people would streamline the horn collection into say one or two...or just one.  But for some reason dad has developed a particular fondness for this variety of ornament. And for that reason, we are not allowed to throw any of the horns away. (Although they do take a lot of verbal abuse each year). So when one of the horns dropped onto the ground, emerging with a scratched bugle, the tree suddenly found itself without a defender. 

At that point, the gloves came off (along with a few more ornaments) and we effectively roasted our tree. When it came time to name it (as is our yearly tradition), we aptly settled on Karen Carpenter. It seemed appropriate at the time. Somehow, Karen made her way into our hearts that Christmas season-- maybe it was the rum-nog speaking, but we eventually came to appreciate her. We all agreed that, in her offbeat, unashamed ghetto-ness she was uniquely characteristic of our family (a family that once had a broken car window during a rainstorm and drove down the road with an umbrella sticking out the window hole). 

I think it brings to mind the idea that Christmas spirit is not about the tree, or what’s under it. Christmas spirit is about taking what you have and celebrating it with the people you love. (Even if you only have a quarter of a tree to celebrate with).  So with that in mind, Happy Holidays all-- and for those of  you thinking about cutting down your own tree, remember, “They look different in the woods!"

How to Tame a Terrorist

       One of the most profound pieces of wisdom my mother ever told me was this: "Children are little terrorists. You can't negotiate with them." This fact was driven painfully home to me this afternoon on the bus when a six year old boy took all of the passengers hostage with his preternaturally loud screaming. As the mother tried to hush his rage screams I reflected on the accumulated wisdom of hostage negotiators and how these strategems could be applied to parenting. If you have or regularly babysit a little terror try some of the following tactics:
1. Turn up the heat
 One of the first things the police do in a hostage situation (according to Die Hard and other action movies) is to cut the power, especially during a sweltering heat wave. Eventually the hostage-takers get so hot and irritable that they just give up, figuring that prison at least has air conditioning. This is an ideal tactic when your child is highly energetic. By turning up the heat and forcing them to wear a sweater you'll ensure maximum lethargy, and find they'll drift off into nap time.  You can aid this descent into dreamland by another common tactic:
2. Drug Them
 Now I'm not talking about throwing a bottle of tear gas into the room to break up the riot occuring in the ball pen, but a little whiskey in the apple juice never hurt anyone.  Look at this way, when they get to their adolescent years and go on a wild binge, you'll have saved yourself a trip to the emergency room. How can your child get alcohol poisoning if you've secretly been building their tolerance for years? Now that's what I call planning for a kid's future!
3. Turn out the Lights
 One side effect of cutting the power is that you will have no electricity in your house. We all know that a child's greatest fear is of the dark, so why not exploit that? One timeout in a dark, enclosed space and little Johnnie will be gratefully shoveling down his vegetables. For those of you who are thinking "what if this causes lasting psychological damage to my child?" let me share a story with you. 
 When I was around eight years old our family lived in a neighborhood of Omaha prone to frequent power outages. One night my  mom and I were alone in the house during one of these outages, reading in her room by candlelight. My mom told me she was going downstairs for some more candles. After waiting alone for several minutes I decided follow her, and so picking up my little candle I ventured alone into the dark, menacing hallway. Just as I was passing the bathroom door my mom jumped out shrieking. Knowing that I would eventually follow, she had been lurking there, waiting for the appropriate moment to strike. I jumped a foot in the air and tried to calm the rapid pounding in my chest while she writhed with laughter. Now I could be bitter about this experience, but I've discovered as an adult that I am entirely unable to be scared at haunted houses. I laugh and gleefully throw  my friends in the path of the chainsaw wielding maniac, because I learned an important fact that day. There is nothing scarier than my mother. This is the type of priceless life lesson you can impart on your children too. 
4. The Power of the Counteroffer 
 Professional negotiators cannot give in to terrorist demands, either because they don't have the authority or because the demands are unrealistic.  Instead of caving negotiators will often give small concessions. This can work with children too. Example:
Janie: I want to go to Disneyland
Mom: We can't go to Disneyland. How would you like this bag of chips?
Jimmy: I want a new bike.
Mom: You can't have a new bike. How  would you like this bag of chips?
Always keep a good stock pile of chips around to distract the child from what they really want. Cheetos, fruit snacks, and other high-fructose corn syrup laden items will work as well. If their mouths are full of snack items they will have more difficulty hounding you for something. Just remember to keep them distracted from what they really want long enough that they forget. 
Practical Police Psychologist Dr. Lawrence Miller said it best when he said "hostage negotiation is all about psychology". So get inside your kid's head, and remember what Mama said "Never negotiate." 
-Shadow Cat