An Unsanctioned Field Trip

Honestly, I blame myself for the rain this winter. I spent all summer and most of fall complaining about the L.A. River, or lack thereof. Although more than once I was tempted to throw on my Pink Ladies jacket and race my Prius through the dry and dusty channels. I looked longingly at the new chicken wellies I had bought at the Tractor Supply Store on our way out of state last May. October approached and they still had the tags on them. 70 and sunny every day. I didn’t even bother to check the Weather Channel app before getting dressed. I didn’t check to see if we could play outside or needed to seek shelter indoors. Groundhog Day, Jim Cantore-style. I was completely bored.

And then the first storm came. Unfortunate timing, though, because wildfires had just ripped through Malibu and Thousand Oaks. Parts of the Pacific Coast Highway were buried under mud and debris. Traumatized wildfire survivors were put on alert: your house withstood the blaze, but it might slide down the hill. It rained for a week. Everyone thought winter had passed.

When Mom and Anna arrived on a Delta flight on the second day of 2019, the sun was shining. But then it rained for pretty much their entire visit. We scrounged for things to do because everything in Southern California is outside (or closed on Mondays). Soon after, the murmuring started…There might be a super bloom this year. I didn’t know what a super bloom was, but it sounded like a reason to stock up on lemon, lavender and peppermint oils. And Kleenex.

We had already been let in on the secret of Antelope Valley when we first arrived.

“That’s the place to see the poppies in the spring,” they said.

“It’s a drive and you have to go north of L.A., but it’s worth it,” they said.

And then Lake Elsinore, which is significantly closer to us and south of L.A. (that’s an important distinction when accounting for traffic), reported a super bloom in one of the canyons.

And people lost their damn minds.

There were Instagram followers to delight and photos to be re-tweeted. Everyone was ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille. Until Lake Elsinore was forced to shut it down and re-group. And still someone landed their private helicopter in the middle of the wildflowers, jumped out for a selfie, and took off as authorities were racing toward them.

And although I was appalled, I wasn’t shocked. Because when you have 40 million people living side-by-side, someone is bound to drop their aircraft on private property just to say they did. The other 39 million will spend a week on Facebook threads trying to sleuth out who it was. Just settle in with a bucket of popcorn and read the comments.

So, we passed on the $30 shuttle to the Lake Elsinore super bloom and by the time it seemed like things were calming down, I overheard a gentleman at the Grunion Run say there wasn’t much left. Nature had taken its course, hastened by human nature. Next up was Antelope Valley, where the Poppy Reserve staff had gone to great lengths just a couple months before to say they were not expecting a super bloom this year. I didn’t blame them. Who would want to reveal their hand after the shit show at Lake Elsinore? But thanks for taking one for the team, Riverside County.

Pictures were starting to trickle in, though. The woman who runs the Mommy Poppins, Los Angeles website posted some photos she took of her kids at the fields over the weekend. It didn’t look mobbed. And what if we went on a school day? What if we left at 7:00 in the morning and tackled the 110 with the Fast Trak pass and a cooler of snacks? I talked myself into it. Then the night before, I saw a story in the L.A. Times about a 15-passenger van, loaded with poppy field visitors, that slammed into the back of a Mini-Cooper, presumably because the driver was too busy looking at poppies to drive.

I talked myself out of going. It just isn’t safe. Too many people. It’s not worth it.

And then I talked myself back into it. We may never see this again. What if next winter is dry? We can leave early. Super early. We will have zero expectations. That last one is crucial for being happy in L.A.

We were packed and ready to go by 7:15, but then a peacock walked across the street in front of our house and it was such a delightful surprise that we spent the next 15 minutes following it around the neighborhood.

By 9 AM, we were enmeshed in the 110 traffic, which leads right through the heart of downtown L.A. And I was deeply regretting that cup of coffee on the way out the door. I just have to make it to the 5. Then I can pull off somewhere and pee. It took a long time to get to the 5 and I seriously considered my ability to simultaneously drive and pee into a Starbucks coffee mug. And on that note, thank goodness that guy sued Starbucks for barring him from using their bathroom. At least I always know that when the need arises, there’s a public restroom in Starbucks. And they usually get an order of egg bites out of me in the process.

Blue and I started seeing the hills turn orange about 12 miles south of the preserve. Blue had been full of questions on the way north…like why there’s no Easter chicken (because bunnies are mammals and don’t lay eggs) and what he would use to wash Jesus’s feet (Children’s Motrin because it smells like oranges) when all of a sudden, the landscape blazed with color. Orange, of course, but also yellow and purple, all of which was edged in green. We had grown so accustomed to seeing brown all year, that we couldn’t stop looking. I checked for 15-passenger vans.

The road to the reserve is lined with places to pull-off, not just to step out and take a picture, but to leave your car and hike the trails. I made a mental note of that as we inched closer to the entrance of the reserve.

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Turning in and taking our place in a line that snaked all the way out to the main road, I realized that the parking lot was probably already full and they were only letting people park as other people were leaving. I calculated how long that would take. I decided the appropriate answer was forever. We didn’t wait to reach the turnaround point. If the mini-van behind me could turn around completely after 5 tries, I could do it in 3. It’s kind of like driving a lawnmower sometimes.

We parked at the head of a trail (where a sign was posted that we would not be able to access the reserve from this point – which we decided we were cool with) and started up the hill. We met the jolliest woman coming down the trail and she offered to take a picture of us, which is decidedly better than any selfie.

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Then we took out our cameras and began to explore. Blue tried to figure out what the life cycle of a poppy is (there are buds and small discs at the base of each bud, so which comes first?) and I tried to figure out how to accurately photograph the majestic beauty of a million wildflowers setting the hills on fire.

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And I don’t know that I nailed it. It’s like trying to capture the vastness and the detail of the Grand Canyon. Plus it was almost noon and the sun was hot, high, and unforgiving. Blue was hungry and all I had was water on the trail. We were starting to sweat through the sunscreen.

“Take 40 more pictures and then let’s go,” Blue bargained. I thought that was fair. But I’m the mom so I took 42, although the last 2 sort of looked like the first 40. We made a game of counting the snake holes. We lost count at 29 when a woman in an RV stopped to tell us we should hike to the top of the hill for a better view. She had just driven there in her air-conditioned Winnebago. We said thanks and kept walking.

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The road had gotten busy and people were now parked in front of and behind us. The trails closest to the cars were clogged with visitors, squatting for the perfect poppy shot. Look, Marge. If you take it in this direction you can get it without any people. I used to be Marge. But Mom taught me that it’s the people in a photograph that make it interesting. Neal still asks me why I’ve taken a picture of strangers – on the beach, at the farmer’s market, in an art museum.

20190408_110652Because people are part of the landscape. And besides, maybe someday my photo will help to solve a crime or reunite a family. Well, maybe not this photo…

We devoured our pb&j sandwiches, drank the sun-cooked water, and said goodbye to the poppies. It was someone else’s turn. Plus, when they number in the millions, they don’t smell very good. It’s almost rancid and made me wish for just a second that it was a super bloom of jasmine or mint.

And then I saw the sign…

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Oops. But that’s typical. A rule with no one enforcing it. Sometimes California is cool like that.

We decided it would be in our best interest to stop at the barn of antiques on our way back to the freeway.

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And we weren’t wrong. Blue found a microscope, some Army patches, a wood folding rule (which smelled like every trip I have ever taken with my dad to Lowe’s), an old hotel key tag, and some Cub Scout books from 1968. He also made a friend.

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I almost bought a glass juicer, but saw a chip in the top and thought maybe I shouldn’t juice a lemon over broken glass. With our arms full and our tummies empty again, we cruised down the Civic Musical Road (which plays about 10 seconds of the William Tell Overture as you drive over it) and headed for Baskin-Robbins. And then to Starbucks for their bathroom.

By the time we got on the road at 4:00, Waze was routing us through the Angeles National Forest, which is a spectacular landscape, but not for anyone who gets car sick or is hesitant about heights. Some of it had burned recently and the charred trees were fascinating to Blue. He begged me to pull over and get a piece of rock so he could study it under his microscope on the way home. I had already indulged him a raggedy Security Officer patch and some peanut butter and chocolate ice cream. What was a rock going to hurt? He exclaimed his findings from his mobile laboratory. “It’s a rock from an asteroid! It has space dust!” I started to correct him and then remembered he’s 6. There is plenty of time for that later. Today, he just found a piece of the universe under a burned out stump on the side of the road in the Angeles National Forest. And he is examining it under the lens of a $15 microscope we found at a barn of antiques next to a field of poppies (where he is convinced a coyote went savage because…poppies). There is nothing to be corrected. It’s perfect, exactly as it is.

 

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Putting the Wonder in Wonderful: A Screening of Wonder Park with the Bob Hope USO

Ask any service member or military family member what they know about the USO (United Services Organization) and you will probably get some sort of vague response about it being a place to rest and recharge in the airport, but outside of the security checkpoint…which is sort of the problem. Unless your layover spans multiple hours, the likelihood of someone willingly leaving the terminal (with kids and carry-on luggage) to find the USO is slim. I think Neal and I have been in one USO the entire time we’ve been together. There were some snacks, a few games, a small library of books, and the volunteers were incredibly nice. But we’ve never even flown with Blue, much less stepped foot inside another USO. Interestingly enough, since moving here, the Bob Hope USO is challenging everything I thought I knew about what the USO does.

About 2 months after reporting to his new assignment at Los Alamitos, CA, Neal mentioned that the unit’s family day was approaching. It would be held on a Sunday afternoon at a municipal park about 45 minutes south of where we live. Having been to a fair number of family days and even been in charge of a few, I set my expectations pretty low (which is also how I’ve started to live my life now that we have a kid who likes to tell people that his sister is a cat). I was so wrong.

The Chargers showed up, the Anaheim Ducks were there, but more importantly, the Bob Hope USO was serving lunch. And the 2 gentlemen in the front of this picture at the bottom left-hand corner are Tuskegee Airmen. They are native Los Angelenos and I could have talked with them for hours. So many stories about how the city used to be and what they miss about those days! I thought that was the last we would see of the Bob Hope USO.

But then I got a phone call from my neighbor.

“Did you get the email about the Wonder Park screening?”

“No. Who is hosting it?”

“The USO.”

“The Bob Hope USO?”

“Is there another?”

Not in this neck of the woods.

She forwarded me the email, which invited local military families to a Saturday afternoon screening of Wonder Park, complete with free snacks (ideal movie food like Swedish Fish, M&M’s, popcorn, and Twix bars), water, and photo ops throughout the lobby of…and this is the best part, y’all…the Paramount Studios theater. Is there anything better than watching a movie in the theater that is owned by the company that made the movie?

Nope, I think not. Except maybe the free parking that was included. No chance of me getting a $63 parking ticket for busting a meter by 9 minutes? Where do I RSVP?

Shortly after we arrived, our neighbors realized that if you stood in this one spot in front of the fountain, you could get the perfect picture with the Paramount sign and the Hollywood sign in the background. We are probably not the first people to ever take this picture, but that really didn’t slow us down any.

There were coloring sheets and yard games to keep the kids busy until the lobby doors opened promptly at 2 PM. This was a great set-up because after living in L.A. county for the past year, my typical plan when traveling into the city for the day involves checking Waze obsessively until time to leave and still arriving somewhere 30-45 minutes early. They had accounted for that.

Once the doors open, attendees were greeted by enthusiastic and friendly USO volunteers, multiple tables of snacks and drinks, and several spots to snap that perfect photo for your milfam Instagram.

I gave up posting beautifully posed photos to Instagram when Blue discovered he had free will. Now we are just adding to the collection of photos that I’m going to show in a looping slideshow at his wedding.

The lesson here? Mama don’t play. Either look excited or I’m going to do it for you.

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#WhenYourNeighborhoodDoesEverythingTogetherAllTheTime

As if the fine folks of the Bob Hope USO already knew, the doors to the theater opened about 30 minutes later, just as the kids were starting to get antsy and the parents were running out of ways to entertain them. The theater is huge and we had no problem finding a row plus 3 seats for our party. Yes, we are that on-post neighborhood that does practically everything together. We took up an entire van for the wine tasting in Temecula a few weeks ago, we took over an outdoor patio at the local brewery last year, and we needed one whole row plus some for the screening. Also, this is only 5 families. Heaven help you if we all show up.

On one end of the row, we are all kind of doing our best to ignore Mike’s mustache. Only 10 days left in March, Candace. Hang in there, sister. On the other end, Matt and Rebekah are watching a movie in a theater for the first time together. And they’ve only been married for like 13 years.

Before the film started, someone from the Bob Hope USO came on stage to welcome us and introduce one of the stars of the movie, Ken Hudson Campbell, who plays Boomer in the movie.

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Mr. Campbell explained a bit about the movie, taught us how to say (and then scream) SPLENDIFEROUS!, and teased us with Boomer’s soon-to-be-famous snore. Then the curtains opened and the show began (without any previews, which, I’m just going to be honest, was amazing).

The film itself was a roller coaster ride and without spilling the beans on any of it, bring some Kleenex and your kids. It has a great message, which is delivered with an immense helping of humor.

After the credits rolled, volunteers from the Bob Hope USO called out the winning numbers for the raffle (free tickets were distributed at check-in). The culminating prize was 4 tickets to the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards this Saturday, which Rebekah’s son won. (This isn’t surprising as Rebekah is the luckiest person I know and she seems to have passed that on in utero.)

It was a great afternoon that brought joy to our children and delight to us as we watched them. Truly, I can’t say it enough: THANK YOU to the Bob Hope USO and to Paramount Studios/Nickelodeon for hosting us. What a fabulous morale booster for those who were able to attend. Being stationed near L.A. and being able to participate in something so unique to the area makes it worth it. We all felt appreciated and we appreciate you!

Answers From the Fridge

“What are you giving up for Lent?” I asked Mom last weekend. She looked at me from her seat on the couch across the room and said, “Chocolate?” We both laughed because our DNA makes this nearly impossible. My grandparents kept a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream in the freezer, a stash of Hershey kisses in the cut crystal candy dish on the bar, and at least one package of generic brand Oreos in the pantry. No, neither one of us would be giving up chocolate for Lent.

“Wine?” Again…belly laughs as I reached for Mom’s empty glass on the way to the kitchen. We were half-way through a bottle of Fess Parker dry riesling (from our whirlwind tour of Los Olivos in January) with a bottle of Wilson Creek almond champagne speed-chilling in the freezer. No, wine was not an option, either.

At this point, you are probably mumbling to yourself something about sacrifice and pain and how we were completely missing the point. But that idea had already occurred to us, almost at the same time as I was refilling our glasses. We felt some guilt about being lazy, stubborn Christians until I read this article about doing something for Lent that had some lasting consequences for someone other than myself. Sure, if we gave up chocolate and wine for Lent, we would probably lose a few pounds and Neal would welcome the extra savings on the grocery bill, but that really only directly affects me. What about doing something that has an identifiable ripple effect? Whether I observe it actually rippling or not is unimportant. What about giving up plastic for 40 days?

As it turns out, giving up all plastic is hella hard in 2019. I went to the grocery store today. I handed over my reusable grocery bags (with images of iconic L.A. landmarks splashed across the sides because they came in a pack of 4 at Costco) and began to unload my cart. Two bags of broccoli slaw…bagged in plastic (because who actually wants to shred cabbage? Not this girl.). Plastic tub of low-fat strawberry yogurt. (Not my fault – that is part of Neal’s breakfast ritual.) Ground turkey and lean beef, both in plastic packaging. (How the hell does one get around that? Just fill this mason jar with that ground chuck, please, butcher. Thanks.) Powdered peanut butter. (Totally my fault but I’m going to blame it on Weight Watchers.) OH! Asparagus, cucumbers, and lemons in reusable net fruit bags. WIN!!! Next to a plastic bottle of Aunt Jemima and a half-gallon of milk, also in plastic. (Glass bottles of milk here cost roughly the same as both of my foot surgeries. And that’s with the bottle return discount.)

So, giving up plastic completely is not only a sacrifice, it’s basically impossible. Until we move back to Amish country, where we can buy a 1/4 of a cow and pack it home in a Coleman, plastic is just part of life. I can be more aware of how much I buy (a person probably shouldn’t be eating that much powdered peanut butter anyway) and I can recycle or reuse when I can.

I was stumped about my Lenten sacrifice as I hauled my bags into the house. I set them on the kitchen table and began to unpack. I shuffled around tubs of sour cream and leftovers from 2 weeks ago, trying to make space for the milk and Neal’s yogurt. I accidentally tipped over a jar of Trader Joe’s Carrot Cake Spread, which, I suddenly remembered, I bought right after Thanksgiving to have for the holidays.

Ew.

I pulled out leftovers from more than 2 weeks ago, a mostly empty jug of applesauce, a mostly empty jar of salsa, moldy sour cream, and an unopened container of slimy arugula. Looking at it all piled up on the counter, I thought, waste not, want not. But also…starving kids in Africa. They would love to have had those penne noodles that I refused to eat before squeezing into a formal gown last weekend. They would have been thrilled to eat the butternut squash that I cubed, but never got around to roasting or the lemons that I let rot in the darkest corner of the second shelf. There are very few things that bring me shame. One is when my child calls the newest kid in our neighborhood a dumbass. And this is the other.

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So, for the next 40 days, I vow to have no food waste, other than scraps like strawberry tops, seeds from a bell pepper, and apple cores. We will eat what we cook, we will cook what we have. I will not buy 2 more red onions without first checking to see if there are any in the bin. I will use the 6 red onions now in the bin. I will not buy something like unsweetened almond milk, try it, deem it disgusting and unworthy of future consumption, and let it spoil over the next 3 months. I will fry that stupid package of turkey bacon that mocks me every time I open the fridge.

I will accept any suggestions for preparing turkey bacon that doesn’t result in it tasting like wet cardboard.

It isn’t the same as giving up all plastic, but it’s infinitely more feasible…at this point in my life, anyway. And I think it will ripple, I just wonder how. At the height of the most recent government shut-down, my freighbor (friendneighbor because not all your neighbors are friends and not all your friends are neighbors), who also happens to be a Coast Guard wife, was scrambling to cook dinner with groceries she had on hand. Except…within the first few days she began to realize that there were a lot of cans pushed to the back of the pantry and frozen meat stashed in the bottom of the freezer. They didn’t dine like kings, but they certainly didn’t go hungry. How much food do we have that was bought for a specific recipe, but never used? Or used, but only a tablespoon? I’m looking at you, capers…impersonating rabbit pellets in a vinegar brine. Ironic that Jesus fasted for 40 days and we are going to eat all the things, but it’s easier than bringing home chicken breast in a mason jar. There’s always next year for that.

Silencing the Noise

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It’s funny how a brain dump at 10 PM after a long week can, unexpectedly, result in a slew of responses from friends who are having the same thoughts and feelings. I fully expected to piss off a lot of people with that last post. It was just a cathartic ripping open of my heart, with little regard for who would be reading it or what their reactions would be. It wasn’t journalism. But it made me feel a helluva lot better. And I slept great that night.

One of the comments I got on my last post was from a friend in my neighborhood. Also a writer, she said something about how interesting it is to watch someone sift through their emotions through writing. And that’s exactly what this blog is for me. It’s a place to sift and sort, to proclaim and then sit with it for awhile. And to absorb your reactions, let them sit with me for awhile, too. Maybe I did piss off some people. They just kept scrolling. After all, who wants to be told their hometown sucks? I can still see the faces of people back in Pennsylvania when I would tell them (usually after they had apprehensively asked me how we liked it there) that we love it so much we want to retire in the area. They absolutely glowed. Pride leaked out of every pore and they stopped dismissing its beauty, if only for a little while. The Lebanon Valley in Pennsylvania is not New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles. It’s not even Atlanta or Nashville. But it is picturesque and quiet. People take pride in their homes and cars, even if the homes are small and the cars are old. We also loved Kansas, Virginia, and Georgia and every resident that I talked to was always braced to hear the worst, but practically giddy when I told them how much we were enjoying the area. I was unprepared to have the opposite conversation here.

And, really, when we get to the heart of the matter, isn’t that the problem? Expectations. I have always placed a high value on knowing what to expect and, intentional or not, I have passed that on to Blue. I mentally prepare myself for whatever I am getting ready to face; from going to the dentist, to moving across the country, to driving on the 405 at 5 PM. It’s why, even before we have orders in hand, I’m on area Facebook pages asking spouses where to live, what the schools are like, where to find great pizza and what we can do as a family. Six times I’ve done this and six times I’ve realized, after about 6 months of living in the new area, that my expectations were wrong. Five of the six times, I had actually underestimated an area. Man, it blows when you overestimate it.

But how do you not overestimate a place like southern California? Palm-tree lined streets everywhere, not just on Rodeo Drive or Sunset Boulevard. Movie stars that could show up at your famer’s market at any time. Old VW buses parked down at the beach with a surf board strapped to the top and 2 guys in the front who may have just started a band in their parents’ garage. Seafood on the pier and taco trucks down the street. And realizing that you know exactly what they are talking about when Jimmie Allen sings, “I see the sun sink down on a coast in California” or when Kenny Chesney sings, “Baby, here I am again/kicking dust in the canyon wind/waiting for that sun to go down./Made it up Mulholland Drive/hell bent on getting high/high above the lights of town.” When Maverick pulls up to Charlie’s house on PCH and when you find out that all of the campus scenes of Larry Crowne were filmed at the college in the next town over, it does make you feel like you are in the middle of something bigger than yourself. Tiny fish in a fast-moving ocean. This is where it is all happening and I think a lot of people crave that atmosphere. It’s just that I don’t. I should have known better. My favorite film maker is Ken Burns and the only series I’ve seen every episode of is M.A.S.H. Sometimes I flip through People at the check-out line and realize I only recognize the actors who are older than me. I’m doing good to remember the names and faces of people we were stationed with 10 years ago, there’s just no space left for famous people. Except Gary Sinise.

Today is one of those days that is saving me, though. It’s January 24th and if we lived almost anywhere else, we would be bundled under at least 3 layers. Our faces would be chapped from winter winds, practically frozen in place, and I would only leave the house if I absolutely had to. But here, today, it is 75 degrees and full sun. Low humidity and warm enough to have all the windows open in the car and still drive with a breeze. It is, dare I say it, perfect. It is that first really warm spring day in Kentucky – when the girls are out on the quad with blankets and bikinis and the convertible top drops for the first time since September. When music of every genre can be heard at a stoplight because everyone has their windows down. It’s the first day of spring break when summer is actually a possibility and not just a promise. And I turn up the country music because that’s what spring break is to me – Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Dierks Bentley. Take off your socks, pour a margarita, soak up the sun before it turns chilly again.

Days like this aren’t enough to keep me here, but they are enough to get me through. I’m going to get off this bucket list hamster wheel for a little while. It will never be completed anyway. I’m going to stop trying to do everything that’s uniquely California…or even uniquely L.A. I don’t need to go to a cat-themed pop-up that’s sponsored by Fresh Step or to a movie premiere every month. I need to find the nature that is out here and remember that that is why people flocked here. For the unpredictable Pacific and the whales that fluke as they pass through on their way to Mexico. They came because you can hike a mountain in the morning and build a sand castle after lunch. And because the fruit trees grow like crazy and the grapes make the best wine. All of this stuff that’s man-made? The museums and the shopping centers, the tourist destinations and the boutique cafes? Those are distractions from what is truly beautiful about California. That is not where my time is best spent and that will not refill my cup. I need to go to the places where I can see God and I need to show the light of Jesus to those who have been kicked down while living here. The rest of it is just noise.

Thank you for always supporting me, even as I publicly sift through this rollercoaster of emotions. While I was at the dentist’s office getting my teeth cleaned this morning, I was chatting with my hygienist, who is 30 weeks pregnant with her second child. We had a good laugh about how completely lost we were with the first child. Those first few weeks of motherhood with a newborn are frightening, exhausting, and overwhelming.  If I learned anything from giving birth, it’s that I want to get this right the first time. I don’t want to look back only to be disappointed by the fact that I didn’t put more effort into finding the good. And just like childbirth, I won’t get a second chance to do it again. This is it and I need to make it count. I have adjusted my expectations and I’m ready to start over.

Know Better, Do Better: The Christmas Edition

The question came up last week, as was inevitable: “What does Blue want for Christmas?” My mind went absolutely and completely blank. Because what I heard was not, “What does he want for Christmas,” I heard, “What does he need for Christmas?” And honestly…nothing. Our child wants for nothing. Sure he will tell you that he needs another Star Wars Lego set or some more Jungle in My Pocket toys. He will beg for a laser tag set and a whole semi-truck full of stuffies. But all he truly needs is an attitude of gratitude. Santa baby, can you slip that under the tree?

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I understand that this problem is almost 100% of our own doing. From the time we found out I was pregnant, we have been buying for him. First it was all the toys that, according to numerous mommy bloggers and the Today Show, he had to have. I rolled my eyes at the wipe warmer, but he had a giraffe teething toy (but no teeth), the cutest little shoes (before he could even crawl), and a crib full of stuffed animals (many were bigger than him). Over the years, we’ve tried to supplement the growing footprint of toys with “educational” gifts. An entire library full of all of the “recommended” books, “brainy” toys – some requiring batteries and some made of wood, marble runs, and bins upon bins of Lego. There were plastic animals of every size and species, Army men and all of their accessories, Hot Wheels cars with the accompanying track and even a suitcase to carry them all. Ironically, nothing has made all of that seem excessive like living in and exploring around Los Angeles.

It is impossible to go anywhere, besides within the gates of our own neighborhood, and not see a member of the homeless population. Whether you drive or walk, you will see at least one person who is homeless every single day. Across the street, across town, in the parking lot of the vet’s office, outside of Starbucks, in the park next to the aquarium, sleeping on the beach. They live all along the L.A. river, under wind-shredded tarps that are strewn across sun-faded tents. They usually aren’t asking for money or help, they are simply moving about their day, just as we are. Some are passing the time by watching traffic, some are sleeping, and some -judging by their awkward propped positions – look like they may have passed on. I don’t know any of their stories, but I hear the locals talk about their “favorites”. Most are known, many are liked, some are helped. It has taken me months to be even a little bit OK with this. I want Oprah and Ellen to give every single homeless person a house, but the reality is that isn’t the root of the problem or even a viable solution. And the most difficult part for me to accept? There are so many homeless children.

When the school year started, I had to log into an L.A. school district website and confirm that we have a home. The default was not that everyone lived in a house, it was that everyone lives in something other than a house or apartment. The school district wanted to know if we were living with friends or family, in an RV, in a tent or in a shelter. I almost felt guilty by the end. No, no, no, no…no to all of that. We have a house. I’m so sorry, I wish they all did. And the truth is, there are children in Blue’s school, children he sees and plays with everyday, that are homeless. And I don’t think he had ever noticed. I wasn’t about to bring it to his attention, but a few weeks ago he began saying variations of, “This is the worst Christmas ever.” I let it go (for probably longer than I should have), but by the second week, I had had enough. We had a chat.

“Do you remember the people we see living in tents on the side of the road? Did you know that some of those people are kids? Did you know that those kids don’t have toys or stuffies or even a bed to sleep in? Did you know that those kids sometimes only eat when they are at school?” Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Tears welled up in my eyes and a look of remorse washed over Blue. Homeless had become part of his lexicon, just as Amish had in Pennsylvania. The difference, he was beginning to understand, was that one chose the life and one did not. Sometimes I have serious doubts about moving every two years. Like when I remember fondly the Christmas traditions we shared with my grandparents and cousins when I was growing up. I become nostalgic for a time when my grandmother would stick the Bing Crosby 8-track tape in the player (which was installed in the wall) before decorating the tree. And I think, “Blue will never have this to reflect on each Christmas season. We are ruining his childhood.” But then we have a Come-to-Jesus about how he is not having the worst Christmas ever, although there are kids in his class who certainly are. Like Billy from The Polar Express….Christmas just doesn’t work out for them. And because he can look out of the car window every single day and see someone having the worst Christmas ever, he has stopped saying that. Next week it will be something else, but at least he has come around on this topic.

All of this was spurred by a Facebook post shared by a friend this morning. It urged people to stop giving Santa credit for the expensive gifts their children received. The iPads and gaming systems, the 52424-piece Lego kits and the new iPhones. Because when kids talk (as they inevitably do), it will appear that Santa is more generous to the families with more money. How old were you when you realized this? I was today years old. Why? Because our child has never wanted for anything, just as I never wanted for anything when I was a child. I never wanted a pony, but I wanted a My Little Pony. When I was Blue’s age, I got an entire stable full. One Christmas, the hot item was a Cabbage Patch doll. I received three. And now I’m doing the same thing. We wait for Blue to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas and then we order it from Amazon, with Prime shipping of course. The greatest irony is that for Blue’s third Christmas, we began the rule of 4: something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read. Then Santa gave him everything else. We seriously restricted what he got from us and let Santa have a field day. Up until this morning, I thought we were doing what was best for him.

We are all doing the best we can as parents, which is sometimes a train wreck, often a fly-by-night operation, and occasionally flashes of brilliance. I’m certain we are going to look back in 20 years and regret many of the decisions we’ve made along the way. But if we’re lucky (and willing to accept that we are learning as he learns), hopefully the result will be an empathetic, kind, generous, well-rounded, and productive member of society. Blue may remember the countless renditions of A Christmas Carol that we dragged him to, the hours we spent sipping hot chocolate while strolling through the most decorated neighborhoods, Jingles the Elf fishing for marshmallows in the toilet, eating candy thrown from floats in Christmas parades, meeting reindeer at the zoo, sitting on Santa’s lap at the Macy’s in New York City, and any number of other unique experiences that we treat him to every Christmas season, but hopefully he will also remember dropping a $5 in the Salvation Army bucket, collecting food for a family in the church, buying toys to donate, making a meal for a friend, and sending care packages to our troops overseas. He will remember that at the center of Christmas is Christ and the light that He brought to a dark world (we can certainly argue until the cows come home about when Christ’s actual birth was – but that’s for another post). And when Blue has a family, he will share the traditions that we got right, change the ones that we got wrong, and do something for those who are having the worst Christmas ever. (And if there is karma in parenting, he will get to have a similar conversation with his own child.)

I love this post by Karen, whose blog, And Then We Laughed, is full of insights about life’s little moments. She and her husband have made the commitment to make more purposeful decisions and this post reflects that change. The Christmas season is full of things we do on auto-pilot, much we do because that’s how our parents did it. But there is no shame in stopping to take stock of our family’s needs and changing our traditions so that they represent what Christmas…Christ’s birth…means to us.