Picture Perfect, Hold the Card

My friends, I love your holiday cards. When those stacks of beautifully addressed envelopes arrive, nearly daily from November through January, I get excited. I can’t wait to see your family photos, to read about your family’s year.  And, yes, I feel a pang of guilt, because we don’t send cards, ourselves, in spite of the fact that we usually have a good photo to use.  See, every year, for the past four years, we’ve met up with another family, so that Jeff can photograph them for their holiday card portrait. Then, they return the favor so that we have a cute family photo, too. It’s not all in vain—it shows up on Facebook. But, sorry, no cards.

My holiday card policy has a little to do with the fact that it’s not a Jewish tradition.  (Jordana Horn makes a good case, on Kveller.) Still, I love receiving cards, and any excuse to send good wishes to people is a good excuse, so it has crossed my mind to send them. But then, there’s this: I’m primordially disorganized—I would have to muster my entire Getting My Shit Together Department in order to send out cards, and because of the first reason, I can’t make myself do that. Clearly. But having the photos is wonderful—and the out-takes, all the more so

Every year, we’ve gotten a little better at the photo. This year, we were able to complete both family portraits, plus some candids of the kids goofing off together with Lola, the other family’s dog, in under 30 minutes.

Part of this is that it was cold, and we wanted to go indoors. But, really, I think some of the magic is that you don’t have the stress of having hired a professional, which creates pressure that it MUST turn out well, for what it costs. And, there’s a certain amount of ice-breaking that simply doesn’t need to take place between close friends. We know what jokes to tell from behind the camera to make the subjects laugh. (Hint: the less “appropriate,” the better.) Or, you know, Mom can just go in for the tackle…

And we know we’re going to have a fun afternoon or evening together afterward. This year it was a playdate at their house, with some pizza and a great dinner table conversation. Anticipating more fun makes the moment just that much more charged with good photo mojo.

So, here’s where things stand: We get amazing photos because we tripped over a system that works. We like sharing them (three cheers for the Shutterfly photo plaque that I sent to our families for Chanukkah!). But cards? A bridge too far, for this disorganized mama.

And, so, with our heartfelt wishes for a wonderful 2016, and my thanks for your support of this site, I’m sharing our family portrait. What’s your favorite way to capture a fun family moment?

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Free Gold? It’s a Trap.

The “Leprechaun Trap” assignment sheet came home from school, about ten days ago, with Seth, my second grader. I remember grumbling my way through the experience of building one, four years ago, when Lance was in second grade. Lance, if memory serves, thought the whole exercise was cruel and unusual punishment—for the Leprachaun. “Why are we trying to trap him, Mom? What do we do with him once we have him?” I thought it was cruel and unusual punishment for the parents.

Truly, I was at a loss to answer his questions. Obviously, I don’t have any Irish heritage on which to hang an elaborate story of why the Leprechaun needs trapping. And, by this point, we’d already had the opportunity, shall we say, to make it “our little secret” that Santa isn’t real, and then hang out with him, anyway—did I really want to go this route, again? Was it necessary? I fell back on, well, science. I explained that building the (humane) trap was a good way to figure out how things work. And then I teased my firstborn, non-trouble-maker,  that maybe it would help me figure out a way to build a trap for him, in the event he got up to too much mischief. Talk about cruel and unusual.

We seem to have, in our house, arrived at the juncture where we’ve deemed that Halloween, St. Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day, are not Jewish holidays, obviously. For these holidays, we fall into the category of American Jews who sort of hover around the sentiment of certain holidays, making clear to our kids that there are religious roots from another faith, but there are also reasons to participate, in the same way that we might invite non-Jewish friends to a Pesach seder or a Purim Shpiel. Heck, we’ll even go to a Christmas party, but in our home, the sanctity of that holy day in Christianity is observed by not observing it for sport (no “winter tree” or “Hanukkah bush” in our home, no sporting exchange of gifts.) This, from a girl whose mother bought egg-dye kits every year around Easter, because it was fun—and because it made all the egg consumption around Passover just a tad bit more colorful. Whatever.

Still, the whole Leprechaun Trap thing stressed me out, to be honest. My selfish, evil side has been hard at work, wondering whether it would be frowned upon to petition to get a condition called “lack of craftiness” recognized by the ADA.

Yes, the overdrive of Holiday Land—the kinds of Let’s Make Everything a Dress-Up, Interwebs-Worthy Production Number may be driving me to make jokes that could be, conservatively, classified as being firmly planted in the County of Poor Taste.  Yet, I’m not alone in my rallying cry for the overwhelmed and under-enthused. Writer Kristen Howerton summed it up pretty well, over on HuffPo, today. Not that I don’t appreciate the magic of childhood, and the hilarity of some people’s Leprechreativity.

But there’s another layer that gives me pause—not my family’s specific situation, because my kids know who we are, and what we’re about, so navigating Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s Day isn’t, by any stretch, a hardship. Christmas, for instance, may get us a little riled up about the fact that there seems to be no other topic to explore at school, no corner of the curriculum that isn’t touched, in some way, by this holiday. But, actually, I get good and freaked out when I think about families who can’t afford the time and resources to go gangbusters, even if they’d like to do so, and yet are bombarded with subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the look and feel of the season—whatever the season.

So, my question is, how much of this is fun diversion, and how much is pressure to conform to an ideal that may seem out of reach, for one reason or another?

That pressure seems, in some way, to be avoidable. I’m all for the educational value of learning customs and traditions, of exchanging messages of friendship and good will, of holidays whose celebrations revolve around candy. These are all good things. But it’s the ramped-up, everything-is-a-craft situation that adds a layer of pressure that feels unnecessary. (Some parents aren’t lazy, or un-talented, like me. Some have strong religious convictions that dictate against even causal observance of holidays; others simply have no time, amidst the working of multiple jobs and trying to keep their heads above the water line, to get all crafty.) I’ve gone so far as to write impassioned emails to the teachers and administration at our school, pointing out the insidious trickle-to-tsunami of well-intentioned, all-in-good-fun overblown Spirit of the Season for just these reasons.

Still, during the rest of the year, my protests are, for the most part, perfunctory. I buy store-bought Valentine cards, and if the theme my kid wants to use has an option for including a pencil, then, I’ll go all out and buy the pencils. Under no circumstances do we craft our greetings. St. Patrick’s Day, when I was a kid, was all about wearing green—I don’t remember the pinching-if-you-don’t tradition, but I’m sure it was there. I don’t remember building a trap. When it came up, four years ago, the assignment was a required piece of curricula. Yes, I I felt a twinge of “why do we have to make a big thing about this?” but I, kind of, got behind it on the premise of encouraging creativity and engineering, in a way that captures the imagination of a second grader.

This year, however, when the Leprechaun Trap assignment came home labeled “OPTIONAL,” I swear to you, I almost danced a jig. You know, because I’m so Irish. It felt like a very tiny step toward progress.

Still, when I was on the first of what will be many Marie Kondo-inspired closet-cleaning binges, two weeks ago, I collected some found objects (almost-finished rolls of paper towels, never-used Velcro rollers for my hair, a shoe box) and offered them to Seth. “You want these for your Leprechaun trap?” He accepted them, but said he wasn’t sure what to do with them. I told him I was sure he’d figure it out. He’s an engineering-minded kid, after all. I tried to get myself to suggest we work on it a few times. Then, I tried to suggest that he work on it with one of our friends who was helping with the kids while we were out of town for a long weekend. I tried to remember to do it on Sunday night, the night before it was due, when we got back from the trip. But, of course, I was too tired and blissed-out from looking at scenery like this, all weekend.

View from a spa pool. Not a bad place to start the day.

View from a spa pool, Terranea Resort. Not a bad place to start the day.

Monday morning, I took a final swing: “Do you want to try to make a trap before school? We have time…” Seth demurred. He was okay, skipping it. And, for once, I was okay letting go of something “optional,” thinking of it as another in my line of quiet protests against the overdoing of holidays in general, and a good exercise in giving my Type-A, do-it-all nature, a small respite.

Then, this morning, Seth lingered in his room after getting dressed. This isn’t unusual, and, often as not, he’ll emerge from his messy den of creativity, having created a new Lego structure or art project. Today, he announced, “I built a Leprechaun Trap!” And, sure enough, he’d used the box as a base, and the towel tube as a tunnel/ramp for entry. The rollers were propped up on either side, inside the box, with paper towels sticking out like flames.

Would you turn down free gold? I think not.

Would you turn down free gold? I think not.

And, dear reader, different versions of me had different reactions.

The “Type-A” Me: Crap, you couldn’t have done this, YESTERDAY? What a bummer you won’t get to share this with your class!

The “Proud Mother” Me: My kid is SO creative.

The “Ashamed” Me: Why don’t I do enough to capture his creativity?

The “Don’t Be Silly” Me:  Duh, left to his own devices, he is plenty creative.

The “STEM Fan” Me: Look! My kid is an engineering GENIUS!

The “Facebook Addict” Me: I must post a picture.

The “Trying to DeClutter” Me: If I take a picture, we can recycle it.

Seth, said: “Don’t worry, I’ll just save it to use next year!”

Practical me will have to duke it out with Decluttering me, over that one.

So, what do you think of Leprechaun Traps? What’s your take on holidays in school? Are you gung-ho on all the crafting, or wishing all the craft stores would simply…fade away? Let me know in the comments!

Three Jews in The Room

Today, we attended the blessing of little Jackson, in the home of his grandparents. It was a nice chance to share a tradition with friends of another faith. In this case, our friends are Latter Day Saints–Mormons. I told my older son that these friends had attended his bris, and it was a privilege to be able to witness another tradition.

After the brief, loving ceremony, one of my boys was visibly confused. A church member gently offered to answer questions. My child declined, then beelined for the buffet. (My kids haven’t attended a bris they can remember; I assured them they could expect to feel confused by that someday, too.)

Jackson’s grandfather, our dear friend JP (really, he’s Jeff, but with a Jeff in our family, too, initials help avoid confusion.) joined us at our table. “So many Mormons in this house!” he joked, putting an arm around Lance. “I need to be with my people! You are my people!”
We giggled and then Seth, in his “all-purpose” (outside) voice, remarked: “Jeff! Do you know we are the only three Jews in the room?!” JP, unsure of what he had heard, said, “Come again?”

“I SAID, WE ARE THE ONLY THREE JEWS IN THE ROOM!” Improbably (to everyone but me), he got louder. Then, he shrugged, shook his head, sighed in a worldly way, and looked around as he said, “Look at all these Normans!“. Then he shook his head in utter disbelief.

This friendship knows no bounds. JP assumed the role of the actual Norman in our family–my dad–and trotted this story out to as many of the other friends and family as he could corner. Awesome sauce.

Here is sweet Jackson, his mom, Lindsay, and Grandma Sue. His mother will one day tell him he wailed throughout the blessing…and then was all smiles immediately afterward…

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