Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Santa Situation

"Mom, I must have been really bad this year," my nine year old said.

"Why is that?" I asked.

"Because Santa brought my friend a bike and all I got was little stuff. Santa must not like me much," she said.

The terrible, horrible, no good Santa Situation aka the Big Dilemma aka the rough moment and what is a mom to do?

Let me back up a bit.

My husband and I decided a while ago to be very conscientious about how we handled the Santa situation and Christmas gift giving. We planned with an eye to the long-term.

Here are key factors we considered:
  • Both kids have birthdays in December, making it a massive gifting and receiving month, with the rest of the year pretty bone dry.
  • Santa is a very special part of the holiday, but we didn't want the holiday to revolve around Santa or what Santa brings.
  • Santa is a great morality tale/myth potential that's gotten way too diluted. The original concept of Saint Nicholas giving to needy and building out a concrete embodiment to help children grasp a truly complex, gnostic and esoteric philosophy makes sense. Until it becomes more of a commercial for consumerism. Which it has.
  • We both personally believe in Christmas as being a time to reflect on deeper meanings and reasons, a time for ceremony to provide a framework for faith.
  • So while we want to incorporate the magic of Christmas, Santa, the wonderful myths, the beautiful poetry and songs, touching movies and books and all that so our children have fun and fond memories, we want to do so in a thoughtful and balanced way.
We began with initial requests to limit gift-giving. That failed. And I understand -- family loves to gift little kids with cute stuff. It's just that stuff piles up.

Eventually my husband and I decided a lot of things that could be boiled down to a single concept: spread it out and plan ahead.

Kids are going to want and need new things with each season. So why not anticipate that and allow for that possibility?

We know we can't control how others give gifts, so we made choices that we'd put a cap on spending and quantity. We (mom and dad) would give gifts and Santa would fill stockings.

You'd be amazed how this can simplify things. No need for wrapping paper stress, remembering whether you or Santa was the giver, and so forth. We give one "big" toy (something fun but over budget of what we'd normally spend) and a combination of special, want and need. It worked out this year to about six packages per child to open. Each girl got a special necklace, a keepsake tree ornament, some clothing, the big fun toy (scooters), and a fun educational toy (from Discovery). For my own sanity, I also got them long range walkie talkies. This is so I can have one at home base, they can take one out in the neighborhood, and I can check in. This is the compromise my husband and I reached since we still aren't too keen on cell phones for the kids. Yet.

Santa did a pretty good job, too. Each child got a personalized mailbox filled with candy and a stuffed Santa toy, a personalized water bottle, a name sign, Zhu Zhu pets babies, colored chalk for the new chalkboard, hair accessories, and so forth. Most importantly, he left a personal letter for each child, talking about things he liked and found special about her.

When the wrapping paper cleared, the kids were pretty happy! Within an hour, the walkie talkies were in use as the kids scooted around the neighborhood, and we all dealt with the sound of grinding rocks in the nine year old's new rock tumbler.

Earlier the kids had gotten wonderful gifts from their extended family that hit their main interests. All in all, a nice haul.

I was feeling pretty happy, as well, that we managed to spread out family visits across a week so we got nice quality time in a low-stress way. We incorporated enough thoughtfulness, such as giving to a need (donations) and actively participating in church activities, as well as talking about meaning.

All was well until December 27. When kids started comparing notes.

In our family, we talk about "need-based" giving, and my kids have, until now, accepted that Santa knows which families need more. Our kids are fortunate and get lots from family, so they only "need" stockings filled. Other families need more from Santa. It's also helped explain differences among religious and nonreligious beliefs. Why would Santa visit my kids at their house with gifts but skip their Jewish cousins? Santa respects differences, I said, and he knows that families believe and give differently. It opens up a cool learning opportunity, too, about different beliefs (and nonbeliefs) and true meaning versus overfocus on gifts.

I was stymied to explain, then, how a friend of similar means and beliefs ended up with a big, shiny, new bike.

So I fell back on myth. Santa is a mystery. Something that baffles understanding and cannot be explained. An enigma.

Which might be the truest statement ever made about Santa.

But I did reassure my daughter that it had nothing to do with her naughty or nice status, or being liked less than a friend.

And then I cursed the "bogeyman" Santa side of the myth and my susceptibility to it this year, for the first time, out of impatience with constantly bickering children who have been in rampant boundary (and patience) testing mode lately.

But maybe it's not that bad for her to ponder her behavior, just a bit, in this context...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Last Minute Awesome Gift (and Stocking Stuffer) Ideas: The Hit Parade

Note: Read all the way to the bottom for the MUST WATCH kids' Christmas show, which will air on Christmas Day.

Okay so here are the things I got this year for gifting that I actually thought were awesome. They meet my "I'd really give this to someone and feel great about it" criteria. Some were things I might never have thought of, but got offered as review. I admit I used a good deal of selectivity in agreeing to receive certain products to review, so there was always a good chance I'd like them, but let's just say some were hits and some were misses. There are also a few things I risked buying online and have since received, whereupon I discovered they were as awesome as I'd hoped. I'll distinguish what I found from what was sent for review.

Here are the hits:

My find -- Lillian Vernon

I used to buy from Lillian Vernon frequently on gift-giving occasions. I'm not sure why I veered away. They have good stuff, you can personalize most of it, it includes things I might not think to buy, and did I mention you can personalize things? I've always been happy with the quality and prices.

So when I was worrying about stocking stuffers for the kids -- so did not want to go the crappy dollar row and candy route -- I turned to Lillian Vernon and found these:

My kids are a little more sophisticated but still kids, and love things with their names on it.

I also give them each a disposable camera so they can take their own holiday photos. A while back I got them their own photo albums and they have fun adding to that.

However, stuffing my husband's stocking is harder. It's funny to joke about a lump of coal or sack of rocks but he seriously wants the sack of rocks. He's in the middle of paving the area around the pond in the backyard. That's not going to fit into a stocking.

So when I was contacted about reviewing a set of Husky miniature tools, I was game. He's always complaining that he can't find the tool he needs. I got the Husky 48 Piece Tri-Grip Screwdriver Set, which is under $10 and packed neatly, with a lot of pieces. I like how it closes and has a spot for each piece, and it really will fit in the stocking, and be something he'll be glad to get.

Perfect! In fact, when I looked at the Husky site, it was full of cool tools at good deals, mostly under $10. The 45-piece stubby work set looked like another winner.

I believe I've shared stories about how much my youngest likes to draw on walls. I bought a little wall "chalkboard" Princess version from Home Depot. Big miss. Although it attached well to the wall (one of those easy peel and stick that don't mess up paint), it was very small and we ended up with a lot of bleed. It was tough to get clean, too. Frustrated, my daughter went back to doing big art on the regular wall, and I was left with chalk mess on the carpet and wall. (Magic Eraser worked.)

I haven't given up on the idea, though. I did try butcher block paper, but it's hard to attach.

So when WallCandy Arts contacted me about trying their new big peel and stick chalkboard cupcake, I thought maybe this is the one.

It's big. As in, big enough. It's cute, and the theme gives a lot of fun inspiration. The quality of it better so I haven't got the chalk dust as badly as the last one. Also, because of the size, I haven't had the bleed onto the wall issue. I confess I gave it for birthday, but since that's practically the same time...

So I like using it as a tool for to-do and schedule, too. It's in our main hall upstairs, outside the kids' bedrooms. I can make notes and have them check them. It helps the not having to say it 45,000 times. They feel compelled to add notes, too, as well as draw.

Big win.

My find -- Landau Jewelry

I always struggle with what to get the mothers (mother, stepmother, mother-in-law) and this year, while in New York, I whiled away some time (okay, you got me, like a crow, I'm always attracted to shiny objects) in this store, with a coupon and gift card in hand. I got some great gifts (which I will not feature here before giving them on the chance my parents actually read my blog) (I feel safe on the husband and kids front -- they never do).

However, this is top feature there and looks pretty great to me:

It's mostly "fashion" which is code for "costume" in large part but when I asked a lot of questions, it's pretty well-made, and the bracelet I got for myself has held up really well. I personally prefer to get "fashion" jewelry because I'm most likely to change that often.

My find -- Marshalls

I lucked into Marshalls when it was bursting with good buys. My favorite? The beautiful dresses with matching doll dresses (that fit both American Girl doll and bitty twins) for UNDER $30!!!!

My girls are way into the whole American Girl experience and cute as it is, man, the price tags. So I really appreciate good quality off brands.

BONUS: BEST Christmas program for kids -- Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas

Recalling my youngest is nicknamed Monkey, we're big fans of Curious George (in fact, that's her lovey).

I wasn't sure how it would go for my older daughter.

However, both kids LOVED it, and I admit I did too.

It was entertaining, both kids liked the songs. It was funny, the usual George scrapes and fun. And it had a nice message about how gift giving is really about caring, and the best gift is just being together. Very gently delivered. It's a Christmas we can all relate to: imperfectly perfect!

I'm going to rate it up there with Peanuts.

Here's the synopsis:

A Very Monkey Christmas
Airs Christmas Day, Sat. 12/25 on PBS KIDS! (Check local listings)

A Very Monkey Christmas finds George and The Man with the Yellow Hat preparing for Christmas, when they encounter a dilemma—neither can figure out what to give the other for a present! The Man finds George’s wish list filled with geometric shapes, and George doesn’t have a clue what to get The Man who has everything. The Man suggests that George surprise him with a homemade gift, but George isn’t quite sure what a monkey can make for a man. The suspense builds as Christmas approaches. George and The Man with the Yellow Hat follow each other around town, hoping to discover a clue as to what the other would like to find under the Christmas tree. They enlist the help of Hundley, the Pisghettis, Gnocchi, Bill, Betsy, Steven, and even Professor Wiseman and her computers!

Then The Man has a dream in which he sees what life would be like for George without him; contained in the dream is the answer to George’s Christmas wish list riddle. While The Man is dreaming, George begins his homemade gift — a colossal art project that poignantly explains why getting ready for Christmas is so much fun. In the end, both gift-giving predicaments are simply and beautifully resolved revealing the true spirit of the holidays, and everybody has a very monkey Christmas!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Slacker Cook Triumphs Once Again With Crock Pot Cooking

It finally got cool here. I know, highs of 62 barely qualify as cool but there you have it: our average winter low here. It feels like early fall to me, and so that means I am whipping out the crock pot (and anyone who knows me knows how I love my crock pot: it's mass amount cooking, everything and the spice cabinet, tasty, aromatic, slacker cooking -- in other words, all my favorite ways to cook rolled in to one!).

When I pull out the crock pot, I tend to also pull out a vintage cookbook.

My stepmother gave this cookbook to me in 1989 when I moved into my first apartment -- solo living, like a real grownup, with rent, utilities, and everything.

It's like feeling that taste of independence, doing it my way, anew. All while getting old-fashioned comfort cooking.

You know what I mean?

So, of course, my first foray for crock pot hot meal cool weather cooking is...chili.

Hey. It's Texas.

And of course I use a recipe straight out of this cookbook called Chili Con Carne.

Except I don't use it straight because, well, to tell the truth recipes sort of make my eyes cross. I skim them to get the gist and then I wing it. Seriously. I have a pretty good sense of ingredients and how to put them together, and I also have a habit of cooking on the fly which means substitutions. To complicate things further, I often don't like some ingredients called for, so I'll eliminate or substitute. Plus, I prefer lower fat choices. And of course, I'm a Slacker Cook so everything has to be simplified, steps eliminated, corners cut, and so forth. Also, key? LESS DISHES. Means less cleaning up to do.

So how does the Slacker Cook modify an already pretty easy recipe and make it healthier? Here we go:

Substitute: turkey for beef
Substitute: all that complicated and messy dicing and chopping with already diced and seasoned tomatoes and onions
Substitute: green pepper with red pepper, add in a splash of tabasco, and dump in grape tomatoes sliced in half, then about five minutes before serving, blanch some fresh spinach in there
Substitute: kidney beans with black beans
Substitute: all that cooking and browning in another pan with cooking the turkey in the crockpot, prewarmed on high, with some delicious chili sauce

Then dump in everything and cook.

I like to serve it with cornbread. My husband is pure native and puts his chili over Fritos.

Either way, YUM. And easy. And a good chunk of the week is DONE.

Now here's the thing: this is healthy.
  • Turkey is lower fat and for many of us more easily digested. Also, often cheaper.
  • Spinach is really good for you, as are black beans. Both of which blend in to the overall dish so the kids hardly even know they are getting this fabulous nutrition.
  • My kids notice the red pepper a lot less mixed in with the tomatoes than the green pepper, which they tend to pick out.
  • And tomatoes are really good for you; they bring fiber, Vitamin C and the antioxidant lycopene into your diet. In fact, before you get too worried about me using canned tomatoes, allow me, the Slacker Cook, to reassure you that according to a study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, lycopene absorption is 2-3 times greater in canned tomato products than raw tomatoes. And because I am a label reader with a PhD in Google, I know that Hunt's tomatoes are flash-steamed to help them keep their backyard-garden-fresh taste, are 100 percent natural and contain no artificial preservatives or ingredients. So...my heart thanks me.
You know where I stand on making healthy choices -- I do it for me. I do it to be there for my family, for my kids. To set a good example of healthy eating, even if you are a Slacker Cook like I am.

So...once again, the Slacker Cook, with an eye and heart toward healthy eating, triumphs once again with crock pot cooking.

This post brought to you by ConAgra Foods, specifically Hunt's, who asked people to share recipes they make using their products, namely tomatoes. The recipe is from my own cookbook, the modifications and opinions are my own, and are all true. I really am a Slacker Cook, I really made this dish exactly as described (using Hunt's Tomatoes which I bought on my own and already happened to have on hand in my pantry when themotherhood.com asked me to join in this recipe parade, and my family really is eating it for dinner tonight. You can see other recipes here.