Tag Archives: Christmas

No deadline on thank you

All I had to do was stick a couple of magazines in some envelopes and affix mailing labels. I’m not sure why it took me a month to do it.

I could offer the typical excuses — deadlines, conflicting demands on my time. December, after all, is a busy month. But when I face it square on, I realize the only real thing in the way was me.

Sometimes I agonize over the simplest of tasks, convinced I won’t get it right. That propensity leads to a kind of mental paralysis. The more I worry, the more I procrastinate. And when things that matter don’t get done, I pile guilt on top of the worry. It’s such a needless cycle of wasted effort — one that many writers, I suspect, would find familiar. Fear of not writing the “perfect” thing blocks most of us from writing anything at all, even when it’s something as small as a thank-you note.

Paul Giblin (on the right) with Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Chad Brandau.

I wanted to send copies of our December 2011 magazine to Phoenix journalist Paul Giblin, who is currently working as a civilian employee with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan. Paul, a longtime Valley news reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote our lead feature article for the issue, sharing insights into the challenges of “Parenting from Afghanistan” while painting a vivid picture of what life is like in a war zone. I also had an envelope ready for Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Chad Brandau of Tucson, who was quoted in the story.

I looked at the two manilla envelopes daily, feeling completely inadequate. How could I thank these guys for sharing their deepest thoughts? And besides, it was the Christmas season. I should be sending gifts! It would be really lame to simply send the magazines.

Three days before Christmas I still hadn’t sent the magazines — though I’d emailed Paul to tell him they were coming. My husband was home from work that day and had offered to run some errands for me. He had other items to take to the post office. So I finally scribbled quick notes of thanks and stuffed a couple of magazines into each labeled envelope.

I had no idea how long it would take to get mail through to Afghanistan, but it was only a few days later when I received this email from Paul:

We received hard copies of the magazine here in Kabul. Thank you very much. Your editor’s column was especially kind.

Brandau went on R&R back to Tucson just before Christmas, but before he did, he carried a copy with him to show everyone he bumped into. I also posted the entire spread in an encased bulletin board outside the dining facility. You would be amazed at how many people stand out there in sub-freezing weather to read it. Lots of people nod their heads as they read. Also, people stop me or drop by my office to talk about it, particularly newly arrived folks. I hope it was received well by your regular audience too.

Thanks for the tough assignment Karen. Have great new year. – Paul


The enduring appeal of Lyle

The hardcover picture book is yellowed with age. Its corners are ragged and worn. It has survived endless cycles of packing, moving, unpacking — always managing to survive the sorting and purging process that accompanies such transitions.

I don’t remember when I received my copy of The House on East 88th Street. I don’t remember who gave it to me, or why that person chose this particular book. I don’t know if it was a Christmas gift or a birthday gift. It may just be that it was “the” new children’s book that year and someone wanted me to have it.

The story, written by Bernard Waber, was copyrighted in 1962. I would have been 6 years old, and newly enamored of the privilege of owning a book. I proudly printed my first name on the inside cover with a pencil — slow, careful, blocky letters reflecting my earnest desire to get it right.

I loved that book. I’m not sure why. It’s kind of a goofy story about a family that moves into a house in New York City and finds a crocodile in the bathtub of their new home.

I didn’t visit New York City until I was 25. I don’t particularly like crocodiles. Yet the story got under my skin and stayed there.

Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to revisit the story in the company of two young children I borrow from friends when I’m missing little-kid time. The renowned Childsplay professional theater company is performing a holiday version of “Lyle the Crocodile” at Tempe Center for the Arts through Dec. 24.

The characters of Lyle ( Adam Hostler) and Joshua Primm (Colin Ross) made an appearance at "Lyle's Pajama Party," which preceded the Dec 3 production of Childsplay's "Lyle the Crocodile" at Tempe Center for the Arts. The play continues through Dec. 24.

As the curtain rose on a scene of the street outside the recreated brownstone house, my 4-year-old companion cried out, “How did they get that building up there?” His sense of awe continued throughout most of the performance (except for a brief bit of time at the end of Act I when he drifted off to sleep, worn out from “Lyle’s Pajama Party,” which we attended earlier that afternoon). His 5-year-old sister sat on the edge of her seat during both acts, glancing at me periodically to share a wide-eyed smile.

The musical is enchanting, particularly a scene that recreates the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. The character of Lyle (played by Adam Hostler) doesn’t utter a word but communicates with great effectiveness through innocent, eager-to-please expressions and “many good tricks” he performs throughout the play. (Juggling, dancing and — most amazing to me — double-rope jump-roping while carrying a crocodile tail!)

It wasn’t until the end of the play that it suddenly occurred to me why I’ve always loved this story. My family moved a lot when I was growing up. Like Joshua Primm in the story, my brothers and I faced many anxious transitions into new cities, new schools, new friendships.

Like Lyle, I chose a strategy of frantic performance to prove my worth in each new community. I wasn’t as talented as he is but I made up for it with hard work, good grades, dutiful behavior and a conscientious attempt to read the landscape and react in ways I hoped would help me gain acceptance.

For today’s generation of children, there is a strong but subtle message in “Lyle the Crocodile” about accepting each others’ differences — and not making judgments until you really know someone. For today’s generation of parents (and grandparents!) there is nostalgia, clever dialog, inspired choreography, uplifting music and the chance to experience the magic of Christmas in New York City.

In our PJs at "Lyle's Pajama Party" earlier this month with my young companions. Photo and accessories provided by Childsplay.

Fighting doubt and personal demons

I have this amazing story in my head. I think it’s interesting enough, layered enough, moving enough, to become a book. Will it get written? Self-doubt, fueled by family history, rules my thoughts.

My father always said he wanted to write a book. Conditions were never right. We were always living in the wrong place or his job was too stressful or the burden of supporting a family was too great. I grew up thinking my brothers and I were the reason he couldn’t write. If he hadn’t married, hadn’t had children, maybe he would have realized his dream.

My father sought solitude to escape the pressures of life. He had “important business” in Arizona when he left my mother, my brothers and I alone in Indiana for Christmas one year. He missed my brother’s high school graduation for similar, made-up reasons. A few weeks before my wedding, he told me with exaggerated regret that he couldn’t make it — he had to be in Florida for God-knows-what. That’s when I put my foot down. This time, he was not going to let me down.

And yet he managed to do just that. Showing up at the church in the wrong tux. Nervous and awkward. Unable, or unwilling, to whisper expressions of love or pride in my ear before we headed down the aisle. Even then, he was a ghost, always on the fringes. Never fully vested in anything that wasn’t his alone. Always seeking greener pastures in a new job or new home state. More comfortable in conversations with strangers than he was with my mother, my brothers or me.

I chose a different path — to the extreme. A martyr’s devotion to responsibility, family and career. Excessive self-accountabilty and crushing perfectionism. Self-neglect from a perception that others’ needs were more deserving.

I always thought I was being different from my dad, better at being in a family and community than he was. As I get older, I realize I’m just like him. Afraid to do what I really want to do. Subconsciously blaming circumstances beyond my control, or other people, for my own failures. If only that…. If only they…

I keep trying to set aside time to go “off the grid” and focus attention on my own book project. One thing after another keeps interrupting. Each weekend, when I realize how little progress I’ve made, I am completely distraught. How will I ever do this within the unpredictable context of running a small business? I come dangerously close to giving up and admitting defeat.

But I keep thinking about four beautiful children who are happy and thriving because of a series of miracles. A family that is doing important and timely work in the country of their children’s birth. An experience that was, to me, a precious gift. A story that needs to be told.

And then there’s this: My father did finally write his book. He finished it in the spring of 1991, in a small room he rented in a boarding house in Florida, during reclusive weeks he spent alone before he died from a cancer that spread from his colon to his liver. A cancer I didn’t know about until my younger brother called me from Florida as I was still sleeping one summer morning and told me our father was dead.

His book was never published; my brothers and I found rejection letters from publishers lying among the few belongings our dad left behind.  To my knowledge, only four photocopies of the manuscript exist. I have two of them in my house.

Over the years, I have tried to read his story. I have never made it past the first 40 pages. My dad once told me that everything he ever wanted to say to my brothers and me — but couldn’t — would be there in his book. I’ve never had the courage to find out. And yet something tells me I won’t write my own book until I confront the specter of his.

Binders of my father's notes and drafts, and two copies (at right) of his completed manuscript.

My biographical Christmas tree

Our family’s Christmas tree ornaments spend most of the year wrapped in tissue paper, placed in plastic sandwich bags and stored in the specially partitioned rows of one of those red-and-green plastic storage tubs created just for this purpose. Tucked into each bag is a handwritten note to help me remember the circumstances of each ornament’s origin. As the Christmas season approaches, I carefully unwrap each ornament, pausing to remember before I place it on the tree.

I don’t decorate our Christmas tree; I read it. The notes, in Twittter-appropriate brevity, tell the story of a family.

There is a baby bootie hand-crocheted by one of my best friends and presented to me at a baby shower she hosted in her home before the birth of my first son. And a ceramic cable car ornament my husband and I bought in San Francisco one spring when I was pregnant with our second.

There are plastic photo-frame ornaments with pictures of adorable, towheaded toddlers and hand-painted cookie-cutter ornaments from the year I tried to get crafty.

Chalky, plaster of Paris stars the boys made at school, and which thoughtful teachers imprinted with my sons’ tiny thumbprints. Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Sesame Street ornaments from one doting grandmother; small plush crabs from another. (That was the year Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” first came out.)

When our sons were studying music I bought tiny violin/viola ornaments to represent their (earnest but ultimately unsustainable) interest in orchestra. When our family visited Washington, D.C. one summer,  I bought a Supreme Court ornament to remember a behind-the-scenes tour we took (to my embarrassment and dismay) in gym shorts and T-shirts because our better outfits were not yet dry from a sudden summer rainstorm that thoroughly drenched us all as we ran to our hotel the night before.

Though not as plentiful, there are ornaments representing the empty nest years of a marriage, too. The golden-threaded kiwi bird ornament from an amazing trip to New Zealand. The bright red wooden crab from a trip to Baltimore.  A regal purple sphere, displaying the words “Scottish Parliament” in a dignified, gilded typeface, a gift from college-age son upon his successful return from a semester abroad. A delicate, metallic disc imprinted with an image of the White House and surrounded by lacy metal snowflakes. This “official” ornament from The White House Christmas 2009, a gift from that same son, reminds me that my home is in Arizona but my heart spends part of each day in our nation’s Capitol, with two grown sons who live and work (very hard) there.

Someday it will not be me reading the Christmas tree biography. One or both of my sons will slowly, reluctantly open the green plastic tub with its bright red lid, dreading the task of sorting through its contents. My boys will have their own Christmas tree ornaments by then; their own family histories. They may not want to clutter their lives with the remnants of mine. And yet I hold out hope — as I scribble my notes, dates and recollections — that some small part of this collection will give added meaning to their own holiday celebrations. That they might share some of these stories with their own children. And that they will remember a time when the four of us were exquisitely bonded in mutual mischief after a mad dash through rain falling on us as hard as a waterfall, pounding, stinging, making us giddy with reckless abandon as we reached our goal and slid across the polished marble floors of a Washington, D.C. hotel lobby, leaving a slippery, impermanent trail of water behind us.

A chance to play Santa

Except for a brief moment of restful regrouping during the Thanksgiving weekend, my staff has been working around the clock for weeks. It’s “that time of year” for us, an annual marathon that tests our energy, our stamina, our resilience and our shared sense of humor.

Double-issue deadline time.

Our 132-page 2011 Schools, etc. book went to the printer last week. Last night, at about 8pm, I signed off on the January magazine and Art Director Michelle-Renee Adams sent the files off to the printer.

Every year we wonder why we pack this double whammy into the weeks leading up to an already hectic holiday season. We talk about scheduling the book at a different time of year but we keep coming back to the same conclusion: Parents need it in January.

January is when many of the Valley’s private schools hold open houses; for the most popular schools, registration may reach capacity soon into the new year. Even public school districts with rolling open-enrollment periods may fill to capacity well before the start of the new school year.

So we bite the bullet, resign ourselves to some late nights (for Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist a lot of late nights) and somehow we always manage to get it done.

After weeks of intense, single focus, I woke up this morning with an almost childlike sense of possibilities. No proofreading today! No frantic, last-minute fact-checking! The excited feeling actually lasted a few seconds before I realized how many other things I’ve let slide the last few weeks. Emails that need responses, articles to be assigned, planning to do.

Before I get mired in all of that, I plan to spend some time playing Santa. We have been running all sorts of promotions on our website lately. Tickets to live events and movie sneak previews, new-release CDs and DVDs. We recently closed five of those contests, whose winners must be notified today.

I like doing that myself. It’s fun to send someone a message that says, “Guess what? You won!” It does my heart good when I get an excited response (“No way — that’s awesome!” or “My kids will be so excited!”).

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