Thursday, December 28, 2006

I Have Writer's Block; But Writer's Block Doesn't Have Me

As you might have noticed, I don't blog much anymore. Instead, I am all about the Benjamins. I still wake up early, but it's to write serious articles about serious topics. My jokes frequently get cut out during the copyediting process. Probably because they are so funny that the editors forgot to laugh.

I keep a ledger and send out henchmen to collect my unpaid bills. Well, they're more like kindly e-mail reminders, but whatever.

And all those financial advisors on T.V. are right. Saving money--even a little bit--becomes addictive.

Meanwhile, not writing the blog every day gave me a serious case of writer's block. I had nothing to write about. That's like Fran Dresser having nothing to talk about.

Which was fine because my blog served its purpose. In a round-about way, it got me more business and more time for writing now that I wake up in time to see the car thieves cruise the neighborhood.

Note to punkass car thieves--if you put things back where they belong, they would be there for you to steal the next time. Did I mention that someone borrowed our New Yorker and forgot to return it? The police said that they probably needed a ride across town and we'd find the car later.

Sometimes I picture the car parked in front of a house or in a vacant lot or a crowded parking lot, and I miss it. Or I envision bad guys riding around in it and I become insanely jealous. But I'm sure the car and I will be reunited sometime in the next five years, according to police estimates.

The car actually got me thinking. After the initial frustration of being stranded at home, I realized that we have everything we need. We live right by the bus stop. I know because I hear the crazy bus riders talking loudly to themselves as they walk by our house. Food. Shelter. And--after opening Christmas gifts--we now have a portable phone and spoons.

We were down to three spoons prior to Christmas--which made eating soup a team effort. You know, people teach you how to drive a car, write in cursive, and type, but no one ever teaches you not to let your sons dig for worms with the good spoons.

I guess that's what common sense if for. I'm going to ask for that for Christmas next year.

People give such awesome Christmas gifts and I had some paychecks come in the mail.

But something was missing. I really liked writing about our day-to-day lives around here. To me, if I don't write about it, it's almost like it never really happened. If I don't put a funny spin on it the next day, I tend to lose my sense of humor all together.

I thought about disbanding the blog. Does the world really need another mommy blogger, I wondered.

Of course it doesn't. But I need to write.

So I'm actually going to cut back on the paid writing I do. I know it seems counterintuitive. I really don't want to be the kind of family who Shriners donate circus tickets to. But we'll just have to save more slowly. I'll have to be all about the Abrahams instead of the Benjamins.

That way, I'll be able to write about things that are important to me, like my family. So two-three times a week I'm going to write about the little things that make a house...a madhouse...I mean, a home. That is my blog-related New Year's resolution.

I won't bore you with my other resolution lists, such as "Movie Rental Resolutions" and "Books to Request at the Waldo Library in the New Year" and "Homeschool Resolutions" and "Chess Club Plans for '07" and "Lists not to Write in the New Year."

Suffice it to say that I might have writer's block. But writer's block doesn't have me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

J.J. and the Jammies

It used to be, Justin and I sounded like this to J.J.:

"Blah blah blah cookie blah blah milk blah blah."

But recently, he started understanding whole sentences.

Now, he is the best listener in the house. Nobody follows directions like J.J. He literally trips over himself to get the job done.

So when we say, "Go put your jammies on boys," J.J. runs past Richie, gives him the straight arm, falls on his face. Gets back up. Walks right on top of Johnny. Falls on top of Richie. Runs into his room.

Then he totally forgets why he's there.

Was it to rub his belly? Play with dinosaurs? Kiss his image in the mirror? Or just sit there and stare into space?

About an hour later he remembers. Put jammies on.

So he empties his entire drawer. Finally he finds his favorite dinosaur turtle neck and drapes it around his neck like a scarf. Then he drags one giant workboot into the living room, and climbs inside like a kitten on a cheezy screensaver.

Okay, ready for bed, he thinks.

I think there's a lesson here:

When you don't know what you're doing, do it with gusto. And then climb into a giant boot and go to sleep.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Making Christmas Cookies with Kids is Fun...for the first three minutes

You know how some kids lie compulsively? Not to get out of trouble but for the sheer heck of it. And when you're a kid, you suspect they're lying. But you go along with it.

Hey, maybe their dad really did play professional baseball and basketball and football. Maybe the kid really does have an automatic place on the Arizona Diamondbacks when he grows up. Who knows?

But then he says a really obvious lie, such as, "I met Babe Ruth." And that just blows all his other assertions out of the water.

Well, that's how I feel today when I read that a celebrity thinks baking Christmas cookies with her children is fun. That's like saying that natural childbirth is fun. People have their reasons for doing it, but having a hootin' hollerin' good time isn't one of them.

Baking with kids is rewarding, to be sure. At times, it is laugh-out-loud funny.

But it stops being fun around the time you scrape cookie dough off the ceiling, the school papers that need to be signed and returned, the broken nativity set that needs to be glued, and the dog's eyebrow.

When you sweep the entire house for the third time, only to realize that your middle son is following you around, slapping his tummy and disappearing in a cloud of flour and sugar.

When you have to throw away a huge ball of dough because your son brought it with him into the bathroom to pee.

When, later, your sons throw-up from all the excitement, and argue about who yuked more times. Everything is a competition for those two.

I know it was from the excitement and not from the dough, which you can't eat anymore because of the raw eggs. In the old days, raw eggs were considered a healthy part of a balanced breakfast. My mom would crack a few into our orange julius and voila--instant protein.

But now, raw eggs are deadly. So you have to be the dough police.

Yes, everything is more complicated these days. I remember a time when only three dinosaurs roamed the earth: the T-Rex, the brontosaurus and the triceretops. Now there are 70 zillion, which makes the books your kids check out at the library very, very long. Especially at bedtime.

But back to the cookies. Obviously, making them is an important tradition in our house. We do it every year. I love to see the boys carefully decorate cookies, using m&ms for eyes. I love when Richie holds the empty jar of red decorative sugar and asks, "Where did it go?" When right in front of him is a cookie buried under a mountain of red sugar. I enjoy seeing J.J. belly up to the table and dig into a bowl of icing.

"Well, I never," he must be thinking. "Warm ice-cream."

Other aspects are not so fun. For instance, I think that if something is called 7-minute icing, it should not take seven hours to make. The cookbook people should figure in at least an hour for separating egg whites from the yolks. The recipe should also call for 12 eggs--10 being practice eggs, not two. Not everybody has been to the Culinary Institute of America, you know.

Everybody has their rewarding but not fun Christmas traditions.

My late grandmother Mume had a tradition of getting in a fight at Christmas Eve Mass. This was to reserve half a pew for our family near the front. Then during a quiet part of Mass, she would loudly tell us what her elderly adversary did to tick her off.

That woman, squeezed with her family into the pew in front of us by an inch of their lives, would look back at us, not believing her ears, and Mume would say, "Look at her. She's looking at us."

Hey, Mume didn't get to the church four hours early to watch a three-hour early upstart take what was rightfully hers.

For other people, the tradition is buying a tree that is two times taller than their ceiling and trying to get it to fit by yelling and cursing at it.

Others enjoy hanging lights on the roof while standing on an antique ladder resting on an icy sidewalk.

Still others enjoy finding a parking place at the shopping mall at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Why do we do these things?

To make memories.

Ourr parents and grandparents have taught us that not every holiday memory has to be sweet. That would be like only eating cookies for Christmas dinner. Something would definitely be missing. The Chinese food.

Now maybe, maybe, some of you reading this really do think making Christmas cookies with children is fun. I think that is wonderful.

As for me, I could only honestly say this if I was making a commercial for valium.

"I think making Christmas cookies with my children is fun," I would say. "But it used to cause me anxiety. Not anymore. Now I trust Xanax for all my holiday baking needs. It is the one ingredient I never forget."

Cut to me laughing merrily as egg yolk after egg yolk slips into the 7-hour icing.

Oh, who needs it? Christmas wouldn't be the same without a heeping spoonful of anxiety.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Nativity Boring? More Like the Greatest Story Ever Told

From what the critics say, the movie "The Nativity" is a snore and a bore.

I encourage all the reviewers--especially the male ones--who hold this view to ride a donkey through the desert while in labor. Then, they should give birth with no epidural or pain killer in a barn. This as a 16 year old and during a time when you had a 50-50 chance of dying during childbirth.

If, like seahorses, men became pregnant, this story would be a heroic epic along the lines of The Odyssey or Braveheart. Instead, critics are calling it a high school pageant. Well, even viewing the trailer for this movie before watching Happy Feet, I was crying.

Joseph is standing in the middle of a village crying for someone to help Mary, who is in agony.

Critics say the story lacks controversy and spin. What could be more controversial than putting a 16-year-old pregnant woman in the center of a community and asking, "What are you going to do about it?"

To me, this is the greatest story ever told. It is a story that asks "Which inn keeper are you? Are you the one who slams the door on somebody in real trouble? Or do you find room in your heart for them?"

Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem and there is no room in the inn. You know what the inn keepers are thinking. "You should have gotten here earlier. You should have left the pregnant lady at home. You're too young to have a baby. You're too poor to have a baby." Etc. Etc.

Or maybe they wanted to help the young couple, but they were worried that they didn't know how. They'd never delivered a baby. They'd only make things worse.

How often do people say the same thing to young women today? You shouldn't have had a child if you couldn't afford to raise him. You should have gone to college so you could have made more money. You shouldn't be on wellfare. You shouldn't be a single mother.

I think it's interesting that the star of the film, Keisha Castle-Hughes, is, herself, pregnant at age 16. Will people tsk tsk her because it was not an immaculate conception? Due to the fact that they have led an immaculate life?

Or, if you're like me, you see people in trouble and think, "I'd like to help you, but I just don't know how. I don't have enough to give you. I don't know what to say. I'd just be in the way."

In answer to this we have the innkeeper who gives Mary and Joseph room in his stable. He took a chance at offending them. He didn't have much, but he gave them what he had. And they were able to make the most of it...and in fact create a humble scene that endures in school productions and home nativity sets all over the world.

Well, maybe Mary shouldn't have gone with Joseph to Bethlehem. I mean, in hindsight, it would have saved them a lot of anxiety. What, exactly, was Mary thinking? You could even suggest that she put her baby in danger by taking this journey. And if Joseph wasn't such a nice guy, Mary, too, could have been a single mother, or worse.

What was she thinking?

That isn't our question to ask. Not about Mary, who we know was following God's plan. And not about any other girl in Mary's situation. Because what do we know about her? No more than the innkeepers knew about Mary and Joseph.

Christmas reminds us that we can tsk tsk other people's decisions or accept that they are part of the Greatest Story Ever Told. God's story. Our only question to ask is do we have room in the inn or stable or not?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Midway Between Crazy and Normal Lie the Tracks of a Train

On the crazy-o-meter, the train is midway between an airplane and the city bus. So as my family boarded the train to Chicago this weekend, I felt like Goldilocks tasting baby bear's porridge. It was not too crazy. Not too normal. It was just right.

Why the crazy factor? My only guess is the time element.

You can't take a train if you're in a big hurry. Passenger trains do not have the right of way on the tracks, so if enough freight trains need through, you might be three hours late.

So my hypothesis is that once you cross time off your list of worries, you get carried away. You scribble out things like "don't wear a long black costume wig as part of your day-to-day ensemble if you are a man" and "Don't shave your face while sitting on the train (if you are a lady)" and "While out to dinner, don't tell people your darkest secrets until they've sat down at the table. Pace yourself."

You see, the community seating in the dining car creates some interesting dinner parties.

A young drunk guy looked up to see an older couple sitting across from him.

"Oh, I wasn't expecting this," he said.

Thinking a formal introduction was in order, he cleared his throat.

"I'm a slob," he said. "So have fun."

But his blase attitude toward his dinner guests was purely for show. He soon was entertaining them with his life story. They showed their interest by fixing their gaze on their menus and not saying a word.

Long story short, he was a child actor who just got out of rehab. Isn't everybody, these days?

A lady also helped this guy find his seat not once but three times.

People also do things on trains like give people cash out of the blue and buy strangers cookies. In the observation car, a man who looked like Santa Claus pointed out deer and coyotes and eagles to Johnny and Richie. Strangers share stories of their travels through the country and through life.

We saw snowy farms that looked like Christmas album covers for country singers. We saw seagulls on the Mississippi River in Illinois.

J.J. fared best as we wandered the aisles of the train. I guess because his center of gravity is closest to the ground.

In addition to the dining car, there's the snack bar.


At the beginning of the ride, the attendant kept making announcements over the loud speaker along the lines of...

"This is Fred. It's going to be 45 minutes before I open. At the last stop, I got all these boxes that, frankly, I wasn't expecting. I'm dealing with it."

"Hi, it's Fred again. I'm still not ready to open, due to circumstances beyond my control. I'm coping."

"Hey everybody. It's you know who. Still buried in boxes. So through no fault of my own, I am closed for business. I will be open for breakfast."

Breakfast being in just 14 hours.

It didn't take that long. The boys wanted candy, so when he finally opened, I got the chance to discuss the box fiasco with him in person.

There was an argument with a secretary, wrong serial numbers, a tangled chain of command, the danger of a potentially long line upon opening late, etc.

To sum up, he threw his hands in the air and said, "It's all part of the romance of the railroad."

That's the word I was looking for: Not too crazy. Not too normal. Romantic.