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What is Christmas Anyway?

Yes.  I said Christmas.  At my house, that’s what we celebrate and the gist of this post.  If your customs are around other holidays – FABULOUS.  Happy/Merry and all to you.

In chatting with someone at work this morning, we had the following observations:

Losing favor:

  • Holiday parties– while company parties seem to be back with style, neighborhood and friend parties are off.
  • Christmas cards – Yes, I sent Christmas cards this year with an annual letter.  Most of the people I know are connected to me on Facebook, so the handful of people staying away from social media is few.  Finding unique things to write about was problematic!  Are Christmas cards becoming extinct?
  • Big gifts – When divorcing my kids got the “guilt” Christmas of around $1000+ each.  This year my limit was around $125 each (includes grandkids and the in-laws) – still substantial enough for a nice holiday.  When my kids “need” something I tend NOT to wait for the holiday.
  • Baking – it seems the home-baked goods are off this year
  • Outdoor lighting displays – far fewer in neighborhoods.  In a bike ride from Bedford to Cambridge on the Minuteman Trail, NO outside displays were observed.

Gaining favor:

  • Family gatherings – getting together with family has never stopped, and in my family are now often multiple day events.
  • Charitable donations – As the year comes to a close looking at events in life where I have connection drive my donations (things like the Mark Fidrych Foundation & my fraternity) and organizations always there helping (includes church, the Salvation Army kettle, and the Girl Scouts.)
  • Believing – I just “may” be good friends with Santa, a good enough friend to often hear what he hears.  The size of the requests has dropped considerably over the years and in one case this year touched my heart, “I’d like Mom and I to have a house so we don’t have to sleep at different houses.”
  • Amazon – The poor UPS man is a huge part of my holiday.

In taking a giant step back from the list, I started to wonder what this all meant.  Part of me says perhaps we are returning to some of the key elements of the Christmas holiday and shedding some of the materialism.  Part of me says this is an offshoot of the great recession….the results of a new economic reality.

What are the realities in your family?


Holiday stress: Practical tips for worrying less and enjoying more

  Describe your holidays.

  Are your holiday memories scenes right out of a Norman Rockwell portrait? Strolls down the walk singing Christmas carols, sights of happy people bustling about in merriment, and the slightest hint of cold nipping at your nose as you enjoy the unique and welcoming tastes of the season.

  Or are your memories more of logistical nightmares? Driving between family homes in blizzard-like conditions, gulping down quick meals as you get to the next event with concern over:

• Everyone getting along.

• Food preparation of entrees/sides/desserts cooked only once a year.

• Gifts….and their size, color, features and cost.

  The holidays can be stressful; no one knows this better than parents. Dr. Charles Wolfson, a psychologist at Active Counseling Associates in Westborough, had one overarching message when it comes to avoiding holiday pressure: “Preserving the most important relationships around you is far more important than any holiday ‘fun’ you’re trying to have.”

  Spending quality time with people, whether folks you see daily or only once a year at the holiday, is the key to relationships. When completely focused on a task, and the task doesn’t go perfectly, tempers can surface, he notes. And when this happens, people need to remember why they are getting together. 

  The objective is spending time with the special people in our lives. People should not fray relationships over a contrived event or task intended to bring friends and family together,  “whether it’s putting up decorations, attending gatherings or baking a particular goodie.” 

  April Hatfield of Florence shared techniques for helping her family look forward to holidays with her young daughter. First, she tries to stay out of the stores by shopping extensively online.

  “Mall shopping is too crazy for me,” she says. “This year I am putting together an Amazon Wish List and an overall shopping list for my daughter.”

  She’s also very aware of how the holidays can drain family funds, creating an unpleasant lingering holiday memory: “I’m going to try to stick to a budget this year, as well.”

One concern Hatfield still has is working the logistics of getting everyone together at the holidays.  “I’m hoping not to spend all the holidays on the road driving my daughter around, and it might be tough to get everyone together. I haven’t thought that through yet.”

  Westborough mom Michelle Travis has a suggestion passed down from her family: “We really want to get together with people, and doing so on the exact holiday is just too much, especially when juggling multiple families. We plan a big family dinner and hold it on a non-holiday day.”

  Knowing that getting people together is the goal, Travis’ family uses planning to help spread the responsibilities and not create a burden for any one family.

  “Rather than hold a random pot luck, we make it a planned pot luck,” she says. “Everyone with ‘specialties’ gets selected to bring them, and it becomes a ‘best-of’ holiday meal!”

  Another suggestion Travis offers centers around gifts and budget: “People just go overboard with gifts.  It’s almost becomes a contest on who can give the most, and it takes away from the real holiday spirt.”

  With that in mind, she established a rule to deal with that reality.

  “We limit gifts to a single gift for every year of life,” she says. “So if the child is two, holiday gifts are two.”

  She laughs when challenged about how this strategy will hold up in later years: “I suspect by the time the child is nearing 10 we’ll have modified the rule, and for now the simplicity works.”

  Like many moms with young children, Travis lives in a ‘tight space’ and has developed strategies for holiday entertaining.

  “Using Space Bags or plastic containers, I make a point of putting off-season clothes and toys away,” she notes. “For example, all summer clothes and toys are put away for the winter holidays. When the seasons change again, I rotate the summer clothing and toys out, and put winter things away. This makes our home feel less cluttered and makes it more inviting for guests.” An added bonus: “It also helps with determining toys and clothes for passing along.”

Remembering Wolfson’s prime goal of preserving relationships is key as families strive to enjoy the holiday season thanks to a little upfront planning.

  “Even with all our planning, we still have things come up we didn’t anticipate,” Travis says with a smile.  “We can’t let those ‘opportunities’ become disabling.  We try our best to roll with changes, and make the best of them.  I always remember in those stressful times, when things are at their worse, we can always smile and have some egg nog. In the end, it’s all about the egg nog.”


Tips for enjoying more, stressing less

• Avoid stores, shop online when you can.

• Use an online wish list to streamline gift-buying.

• Limit gifts to one for each year of a child’s life.

• Make a gift budget and stick to it.

• Move your celebration with extended family or friends to a day other than the actual holiday.

• Make your holiday celebration a planned pot luck.

• Rotate your summer clothes, toys and gear out to make room for fall/winter.

• Expect and roll with the hiccups.


Article originally published in baystateparent magazine - November 2015


How do you Keep Memories?

With the arrival of our granddaughter, there’s been renewed interest in capturing, sharing and storing memories.  How you do so has changed through the years, and provides an interesting perspective on family.

My daughter has been taking pictures of her new niece and putting them into a collage using a smartphone app called Pic Stitch.  Using a monthly photo with Hobbes (of Calvin and Hobbes fame), a real sense of her growth is emerging looking at the collage.  It’s fun to look at, and fun to share on Facebook.  I look forward to the collages; one is included in this post.

A couple decades ago we did things differently.  We didn’t have smartphones, we had dial phones used for talking (with real dials, no buttons.)  We had cameras, and you would take the film to the drug store or photo store to be developed.  Prints were pricy, so were used sparingly.  Friends wouldn’t see the photos unless they came over to the house or a handmade physical collage went “on the road.”

We kept track of our children’s growth by holding a pencil to the top of a child’s head and marking the wall.  When growing up, my parents made marks on a wall behind a furnace so they would not be disturbed.  The problem is inevitably someone moves, and those memories are lost.

When we had children, we wanted to do the same thing.  We were the second owners of a house where the previous family kept their heights on a garage wall.  When finishing and painting the garage, we preserved the height chart by not painting over it.  In fact, we just added to it.

In contemplating this post, my thoughts kept running to the house with our childrens’ heights in the garage.  “What ever happened to all those?”  We moved out 14 years ago, certainly they were not there.

Curiosity (and a confluence of events) had me driving to our former home.  Would the current owner think I was nutty, or intruding?

“What luck,” I exclaimed to nobody.  “The garage doors are open and there is someone in the garage.”

Introducing myself to the owner and asking about the wall, he smiled and assured me the wall was intact.  He even offered to move his car to help with pictures.

Sure enough, the wall was very much intact. (See photo.) The only change was the addition of other children’s heights over the 14 years since we lived there.  The history was on the wall!

Here was a house, built in 1955…holding nearly 60 years history preserved over four owners who never communicated about saving a section of the garage.  Four sets of families respecting their predecessors and preserving for perpetuity (or at least for now) the memories of those children.

I know the original owners of that house are gone, with their name preserved on a stone marker somewhere.  Would they believe their children’s height markings lovingly scribed on the wall would still be there?

How you preserve memories is something you and your family need to consider.  Family albums are in my basement for others to look at years from now.  Ancestry.com lets you look up public records after they become public!  Facebook seems to hold all recent history of my family, and I wonder if Facebook will have my grandchild’s photos in 60 years.

How are you preserving your family memories?


Coddle Much?

There is something I have to get off my chest.  This post is not a rant; it’s a non-scientific observation about what we’re doing to our children with recommendations.  I hope you’ll make a comment with your thinking.

Coddle is a verb meaning to treat in an indulgent or overprotective way.  In our attempt to make our childrens’ lives as rich and safe as possible, we’re taking away the opportunity to learn some of life’s lessons. 

We’re coddling too much.

To start, I am not advocating placing our children in harm’s way.  Some of the things we do with our children make lots of sense.  For example, let’s look at car seats.  While I grew up without car seats (and without seat belts) it’s clear the benefit of a car seat outweighs the fun of being in the back of a station wagon “untethered.” 

Here’s my starter list of things to encourage this conversation:

  • Watch Baseball - This came to me while watching the Major League Baseball All Star Game.  This summer classic pits the “all stars” as selected by the fans.  This summer classic was always something we looked forward to every year.  It generally marked the halfway point of summer and was a great excuse to stay up late and hang with friends.  Today?  The previous day has a “Home Run Derby” singling out players who can hit the most home runs.  Arguably the Home Run Derby has eclipsed the All Star Game.  
    • Recommendation: Skip the home run derby and encourage watching the All Star Game.  Lesson: Value team activities over singular activity.  The good news is team sports are available for enjoyment nearly everywhere.  Attend the game in person (high school?) rather than watch it on TV.
  • Let kids play – kids used to go outside in the morning, and return to home at sundown (and or dinnertime).  Every family had a way to “gather” the children (one friend’s mom had a large bell, my dad has his “famous whistle.”  Events were not organized.
    • Recommendation: Turn off the screen (TV/Video/smartphone) and let the kids play outside.  Sure, you need rules on what is acceptable behavior and boundaries (don’t cross Ruggles Street.)  Lesson: Great life lessons were learned this way.  We damned a drainage ditch behind some of the houses when I was, ahem, younger.  We learned about water, how to build a basic dam, crayfish & tadpoles/frogs, and how neighbors react to a damned drainage ditch.  This two week effort was quite elaborate, harmless, and when the inevitable dam breaking occurred we learned about the power of water.
  • Encourage team sports – I was always an overweight kid and as the neighborhood kids selected teams I was rarely (aka never) at the top of the list, and always got selected.
    • Recommendation: Let kids self-select teams.  Lesson: In life, you won’t always get selected first.  Be patient.  Relax and have fun.  This lesson also carries over later in life at work.
  • Bring back kickball – the baseball-like game played with an inflated (red) rubber ball has gone by the wayside because the ball is painful when it hits you. 
    • Recommendation:  Bring back kickball.  It’s something requiring minimal eye/hand coordination and can be played by anyone.  If outlawing a sport is required, outlaw either Dodgeball (where the same balls are used to “hit” someone) or Soccer (how can you “acceptably” use your head to hit a ball?) – concussions are evil!  Lesson:  Pay attention when the ball is in play.  This lesson also carries over later in life at work.
  • Stop giving out trophies to everyone – This is pet peeve of my trainer Joe (who I see regularly as I continue battling weight.)  We give out trophies to everyone, whether they “won” or not.
    • Recommendation – trophies are for winners.  Lesson: life is hard, and trophies are not awarded in life unless you win.  That’s a lesson going back to the cave dwellers – the successful hunter ate while the unsuccessful went hungry.  Survival of the fittest.  The lesson is to develop your skills to be on the winning team.
  •  Drink from the Hose – I’ve already indicated my belief some dirt is a necessity in life.  Over and over I see examples of taking this to extreme. 
    • Recommendation: My granddaughter can’t be touched unless you sanitize first.  In the hospital sanitizing made sense (and that’s where this behavior was learned.)  In life, unless you’re filthy or haven’t washed in a while touching someone is OK.  

      As a child, we drank from hoses all the time (rather than go in the house.)  Now, hoses are dirty and leach chemicals into the water.  While that’s true, kids run the water in hoses until it’s cold (more refreshing and better taste.)  Some of our houses have pipes soldered with lead.  We all know lead is bad.  So what do we do?  Run the house water until it is cold.  So if running the house water until it is cold minimizes the concerns about lead leaching into the water, does the same logic apply when considering a hose? 

      Lesson: While protecting your child from known bad things, use common sense!
  • Teens should workworking for someone else gives an appreciation for the value of a buck.
    • Recommendation:  Let teens work.  Child labor laws protect them from bad occupations and overwork.  This is something where parents often need to make the initial connection for the job.  Lesson: if you want the nicer things in life, you need to work for them.  Teens also learn acceptable work practices.

Let’s get back to basics and let kids be kids.  Since I am writing this on a beautiful summer Saturday, I’m going to take my own advice and ride my bicycle, saving the Harley for another day!


What Happens to Your Online Presence When You Die?


Do You Raise Grandchildren or Guide Them?

The text had a sense of urgency.

“Gary, I need a phone call to talk about parenting skills. Or grandparenting skills. It’s going to be a long hot summer.  Please let me know when you are available. THANKS!”

 The note came from a dear (former work) friend…someone who, generally speaking, had spent a great deal of time talking me off career ledges.  We quickly arranged a time via text and we spoke in the evening.

 “I really don’t know what to do.  I am having an issue with my grandchild who is visiting for the summer.”

 As someone who is generally calming influence, it was surprising she felt uncomfortable.  My mind started to race with what calamity she could be facing… drugs, pregnancy, undesirables, suicide, police….and my responses were already forming for each of these issues.  “How old is your grandchild?”

She kept talking without skipping a beat.  “She’s 12.  It is really getting bad.”

My friend was just talking out loud; she is not one embracing a dramatic tendency.  The build-up was concerning.  Teenagers are always tough.  I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going, and was concerned the salient point was so heinous my friend might not share it.  “Are you feeling threatened?”

“Oh goodness no.  She wants to be alone.”

Pause.  “She wants to be alone.  Is she sullen?  Self-destructive? Playing with matches?  Anything you would find concerning?”

“No, she just wants to be left alone.”

“Then leave her alone.”

Another pause.  “You mean I don’t need to raise her?”

At this point, we had a long winding discussion where my friend regained perspective.  Her grandchild was visiting for a couple months.  This was not a case of the grandmother having to raise the child on behalf of the parents.  Mom and Dad are still in the picture.

It’s the parents’ job to raise a child, and grandparents can provide child raising suggestions when asked (I find it’s better to offer suggestions when asked rather than a continual spewing of child raising advice.)

“Your grandchild should know you love her, care and support her….and if she needs a little alone time (provided you have no reasons for concern) then leave her alone.  You don’t need to be a super parent hovering every moment of every day…your granddaughter just wants some private time.  Of course, keep an eye on things in case there’s something at play we’re not aware of so you can intervene.”

In a couple days a follow up call was met with my old friend and her customary confidence.  “I let her be alone for about an hour and she came around for dinner.  We watched some TV together.  Since then, she’s been great.”

My friend also reinforced my belief a community can help with differing perspectives on raising a child…parents are not alone.   By reaching out and talking, a conversation was had on various approaches…making it better for both my friend and her grandchild.


What’s in a Name?

My daughter is marrying a delightful man this fall, and the topic of the last name keeps coming up.  This post is intended to get your feedback because I just don’t know.  And whatever my daughter and her fiancé decide is fine with me – I am not trying to influence them.

When my marriage certificate was chiseled out of stone, it was customary for the woman to take the man’s last name.  My wife to be was previously married, and ironically her married and maiden name were the same.  My preference was for her to take my name, and she was happy to change her last name.  The custom continued.

Since then, I’ve seen just about every permutation imaginable:

  • Woman takes the man’s name – got it.  Still seems customary.
  • Woman keeps her last name, as does the man – while invitations for Mr & Mrs are messy, this approach preserves identities.
  • Woman takes the man’s name personally, and stays unchanged professionally – another compromise to bridge the marriage change and personal identity
  • Man takes the woman’s name - This was important to her, and he used his original last name as a middle name.
  • “The Hyphen” – this always strikes me as a short term compromise.  Imagine generations from now being introduced as Sue Williams-Holmes-Kurtz-Horn-Manning.  The third.

Divorce makes all this messier, especially with children.  I’ve seen mothers go back to their maiden name for everything except school events where they continue using their married name.

I know someone who got married two years ago, and never changed her Driver’s License name (she did update Facebook, so it had to be official.)  As a birthday present to her husband, she changed her name on the driver’s license.

At this point, I’m beginning to wonder if this “custom” is something we should preserve or retire.  Customs tend to be nice, and they are “customary” to keep.  That said, is it politically incorrect to expect a woman to change her name?

Presumably you have views on this, and I’m interested in your views.  Please share in the comments.


Passing on the Dad Phrases

My baystateparent blog has a subtitle, “Things My Kids Now Say.”  There are certain phrases now a part of the family lexicon.  Some are serious, some are just humorous.

Here are some examples:                     

  • “Hi, I’m Dad” – spoken in response to the moan of, “I’m hungry/thirsty/tired/sleepy.”  Of course, the response is met with a louder moan.
  • “All Rotten Potatoes” – the family name of au gratin potatoes.
  • “Don’t let your gas get below half” – this was something my dad always said, especially in winter.  I suppose it is possible to slide off a road and need this fuel to keep warm.  I also suspect it had to do with minimizing (water) moisture in the tank leading to fuel line freeze up – something we never hear about with today’s fuel additives.
  • “Don’t make me stop the car” – there are many good reasons to stop a car, and this phrase is often uttered by exasperated parents.  What’s funny is all cars do eventually stop.
  • “One.  Two.” – a friend used to count to her kids as a way to send a strong message. And her kids responded….by the end of the number “two” they had fallen into line (although “one” was generally ignored.)  We often wondered what would happen if “three” were ever reached….would there be a cataclysmic explosion.  In ten years she reached three only once…and while we awaited the tremors the truth is nothing happened.  It was a bit of a letdown.
  • “Three Second Rule” – typically uttered when consuming something falling off a plate and immediately picked up.  What is interesting is scientists have studied this, and even determined the types of surfaces where this does indeed work.  Personally I contend a McDonald’s French Fry can be picked up safely within 3 seconds from any part of a car interior.  Alas, I am not a scientist.

Some phrases have been retired in my generation.  I’ve determined these phrases have no place in my family:

  • “If you don’t go to school the truant officer will come” – today there are school resource officers, and they don’t seem to come drag children to school.
  • “Your face will freeze” – When was the last time you saw someone with a frozen face?
  • “Go to your room.” – This was a common term to have grounding for a child.  The issue is “going to your room” isn’t much of a grounding with the internet and devices in bedrooms.  “No screens” is a definite alternative.
  • “Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back” – I may have broken my mom’s back (especially as a teen) and certainly not from stepping on cracks.

How about in your family?  What are the phrases you are passing on, and the ones you are retiring?



What Are Your Family Events?

Parties drain me.   This is an attribute of being an introvert, while extroverts get energized at parties.  The exception is a family event….where laughs abound and fond memories are formed.

It doesn’t even need to be my own family event!  Years ago we were moving at Christmas time.  All our possessions were packed including holiday decorations.  A kind family invited us over to their house to share Christmas dessert.

We were warmly welcomed by this family.  The event was a typical family holiday event.  Great food and lots of it, the children playing with their toys, the slightly inebriated uncle, and in their case the grandparent sadly fading with Alzheimer’s.  While it wasn’t “our” family, we enjoyed the food, the story telling and jokes (especially when the jokes were “interpreted” by some of the guests.)  We left with the warmth of a family event.

Aunt Vanessa and DJ cracking upAnother family has their Greek Easter traditions.  Friends and family are invited to this event, where delicious foods are shared (both traditional Greek foods like spanakopita (Greek spinach pie) and lamb, as well as some of the guests’ family favorites like upside down Dutch apple pie.) 

At this year’s event, four generations of family were in attendance.  Everyone from a two year old “ball of energy” to the 90 something year old great grandmother (conserving energy) attended with big smiles and looking forward to an enjoyable day.  Aunts, Uncles, cousins….all attend.

As with many family holiday events, the appetizer “grazing” is a meal in itself!  This is followed by a plate filling feast of food.  Then, this family plays a game called, “Egg Fight.”

After dinner, everyone heads outside as this game can make a bit of a mess.  The game is played with hard boiled eggs. Two people tap their eggs - if an egg cracks that egg is “out,” and the non-cracked egg moves on. This goes on until the winner is declared.

This game wasn’t one shared in my Midwest Irish family.  Everyone plays (the Matriarch of the family won this year), and how predictably some folks become faux competitive.  Given the event uses decorated eggs reaching their shelf life (about a week in a fridge) it is also uses the brightly decorated eggs without resorting to a Forrest Gump list of recipes (you can eat it plain, deviled, as a salad, on a salad, etc.)

All ages participate…there is nobody self-selecting to stay inside.  Smiles proliferate.  Strategies abound (how to hold the egg, how hard to tap, what the optimal temperature is (some, believing colder is better, insulate the egg with paper), etc.  It’s all good fun.

The keys are a common game everyone plays, and nobody taking it too seriously.  Here is a reasonably inexpensive holiday game.  Gifts are eschewed.

Posting a picture of this event on my Facebook page, a friend Holly shares this is something her family also does, and it has a name, “kipping.”  She believes it originated in Germany.  Whatever it is called, it is a fun family event.  Perhaps one even my Midwestern ancestors would enjoy!

What games/traditions does your family bring forward each year?  What traditions would you gladly pass on, and what ones would you like to add to your event planning?


The Marathon Means Family

The 2014 Boston Marathon meant many things to many people.  It was the first year after the bombing and this year fell on Easter Monday.  To me, the Marathon means family.

When growing up on the North Coast of Cleveland, Ohio, we didn’t have a marathon.  The Cleveland Marathon is 37 years old, and so we were on the verge of moving to New England when it was just starting. 

When first moving to the area, living in Natick and working in Framingham, I didn’t know what to expect when a co-worker said we should “walk over” to the Marathon and greet the runners.  What I saw was a large party, with runners slapping hands with spectators, and little children handing out water and orange slices to the grateful runners.  This was cool…a sporting event where you can literally interact with the athletes.

As the years went by, the Marathon seemed to grow in size as did our family.  We made our own party, setting up at the Natick-Wellesley line, having cookouts and handing out water & oranges to the runners.  A friend also got us handing out petroleum jelly, something some runners are particularly appreciative for when they are in need.

As time went by, the kids went to college and the Marathon became something watched on the news.  Then my daughter started running marathons, and this brought the family back to the course supporting my daughter.

Marathon Monday was a beautiful day.  The “badness” of 2013 was pushed out of everyone’s mind.  Where we used to “camp” at one location, the challenge now is meeting the runner along the way.  After dropping her in Southborough (one of the new security measures – she was then bussed to Hopkinton and went through multiple security screenings), we meet up in Framingham, Wellesley, Newton and then at the finish….five stops overall.

Three generations of family came out to support Erin, and her fiancé joined our gang.  We would park as close as possible, and then walk over to the course.  We tracked location via her phone this year with an app “Find Friends”…which had us running to meet her in Newton after traffic delays.  Innumerable people support via text & social media.  Erin ran as a charity runner for the Mass General Hospital Home Base Program (the funds help veterans and their families heal from the invisible wounds of war) extending the number of people touched by the marathon.  Every donation, message or “like” on a post fed her legs.  In addition to the family on the course, hundreds of people sought updates on her progress and sent supportive messages.

Isn’t this community family?  It sure seemed it on Monday.

Speaking of family, 2014 is the last year for Dick and Rick Hoyt to run the Marathon.  They’ve been running for 37 years…as long as Cleveland has had a marathon.  The father pushes his son 26.2 miles, bringing tears to me every time I see them pursuing the goal together.

Some people describe long distance running as a solitary event.  The days and months leading up to the event are often spent in silent practice.  The Marathon is about running, and about family.

What does your family do on “Marathon Monday?”

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