The Bright Side of the Christmas Tree

Christmas StockingTwo years ago, I had hope – still a nuclear family of four.

One year ago, the bomb had exploded, the pieces were being picked up, and I had my first divorced/single mom Christmas.

But it was my year to have the boys on actual Christmas day. As per part of our divorce decree, we flip back and forth each year – both always having time with the kids over the holidays, but only one or the other having the actual eve and day.

As this year’s big day approached – my first Christmas without my children – at first I was like, “Meh! What’s in a date? Christmas is in the heart!” I’ve watched enough Christmas specials in my life to have that old chestnut (roasting over an open fire) drilled into my head. My family’s all willing to save the celebration for when Nathan and Joey get back. So no biggy.

Then it started to hit a bit – depression. I’m going to be a sad 40-year-old lonely cat lady watching Bravo and doing virtual puzzles on an IPad for Christmas. Of course I have friends and family who would take this stray dog in if I really needed to be around people. But of course, it’s not the same as being with your own kids. Christmas was my jam as a kid, and giving those same types of happy memories to my kids was always important to me. Not having the choice is just a bitter, bitter mistletoe berry to swallow.

But here we are, Christmas Eve, and I woke up and decided to look at the bright side of the Christmas tree today. I’m certainly not alone in this world, as other divorced parents deal with the same splitting of time, ruining the happy family Christmases they once dreamed of and forcing a new holiday normal on their offspring and themselves. Even if you didn’t choose divorce, there’s plenty of guilt in the equation. But, there are also positives if you put on your reading glasses and look hard enough.

Five Reasons to Celebrate not having your Kids on Christmas

  1. Sales – Mama’s going shopping the day after Christmas. 50% off. No complaints there!
  2. Avoiding Stress – The collective societal stress out there is palpable. I went to get a chestnut praline latte this morning at the Starbucks annex in the Vons up the street and I saw panic everywhere as people hustled for their last minute groceries. “Not I,” said the little divorced mom. I can eat a sandwich for dinner on a paper plate if I want and my feet won’t hurt from cooking all day, and my blood pressure won’t rise trying to get it all done in time for company. When everyone out there is stressed, it can sometimes make you feel more so, yourself. We often participate in certain traditions because we feel like we have to fall in line, culturally. This temporary reprieve on celebrating Christmas with your kids puts you into the mindset that you don’t have to do what everyone else doing. We will still cook and celebrate, but somehow it feels like it will be more relaxed because it doesn’t HAVE to happen on a certain day at a certain time.
  3. Extra Time – Divorced procrastinators unite! When you are given a few extra days to complete something overwhelming (like Christmas shopping and wrapping) it just feels like the big test was postponed and you have more time to study. Phew!
  4. Avoiding the Post-Christmas Let Down – As I mentioned, I loved, loved, loved the Christmas season when I was a kid, but Christmas night was always kind of a bummer. It was all over. There was no more anticipation. But tomorrow night, the best will still be yet to come of the Christmas season for me and other divorcees who didn’t get Christmas with their kids this year.
  5. New Year’s Eve – So I don’t get actual Christmas this year, but I do get New Year’s Eve, which is harder to fake. Unless you show your kids the ball dropping on YouTube from a previous year. Which I did once at 10pm to convince Nathan and Joey that they’d stayed up until midnight. (Didn’t go over very well!) But this year, I will get a little peck on the cheek from the two handsomest, sweetest little devils I’ve ever known when 2015 comes along. Now that’s something to look forward to!

I Am the Schmo

SilvermanOf all of the nutty places to find an epiphanic connection, Saturday Night Live? Of all of the people to spout the words of wisdom that are still resonating with me a day after hearing them, Sarah Silverman???

While sitting on the lap and lovingly petting the shiny blond hair of a spectacled audience member, Ms. Silverman said:

“I hope that you are as kind to yourself as you are to any schmo on the street.”

Naturally, this was a part of a gag where the self-admitted “blue” comedienne expected reciprocity for her kind, self-esteem building sentiments. Yet, there was a sincerity to it, because I think Sarah Silverman (like most American woman) has faced being way too hard on herself throughout her life.

I’m too hard on myself!  I am!  When I make a mistake or a bad decision, I feel so disappointed, no amount of retribution from anyone else comes close to torturing me as much as I torture myself. A misstep has me questioning my worth and character to such depths, it’s ridiculous. I waste far too much time beating myself up for past errors, present lacking, and a desired future I feel is impossibly unattainable because I ultimately don’t believe I deserve it. Will I ever be happy with the way I look, the amount of energy I have, the size of my bank account, or the legacy I leave behind when I die if I don’t change this self-depreciative loop in my head?

Would I treat any schmo on the street this way? Never! If a friend, acquaintance, or even a stranger came up to me and said, “I suck! I haven’t accomplished as much as I should have and I’ve screwed up and I’m so old to be starting over the way I am!!” I would say, “Oh, sweetie, no no no! YOU are wonderful! You are beautiful!  You are HUMAN! Give yourself a break and enjoy the moment you’re in. You’re alive, surrounded by amazing people and an amazing world, and every trip, stumble, or fall up to this point were just lessons to be learned. There may be more, but you’re getting better at avoiding them, and better at recovering from them because you have life experience, support, and you’re WONDERFUL!”

At some point, I have to give myself the same courtesy I happily offer to others.  I think today’s just as good of a day as any to start.

Waise the Rage

statler-and-waldorf-footerI’m not someone who would claim to be terribly politically astute. Some might say I even stick my head in the sand from time-to-time. This isn’t out of a desire for ignorance, though. In truth, if I pay too close of attention to the details of the state of our current government, I can get pretty upset. There’s just a lot of…mess…and it seems insurmountable, so I focus on my more immediate personal stresses which I can potentially control rather than those I feel I have no power over. Probably a pretty common American state-of-mind.

Because of that, I don’t watch the news religiously. However, I have picked up a few reports over the last year which have caught my eye regarding fast food workers throughout the country who are staging protests to try and increase minimum wage to $15.00/hour.

My first reaction was, “woah, there, kids! That’s a pretty lofty request!” In truth, I don’t personally currently make as much as they’re asking for, and I work as a freelance writer which could be considered more of a “skilled” position.

Watching the picketers on the news this morning, after my initial “say  what?” reaction to their financial goals, I thought, “ya know what? They work hard! They put up with a lot of stuff between corporate nonsense and entitled customers. And most of us rely on them for at least a few meals a month when we’re in a rush.” I could go off on a tangent about the health pitfalls of fast food, but I think we’re all pretty aware of that fact. However, there are families who can’t afford more than fast food when they go out to eat. It’s a part of our culture, and a service is, indeed, provided.

This all got my mind spinning.  Fast food workers are the wait staff and the cooks and the cleaning crew. Some of them do their jobs really well, too. Not a skilled position? I don’t know if I could do it, day in and day out, yet we want them to survive working crappy shifts and weekends on $8/hour?

Thumbs Up Ronald McDonald

Mr. Ronald Octavius McDonald’s yellow jumpsuit is probably actually plated in gold. When’s the last time he dealt with a grease burn in order to get the fries out on time? Perhaps life in these United States would be better if businesses were forced to pay employees based on profit margins instead of minimum wages.

Which made me realize, again, how lacking in knowledge I am about both politics and economics. There’s a name for that very thing, right? I probably put it my short term memory at some point in order to pass a big test, or something.

Socialism. Is that what I’m looking for? I had to hit the internet to confirm, and of course, all web info should be thoroughly vetted before stated as fact, but thanks to “Simple English Wikipedia” (i.e. Wikipedia for dummies) I got a good refresher on Marixism, Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism.

And how about that Communism? My early exposure to this label were those black-and-white film clips of the McCarthy trials and thinking how awful blacklisting must have been. However, I still also took from those images that “Communism is bad” (mmm’kay). As I read more about Communism today I’m realizing, “isn’t that what we call ‘cooperatives’ or ‘co-ops’ in American society?”

So think about that for a second. “Cooperative.” That’s a good word, right? When you have cooperation, you have a well-oiled, drama free machine, where everyone is getting their due, no? Is such a thing possible in a fair and just way as a societal whole?

But that is what’s great about America, right? We have that choice. We can go join a cooperative and be a thinly veiled Communist. We can own a business, underpay our workers, and be a wealthy Capitalist. And yes, these opportunities are available to everyone. You can always find that person who says, “I had no one and nothing and I was out on the street, and now I own this amazingly successful business and I’m giving back to my community by hiring homeless people.” Ya know, stuff like that there. It’s out there. And it’s good. It’s America.

But good gravy do we Americanos like to complain a lot. Why? Because all of that choice means that many people don’t make the best choices. And the people who are restrained with their choices get pissed at the idea of picking up the tab for the ones who don’t give a hang.

This is where I don’t see eye-to-eye with some of my more right-wing brethren. I have friends who consider themselves Republican for one reason – they don’t want their pay docked so that some crack addict gets welfare and food stamps and healthcare on their dime. They don’t care about gay marriage and abortion – live and let live. They want their money from their job to go in their wallets and no one else’s. And that makes sense, right?

The problem that I have buying into this focus is that there are people taking advantage of the “system” on the top and bottom. Those wealthy business owners so poorly paying the sore-footed fast food workers who allow them to jet-set around and buy what they want when they want it without having to have a nervous breakdown over finding the best deal on a winter coat for their sons (yeah…that was me last year) are truly taking advantage of “the system” for selfish reasons which do not better our society. That is just too “me-me-me” for me.

However, I get the other concern. I also know (boy do I know!) people who milk disability and unemployment and government programs and still have their expensive cell phones and Starbucks coffee every day and it’s like, “come on. Get a job. Tighten your belt. At least do as much as I’m doing if you want help from me. Make an effort!”

I just think it’s important to realize that fat-cat advantage-taking business owners and low-life, lazy advantage taking unemployed people are extremes. In the middle are the majority of people just trying to make it. Some of them have the means to own their own businesses or go to school for high paying careers. Some have to temporarily take advantage of government assistance so they can feed and clothe their families while they diligently search for gainful employment.

We are not a perfect country. We’re young. We’re like teenagers who project that they’re cooler than they are but yet deep down we have really low self-esteem and poor confidence. We get caught up in a “we’re number one” mentality, some of us, rather than learning from the world around us and the history behind us. Yet, we sit back and grumble all the while when things don’t go the way we personally believe they should.

Many of us are much like Waldorf and Statler on the muppets. We sit in the balcony and pass judgment on our collective culture but we aren’t in there doing anything to change it. If you want a better show, get in there and get involved, right? Putting others down and cynically laughing at the negatives like Waldorf and Statler separates us rather than uniting us. Isn’t it supposed to be the United States.

So, I say the fast food workers deserve more, for sure. I think every person who sets an alarm, does what they can to get to their job on time, works hard, and provides a service to our collective society deserves to not struggle just to pay rent or live in places that make it dangerous for their children to go outside. However, no matter what situation we are born into, this amazing country does provide each and every one of us with as many doors to walk through as the climax scene in “Monsters, Inc.”

Just a few days ago, I was at the Salvation Army looking for clothes for my kids. I’m not destitute, but I like taking advantage of hand-me-downs. Kids grow so fast, I’ve got access to a washer and dryer, and I’ve paid $2 for something nicer than I can get for $20 at Target or the mall. Choice. America.

While I was browsing the hoodies and thermals and pants for my boys, I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two employees of the Salvation Army. They were talking as fast as they were stocking and organizing. My first thought was how amusing it was to hear people using the term “baby daddy” in a non-satirical way. However, as I listened more closely, I was impressed.

These two women were from a different life than mine – a completely unique culture to the one I have always experienced. They were of two different generations, but both of them were clearly used to seeing young girls get pregnant, and then pregnant, and then pregnant again, sometimes with multiple “baby daddies” (that’s a quote – not a Waldorf and Statler judgment, I swear! “Did she just say ‘baby daddy??!’ Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!”

They were vibing. They saw eye-to-eye and their passionate conversation centered on one main point for the young girl who was probably about 18. It would be absolutely foolish for her to follow in her friend’s footsteps and keep having kids. She had one son, and that had taken so much of her time and energy already. If she had more, it would take her away from her main goal which was to finish school and make a decent life for herself and her little man.

Yes! I wanted to high five her or something but I just listened while pretending to be focused on the Shaun White hoodies I was scoring for $1.25 a pop. Their conversation style was more cyclical than linear. The same thing was said over and over, and they “mmm-hmmm’d” each other and repeated one another’s sentiments in a way that was clearly culturally appropriate for them.

It was refreshing, though, because this is an example of someone who I wouldn’t mind having a bit of my tax money for help. This girl was working, she had a good head on her shoulders, she was abstaining from unprotected pre-marital relations with any potential “baby daddies” because she recognized the dead end that would be for her at this point in her life. And she was going to get her degree, no matter how many shifts she had to work at the Salvation Army.

And while a part of me pompously though, “oh, this girl…she just didn’t have the opportunities like I had at her age. She deserves a break!” maybe we’re not so different after all. You can make an argument that I, at 40, am shopping at the Salvation Army and facing a big fat student loan of my own. These are sacrifices I’m making to better mine and my children’s lives. My country makes it possible to do all of these things no matter what family or city or culture you are born into.

Point being, a whole lot of us use the system to be a better part of the system. The ones that abuse things at the top and the bottom are easy targets. They stand out. They’re offensive. But they aren’t the majority. So perhaps rather than getting all politically kafuffled about the system or the abuse of the system, we should focus on the democracy that is our country: choice. Without it, there could be a very stifling structure and a potentially boring existence – cogs in a wheel. With it, most of us still feel like cogs in a wheel, but at least we have a lot of wheels to choose from.

Through the Eyes of a Divorcee

Unhappy Couple

Last week I had an “anniversary” of sorts, though not one to really celebrate, I suppose. My divorce has been finalized for a year. In that year, I have accomplished a great deal, including a lot of healing. A whole lot of healing. I’m now a member of a club I never intended to join, but like anyone who has been through difficult times, you see the world differently when you rise from the ashes. Whether that means I actually see more clearly or not is up for debate, but it at least seems so.

The new perspective which comes from being a middle-aged divorcee isn’t so bad now that the disappointment and pain have gotten to a point where they can be covered with a band-aid as opposed to requiring staples, stitches, and surgical tape.

It’s kind of fascinating, really. When I look around and see couples and families in different stages, I wonder why some of these men are willing to stick it out even though the challenges and monotony and perceived spousal neglect of early child-rearing is clearly bumming them out. Yet, others use the guaranteed chaos and the hard work involved with being a husband and a dad as an excuse to disconnect and/or cheat. (And I know there are wonderful, healthy couples to offset the miserable ones,  but allow me to profile the unhappy couples out there,for the sake of keeping my diatribe brief).

Women are so maternal, so I think often times men are somewhat mothered by their girlfriends in those early stages of twitterpation. This amazing combination of having basic needs taken care of and having attraction and all that comes along with it leads into surely blissful marriage. But, then when the baby carriage comes, well, we females have to triage. The newest born generally gets the most attention. I guess some men can’t make that transition from being the number one baby to being a partner without becoming infested with resentment.

I’m not absolving women, by the way, in my sweeping generalizations. I observe a lot of women who, once kids come along, forget they used to treat their man like a king. They suddenly bark orders at their husbands as if they were the hired help, and then feel totally irritated that their mate didn’t carry things out as they would have, or didn’t read their mind.  They withhold affection and barely mask disgust and resentment towards the man that once rocked their world. Why should men bother when they get no credit for anything and there is no physical/emotional rewards in their relationship anymore? And so, the vicious cycle goes on for so many young families, spiraling toward potential betrayal and the big D.

I might briefly note that this is not at all my story, in spite of my tone of expertise on these matters. My story is a whole other Lifetime movie….but I digress.

I was sitting at urgent care on my “anniversary” because I contracted  vile strep throat from my own little offspring. My immunity seems to be decidedly down as a result of burning the candle at every end these days. I’m nothing but a wick at this point. No wax to pad me. So germs seem to find me a delectable tightrope for their twisted circus act. My own doctor couldn’t see me so I bit the bullet and committed to three hours at the UC.

While I was signing in, a family came along – a mother and father with a boy and girl. I sat near them and couldn’t help but observe a bit. The husband was cute – probably early 30s, average height and physique, glasses. Kind of a hunky nerd. The wife was an adorable girl-next-door. Nineties Meg Ryan would play her in the movie version of her life. I could picture their wedding photos. They were probably so stinking adorable and happy on that day, with the ocean behind them, their friends and family wiping away tears as they made their vows, looking deeply into each other’s eyes,  and ready to embark upon their life together, full of promise.

They had no idea then that urgent care visits, screaming children, and crappy communication were their future.

Their son, Gavin, was 8, and clearly felt he could do a better job parenting his little sister, which they yelled at him for several times. Yet mom and dad wouldn’t take their faces out of their phones, so how could poor Gavin be blamed for stepping in?

Their daughter was probably about 3, and loud as anything. She was cute, but she was the definition of a handful, running around the waiting room like a tornado trying to invade the personal space of all of these people who didn’t feel good. The efforts of the parents involved a lot of yelling from their chairs without really looking up from their phones. “Serenity!” they would shout. “Get back over here!” I think I heard, “Serenity…no!” at least 100 times.

The pure amusement over the fact that this boisterous, hyper child should be named “Serenity” of all things was not lost on me. When she entered the building, there was nothing serene about it.

Finally, they got her settled down with some food so that they could enjoy their phone surfing and not have any connection with one another or their children, whatsoever. That’s when Meg Ryan mumbled, “organic cheese slices are on sale at the Whole Wheatery.” She didn’t look up, but was clearly annoyed that hunky nerd didn’t jump for joy over this news.

Sighing, she said (irritated and louder) “Hello?”

He repeated back in a monotone voice, gaze plastered to that smartphone screen, “Organic cheese slices on sale.”

There was no acknowledgement between them after that, but I just found myself struck by the sadness of it all. I don’t blame phones for this, by the way. This isn’t a lambasting of the downfall of society because of the advent of technology. Phones are just another of so many ways that people  hide from each other when they’re disconnected in a marriage.

For Gavin and Serenity’s sake, I hope haggard nerd dad takes Meg Ryan by the Whole Wheatery on the way home to buy cheese slices without her even mentioning them again, with a big smile on his face, thanking her for being budget conscious. And I hope Meg Ryan thanks him back with a big hug and kiss and calls him the best, most thoughtful hunky nerd husband in the world.

The needs of the parents in a family with young kids seem so minuscule when you’re watching from the outside. It’s astounding more people aren’t able (or willing) to meet them.

Over the Ant Hill

AntAs I was enjoying my quarterly 2 mile jog/walk the other day, I cut through a patch of desert leading to another street. A gigantic ant hill was directly in front of me, so I stopped short, huffing and puffing, but intrigued.

Since hitting my later 30’s, I’ve become more fascinated by the little things in nature. All the things I used to roll my eyes over as a teenager when my dad would point them out are now in me and I almost feel sorry for the teenage me for wasting so much time only being jazzed about the big and flashy things in the world. But that’s just the way it is. (Bruce Hornsby taught me that when I was 12).

So, I just wanted to look for a minute. See what these frantic little guys were up to. They were working hard bringing nest-building booty up the hill. Some ants had sticks; some pebbles. One little fella caught my eye. He had a brown flake about five times his size. It may have been a little dried flower petal or something. However, to him, it was clearly queen-pleasing gold.

Unfortunately, the paper-thin petal was functioning like a kite or a para-sail or something. Every time the wind gusted, Mr. Ant would blow back several body lengths. Stunned, he would shake it off and start back up the hill, only to be thrown off course again. His determination didn’t falter, but every bit of progress he made would be for naught as soon as the wind whooshed again. In my one minute of watching, the ant ended up further back than he was when I first spotted him.

Perhaps I was moved by his high-apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes. A part of me thought “leave it alone!” This is nature; I’m not God. If he’s not meant to bring his dried brown flake of a flower petal to his queen, well, this just isn’t his day. Maybe it’s wrong to meddle. We’ve all got our stuff, right? We all have to figure it out on our own.

Except, we don’t. Where would I be here, on my 40th birthday, if not for my parents, my sister, my family, and my friends, especially over the last year and a half or so. The support I’ve had since my world was turned upside down with an unexpected (and thoroughly painful) divorce has turned a horrific shock into more of what I’d term a “tough life experience laced with glorious connections and growth.” Often times, I’ve felt low, but more often, I feel like Rocky ascending the stairs. “Gonna fly now!” Surrounding me, cheering me on, are all of these great people.

Some I may have expected to support me, but others have been surprises – old friends; even acquaintance. Some people, like my parents, have sacrificed financially to help me get back on my feet. Others may have just said that one perfect thing in that one important moment that lifted my chin up and helped me remember to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But day after day, I’ve had help and support.

So, Mr. Ant…how could I leave you hanging? I grabbed a stick, and swiftly scooped him to the base of the anthill. He freaked out for a second, but almost instantly seemed to realize a miracle had happened for him. He scurried into the hole, excitedly. In spite of all of that struggle, today was his day.

I think I’m going to go ahead and let today be my day as well. I am 40 today, and this milestone birthday has long been termed “over the hill.” Me and my buddy Mr. Ant, struggling to climb to get over that hill.  Helped by others to make it. It’s a beautiful thing. So why lament on what was once traditionally celebrated with black balloons and faux funeral decor? “Happy birthday – you’re that much closer to dying!” Forget that noisemaker.

I’ve noticed that my generation just doesn’t treat 40 like prior generations have. It makes sense. People are living a lot longer. So the fact that I’m “starting over” at this mid-ish-life mark is something to celebrate.  It’s almost like I stand to have enough time on this earth to have what would have been two complete lives in the past.

Who doesn’t love a good buy-one-get-one? I’ll take it.