Day of the Dead or Dia de Los Muertos for Dummies November 3, 2011Posted by alwaysjan in Art, Art Education, Holidays, Personal.
Tags: Day of the Dead, Day of the Dead in the New Yorker Magazine, Dia de los Muertos, How to set up Day of the Dad Alter, How to set up Day of the Dead Offrenda, Offrenda, Symbolism of Day of the Dead
I’d planned to write the definitive post on Day of the Dead aka Dia de Los Muertos, a holiday that is near and dear to my heart. But the reality (surreality?) of having 31 students killed that. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then I have a table reserved front row center.
I’d never heard of the Day of the Dead until I moved to SoCal. I grew up in the Midwest. There was no talk of death when I was a child. Death was just so downright-morbid.
So when I moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s with all of these figures of skeletons partying and drinking cerveza and tequila?”
Then a friend and I happened to visit Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles where Dia de Los Muertos merchandise was everywhere. We came upon an empty storefront that featured a community exhibit of ofrendas (altars).
There were the usual ofrendas for beloved relatives, but also one for battered women, a young child who died at the hands of his mother, and even one for a beloved dog that featured the dog’s collar and treats. The ofrendas were beautiful in their simplicity and originality. I found myself weeping tears of…joy?
There was also a huge wooden box filed with sand. People were urged to write a message to a loved one who had passed. The message was wrapped around a stick, tied with a piece of embroidery thread, and then planted in the sand. I can’t remember now who I wrote a note to. But when I planted my stick with a hundred or so others, I felt a connection to all of the people who’d taken the time to write a message to someone they missed. How often do we get to do that in real life?
Unlike Halloween, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the temporal nature of life. Each ofrenda is created from scratch each year. They’re not dragged off to be stored with the artificial Christmas tree and trotted out the next year. That’s one of the things that I love about this holiday.
Several years ago, I decided to host a Dia de los Muertos celebration. Several friends who came were Mexican Americans, but they’d grown up in regions of Mexico where the holiday was not celebrated. This was a first for them, so I wanted to get it right.
My friend, Martha, who is from a close knit Mexican family, talked to her parents, and they came up with some “musts” for a traditional altar. (But, keep in mind, that each altar is open to individual interpretation.)
Basic Structure of an altar:
Four Levels to represent:
earth,wind, water, fire
north, south, east,west
summer, fall, winter, spring
birth, childhood, adult life, death
A picture of the loved one is placed at the highest point
Symbols of the 4 elements
a jar/dish of water for the thirsty soul
a shell – symbolizes water
a flute – symbolizes wind
Corn, shiles, tomatillos, and cacao – symbolize earth
candles – to light the way, to symbolize fire
marigolds for their scent & brevity of life
copal (incense) – a dish of worship, its scent
calaveras (sugar skulls with names) to mock death
dog – to guard the soul, to accompany the soul to its afterlife
dish of salt – for purification of the soul
Pan de muerto – to nourish the soul (Sweet with anise seeds)
Any favorite food of the deceased
Money – to pay the dog for guarding the soul and the fare to be paid for crossing to the other world
Petate (Mat) on the floor – a place for the soul to rest after the long journey.
Mirror – to scare evil spirits & so they won’t eat the food
A frog – signifies twilight of another day.
Optional: Papel picado (cut paper banners), masks, an arch, calaveras, mementos.
The biggest problem was that year the marigolds bloomed early. There was not a marigold to be found. But then I spotted a huge clump of them at an apartment complex and went out late one night to do a little hunting and gathering. Problem solved.
Martha, a dog lover like myself, brought over the collars of some of her beloved dogs. She said with utmost sincerity, “We’ll need a bowl of water because they’ll be thirsty after their long journey.” I fetched it, while she lit what seemed like a zillion candles.
That year I’d googled the name of my first true love only to learn he’d died four years earlier. He’d never married. So it was his picture that I put on the ofrenda along with a shot a whiskey, something that would sooth his soul after a long journey. One of my friends made killer tacos and another brought pan de muerto from a neighborhood bakery that was way better than mine.
I’m afraid that this year, Day of the Dead drew the short stick, what with Halloween on a Monday. I had warned parents that I thought Dia de los Muertos was of cultural relevance ahead of time and we’d be doing an activity. (I’ve got a group of parents at a local seminary, so I tread lightly.)
I brought in my box of sand on Tuesday. Most of my students were zombified from trick-or-treating except for the ones who believe it’s the Devil’s birthday. I suppose I should have given THOSE students homework. I was not too together. I asked my students to collect twigs off the playground and we made an arch that was held together with paper marigolds.
Students had the option of writing a message to a loved one who’d died. One girl wrote three for various goldfish who were last seen swimming in the toilet bowl. I was most touched when one of my students asked if she could write a note to her mother. Everyone knows her mother died when she was in kindergarten. She was worried because her mother only spoke Spanish, and she’d forgotten most of her Spanish. I was fortunate to have an aide in the room who translated her message into Spanish. I helped her wrap it around the stick, noticing that she’d drawn a lot of hearts on it. “I see a lot of love in this message,” I said. The girl smiled.
The students loved how the box turned out. “It looks like a little graveyard!” someone said. Tomorrow, I’ll bring home the messages. They’re ritually burned. I’ll never know the words of love that they contain, but my students do. And that’s what’s most important.
As I originally said, I’d hoped to write the definitive post on Day of the Dead, but that didn’t happen. A fellow teacher told me a hilarious story in The New Yorker about a preschool teacher who decided to celebrate Day of the Dead with disastrous results. The entire incident is told in a series of painful, yet hilarious emails that should give any teacher the will to get up and go to work tomorrow. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I know the writer of the article will be sitting at my table. Mas cerveza por favor!
Christmas is a Wrap January 2, 2011Posted by alwaysjan in Entertainment, Holidays.
Tags: Christmas movies, Christmas Traditions, Humor, Personal, Rare Exports, Rare Exports Trailer, Stocking Stuffers, The Bishop's Wife, The Real Santa Claus
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As much as I love Christmas, once the lights come down and the decorations are carted back upstairs, I feel an overwhelming sense of relief.
Oh, the foot? My son bought that one year for Halloween at the 99 Cent Store. It’s become a family tradition to put it in the foot of one of the boys’ Christmas stockings as a stocking stuffer. In my house, we’re big on traditions. These are the lasting memories that are the stuff of childhood (and later on – therapy).
Unfortunately, our annual tradition of going to see a really inappropriate movie on Christmas Eve was crushed when we showed up to see Rare Exports only to be told it didn’t start until Christmas Day. In past years, movies have included Gremlins, Deuce Bigalo Male Gigolo, and Bad Santa. What can I say? I live with men. As much as my husband enjoys Love Actually, you can only watch it so many times. Ditto on It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story (though Darren McGavin’s character always reminded my husband of my father).
This year my friend Nora introduced me to The Bishop’s Wife which stars Cary Grant as an angel (think early George Clooney). The movie was released in 1947 when what a woman wanted most was a new hat. The coolest thing the angel does is make it so that the non-believer’s bottle of brandy automatically refill after it’s been poured. Now that’s the spirit of the season!
The day after Christmas we did make it to Rare Exports (Click Here to watch the trailer) to learn the story behind the Real Santa Claus. It was actually a rather clever movie though it could kill tourism to Finland faster than you can say “dead reindeer.”
Adopting a Family for Christmas December 19, 2009Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays.
Tags: Adopting a Family for Christmas, Christmas, Gift Baskets, Humor, New York City Post Office, Operation Santa, Parenting, Personal, Teaching, Toy Drives
In the spirit of recycling, I came across the first story I ever had published and thought I’d reprint it. Operation Santa Claus was appeared in Parents in December 1993. When I reread the article, what jumped out was how my writing has evolved. I’m inserting some original commentary in italics that was edited out. My original piece wasn’t so saccharine. WARNING: Reading this could induce a diabetic coma. Always, Jan
Operation Santa Claus
Last year, as Christmas approached, I started wondering if this would be my son Taylor’s last Christmas as a believer. After all, he was eight, and as a native new Yorker, he’s a born skeptic.
But my husband, Richard, and I had perpetuated the myth of Santa very well. Taylor and his five-year-old brother, Ian, wholeheartedly believed that a man who had a belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly parked his team of flying reindeer on the roof of our ten-story apartment building and popped down our chimney to deliver presents to us. Each Christmas Eve, Santa wrote the boys a long letter in flowing script. Each Christmas morning, the boys found the fireplace screen pushed aside and large boot print in the soot, irrefutable proof that Santa did indeed exist.
I wanted to help Taylor – who spent hours working on his list for Santa, even attaching coupons in case there was a Toys “R” Us near the North Pole – begin to understand the joy of giving before he discovered the truth. But how?
That’s when I heard about Operation Santa Claus. Sixty-plus years ago, clerks at the New York City General Post Office knew that the letters addressed to Santa that they received would go unanswered. So they dug into their own pockets to buy food and toys for the children. Eventually the public was invited to respond to the letters, and today many cities have similar programs. I decided to enlist Taylor’s help.
I wandered around the crowded post office lobby until I found Santa’s official post-office box: a cardboard cutout of jolly old Saint Nick, and two long festively decorated tables that were laden with boxes of letters labeled “New York State” “New Jersey” and “Foreign,” as well as one box for each New York City borough. I joined a dozen or so people who were busily sifting through the piles of letters.
There were many poignant stories. One was from a needy mother asking for food and clothes for her children. Another was from a special education teacher who asked for class supplies. After several minutes, I found the letter that touched my heart. It was written by a child who lived in a New York City public housing project and began, “Dear Santa, I believe in you.” I read on.
“I hope you and Mrs. Claus are fine and healthy. I’ve been sick with asthma and that feels so bad. My name is Maria, and I am almost 11 years old. I have three brothers – Juan, age 16, Jose, age 15, and Carlos, age 9. Carlos is handicapped, but I say to everyone that he is handicapable.
This year we all have been through a lot of scares and crying, including Mom, because Carlos has been very sick and in and out of the hospital. He has a brain tumor and gets seizures. Our wish is for Carlos to get cured and to be able to walk, talk, and be normal.”
“Carlos and I share a room, and because he’s so sick, he still sleeps in a crib. So for Carlos, I wish a beautiful crib set – one with sheets and a pillow and curtains to match and a quilt. He loves Mickey Mouse.”
“I would like an American Beauty Queen Barbie. Juan and Jose would like some presents too. And can you also bring my mommy something? She always gives to us and she never gets anything for herself.
“Thank you Santa. I love you, Maria.”
A postal worker sitting behind the table smiled at me and said, “Did you find a letter?” I nodded, and she handed me a form to sign. I tucked Maria’s letter in my pocket and hummed Christmas musical all the way home.
Later that night, reality set in. How could I afford gifts for other children when I could hardly afford them for my own? (I have to admit, I wondered if maybe the letter was a scam – really, a brother with a brain tumor?) I considered returning the letter but instead let it sit in a drawer for several days. Still ambivalent, I took a chance and shared it with Taylor.
He was shocked. “How did you get Santa’s mail?” he queried. I told him about Operation Santa Claus, but he still didn’t understand. “Santa will bring Maria the presents she wants,” he said with conviction.
I took a deep breath but was surprised at how easily the words came out. “Making children happy at Christmas is too big a job for just one person to do, even Santa Claus,” I blurted. “Santa needs all the help he can get.”
Taylor went for the lure. It was as though Santa himself had asked Taylor to be one of his elves. We resolved that we would answer the letter. But Christmas was only ten days away, and we had our work cut out for us. We made a list of Maria’s requests.
The next day I went shopping for a Mickey Mouse crib set. But even at a discount store, the set cost $45, well beyond our budget. I called all my friends, but was unsuccessful in locating a used crib set. I started to get discouraged.
Maria had included her phone number in her letter, so I nervously called her mom. “You don’t know me,” I said, “But I’m a friend of Santa’s, and I’m calling about Maria’s letter to Santa Claus.”
There was a long silence. Then Maria’s mom made the connection. I was relieved to find her warm and friendly.
I was honest with Maria’s mom about our financial situation. “Of all the people who could have picked your daughter’s letter, I’m afraid you’re stuck with us,” I apologized. Maria’s mom assured me that any gift, no matter how small, would mean a great deal to Maria.
Sadly, Maria’s mom confirmed that Carlos had a brain tumor and she told me that he didn’t have long to live. She also told me that Carlos loved to watch cartoons and that Maria had a tape player and liked music, which gave me some ideas. Maria’s mom and I set a time on Christmas Eve for the package to be delivered.
The big day was only a week away, and Taylor stopped working on his “want” list to join me in a last-minute scavenger hunt. This is what we found:
• At the Salvation Army: a just-like-new Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Paired with some bright red leggings, we had a pair of pajamas for Carlos.
• At home: two never-worn boys’ shirts, a Sesame Street book, and a video of classic Mickey Mouse cartoons.
• From Ian’s kindergarten teacher: an extra copy of a book-and-tape set called Las Navidades, which featured Christmas songs from Puerto Rico (where Maria’s family was from).
• From holiday visitors: a large store-bought Italian cake, festively wrapped and decorated with Santa stickers, and homemade bread shaped like teddy bears.
• Finally I splurged and paid ten dollars for a video cassette tape of Home Alone. I also bought some Christmas candy. Behind the cash register was an enticing display of giant brass jingle bells dangling on red satin strings. “I’ll take four of those too,” I heard myself say.
The day before Christmas Eve, we needed one more item: a Barbie doll for Maria. I was surprised when Taylor, who gags at the mere sight of a Barbie commercial, announced that he would help me choose one. Our budget limited us to buying a special-edition Barbie made exclusively for a discount department store.
On the morning of December 24, we found an old corrugated plastic postal carton on the sidewalk in front of our apartment. It looked very official, so we carried it inside and washed it in the bathtub. Then we stenciled “To Maria” on one side and “From the North Pole” on the other. We wrapped the loot in Christmas paper and tied it up with a red ribbon.
Midafternoon, I sat down to write Maria a letter. I explained that I was fortunate to be one of Santa’s friends. I told her that I wished with all my heart that Carlos would be better, but sometimes all the love, money, and prayers in the world couldn’t change what was destined to happen. I also told her that Carlos was lucky to have such a loving sister, for there is no greater gift than love. I remember crying as I signed the letter “Merry Christmas, Maria. From one of Santa’s many helpers.”
The sun was starting to sink low in the sky when we pulled on our coats. (The housing project was on the Lower East Side, and to be honest, I wanted to get in and out of that neighborhood before dark.) “Wait a minute,” yelled Taylor. “What about snow? If a package came from the North Pole, it would have snow on it!” Needless to say, there was not an inch of snow in New York City. So we made some by chiseling ice out of the freezer. We packed several large “snowballs” into a cup. Finally we were ready.
Richard, Ian, Taylor, and I donned our jingle-bell necklaces and then raced out of our apartment building and down the subway steps. As people heard us jingling, they turned their heads and smiled at us.
A short while later, we found Maria’s building – a drab institutional high-rise. Richard and Ian held the elevator door while Taylor and I tiptoed over to Maria’s front door and set the box down. Taylor sprinkled “snow” on the package, and then he took off his necklace and hung it around the top of the package. “She’ll love this,” he whispered.
We shook our jingle bells and banged on Maria’s door. As soon as we heard footsteps, we ran for the elevator. The apartment door opened, and Maria’s mother called out, “Thank you! Merry Christmas!”
Once outside, Taylor was ecstatic We’d pulled it off! Maria would never expect. “Next year,” announced Taylor, “I want to answer three letters!”
That night at home, we sat around a roaring fire and drank hot cocoa. Taylor and Ian carefully laid out nine carrots, one for each of Santa’s reindeer. Once the boys were asleep, Santa filled their stockings and placed the presents under the tree.
On Christmas morning, Taylor and Ian awoke to find the carrots gone and the fireplace screen pushed aside. The same child who had sprinkled snow on Maria’s package carefully examined the boot print in the soot and proclaimed that it was, indeed, Santa’s.
I’m no longer worried about Taylor’s finding out the truth. Whether he realized it or not, he already knows the biggest truth of the season. It is better to give than to receive. I think he is going to make a terrific Santa.
The Village People Save Halloween October 18, 2009Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Parenting.
Tags: Halloween, Halloween at the Hotel Chelsea, Halloween Costumes, Halloween in New York City, Halloween Nostalgia, Halloween Parties, Parenting, Trick-or-Treating
Halloween in New York City in the 1980s was a tough call. The big draw was the Village Halloween Parade. But how many gay guys can you watch prancing around dressed as poodles in costumes made from pink plastic bags? (The answer is quite a few!)
The trouble was that my sons, Taylor, who was in third grade, and Ian, who was in Kindergarten, were eager to go through that American rite of passage called trick-or-treating. In Manhattan, that meant going from deli to deli and getting a piece of candy or maybe having a slice of cheesy pizza dropped into your bag at the local pizza parlor. Not quite the Halloween of my childhood.
When I was a kid, Halloween was a pretty simple affair. You carved a real pumpkin and it always had triangle eyes. None of that artsy stuff you see nowadays. If you were hard up for a costume, being a hobo was always an option, but that was before there were homeless people. You could wear your dad’s shirt and carry a stick with a bandana tied to it. Now those same bandanas signal gang affiliations. Sigh. Word traveled quickly as to which families were handing out the “good stuff.” I’m talking homemade popcorn balls and caramel apples (before they had razor blade fillings).
Fast forward. We were living at the Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd Street. Built in 1883, the hotel is 10 stories tall and has an ornate wrought iron staircase winding through its center. The residents were mostly “artists,” (code word for eccentrics). We moved in the year after Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend Nancy. There were residents who swore the elevator always stopped at the first floor, even when no one had pressed the button, because that’s where Sid had lived.
At the Hotel Chelsea, it was pretty much Halloween year round. We once walked into the wrong apartment once and found ourselves in a casino. It’s not like the boys could go from apartment to apartment trick-or-treating. No, we would have to bite the bullet (the silver one intended for werewolves) and throw a Halloween Party.
Other parents, who were equally desperate for something to do on Halloween, quickly RSVP’d. We enlisted the help of some of the hotel’s residents, some who we only knew in passing. I was willing to buy the candy for them to hand out, but they insisted they would to do it. But what it they flaked – or OD’d?
I ordered a sh*tload of plasticky crap from the Oriental Trading Company. Skulls, spiders – Typical boy stuff.
I made a huge platter of spaghetti with eyeball meatballs (olives) along with vampire repelling garlic bread. Jake’s mom, Arlene, who was a caterer, arrived bearing the most incredible cupcakes I’d ever seen. They had black frosting and a green plastic witch’s finger protruded from each one.
We set up games out in the hallway. Stick a skewer into a bowl of flour and try to hit the lady apple. (What a mess that was!) There was a little fishing rod with hook on the end of it so kids could try to snag a skull ring out of a jar. This was all time filler until the main event. Finally, it was time to go trick-or-treating.
I shouted out an apartment number and a dozen children raced up the stairs with parents trailing behind. From floor to floor they raced, maybe ten apartments in all. The last stop was at our friend Susan’s. She was a teacher and lived in the penthouse. I expected candy. Instead she’d gone all out with spooky lighting and a scary soundtrack. Her apartment was already a jungle filled with terrariums of exotic animals. When she had the tarantula walk across her shoulder, the kids were mesmerized. But then, so was I. This was the grand finale. But wait, there’s more!
My husband’s office was across the hall from where we lived. It had a wrought iron balcony that overlooked 23rd Street. Flying high on sugar, the kids tied rubber bugs to fish lines then dropped them down to street level. When someone walked by, they’d jerk the line to make the bug jump. When unsuspecting people were startled, they laughed hysterically.
Everyone swore it was the best Halloween ever. And it was. A motley crew of people who wanted to create a lasting memory for children made it happen. Yes, it takes a village – Or in this case, the Village People.
Moxey, whose blog Middleground is on my blogroll, wrote a hilarious post about her own ambivalence about Halloween and the inevitable Costume Drama in outfitting her eight-year-old son, Spawn. It’s a fun read. This year, the party is at her house!
Photo Credit: Spooky Spinner by Mark Williams at markrosswilliams.com
Valentine’s Day Massacre February 16, 2009Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Teaching.
Tags: Education, Humor, Making Mistakes, Teachable Moments, Teacher Gifts, Teaching, Valentine's Day
I often ask my third graders if smart people can do stupid things (and yes, I use the “S” word). In September, when I first ask my students this question, they answer with a resounding “No!” Obviously, they have yet to get to know me. I set them straight. Smart people do make stupid mistakes because we’re all human. This is their first inkling that I (their teacher) am actually human. I then proceed to explain that smart people (like myself) learn from their mistakes so we can get busy making new ones.
This said, I did something really stupid last Thursday when my class celebrated Valentine’s Day. No sooner had my students walked in the classroom than I was deluged with chocolates and cards. One girl handed me a single red rose. It was wrapped tightly in plastic with lipstick kisses printed on it and secured at the bottom with a tiny gold-colored cone that looked like the tip off of cupid’s arrow. My first thought was, “I better get this rose in some water.” Never mind that I don’t have bud vase. I would commandeer some kid’s water bottle.
I tried to pull the rose out of its golden cone, but it was secured tightly. So I got my big TEACHER scissors and proceeded to cut this annoying gold thing off so I could remove the plastic. Once the rose was laid bare on my desk, I couldn’t help but wonder what that shiny silver circle was glued to a leaf. That tore off easily enough, but then there was that glue on the leaves. That’s when I noticed some pesky wires that I’d severed when I cut off the cone. I took a closer look and realized the rose was fake.
Now, there were two explanations: 1) The rose was actually a high-tech explosive device and I’d successfully disarmed it, and in doing so saved the lives of my entire class (making me the hero), or 2) The wires that I’d severed had another, less sinister purpose. I traced the wires and found they led to a small bulb hidden in the center of the rose. Damn! So the answer was 2 (making me the goat). We hadn’t been in class ten minutes and I’d already trashed one of my gifts. I decided to come clean.
I called the girl over to my desk and explained how when I saw how beautiful the rose was, I was compelled to cut off the plastic so I could put it in water, and it was only then I realized it was a “special” rose. My face was a red as the rose, but here’s how I saved my very red face. I told my student that now I could slip the rose through the button hole in my jacket and wear it as a corsage. I demonstrated and she seemed pleased. I bundled up all the wires inside my jacket so I didn’t look like a suicide bomber, but throughout the day I looked down to see them dangling. Oops.
I asked my student if she knew that the rose was “special” when she gave it to me. She nodded. Yeah, that figures. It was unusually hot last Thursday, but I never took off my jacket. I wanted my student to remember how much I loved my “special” rose corsage.
Fortune Has Arrived January 26, 2009Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Personal, Politics.
Tags: Barack Obama, Breast Cancer, Chinese New Year, Fortune Arrives, Hard Times, Hope, Mastectomy, Positive Thinking, Teaching, Third Grade, Year of the Ox
The mother of one of my students, who’s Chinese, came in Friday to talk to students about Chinese New Year. I love the color red so I was already sold on the holiday. Several years ago I didn’t have time to send out Christmas cards but saved face by sending Chinese New Year’s cards instead. She read stories and brought beautiful Chinese dolls and a gorgeous woman warrior puppet wielding a sword, “A woman can be a warrior,” I informed the skeptical boys (brandishing my own verbal sword).
She explained how it was important to clean everything to prepare for the luck and good fortune that a new year brings. (It’s the Year of the Ox, in case you didn’t know.) All of my “Dragons” cleaned the entire classroom along with two students who were born in the Year of the Rabbit. Because they were born at the end of the year, we learned they are officially “Rabbit Tails.”
I was also given the character fu above which means good fortune in a general sense – wealthy, happiness, success (a green card?). The character is to be hung upside down. (Like I would know the difference!) When turned upside down, the character creates an auspicious phrase (Chinese for pun) Fu dao le that rhymes with the character for “arrives” or “comes.” So you’re expressing your wish that fortune be directed to wherever the upside down character is found. That’s why you’ll find the upside down character throughout the year and why not? Everyone needs good fortune heading their way. When good fortune comes, you turn the character right side up to signal its arrival.
I love symbols or maybe it’s the ritual, as so much of modern life has been stripped of ritual (other than the ritualistic stop at Starbucks). It seems to me that just about everyone I know could use some good fortune, including our new president, Barack Obama. Boy, does he have a big mess to clean up, and I think he’s going to need some help from the likes of you and me. Just to be on the safe side, Obama needs to hang up a really big upside down fu above the steps to our nation’s Capitol.
There are lots of people I know and love who could use some good luck. They cling to Hope while they await its arrival. I’m thinking tonight of my sister-in-law Jane (“Janer”). At 47, she’s already survived two marriages, one to a narcissist. She has nine children (eight still at home) and learned just last month that she has breast cancer. Tomorrow she’s having a double mastectomy. I know she’s scared, but chooses to focus on the positive (“I’m getting a tummy tuck and they’re going to use all that extra skin for reconstructive surgery.”) Know this. A woman can be a warrior.
Thinking of England December 30, 2008Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Travel.
Tags: Christmas Ornaments, England, English Pubs, Framlingham, Humor, Internet Friends, New Year's Eve, Suffolk, Travel
I was done writing cloying holiday posts, but then my friend Nora sent me this Christmas ornament. It arrived in a big box delivered on Christmas morning and was handed to me by an exceptionally cheery guy from Fedex, who smelled of pine and overtime.
Alas, I tried to pry the little suitcase open, hoping to find a miniature raincoat and Wellies, but no luck. It did remind me though of what a difference a year makes. Last year at this time we’d just arrived in England so I could finally meet Lesley, the friend I’d met via the internet only months earlier. Yes, it was all crazy, but some things in life are meant to be. I made up a cover story so my parents wouldn’t worry – something about visiting people we’d met in California.
I didn’t even know Lesley’s real name and actual address til the week before we left. At one point I emailed her and asked if she wasn’t concerned that we might be serial killers and she could end up in a shallow grave, what with us being Americans and all. Lesley was nonplussed. She informed me her brother was a police detective in Ipswich, so we’d never get away with it.
When we staggered off the plane at Heathrow, there was Lesley and her husband, Ian, waiting. We fortified ourselves with coffee (Yes!) and then made the two-hour drive back to Framlingham in Suffolk. All bodies were accounted for.
England was a dream. Cold and grey, but after the relentless California sunshine, England seemed so utterly – English! We toured the local castle, queued up for fish and chips in Aldeburgh, and trapsed the cobblestone streets of Cambridge. We spent the most memorable New Year’s Eve ever at a posh hotel outside London as their guests. A piper escorted us into a magical wonderland where we sat at a table awash with glitter and crystal. There was unlimited champagne and the revelers sang every rousing verse of “Rule Brittannia” and “Oh Jerusalem” while balloons whooshed overhead like incoming missles.
I figured this was how the English celebrate, what with the waving of the Union Jack and the English flag of St. George until Lesley disabused me of this notion. She looked almost aghast and confided this was all rather over the top – downright Las Vegas-y. (said with a wrinkle of the nose). Oh. How ironic that the first song everyone danced to was “La Bamba.” Pacoima posh.
But the soundtrack for our visit was Amy Winehouse’s CD, which greeted us each morning after Lesley yelled, “Get up, you lazy bastards!” That’s what you call the Queen’s English, I believe. I was surprised that the grass was green in January and most of the houses had red tile roofs mottled with moss, while others were thatched. Indian restaurants were “curry houses” and “bits and pieces” is English for what we call leftovers or odds and ends. Following this logic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was made from bits and pieces.
But this is the memory I hold dearest. We’d all agreed to eat a late dinner, so while everyone else took a nap, Lesley and I stole away in the dark. Not only was it cold, it was spitting rain. We followed a winding route along a path marked “Lover’s Lane,” which led over a hill. I lost my sense of direction and imagined being adrift out on the moors, even though there were no moors, and we could see the lights of nearby houses. We were taking the back way to Lesley’s favorite pub, The Station, once actually the village train station.
Never could I have imagined how welcoming a English pub could be on a cold winter’s night. A three-foot wide cloud of mistletoe floated in front of the bar. (The bartender, Gareth, is also an arborist.) It was still early and not yet crowded. Lesley asked if we could sit in the “snug,” a small room behind the main pub and off the kitchen. A party had reserved the room, but they weren’t due for an hour so we got the okay.
The snug was aptly named. There was a crackling fire and it was just big enough for two long farmhouse tables which had been set for dinner. It looked like a medieval feast was in the offing. Lesley and I sat at one end of the table and she ordered a bottle of red wine. You could hear the clanking of pots in the kitchen and the pop of the fire. Aside from a plastic child’s highchair folded up in the corner, it probably looked the same as it did a hundred some years ago. (Okay, white Christmas lights outlined the windows.) As we sat there sharing a bottle of wine by candlelight, this is what went through my mind: I can’t believe I’m sitting here in this magical place with this amazing person I met on the internet! I must take in every detail and commit it to memory because this is the one of the most amazing nights of my life!
We talked and drank, and talked some more. When we’d finished the bottle, we bid farewell to Gareth, and walked back home to join the others. It is this memory that warms my heart when I’m thinking of England.
Santa Sees Red December 23, 2008Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays.
Tags: Christmas Cards, Humor, Is Santa Claus Real?, Letter from Santa, Telling Children the Truth about Santa
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I should have known that my “I, Santa Claus” post, in which I revealed how I’d told my son the TRUTH about Santa, would meet with disbelief. Yesterday, Santa himself responded with a letter to my now 22-year-old son, Ian. The envelope was red; the writing in silver script. It’s not every day you receive a letter with The North Pole as the return address.
I couldn’t help but notice that Santa’s letter had been postmarked in Chicago. I always figured Santa for a Midwesterner, what with his weight issues and all. But our friend Nora also lives in Chicago, and I know she divides her time between acting and elving. Coincidence?
I delivered the envelope to Ian, who was lying in bed, waylaid by the flu. When he ripped it open, silver snowflakes cascaded onto his bed. He said something Santa wouldn’t approve of.
“What does it say?” I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer. Ian read aloud, “Ian, Your parents are commies – I have ALWAYS existed!” (Oh, SO Nora!)
Ian opened the card. Both Santa and Nora had signed it, along with the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.
Ian looked confused. “I don’t get it. What are commies?” he asked earnestly. I thought about giving him one of my “teacher” explanations, but decided to go easy on him. It got me to thinking though. If I hadn’t told my son the TRUTH, he might still be a believer.
California Christmas December 14, 2008Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Travel.
Tags: California, Christmas in California, Christmas Traditions, Family, Feliz Navidad, Humor, Life, Mexico, Travel
I couldn’t imagine a Christmas without snow. So for the first two years I lived in California, I dutifully flew home to spend the holidays with my family in Nebraska. This was a spiritual pilgrimage as well, as I did learn there really is such a thing as Purgatory – it’s being stranded indefinitely at the Denver Airport waiting for the weather “to clear.”
My husband, Richard, is from Idaho so even after we got married we alternated flying back and forth between these two exotic snow-covered destinations at Christmas. But at some point, traveling with two small children over the holidays got to be too much. It was time to establish our own holiday traditions – but a Christmas without snow?
Can you say Feliz Navidad? While everyone was talking North Pole, I found my answer to a Christmas without snow South of the Border. When we lived in New York, one year we flew to Mexico the day after Christmas. We stayed in Zihuantanejo, a small fishing village on the Pacific Coast. This is what I remember. As we rode in a taxi with no seat belts to our hotel, a huge pig sauntered across the road. I turned to my husband and said, “This isn’t a developing country – this is the Third World!) When we arrived at our hotel shortly after 8 a.m., the manager, Pepe, had two icy Coronas in our hands before our luggage hit the ground.
Not only was Mexico warm and sunny, but it was (dare I say it?) so Christmasy! There were Christmas trees at all the hotels and restaurants decorated with tin and straw ornaments and elaborate nativity scenes nestled in piles of Spanish moss. It was gorgeous, colorful, and the atmosphere was festive. Think about it. Margaritas are green and hot sauce is red. My sons got to break open a red and white star pinata and the kids were excited to get a piece of candy and an orange!
When we moved back to California it was a done deal. Adapt or perish. Tradition is tradition, but we chose to embrace new traditions. Last week we put up the tree. It’s a real one as I love that fresh pine smell (not the pine scent you spray around the house). Our tree is festooned with Mexican tin ornaments and colorful woven spirals and straw angels. (Which also makes it earthquake friendly!) There’s only one ornament on the tree that’s breakable. It’s a clay angel bell we bought the first year we were married at the gift shop outside Mijares, a local Mexican restaurant that’s still in business. The angel dangles from the top branch of the tree as a reminder of just how fragile life can be.
The stockings are hung from the chimney. And yes, when the temperature dips to 45 degrees in Los Angeles, it really feels like it’s freezing. (Who forgot to add insulation to the houses here?) Our pig, Maisie, loves to lay in front of the fireplace so I guess we really have gone Third World.
So if you drop by our house on Christmas Eve, prepare to enjoy tamales and Mexican hot chocolate. With Global Warming, I just wanted to give everyone a heads up as to what could be in store. In the meantime, Feliz Navidad!
I, Santa Claus December 7, 2008Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Parenting.
Tags: Christmas, Christmas in New York, Family, Humor, Is Santa Claus Real?, Life, Parenting, Santa Claus, Telling Children the Truth about Santa Claus
My son, Ian, was in the third grade when I, Santa Claus, was exposed. Only weeks after Christmas, Ian approached me with a bewildered expression on his face, clutching a piece of paper. “Why do you have all my letters to Santa Claus?” he asked point blank. Oh s**t! He’d found our cache of letters the boys had written to the big jolly man.
The frozen look on my face said it all. “You’re Santa Claus?” Ian asked incredulously. (Yeah, like I couldn’t eat a plate full of cookies.) “I…I…I am,” I stammered, and my son burst into tears. Before I could begin to explain how this ruse worked, I saw my confession’s stunning ripple effect. Still wailing, Ian choked out, “And the Easter Bunny?” I nodded. More tears. “And what about the Tooth Fairy?” At this point I was so busted that I merely hung my head. Ian locked himself in his room and a tsunami of tears followed. What my son didn’t see were my tears.
You have to understand. As a child I loved Santa Claus. Just at that age (third grade), when everyone else was muttering something about Santa being your parents, I received a pair of roller skates from Santa that were the wrong size. This was proof that Santa WAS real. My parents would have known what size to buy me. But with so many children in the world, I could forgive Santa for not knowing my exact size. This mistake bought me (and my parents) another year of me being a “believer.” To be honest, I don’t even remember when I finally figured out Santa was my parents, or if we even talked about it. Maybe it was so traumatic, I’ve supressed the memory. But I tend to think I finally realized that it was a bit of a stretch that some jolly fat guy could deliver gifts all around the world without routing them all through Memphis.
When our first son, Taylor, was born, we were eager go play Santa. It’s the role of a lifetime and we played it to the max. We were living in New York City and the city is magical at Christmas. One year friends invited us to their block association’s “Visit from Santa” event at a small park in Chelsea. It was freezing and we huddled together stomping our feet to try and stay warm while awaiting Santa’s arrival.
All of a sudden we heard a jolly, “Ho ho ho!” We looked up and there on the rooftop of a three-story brownstone, illuminated against a starry sky, stood Santa waving! I got goosebumps. I was five years old again. I was a Believer! Moments later, Santa emerged from the front door of the brownstone with his bag slung over his shoulder. He passed out advent calendars filled with chocolates before disappearing into a waiting Cadillac. It was only later, I found out that Santa was actually a Jewish guy named Morty. Morty was so overjoyed that he’d married off his last daughter, he asked if he could play Santa that year. That’s what I love about New York.
When Ian was born the next year, his big brother Taylor was only too happy to fill him in on Santa’s penchant for cookies and his elusive nature.
On Christmas Eve, the boys would write their letters to Santa. When they finally drifted off to sleep, we went to work. I snarfed the cookies then wrote a letter from Santa on parchment paper with a calligraphy pen. I even burned the edges so it looked like something out of a storybook. Before Richard and I went to bed, we pulled out the fireplace screen just a tad and made big sooty footprints over to where the cookies had been. It was a crime scene worthy of CSI.
One year the stockings looked so adorable hanging above the fireplace that Richard took a Polaroid. The mirror hanging over the fireplace reflected the flash and the image blurred. It actually looked like a being of light was moving toward the fireplace. In the morning we excitedly told the boys how we’d heard a noise and rushed out to the living room just in time to snap a picture of Santa. Taylor was determined to contact the National Enquirer because he knew they’d pay lots of money for a “real” picture of Santa. “Finally,” he announced. “We have proof!”
Taylor figured out the Santa thing by the fourth grade. We were living outside Seattle by then and he seemed nonplussed. He said it explained why Santa always gave gifts out of the Hearthsong catalog. That year Taylor helped set up the stocking for Ian and enjoyed watching his little brother delight in seeing what Santa had brought on Christmas morning. After we moved back to LA, Taylor continued to play along. Wink, wink.
So Ian’s heartfelt tears were like a knife to my heart. This wasn’t how I’d imagined it. But how much of life isn’t? So what did we do to help our traumatized son deal with the TRUTH. Taylor finally lured Ian out of his room and we all went to see a movie – a violent movie. All I remember is it was rated R and there was lots of shooting, which as we all know, Santa wouldn’t approve of. Ian walked out of the theater and the storm had passed.
Ian is now 22 and loves to retell the story about finding Santa’s letters. The funny thing is his favorite thing about Christmas is still coming out to see what Santa has left in his stocking. (We tried to phase the stocking out when he was 17, but he wouldn’t hear of it). So I told Ian if I, Santa, still have to fill a stocking then he has to write “Santa” a letter. So Ian writes a letter giving me (I mean Santa) an update on his college grades, and I, Santa write a letter back, but don’t bother to burn the edges. And I still get to eat the cookies!
Falling Down the Rabbit Hole November 16, 2008Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Life, Teaching.
Tags: English Language Learners, Holidays, Humor, Life, No Child Left Behind, Teaching, Thanksgiving, Time Management
During the school year, those nearest and dearest to me know that I disappear down the rabbit hole. I have the best of intentions – but isn’t that what the Road to Hell is paved with? Between pushing all that paperwork around (without the benefit of a forklift) and being on-call to perform brain surgery daily (and according to NCLB, isn’t that what teachers are expected to do?), sometimes I’m hard pressed to know what day it is.
As a result, members of my family have abandoned all hope of receiving birthday cards. I don’t know how much a stamp costs anymore. My parents don’t count e-cards as real cards so I’ve been known to call them and have my entire class of third graders shout, “Happy Birthday!” And my parents, who are increasingly hard of hearing, have been known to hang up thinking it’s a prank call. Hey, I tried.
November is the worst month, what with the first report cards due and Parent/Teacher Conferences to schedule (and reschedule) and Thanksgiving. Every year I have my students write a paragraph about what they know about Thanksgiving. Some don’t get past the date. You have to understand that many of my students are not native born and Thanksgiving is an exotic concept when you’re from Korea, Pakistan or Bosnia. Most kids write a grocery list; turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Last year one student wrote that Thanksgiving had something to do with Indians hunting buffalo wings.
But by Thanksgiving break, my students will be on a first name basis with Squanto and know that three women/girls did all that cooking for the first Thanksgiving, while the men played games. (No snide aside here as my husband does most of the cooking).
Next week my students will take home an adorable turkey made from a tie-dyed coffee filter. They’ll know what a “wattle” is and have written a paragraph about all of the things they’re grateful for that’s stapled to the back. And what about me? The day before Thanksgiving I have my last Parent/Teacher conference scheduled. As I drive home, I can finally start calculating how big a turkey I need to buy. Long lines and over-sized turkeys await. But I’m thankful that my students now know why THEY should be thankful.
December gets worser (Sorry, I slipped into 3rd grade mode when they’re still figuring out those slippery superlatives). As I read about winter festivals throughout the world, my students crank out adorable holiday crafts. Late at night, you’ll find me on-line ordering gifts to be delivered to my family in the Midwest. I do put some thought into this. Should I pay an extra $4 for a computer generated gift card? It’s a far cry from the day when I handmade gifts or at least bought them with my own two hands and packed them. At some point, the ritual of shuffling my gifts along with my feet in the line at UPS lost its allure. So while my students’ parents are oohing and ahhing (or so I’d like to think) as they unwrap those handmade treasures, my own family will have to settle for something that I personally added “to the basket.”
So don’t wait by your mailbox and expect anything from me. From September till the end of June, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.
Halloween for Queen Porcine October 7, 2008Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Pets.
Tags: Halloween, Life, Pets, Pigs, Trick-or-Treating
Never fail, the first trick-or-treaters arrive while we’re still eating dinner. Our dogs bark wildly and have to be herded into the den. They’re convinced each time the doorbell rings, it’s just the mailman wearing a different disguise. But our pig, Maisie, springs to her feet (okay, technically they’re hooves) and actually trots over to the front door. She’s been waiting for this night all year. For Maisie, Halloween is tantamount to a walk down the red carpet on Oscar night. The pig paparazzi – dads with video cameras – vie for the best angle to capture a shot of their little princess/Transformer with a REAL pig.
Did I mention that this real pig is wearing an orange witch’s hat with a purple moon and stars on it? Yes, I’ve become one of THOSE people. People who dress their pets in costumes. The minute I strap on her hat, Maisie knows it’s show time. This will be her 12th year greeting trick-or-treaters.
You should know that our neighborhood is a throw back to times gone by, so come Halloween, busloads of extended families arrive from the Other Side of the freeway (aka barrio). Three generations holding outstretched pillow cases. There is always an adult who holds one out while motioning that it’s for the baby, who’s all of two weeks old. Yeah, right.
The first year, we had over 300 trick-or-treaters descend on our house. They chewed through the candy like a swarm of locusts in a field of spring corn. Since then, I’ve beefed up the inventory and I’ve developed a smooth slight of hand move so I can drop a lone jawbreaker into a plastic pail in such a way, that they actually think I gave them an entire handful of candy!
The first Halloween we had Maisie, she stood out on the front porch “in costume.” People walking by would suddenly stop. “What IS that?” they’d ask. We enjoyed telling people it was a dog in a pig costume. “Good costume, huh?” we’d say, relishing their confused reaction. They’d edge closer. ” Holy sh*t!”
For 11 years people have returned each Halloween asking, “Is this the house with the pig?” Maisie’s got the routine down. All I have to do is say, “Trick or Treat!” and she ambles (when you’re as big as Maisie, ambling is your peak speed) out onto the front porch, makes a very wide U-turn, plops down, and then opens her mouth. She looks like those oh-so-cute dolphins waiting to be rewarded with a fish. Maisie, though, is happy to feast on miniature Tootsie-Rolls or Now and Laters, paper and all. She hasn’t met a candy yet that she doesn’t love. Halloween means lots of photo ops and photo ops mean lots of treats. Pigs are smart – diabolically so – and this pig knows how to work a crowd.
One year it was growing late and it was obvious the trick-or-treaters had moved two blocks south to where the houses are bigger and people pass out full-sized brand name candy. Maisie had called it a night and retired to the den.
The doorbell rang and I was tempted not to answer, but I looked outside and saw a father and his little boy. I opened the door. “My little boy really just wanted to see the pig,” the father explained. When I told them Maisie was asleep, they both looked heartbroken. Sucker that I am, I offered to usher the little boy back to the den, so he could take a quick peek at the pig. His father nodded approvingly.
But when I opened the den door, there was our fox terrier, Wily, wildly humping Maisie, who was laying sound asleep with a big grin on her face. The little boy’s eyes grew large as I mumbled something about them “playing.” I grabbed the boy’s hand and took him back to his father. “Did you see the pig?” his dad asked. I didn’t wait for the kid to answer. I dumped all the remaining candy in his bucket and cheerily waved them off. “Happy Halloween!” Once they’d stepped off the front porch, I quickly locked the front door and turned off all the lights. Only then did I burst out laughing. Geez!
Last weekend, I lugged down the box of Halloween decorations and unpacked the plug-in foam jack-o-lantern that we set next to the front door. Maisie’s ears twitched and she stuck her nose into the air and snorted. She knows it won’t be long now. Halloween is in the air. She can almost smell the Tootsie Rolls.