Saturday, November 20, 2010


It seems my entire family is a little short on cash these days making the holidays more worry than wonder. Gone are the days, at least temporarily, when Christmas Eve meant a room so packed with gifts the ritual of opening them would run well into the wee hours of Christmas day. Holidays were always my mom’s domain, the goal that propelled her through the year. She taught us well in the principle it is just as good to receive, as it is to give. Our personal Santa had the mysterious ability to find the exact time we tiny children were out of the house so he could fill the holiday decorated living room with packages that reached well beyond our eight-year-old shoulders. My mom would begin the planning
(and the purchasing) of the following year’s gift parade on December 26th, not leaving a minute wasted as she boarded her buying sleigh for the next twelve months. She’d make lists of who was getting what, always making sure that everyone had the same amount of wrapped items tallied within her ruled spiral notebooks. If money was running short, it was off to the blood bank to donate a pint and pick up a few more bucks to buy what she knew we absolutely needed. Alzheimer has taken time out of the equation for her. She can no longer measure the three hundred and sixty-five days between Christmas’ and she has long ago put away her spiral notebooks, so it is up to us to carry on for her.
Our traditions are no longer about quantity but about the importance of family and who can make the rest of us laugh so hard the tears run down our cheeks or the pee leaks onto our seats. Here’s how we’re doing it this year:
Long ago my mom made patchwork stockings for all of us. We’ve managed to keep them and hang them on the mantle or along the staircase every year. Most them have our names embroidered on them but as relationships have changed we’ve had to go with pinned on index cards to accommodate the yearly newcomers. In deference to the economy we’ve each been given three names we’re responsible for letting our imaginations go wild devising the perfect gift for ten dollars or under. After the stockings have been opened there’s a small intermission for dessert before the real holiday giving begins.
Here’s where we’ve instigated the anonymous gift wars known as dumpster diving. Everyone brings a wrapped gift that they either found on the street or scooped up for less than a saw buck. All the gifts are placed in the center of the room with all of us sitting in a circle eyeing the packages anticipating which are really good gifts and which are, well, not so good. We pass a hat filled with numbers. Each person draws a number assigning him or her a position in the gift selection queue. Whoever draws number one gets to select the first mystery package and either delicately or ravenously unwrap their chosen treasure. They get to hold on to the gift of their choice until it’s number two’s turn. Lucky number two makes his selection, unwraps his gift and then decides if he likes it or not. If he decides what number one got was better than what he picked he can switch with number one and hold on to the better gift until it’s number three’s turn. Now number three and all subsequent drawers have the opportunity of surveying the field after their pick and decide if they want to swap with anyone that preceded them. The exchange goes on until everyone has picked a gift and then lucky number one gets one more chance to evaluate the plethora of bounty and make the final selection. Last year’s most desired item was the hand decorated Christmas vest complete with a three-dimensional reindeer and little felt mice. The mice were courtesy of my mom’s handiwork from decades ago.
The last exchange of the evening involves bringing all of the things you never wanted and piling them in the middle of the floor, unwrapped. The dice come out and everyone takes turns trying to roll doubles and an opportunity at snatching something off the pile whether you want it or not. The same rule applies with snatching and trading until all the refuse in the middle of the floor has been taken. Some things will make it home, some will get as far as the trash can. Other than real gifts for anyone under the age of consent the point is to laugh and enjoy what the time we have together. That’s something money can’t buy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Yesterday I went to my first circuit training workout. The kind of workout meant for people with more stamina than brains, the kind of workout where your sweat really stinks, the kind of workout that wipes out every worry about your to-do-list because it’s overshadowed by the pain that has seized every sinew in your musculature. This wasn’t just sweating to the oldies. One of my sister, Ebby’s, best friends is a woman slightly younger than I am who managed to survive raising a set of triplets now in their early thirties. Not only did Carla survive the rigors of child raising but where others have resorted to letting motherhood enlarge their cabooses Carla still maintains the body of a woman her daughter’s friends would envy and her son’s friends would hoot at behind his back. It turns out one of their kids is a bean counter by day and a tri-athlete dominatrix by night and weekends. This whole circuit system was Laura’s idea and for some inexplicable reason her bother and her parents have volunteered to be her guinea pigs trainees. Why Ebby got involved with this is still unclear and why I decided to go along, I can’t explain. Maybe it was the thirty-four inch waistband I’ve been forced to invest in, maybe it was my secret desire to apply for Survivor, or maybe I was trying to capture a second shot at my glory days. Take your pick, I’ll admit to any and all of the above.
I should have realized I was way out of my element when getting ready I discovered I didn’t own a pair of sweat pants. Now I do exercise on a semi-regular basis but it’s usually on my mini-Stairmaster in my underwear in the privacy of my bedroom. Only Matt and Merideth are privy to my moaning and groaning. Group workouts were never my thing. I rifled through Rick’s drawers until I found a pair of sweatpants that fit once I loosened the drawstring to its maximum extension. I had just enough room left to tie a single knot hoping it would hold. What I didn’t take into consideration was what I put on underneath the sweats. Living on the poverty line has forced me to give up my Calvins and buy my underwear at Wal-Mart where I can get three pair of China made u-trough for the price of one leg of most name brands. The problem with these non-union mid-length tightie whities is they tend to loose their elasticity after a dozen or so washings. Although, even with the elastic deficiency they tend to stay in place with a snug pair of jeans, but with a pair of loose sweats…not so much. I didn’t understand this until Laura, our tri-athlete task-mistress, barked out our first assignment: a run around the block, a half-mile trip to horror. Laura was kind enough to let us walk up the initial hill and sort of get our swagger going, but then the jog began. I was okay for the first hundred yards but after that I could sense a bit of slippage happening under my sweats. Now this was the first time I had met Carla’s kids so modesty wasn’t going to allow me to stuff my hand down inside my sweats in a nasty attempt to grab my underwear and hook them back up to where they belonged. Besides the knot I had tied was so tight there wasn’t room for my belly and a searching hand and arm as well. By the time I had rounded the next corner I had dropped to last place and my underwear had dropped to knee high. I was a homeboy in disguise, and my pants were quickly approaching the ground. My running had slowed to a waddle as my knees were now locked in 100% cotton bondage. Finally I realized the sweats had pockets and if I stuffed my hands in the pockets I could just reach the top band of my underwear. I was now running knock-kneed and bent over in a ridiculous game of pocket pool. Any attempt at proving age is not a barrier to physical fitness was washed away with the pathetic image of my Quasimoto form limping along the streets on North Madison. All my fellow athletes were kind enough to bow their heads as I made the last breathless turn into the driveway. How I would survive the circuit workout that stood ahead of me was almost more than my embarrassed butt could handle. Next time I’ll remember why god invented jock straps; of course, I don’t own one of those either.