Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Santa Stalker

I'm running out of time.

Christmas is in 3 days, and then he'll be gone.

The jolly fat man, my holiday muse and favorite myth, Santa Claus.

I love Santa. I always have. It got a little weird and out of control once my dad started to look like Santa. Now that I live on the opposite coast from my dad, Santa has become kind of a substitute, a doppelganger if you will. The Santa at the Glendale Galleria is a singing Santa, like my dad. So I love to go and see him and... well... just see him, I guess.

Every Christmas season I steal as many moments in Santa's presence as I can. I love to go down to the mall and just stand there, watching him with the little kids. I could probably spend a whole afternoon there, if I had a whole afternoon during Christmas where my presence was not absolutely required somewhere else. But even a few moments are enough to fill me up for a while.

It's the kids, of course. Mine are just barely too big to sit on his lap anymore. (I told Emma and Claire I'd give them a dollar if they'd get a Santa picture this year and initially they said yes, but once we got there they backed out on me.) The optimal kid age for Santa is up to about 5, I'd say. After that, they're just there for the candy cane or stickers or whatever.

Here comes a family with three kids. Big brother is 6, he's a pro, sits in the middle just smiling at the camera. Santa is just a lap for him. Little sister is 3, maybe 4. She is enthralled. Baby brother, age 1, perches on the right knee and Santa holds him up and as soon as Mom steps away from him he starts to cry, slowly, his face going from a little scared to contorted with fear... click!

Captured in time.

For the most part, from my observations, the 2 to 3 year olds don't like him. No they do not. They are either terrified, in shock, or outright enraged. "Mom!" their eyes say as the camera flashes, "Mom! How could you do this to me? I trusted you! And you gave me to this big hairy stranger!" Ah, that's a look to treasure. I have a couple of those pictures, myself. Crying gently or screwing their eyes up and screaming. Not happy. Those kids are fun to watch.

But the best are the little ones who stare in wonder. Jackpot! That's what I came for. Tiny little girls in fancy velvet dresses wearing white tights with lace on the butt, little boys with their hair slicked back for the photo, set gently on Santa's lap to gaze up at him with wide, trusting eyes. You can tell that's what he took the job for.

A little hand touches the beard (it's real) and I start to tear up. Okay, why? Why do I do this?

Santa has made me a voyeur. I'm spying on the small moments of another family's Christmas, because my own family is so far away. Every child I watch - maybe -  is me, or my brothers, or my baby sister. And every Santa is my daddy.

Aw jeez. Really? Santa is a father fixation? I had way too many psych classes in college. Can't I just, I don't know, enjoy the little kids, the innocence, the joy? Does it have to be so deep?

No, it doesn't, although thinking about it that way makes it even more special for me. So I watch the kids on Santa's lap, remembering all of us sitting on daddy's lap at Christmas time and it makes me feel happy. So sue me.

Oh, and Merry Christmas, Dad.

Here's me and Santa during his down time. He was available to walk me 
down the aisle at my wedding to Dan on August 5, 2007. Looking good, Santa.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Christmas Is All About

My husband works for a pretty awesome company. Panda Restaurant Group does a lot of charitable work, both locally and throughout the country. They are big fans of Stephen R. Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", and have monthly seminars to encourage the personal growth of their employees.

Covey has a "Seven Habits" program targeted at children. Without going into details (because there are lots of details), kids learn self-esteem and empowerment skills to lay a foundation for success in school and later in the real world. Panda has sponsored this program in a number of inner-city schools, and on Thursday, December 10th, they held a Christmas party for the neediest kids from these schools.

Dan was Santa last year. (I found it a little amusing that a disaffected agnostic Jew was playing Santa... but I digress.) He's a jolly fellow most of the time and therefore eminently qualified for the job. As the party approached, Dan asked me if I would be his Mrs. Claus.

Now, if any of you know me, you may know that my dad is, in fact, Santa. By that I mean he plays one at Christmas. He's a stout fellow with a booming voice and a real white beard, the friendliest Santa you'd ever want to meet. My mom, in the past few years, has been his Mrs. at some of his appearances. With her glasses and silver-streaked hair, she is his perfect foil (as she has been for forty-eight years now). So the irony was not lost on me. I could not think of one earthly reason to say no.

Someone rustled up an elaborate Mrs. Claus costume for me, a long red velvet gown with faux-fur trim. I bought a wig at Party City and headed off for my debut.

Panda's huge dining and events room was packed with round banquet tables, full of elementary school kids and their teachers. A group of enthusiastic employees led them in a holiday singalong, and then it was our big moment. Dan -- I mean, Santa -- and I entered the room waving and smiling, saying hello to as many children as possible on our way to the stage.

Dan did his Santa bit, congratulating the kids on their Seven Habits work. Then he said, "I need some help bringing my helpers in!" and led them in a cheer, ending in Abracadabra, and the doors opened.

A group of Panda employees had each sponsored one child, and they streamed in with all the gifts as boisterous holiday music played. Some wheeled in shiny new bikes adorned with giant bows, and that's when I choked up a little.

Dan explained that the teachers and faculty in these schools had identified the neediest kids, and for many of them, this was going to be their only Christmas gift.

You know, I think I'm usually a pretty good writer, but I can't fully explain what I felt at that moment. I thought the kids would be jumping up and down and screaming with joy. Instead, as I walked through the room with my Santa, I realized that these kids were just stunned. I'm sure they had never been to a party like this, in an immense building with a waterfall inside, a 15-foot-tall Christmas tree in the lobby, and all the Orange Chicken they could eat. They opened their gifts with their mouths hanging open, slowly, as if it wasn't really happening.

One lovely little thing held onto a new bike and pushed it slowly past the crowd, all the time gazing at us with her huge brown eyes. She wasn't even smiling; her expression was more a kind of amazed disbelief. I was spellbound.

I bent down to speak to her. "Do you like your bike?"

All she could do was nod. I said, "You've been a very good girl this year."

And then she smiled the most beautiful smile I've ever seen.

I'm going to try not to think about what kind of life she returned to. I'm going to hope that she has enough to eat and that her parents are kind to her. I'm going to pray that, in spite of her tender age, she will remember the seventh habit, "sharpening the saw": preserving and enhancing the greatest asset she has - herself.

I'm going to remember this sweet, nameless little girl all my days, and I'm definitely coming back as Mrs. Claus for as long as they want me. It was my best present ever.

The Clauses pose with Dan's co-worker, Glenn. Nice square pillow, Santa.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A New Addition to the "What to Expect" Genre

(Now that I’m an “experienced” mom, I feel qualified to fill in a few gaping holes in the “What to Expect” genre. Call it “What to Expect When The Glow Wears Off”. This is part of an essay in progress and I thought it would be fun to share. Feel free to add your own experiences in the comments section.)

1. You will have to cook. A lot.

Oh, how I loved breastfeeding my babies. The problem came when they started to demand actual food. See, I’m not much of a cook. I had my first child at 34; prior to that, I’d spent my adult life in a completely narcissistic world where I ate out or ordered in all the time. The fact that I worked in restaurants for years only reinforced my opinion that cooking was something somebody else did.

Today I find myself feeding three small kids three times a day, and I can honestly say that I just hate it. They are picky eaters, which is weird, since I have a really limited menu available to them anyway. I do all the kid standards: mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, spaghetti and meatballs, etc. My kids will eat exactly five vegetables: green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, peas and corn. I should really just write everything I can cook on a list and number it and rotate the meals. “Okay kids, we’re having number 12 tonight.” “Oh man, we just had number 12! Can’t we have 8 instead?” “Sorry guys, I don’t have any 8 left. Maybe tomorrow.”

2. You have to clean stuff. A lot.

Re previous comment: You cook, you also have to clean up the dishes. And the spills. And the crumbs. And the shit they throw on the floor when they’re little and the shit they throw at each other when they’re older. My advice: get a dog. That will at least take care of the floor.

You will have to clean truly gross stuff. It starts with the diapers, and goes downhill from there. Just wait until your 5-year-old eats a big ol' slice of NASCAR-themed birthday cake (black icing on the wheels) and washes it down with lemonade. You will be amazed at the color of the projectile vomit that hits your walls later that day. Oh yeah: don’t let the dog clean that one up, or you'll hurl too.

You will do laundry. Your second child will triple your laundry. Your third child will increase your laundry tenfold. If you have more than three, it will no longer matter, because just the word “laundry” will send you into a catatonic state until you wake up and find yourself folding the last little t-shirt and placing it atop a teetering pile of children’s clothes.

If you ask your husband to help you fold the children’s clothes he will look at you as if his ears just fell off.

You will endlessly wash your children. The first nervous sponge baths, gingerly cleaning around the umbilical cord with an alcohol-soaked q-tip, will become a distant memory in 5 or 6 years, when you are wrestling your rainbow-hued kindergartner into the tub after she learns the word “tattoo” and decides to go all Kat Von D on herself with her (washable? I think not) Crayola markers. I have, as of this Mother’s Day, been bathing children for 12 years, and I can tell you it’s getting old. I have been known to smell their heads to determine whether or not an actual bath is called for, or if we can just grab a couple of diaper-wipes and call it even.

3. Your children will hurt you.

And I don’t mean your feelings. You will be injured by the little darlings. The aches and pains of pregnancy, the agony of labor, even the first chomp on your nipple by your angelic teething nursing baby are just a warmup.

You will be poked sharply in the eye by the deadly index finger of a toddler having a meltdown. Your six-year-old’s enormous forehead will connect violently with your orbital bone during a tickling match gone horribly wrong, resulting in the kind of shiner that will make folks wonder if they should have the cops come by your house. Your son will swing his plastic sword (“I said, no weapons in the house! Ever!”) at his sister, but will instead connect with your shinbone as you walk by, resulting in a bright purple egg that takes weeks to fade. The little one will tip over while standing on a dining room chair (“I said, sit in your chair! Now!”) but luckily you will be standing there to break the fall; the impact of said chair against quadricep muscle will then result in a deep thick painful bruise.

They will be very sorry, of course. Their little faces will scrunch up in sorrow and then terror when they hear you scream some very adult expressions of pain. And that’s when you have to suck it up and apologize and tell them, “it’s okay honey, mommy’s just got an owie” when what you really want to do is cry. (Special note: it scares your kids when you cry.)

4. You will wonder what the hell you were thinking.

One day, before you know it, your sweet baby boy will be twelve years old and smell like teen spirit. He will go to a friend’s house for a sleepover and the next day the other kid’s mom will call to let you know that the two of them were caught looking at inappropriate videos on YouTube. When you ask him about it he will give you the eye roll and say “geez, mom. Are you gonna give me ‘the talk’ now?” and slam his door in your face.

And you will wonder what the hell you were thinking.

And your friends will be no help at all, saying things like, “oh just wait till it’s your girls”.

5. And finally: You will be blown away, pretty much daily, by how much you love them.

Okay, so maybe this one’s been covered in the other books. Really, everyone knows that’s why you do it in the first place: because (ideally, anyway) you and your spouse have so much love, you want to share it with kids of your own. But the utter ferociousness of that love will, every now and then, just clock you upside your head.

It will happen when you least expect it. When you tiptoe in to watch your little girl sleeping like an angel, a mere hour after she threw herself screaming on the floor because she didn’t want to go to bed. When you have read Green Eggs and Ham for the 73rd time and you realize that he knows the words by heart and is “reading” along with you. When you are up to your elbows in dirty dishes and she brings you a dandelion, offering it with the biggest grin ever, saying “it’s as pretty as you are”! When you watch your preschooler “graduate”, and your heart swells up as he walks by in his cardboard cap with the yarn tassel, and to your amazement you burst into tears.

And yes, when you hold your crying 5-year-old after he has spewed black icing and lemonade on the wall, because he is scared and sick and only mommy – no one else – can help him feel better.

My sweet baby boy, about 12 years ago. You can't see the dog in this picture, but he's there.