Hiding Christmas presents is a gift

I have perfected the art of hiding Christmas gifts. I can hide them so well that not even I can find them.

GiftsWhen the kids were little, hiding gifts was easy. I could have slung snow shoes around the vacuum cleaner and they would have gone unnoticed for months. Years, maybe.

I once considered hiding gifts in the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink where we keep dishwashing soap, glass cleaner and furniture polish. It would be the last place any of the kids would have looked. Kids, nothing. It was the last place I liked to look.

Laundry baskets and the dishwasher would have been safe stash spots as well. The freezer, however, was off limits. It was their home away from home, fanning the door looking for frozen waffles and Bagel Bites.

I’ve heard of people hiding gifts in trash bags, but it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Now that the kids are grown and have homes of their own, the hiding spots have multiplied exponentially. Closet shelves, dresser drawers, under the beds, obvious spots as well as every nook and cranny are potential hiding spots. The problem is not hiding the gifts; the problem is finding them.

I have a central hiding spot, but sometimes when in a hurry, which is to say most of the time, I have been known to tuck a gift in a spot that is perfectly logical at the time, but makes absolutely no sense later. Finding them becomes a cross between buzzing in on Jeopardy and playing Scattergories.

Bedroom slippers in a drawer with swimming suits: “Seldom worn things for $500, Alex!”

A sketchbook hidden beneath a paper cutter: “Things that start with “P”—paper for drawing, paper for cutting.

The youngest stopped by the other day as I was wrapping a small gift for one of the grandbabies. “How many gifts do you think you’ll forget about this year?” she asked.

It has become a Christmas tradition. We finish our gift exchange, I look around, take inventory and realize something is missing.

The crowd, always helpful, not to mention easily amused, offers suggestions:

“Check the linen closet behind the towels. You hid body wash there once.”

“How about beside your dresser? You always think nobody can see large boxes because there’s a surge suppressor in front of them.”

“Did you look in the utensil drawer? Remember the time—“

Personally, I think it’s nice to run across little treasures during the course of the year. It’s a way of keeping Christmas in your heart, not to mention your closet shelf, in the attic and the garage, all year long.

Real princesses of everyday life

Our oldest granddaughter, who is 4-and-a-half or “close to 5” as she says, lives in an apartment building in a diverse pocket of Chicago within walking distance of Target, a thrift store, the lake shore, subsidized housing projects to the north and grand manses of the early 1900s a few blocks south.

princessThis little girl who lives in the city asked her daddy if princesses were real. “Sort of,” he replied. To which she responded, “Do they live way out in the suburbs?”

Where daddy was vague, Grandma would like to be specific.

Yes, Sweetie, princesses are real. And, yes, they do live way out in the suburbs, but they also live in the city, the country, on both coasts and in all the spaces between. The important thing to know is that there are two kinds of princesses, storybook ones and real ones.

Storybook princesses have perfect hair, beautiful skin, dangerously long eyelashes and blood red lips that never pale. Real princesses have stubborn cowlicks, chocolate on their faces and some, like you, may even be missing a front tooth.

You should also know something a little sad about the storybook princesses. They are often helpless. They tend to mope and cry and throw themselves on chaise lounges a lot. Whether it is due to wearing high heels every day or their disproportionate body shapes cutting blood flow to their brains, they also do peculiar things like agree to cook, clean and keep house for seven short, scruffy miners. When you marry one day, Sweetie, you will learn that cooking and cleaning and keeping house with one man is enough. Some days it is more than enough, but don’t tell Grandpa I said that.

Storybook princesses make for entertaining diversions, but the truth is they have small brains. They can only think about one or two things – how they look and whether a prince might be riding by soon. A real princess has many things to think about—playing dress up, building with blocks, learning to write her letters, going to museums, understanding the stock market and making wonderful things from empty toilet paper tubes. Storybook princesses never make clever things from empty toilet paper tubes, which is a shame, because they are missing out.

Since your daddy claims to be king of his castle, or two-bedroom apartment in this case, that makes your mommy queen of the castle and you, therefore, a princess. A real princess.

A real princess must work hard to develop her mind and character and all her abilities so that she can rule over her kingdom—which in your case would be your two younger brothers, at least until they outsize you.

A real princess doesn’t wait for a stranger on horseback to solve her problems; she solves her problems herself. Real princesses embrace the ups and downs of everyday life. They may not live happily ever after, but they know not to take shiny red apples from strangers or consider a pumpkin acceptable transportation.

Book sales bottom out against boxer shorts

Writers are shameless when it comes to book promotion. The length they will go to is one notch shy of standing curbside with a cardboard sign that says, “Will Work for Book Sales.”

I know such behavior is rampant because I recently engaged in it. I agreed to sell my latest humor book, “My Memory is Shot, All I Retain Now is Water,” at a huge Christmas Gift and Hobby show. This mammoth event ran for five days at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in the large pavilion where 4-H kids show cattle during the fair, which explained the faint parfum de manure that lingered before the crowd arrived.

This Gift and Hobby Show was three parts gifts and hobbies and two parts “As Seen on TV.” Garnering attention for books is impossible when you’re competing with Stick It! (a pet hair removal system) and Pocket Hose, the 50-foot expandable garden hose.

And, please, what vendor can compete with the guy demonstrating the Sham WOW!? He spills pop, mops it up and wrings it out with the cloth that “Works like a sponge! Works like a towel! Holds 20 times its own weight!” The shammy is a crowd pleaser that sings and dances. A book is a wallflower.

There were five of us at a time in the book booth, and we each had a draw. The romance author had beauty, the dog author had a dog, the sports author had an NFL jersey and a big personality, the TV celebrity had his face and I had a bowl full of Hershey’s Kisses.

To heighten the pain, the authors booth was across the aisle from a massive wall of colorful boxer shorts bearing animal characters and what some might consider witty sayings.

When the chocolate kisses weren’t drawing attention, I amped up my game and tried making conversation. People would stroll by and I’d say, “Do you like to read?”

“I don’t read,” came the answer. The first time, I thought it was a fluke. Over and over, hour after hour, “I don’t read. I don’t read. I don’t read.” If the Gift and Hobby show is an accurate barometer, we have an alarming illiteracy rate. And yet, I clearly saw the same people reading the boxer shorts.

A mother, a daughter and a grandmother shuffled by single file.

“Do you like to read?”

“No,” said the mother. “No,” said the daughter. “No,” said the grandmother.

A dislike for reading—the gift that keeps on giving.

I stopped asking people if they liked to read and started asking if they liked to watch television.

Finally, a positive response. It didn’t translate into a lot of book sales, but it was a positive response.

If I ever do another show, I’m dumping a soft drink on my book table, sopping it up with one of my books, wringing out a few pages and yelling, “Look how 210 pages of well-written humor absorbs an entire soft drink!”

I’m finally going to have a bestseller.

See, taste, hear the beauty of common grace

Many of us will say grace before a Thanksgiving meal this year. Perhaps as lovely as saying grace is seeing grace. Common grace is before our eyes every day of the year, every moment of the day.

GooseWe see it on the table in the sweet potatoes, buttered rolls, green beans, corn, fruit salad and pumpkin pie. They sit there, enticing and inviting, because the Hand of Heaven caused the sun to shine and the rain to fall and the crops to grow.

Common grace parades before us with each changing season as well. The frost of fall gives way to the glistening snow of winter, which will yield to a thousand shades of green in spring, which will fan out into the long, warm rays of summer. We grow weary near the end of each season, tired of the familiar, ready for something new. So we anticipate the next season, never doubting that it will arrive with the usual beauty, splash, charm and change.

You need only look out a window to appreciate common grace in the creatures. Take the black-capped chickadee with his round body, black cap and white cheeks. He is no bigger than a plum and weighs about the same as four pennies. A plum would freeze solid within minutes when the temperature dips to zero. Not the chickadee. He was designed with thousands of downy appendages called afterfeathers. These afterfeathers, tucked beneath his outerfeathers, form myriads of air pockets that trap warm, dry air, protecting him from the bitter cold and keeping him quite alive. Common grace is even in the details.

In the creative realm, common grace can be enjoyed in the painter’s masterpiece, a garden bouquet, the strands of Bach and Vivaldi, or the voice of Adele. It can be seen in the beauty of a spectacular football interception or a child’s dance recital.

The Psalmist said, “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works.” God’s common grace showers everyone, just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

We experience the goodness of common grace every time we pass through the doors of a doctor’s office or a hospital. God’s gift of intellect to every man, some of whom have unlocked the mysteries of physics, science and medicine, is a blessing to us all.

We reap the benefits of common grace in the intellectual realm every time we throw in a load of laundry, send a text, flip on a light switch, pick up a prescription, read a newspaper online, run hot water in the kitchen sink, start a car, buy gasoline, swipe a credit card, Skype with family far away, use GPS and step on a plane.

Why such magnificent, marvelous, wonderful goodness across the board?

Perhaps so that we might take a moment to humbly bow and simply say thanks.

All I really need to know, I learned in the Drumstick Dash

The Drumstick Dash is a 5K Thanksgiving morning run/walk in which thousands of slightly deranged people brave the bitter cold and nearly freeze to death thereby demonstrating solidarity with the Pilgrims. All I really needed to know, I learned in the Drumstick Dash:

Running turkeyPeople are more jovial when their heads are stuffed into plush turkey cavities, with artificial wings flapping beside their ears and two large furry drumsticks jutting into the air.

If everyone else wore artificial turkeys on their heads, you might want to, too.

People drag themselves from bed, then force their sleepy bodies into the freezing cold to run and walk on Thanksgiving morning so that they can stuff themselves guilt free the rest of the day.

If you miscalculate as to where you place yourself in a crowd of runners and walkers, you may wind up running with a fast crowd.

The euphoria of mistakenly being caught up in a fast crowd—people who wear tank tops in 32-degree weather, do not huff and puff when they run as though their lungs are on fire and pad softly instead of thunder with their feet—can lead to serious delusions.

Never believe that you can run an entire 5K when you have not adequately trained for a 5K.

Once you start running with a fast crowd, it is nearly impossible to get out of a fast crowd.

If you attempt slow your pace in a fast crowd, others, maybe even your 20-something daughter who has never felt a quake or pain in her youthful body, may yell embarrassing things at you like, “Don’t slow down. Look behind you! If you slow down now, you will be killed. Keep running!”

When you run with a fast crowd, there is the real possibility that you will become the filling in a very flat Thanksgiving Day Panini with Nike-tread imprint.

If you again attempt to slow your pace and separate from a fast crowd, the same beloved daughter may yell, “RUN, FORREST, RUN!”

You can always get even with your children later.

If you face the prospect of expiring on Thanksgiving, steel yourself to do it after the stuffing, mashed potatoes, hot rolls and pumpkin pie, not before.

It is humiliating to approach the finish line and nearly be passed by a 7-year-old.

You can easily distract a 7-year-old at holiday time by yelling, “Look, over there – it’s Santa handing out candy!”

Two hours after completing a 5K you did not adequately train for, every muscle in your body will contract so severely that you will not be able to do “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” You may be able to do the head and shoulders part, in which case you can dull the pain by lifting your fork to your mouth.

Don’t let the War on Christmas (which is starting early this year) get you down. Plan ahead!

Speak now, regret it forever

Nearly 25 years ago, Mike Royko wrote a sharp-edged column on the first roster of banned words, a list of potentially offensive words issued by a panel from my alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

The original list included barracuda, airhead, burly, buxom, dear, dingbat, Eskimo kiss, Dutch treat, fried chicken, gorgeous, gyp, housewife, illegal alien, lazy, jock, john, pert, petite, senior citizen, shiftless, sweetie, ugh, watermelon and a short list of ethnic and racial slurs no civilized person would use.

Since that time, the list of insensitive words has grown exponentially. The word police were in Seattle recently ordering the words “illegal” and “brown bag” stricken from city documents. The word “illegal” could make illegals feel uncomfortable. And apparently there was once something called the brown bag test in which a brown paper bag was placed against a black person’s skin. If skin color was as light or lighter than the bag, the person was deemed socially acceptable. This “test” was used primarily by black social institutions more than 100 years ago, but nevertheless.

In some circles, penmanship is being changed to handwriting, freshman to first-year-student and watchman to security guard. The word bum is out as is criminal, Founding Fathers, psycho, factory and, of course, Christmas. Oh yes, please add terrorist, jihad and Islam.

We are not merely a softer, gentler, more sensitive people; we have become borderline crazy people. (By the way, crazy is on the list, too.)

Royko would shred each addendum to the list with his bare teeth were he alive today. So much sensitivity, so little sensibility.

At the Air Force Academy, cadets may now opt out of saying “so help me God” when they take the oath. Just curious, when you’re pinned down by enemy fire who else are you going to ask for help? It is doubtful Joe Biden’s wife will be bringing the family shotgun.

Not to be left out, Hallmark has released a tacky Christmas sweater ornament with the words, “Don we now our FUN apparel.”

In the spirit of thin skin and heightened sensitivity everywhere, I’d like to add a few of my own to the list: Twerk: Offensive. Lose the word and maybe I can lose the awful video clip in my mind. OMG: Whether initials or said in full, it is patently offensive, each and every time. Baby Momma: A slur to both the role of motherhood and fatherhood. Ho: Degrading. Acceptable only as a tool used to weed the garden or when said in rapid succession by Santa.

Now then, once we couple all your sensitivities with all my sensitivities, it should be no time at all before we omit words entirely and communicate strictly by hand gestures.

Until then, I will remain a proud member of the human race, respectful toward my fellow man, a petite woman with lousy penmanship, a party gal who sings about donning gay apparel in December and is married to a man on the verge of becoming a senior citizen, a man who often calls me Sweetie and sometimes takes his lunch in a brown paper bag. So help me God.

Last child’s first birthday a dud

For years I have been dogged by this vague memory of a kid’s birthday that didn’t go well. I couldn’t remember which kid it was or which year it was; just that it was something I Birthday cakedidn’t want to revisit.

We mothers work hard at keeping our less than stellar moments locked in the dark, but sometimes they have a way of slithering into the light.

We were looking at photo albums and came across first birthday parties. The oldest had a great party in the backyard with blue skies, lots of family friends and a giraffe cake. The second one had an adorable clown-themed party with a pink elephant cake with a licorice tail. The third one discovered she had been ripped off.

It was the bad memory I had worked to forget.

The four photos (considerably fewer than the two dozen documenting the other parties) show us in the kitchen with no balloons, no decorations, nothing, just a couple of beat-up Happy Meal boxes sitting on the counter in the background.

Our youngest said, “So it’s true, the last one really does get the shaft!”

The husband offered that we must have had a party for her at a later time.

“No,” I said, “that was it.”

“Where are all our friends?” she asked.

“We didn’t have any. We’d just moved 2,500 miles and were still getting to know people.”

“But where’s all the family?”

“Living out of town,” I said.

It was coming back to me with painful clarity. It had not been a great day. The 3-year-old had one of her epic breakdowns due to the upheaval of moving and the 5-year-old had jerked my chain one too many times. When the husband came home, I asked him to take the kids to McDonald’s. Since that was something we rarely did, I remember telling the oldest two they didn’t deserve a treat, so they’d better not enjoy it.

In the 40 minutes I had to myself, I picked up the house, whipped up a cake and threw it in the oven.

“So the cake is that blob on my high chair?” our youngest asked, looking at the snapshots.

“Yeah, that mound with a candle shoved in it,” I said.

“What’s all the goo?”

“I had to frost it while it was still warm.”

“Did I have gifts?”

“Yep. They’re in that brown grocery bag.”

Mothers like to create the illusion that they are always on top of things. The last thing they want to do is admit that something didn’t go well. But, pure and simple, some days are a train wreck. Some days you do what you can with what you have and tell yourself that tomorrow will be better. Those days may seem like failures, but if you don’t quit and keep going, they are successes.

I told the kid that didn’t get much of a first birthday party that we could take her to Chuck E. Cheese’s for her birthday this year if she still felt ripped off. She just turned 28.

She’s still laughing.

Satisfied with being dissatisfied

Why is it we always seem so surprised when a poll tells us what we already know? A Pew Research poll found more than 80 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things unhappy faceare going. Everywhere you turn, people are dissatisfied and they’re not afraid to talk about it.

A woman was voicing dissatisfaction with her grown son who recently moved back home. “We provide a roof over his head, cook his meals, do his laundry, make his car payment and even mute his cell so it doesn’t disturb him when he sleeps until noon, but he doesn’t seem motivated to get on his own two feet,” she fumed.

“At least he’s satisfied,” I said.

Two women on a morning news show were expressing their dissatisfaction with a certain pop star that had been shaking her pop star backside and behaving crudely.

“Appalling,” said one.

“Troubling,” said the other.

“Be sure to watch tomorrow when she’ll be here for a concert on the plaza!”

A neighbor was expressing dissatisfaction over his financial situation. “Groceries are skyrocketing, the cost of gasoline is a killer and our health care premiums are shooting through the roof. Our credit cards are maxed out and we’ve got nothing for college, let alone retirement.”

“Hang tough,” I said. “Say, is that delivery truck stopping here?”

“Yeah, that’s our new giant flat screen,” he said.

A young mother was expressing dissatisfaction with her family’s together time. “It’s just so hard to find time to connect,” she said, on the verge of tears.

“Always has been,” I said.

“Between dance lessons, music lessons, sports, plays, my late hours, Sam’s late hours and season football tickets, we hardly see each other.”

“Would you describe yourself as somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied?” I asked.

She was about to answer when we were interrupted by a text on her cell. “Oh great,” she shrieked. “Now I have to reschedule Girls Night Out.”

The produce manager I chit chat with at the grocery was complaining about the circus in Washington. “Just the same-old, same-old,” he said, tossing eggplants into a bin. “Fraud, waste, entitlements, no accountability. They spend other people’s money with glee. Something needs to change,” he barked. “Sounds like you’re dissatisfied enough to get involved,” I said.

“Naw, what’s the point?” he growled, hurling another eggplant. It missed the bin and exploded on the floor.

A young friend expressed dissatisfaction with his children’s education. “It’s not just the academics, it’s the toxic culture,” he said.

“Would you say you’re mildly dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied?”

“We’re terribly dissatisfied,” he said. “But we talked about it and agreed to wait another year or two to see if things don’t improve. “

“At least you have a plan,” I said.

Never have so many been so dissatisfied and so unwilling to do anything about it.

Does this computer make me look paranoid?

To say the husband is security minded is tantamount to saying that the Pope is Catholic. I must admit, however, that over the years the husband has shaved off what he believes to be considerable time from the 30-minute home-security ritual he goes through every time we leave town.

Ten seconds.

All that to say, I should not have been surprised when he was working on his laptop at the kitchen table and I saw a small pink Post-it note stuck to the top of his computer.

“Is that a reminder for something?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s in case anyone tries to hack through the wireless and access the webcam.”

I asked why he thought someone might weasel through his webcam and he said, “Well, they did it to Miss Teen USA and she wasn’t too happy about it.”

Because there is a delicate balance between honesty and love in the course of a marriage, I reminded him, ever-so-gently, “You are not Miss America.”

I may also have reminded him that he is a late middle-age male who never streaks through the house in the buff.

When we skyped with our son later, I told him about the Post-it on his dad’s computer. I asked what the thought a hacker might see. He began to imitate someone falling asleep at the computer. The husband was only mildly amused and said, “That’s not the only thing someone might see. They could also see me eating pretzels.”

He had us there. We had completely overlooked the pretzels. It would not be case of webcam sextortion, but a case of webcam carbtortion.

The husband also reminded us that the last iPhone update had a glitch that let anyone bypass the phone’s lock to hijack photos, texts and emails.

“Exactly why I didn’t update my phone,” I said. “I don’t want someone stealing my photo of that lovely apple pie I made or pictures of my herb bed.”

Everyone is at risk to intrusions from technology, yet there is a comfort, and no doubt a false sense of security, in knowing that we are boring—not necessarily to one another, but by any measure of today’s Kardashian standards.

I was working at my desktop, where I put a Post-it on the top of my computer screen as a sign of solidarity (even though my desktop monitor doesn’t have a webcam), when the husband came in to tell me something.

“What’s with that spoon in your hand?” I asked.

“Ice cream,” he said.

“Make sure your Post-it is in place, I said. The last thing we need is the world knowing that we’re so boring we even eat plain old vanilla bean.”

‘Don’t anybody touch my stuff’

I am with our twin granddaughters, who recently turned three, and their one-year-old sister in the attic of the old house where they live. The attic has small paned windows with thick High heelswavy glass on either side of where a chimney used to be. The gabled ceiling cocoons the wide open space, creating an idyllic place for play.

One of the twins announces she has to use the potty, which is down the stairs and at the end of the hall on the second floor.

She pauses at the top of the stairs, tosses back her head of curls, and sweetly says, “Don’t anybody touch my stuff.”

She could have said, “Be right back,” or “Will someone go with me?” but instead she fires a shot across the bow. Granted, it was a pink, fluffy shot covered in feathers, but it was a shot nonetheless.

She pauses halfway down the steps and sweetly calls out again, “Don’t anybody touch my stuff!”

We hear the creak of the door at the bottom of the stairs.

“Don’t anybody touch my stuff!” she sings.

“Nobody is touching your stuff!” her mother calls back. “We don’t even know what stuff is your stuff!”

Her stuff could be the small naked doll with the cloth body, the Elmo slippers or the purse in the shape of an alligator. It could be the plastic cozy coupe that has already been sideswiped twice this morning and rolled once. Whatever her stuff is, we know this much: We are not to touch it.

She leaves the door to the attic open. Footsteps pad down the hall. The toilet lid goes up. “Don’t anybody touch my stuff!” she shouts.

This is a child who usually insists on privacy, but today she is deeply concerned about her stuff.

The toilet flushes.

“Nobody touch my stuff!”

“Nobody is touching your stuff,” I yell back. “Your stuff is plastic and Grandma only likes plastic in the shape of small cards with magnetic stripes on the back.”

In the child’s defense, her younger sister is occasionally dubbed “Swiper” for grabbing whatever is of interest to the older girls. When you live with someone nicknamed Swiper, perhaps you are never truly at rest.

She clamors up the stairs still sing-songing, “Don’t anybody touch my stuff!”

It turns out, the stuff she is concerned about is a doll stroller and a pair of pink plastic high heels. This is the equivalent of a convertible to a man in midlife crisis and a pair of Jimmy Choo’s for a 20-something female.

We are all a touch possessive about our stuff. We can even be annoying about our stuff. But at least as adults, we’re too sophisticated to go around saying, “Don’t anybody touch my stuff!”

The one concerned about others touching her stuff seats herself at the little table and begins coloring with her twin, who has been quietly taking it all in. Swiper is in another corner of the attic, momentarily entertaining herself.

In a sweet voice barely above a whisper, the twin who has been at the table coloring all along looks at her sister and says, “The next time you leave, I’m gonna touch your stuff.”