Friday, December 30, 2011

Grin and Fake It

Day 90
In high school at our senior dinner dance, my peers named me “Friendliest” and gave me an award.  While I’d much rather have taken home “Best Legs” or “Best Smile”, I was happy and proud that my classmates thought that I was kind. 

Today, I phoned it in.  I hope they don’t snatch back that piece of paper.   

At Kroger (I feel like I’m always at Kroger), a woman called out to me.  I turned to see my neighbor. 

Let me be more specific.  The Neighbor.  The neighbor who complained to the city about our tree house and caused us months of stress, a trip to the zoning board and countless hours of crying boys fearful of losing their fort. 

“Uh…hi!” I responded.  I haven’t seen her since before the hearing.  (She didn’t attend but instead sent a detailed letter of complaint.  Chicken.  Did I say that?!)

After our zoning board victory, I’d been feeling magnanimous.  Victory does that to you.  I’d planned to bake her cookies and deliver them to her for heavens sake!  A case of meningitis and a week’s stay in the hospital delayed my plans. 

One thing after another seemed to take precedent over baking those cookies: my son’s birthday trip, Thanksgiving, Christmas.  Oh, I didn’t want to.

“You’ll never be best friends,” my husband said.  We weren’t before.  We belong to the same book club and we talk about books and kids.  That’s it.  And that’s OK. 

I don’t need to confide in her.  We don’t need to have lunch.

I also don’t need to be purposely rude.

I tell my kids all the time, “You don’t have to be their best friend, but you can’t be mean.” 

Don’t you hate it when you are forced to take your own advice?      

“How was your holiday?” I asked.  “Any plans for New Year’s?” 

“Nothing big.  Dinner and a movie.” 

“That sounds nice,” I said. 

Awkward silence. 

“Happy New Year!” 

Bag It

Day 89
I’m at Kroger flipping through a trashy tabloid I’d never be caught buying but love to read.  There’s an untouched photo of a Hollywood starlet in a bikini on the front cover.  A black rectangle covers her eyes and her identity.  Above her a headline screams, “Who is this?” 

I have no idea!  That’s why I’m searching frantically to find the answer before it’s my turn to check out. 

“Aisle 11 is open.”  A Kroger manager directs me to an open line to get me through the line faster.   

Sheepishly I return the magazine to the rack.  I push my cart to the aisle to find a closed sign prompted on the conveyer belt.   

“This last one and then you can go,” she promises to the clerk.

“Are you trying to get out of here?  Shift almost over?” I ask.   

He shrugs.  “Sort of,” he says. 

“So let’s get you out of here.” 

I clap my hands enthusiastically and move to the back to start bagging.  We don’t need no stinking bagger.  Together, we finish my order in a matter of minutes. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Home Run

Day 88
As the mother of a baseball lover, I’d promised my son a trip to the Louisville Slugger Museum over the school winter break.  The official bat of Major League Baseball, Louisville Sluggers have sent more balls over the back fence than any other in the history of the game. 

It didn’t disappoint.  On the factory floor, we watch wooden maple billets once hand-carved by master craftsmen transform into bats within 30 seconds thanks to modern technology.

I. poses with Johnny Bench’s bat.  A. looks down a 90 mph pitch in a simulation exhibit.  F., our engineer, stands open-mouthed at the sanding station, fascinated by the mechanics of the computerized machines.

We all enjoy a 20-minute film titled The Heart of the Game.  “I almost started to cry…twice,” my husband says. 

I know what he means.  After the film, I want it to be spring so I can sit in the bleachers at The Great American Ballpark and cheer on the Reds.  

“I’m not discounting the fact that I didn’t sleep last night,” he adds.   

After the tour, each visitor receives a mini wooden bat stamped with the Louisville Slugger logo on exiting the factory floor.  Each of the boys walks out with one.  I thank the man and absentmindedly take a bat. 

In a house full of boys, small wooden bats double as weapons.  Did I really think we needed a fourth? 

Upon arriving home, I write a quick note and drop it in the mailbox of another baseball-loving boy who lives a few doors down. 

I write, “Thought your slugger would like this.”  I drop it in the mailbox and run home.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fifty Two Pick-up

Day 87
The boys and I (and half of Cincinnati) slide and shuffle around the rink at Northland Ice Center.  To add to the chaos, a handful of middle-school boys dart in, out and between the crowds of parents and kids.    

Skating reminds me of weekends when my friends and I would jump the bus from the stop outside Fremd High School to the mall.  Tired of browsing Claire’s for accessories, we’d visit the ice rink nestled behind The Gap, lace up our skates and spend the next several hours circling the ice. 

While no Dorothy Hamill, all those Saturdays made me a competent skater.  I’m strong enough to hold up a 48-pound boy and skate him around the ring.  And pick up a few kids along the way. 

“How was it?” Chaz asks when we return home. 

“You know that game 52 Pick Up?” I ask.   


“It was like that.  But with kids and a lot more painful.”  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Window Shopping

Day 86
I’m in vacation mode.  In the last 24 hours, I’ve eaten my weight in chocolates, played hours of Wii (and been schooled by a 5-year-old), and lived in the same pair of worn cotton yoga pants.  

If I'm going to do something nice, it's got to happen from my dent in the couch.  

I’m searching the web for public blogs.  I want to leave a comment.  I want it to be nice.  It’s important to me that it been sincere. 

Not tooting my own blog, but holy smokes, there are a lot of sites out there with questionable content.  

From what I ate for dinner, to what my child looked like in his favorite t-shirt, to baseball, baseball, baseball.  (I understand that to many a blog about what I did today doesn’t sound that much more exciting.)  It’s overwhelming. 

I leave a comment for a small town minister in Minnesota after finding her posting titled Your Birthday is Not A National Holiday.  Cute.  Snappy.  Fun. 

All writers like positive reviews.    

A Christmas Kiss

Day 85
Nearly every day I get text messages or phone calls from unidentified numbers asking me to play Beyonce.  My cell phone number and Kiss 107’s request line share all seven digits.  I ignore them all.   

“Why don’t you change your number?” my husband asks.  I don’t tell him it took me five years to switch to a 513 area code after our move to Cincinnati.   

It’s Christmas and we’re snuggled inside the house.  Surrounded by family and yummy foods, the idea of a random act of kindness that involves leaving the house is terribly unappealing. 

We’re also exhausted.  F. woke up every hour starting at three a.m. to open presents.  Every hour we sent him back to bed.   

My phone “blings” and I know what I’m going to do.  I go online and find the station’s text number and forward all the unfulfilled music requests. 

I’m sure Beyonce’s Single Ladies is someone’s Jingle Bells.  

The Other Year

Day 84
Armed with a bag of candy canes and a smile, the boys and I visit the library.  It’s busy with families finding DVDs for the holiday weekend and people checking out books. 

“Give a candy cane to everyone you see,” I say. 

Walking up the path to the front door, A. hands a candy cane to a sullen teenager smoking a cigarette. 

“Hey, dude, thanks!”  The teen turns from surly to smiley in an instant.  A. gives him a small salute and marches forward.  

Through the glass doors, A. walks up to the librarian and hands her a candy cane. 

“Merry Christmas!” he says.

She comes out from behind her desk and walks towards us.  “This made my whole day!” 

With that, A. is off.  Up and down the stacks, he walks with purpose.  A grandfather picking out a Western gets a candy cane.  Two kids playing games on the computer each get one.  We have two-dozen with us and we pass out every one.   

“This was fun!  Can we do this the other year?” A. asks.  

“You mean next year?” 

“Yeah, that year.” 

Oh, help.  Let’s get through these first 365. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Special Delivery

Day 83
Hey, Post Office!  We have a special delivery!

It’s the day before the day before Christmas.  Scratching our heads as to who might be working hard, we immediately think of our local postal workers.  I personally visited them twice yesterday.

To avoid any weirdness about giving home-baked goodies to complete strangers (and them ending up in the trash), we opt for store-brought chocolate kisses.  We make up three goodie bags and tie them with a holiday bow.

A.’s walks to the counter past a dozen or so waiting customers and hands the chocolate kisses to the counter clerks. 

He is my random act rock star.  He’ll do just about anything, plus he’s so darn cute.  With his head of curly blond hair and impish smile, he could pass as a Christmas angel.  As long as he keeps his mouth shut.

One clerk looks up in surprise and smiles.  Another waves.  The last mouths, “Thank you.” 

The customer waiting at the counter turns and talks to A.  He spins towards me, a huge grin spread across his face and walks past a line of smiling people holding packages.   


Hey, Christmas Guy

Day 82
“It’s a shame that man doesn’t like Christmas,” I say, the sarcasm lost on my children.

We’re talking about the “Christmas Guy” who lives on the main drag through town.  One drive up Montgomery Road in December and there’s no mistaking who I mean.

He pulls out holiday lights in October and spends the next two months decorating his yard to make a display to rival the Griswolds.

A two-story nutcracker stands on each side of a 12-foot round snowflake proudly stuck to the front of the house.  “And it blinks!” the boys like to remind me.  

Fourteen-inch wrapped packages hang from the tree branches.  Reindeer line the driveway.  Ribbons adorn the front door.   

“It’s like there was a fire sale at the North Pole,” I say.  “Where in the world does he find this stuff?” 

“Internet,” my husband answers. 

I’ve been thinking of the Christmas Guy and had him on our radar for the recipient of a random act.  With two kids home with a cold, it’s a perfect day to craft homemade holiday/thank you cards. 

F. writes, “Your house is awesome!”  He continues his review on the flip side of the card, “We love your house! It is really cool.” 

We attach a candy cane to the front of the envelope.  “Don’t you think there’s a Mrs. Christmas Guy?” F. asks.  A perfectly reasonable assumption, we tape a second.

I leave F. to rest at the house but take the other two boys with me to drop off our note. 

“Who wants to run it to the door?”   Only A. responds. 

“Be sure to tell him how much we love his house!” I say to A. before he hops out of the car. 

“I’m just going with ‘Merry Christmas’,” he says.  That works, too.

Angus knocks on the front door.  A gray-haired man answers.  A. hands him the cards.  Then, A. disappears into the house. 

“I’ll be right back,” I say to I. and jump out of the car and rush towards the front door.  I knock once, open the door and walk in.

“Hello?”  A. and the man walk towards me.  A. holds a plastic toy plane. 

“Sorry, that probably made you nervous,” he says to me.

“And there were teddy bears and trains and …” A. rattles off oblivious to the adult conversation happening over his head.    

The man decorates his house AND gives toys to kids who come to his front door?  He isn’t the “Christmas Guy,” he’s Santa!  Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!!!  Wait until we tell Chaz that Santa lives right here in Montgomery!!

We thank (wink, wink) the “Christmas Guy” and hurry back to the car to tell I. what happened. 

“I so should have delivered that one,” he says and smiles.   

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Not That!!

Day 81
Over the weekend the boys and I picked our way through the mess we like to refer to as “the basement” and created a pile of gentled-not-used-anymore toys to donate. 

I like to give to the FreeStore in Over-the-Rhine because it serves people in our city’s poorest neighborhood.  Like the name implies, people in need can walk in and take what they need at no cost.     

As we drive up Liberty to the store, the streets are filled with residents enjoying the unseasonably warm temperatures.  A policeman directs us to pull behind some orange cones to unload. 
“Not that!” F. cries.  “I like that!”  The “that” is a plastic garage that’s taking up precious real estate in our playroom.

“Remember how we talked about giving toys we don’t play with to kids who didn’t have as many toys as us?”  People are filing out of the store pushing half-full carts.  

I want the boys to learn that while they might not have everything they want they have enough.  They also have a lot more than other people.

“I want you to look around,” I tell the boys as we circle back towards the expressway between graffiti-covered buildings. 

“Some families who live around here might need food.  Others might need clothes.” 

“Lots of kids who live here might not get any presents for Christmas,” I quickly add, “except the one from Santa.” 

“Boys, what do you think?” 

“If I lived here I’d ask Santa for a pepperoni pizza,” A. says.  I want to ask if that’s because it’s food that’s fun to play with.  

I hope the child who gets the plastic garage enjoys it as much as a slice of pizza.  

Play Date Delicious

Day 80
A mom of a boy is F.’s first grade class invited F. over to play.  She’s called before. 

They recently moved to town from out of state and I want to accept if only we can work out a date and time. After hashing through several combinations, we settle on this afternoon.   

When did 7-year-old’s get such busy social calendars?

Both boys are thrilled.  The mom is thrilled.  I’m thrilled to separate my boys.  They’ve been fighting non-stop since 5:30 this morning when they woke up early thinking it was Christmas and haven’t gotten over the disappointment that they need to wait five more days.   

“Does he have something called a ‘blade’?” she asks on the phone. 

“Beyblades?  Sure.  Should he bring them?  How about the stadium?” 

“I don’t know what that is, so yes?” 

I’m always nervous dropping my kids to play.  While I’m told they are well behaved (clearly better than they are with me) I still worry they’ll swing from the chandelier.  Never say never. 

I package up six extra cupcakes I’ve baked and decorated for the boys’ evening piano recital and add my cell phone number in case she needs to reach me.  I load the boys in the car and head over to drop F. off.   

It wasn’t that long ago that we were the new family in town.  I reached out to anyone who made eye contact.  Play dates?  Lunch dates?  Park dates?  I wanted my kids to have a circle of friends and hoped to include the moms in a circle I made for me.

When school starts back up I’m calling back to set up a play date.  At Starbucks.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

We Wish You A Merry Something…

Day 79
Inspired by my 85-year-old neighbor who told me she was having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit, the boys and I grab a friend and some Santa hats and head to her house to surprise her with some old fashioned caroling.

“No school bus versions.  No Batman smells.  No Jingle Bell explosions.  Got it?” The boys look at me wide-eyed as I run down the caroling rules.  Only a group of boys would actually need rules spelled out. 

I’d hoped to grab some neighborhood girls to join us but no one was home.  I figured the girls would carry the songs.  I worry the boys will peter out and I’ll end up singing solo.
After repeated knocks on Mrs. J.'s door, her son, the source of her holiday stress (and lack of spirit), opens the front door in his pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt. From the look on his face, he’s clearly wondering why he got off the couch.  His mom is visiting her other son 90 miles away in Dayton. 

Since we can’t turn tail and run, I give the boys a thumbs-up and hope for the best.  Together, we give one of the saddest versions of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer I have ever heard.  Different tempos.  Different keys.  Different words.

I don’t think our singing is doing anything to lift pajama man’s holiday spirit.   

“Big finish, boys!” I’m hoping to hype them up for We Wish You a Merry Christmas.  It doesn’t go much better. 

“Okay, then.  Well.  Happy Holidays.”  The boys and I sprint across the street away from the house.

Most might give up, go home, try and forget it ever happened.  Not us!

We visit another house.  The college-aged daughter answers the door.  She smiles and encourages as the boys struggle through our three-song routine. 

“That was great!” she gushes.  The boys smile and sing louder.   

On to House #3!  We ring the bell of a neighbor whose husband suffered a stroke.  His nurse answers the door delighted.

“Let me get him.  He’ll love this!”

She wheels him to the open door.  His wife stands behind him, her hands rest upon his wheelchair.

The boys sing strong.  Different pitches, different tempos, but they’re in the spirit.  It is a memorable (dare I say, unforgettable?) performance.   

We have time for one more house before we need to start dinner. 

“Mrs. G.!” F. yells.  She’s a favorite.  Since testifying in front of the zoning board and single-handedly saving our tree house, she’s gained near rock-star status in my eyes. 

She rewards the boys’ singing with plastic sandwich bags filled with handfuls of M and Ms.

“This was great!” F. says between swallows of chocolate.  

Are You Listening?

Day 78
It’s one of the rare occasions when I’m shopping at Kroger kid-free.  What a luxury!  Time to peruse the produce instead of tossing the closest banana bunch in the cart.  Ah, it’s the small things in life, no?

“Ashley!” someone calls out waking me from my revelry.  I turn to see my 85-year-old neighbor, Mrs. Jacks.  She pushes her cart beside mine and starts chatting.

Seeing Mrs. Jacks isn’t unusual nor is her striking up a conversation.  What’s special about today’s exchange is there are no boys vying for my attention.  This simple fact allows me to actually listen to what she has to say.  

She’s had a rough year.  I won’t share her personal sorrows but believe me when I tell you it’s a long list. 

When a friend was studying for her degree in social work, she often asked me to help complete assignments where she had to “counsel” a “client”.  I was always up for unloading and she needed to finish her homework. 

She rephrased what I said but never added anything else.  It’s amazing how such a small, simple listening technique makes you feel important.  When my kids were small, I completed a class called Positive Parenting that taught the same skill. 

“I want that toy!!!” I. would wail. 

“You want that toy,” I would respond and magically divert a tantrum.

“It’s just been so hard,” Mrs. Jacks says. 

“It sounds like you’re been having a hard time,” I say. 

“I have!” she answers and talks uninterrupted for another ten minutes. 

“It sounds like you are doing everything you can to help,” I prompt. 

“I hope so,” she says and is off and running. 

Sometimes people just want to be heard.  They don’t need to know about your second cousin who recently dealt with a similar situation.  No solution needs to be proposed.  They just want you to listen. 

 “I better go,” she says.  “We’ve been talking so long I think my ice cream might be melting!”

She rushes off and I turn back towards the produce. 

Her words stick with me.  I hate it for her that she’s having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit.

That gives me an idea for tomorrow…  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holiday Free Store

Day 77

Lee from Operation Give Back gathers up us volunteers who are working today’s holiday free store.  At over six feet, he’s an imposing African American man with a huge toothy smile.  Part cheerleader, part motivational speaker, it’s impossible not to get excited listening to him. 

“Let’s make this the best shopping experience they have all year!” he says.  His speech is met by a splattering of applause and widespread head nodding.   

Shoppers have been waiting in the frigid temperatures for over an hour to get in.  For $5, they receive a $5 Kroger gift card and can “shop” the holiday free store.  Families qualify for the store by living below the national poverty level.  

I’ve been assigned to help as a personal shopper.  This means I accompany one family through the store at a time and find things off their list, a detailed accounting of things they are allowed to “shop” for based on their family size and number of children living in their household. 

Each shopper is limited to 30 minutes.  As a personal shopper, I also need to gentle push to make sure we make it around to all the areas before time runs out.  

My first customer is a single mother of five.  Shana, her 12-year-old daughter, and I move forward into the crowded warehouse.  Non-perishable food.  Toilet paper.  Tissue.  Shoes.  Clothes.  Each family gets a blanket.  Every child gets a coat. 

I can tell Shana, warm and friendly, is the type of mom who gives lots of hugs.  We talk easily about her kids.  She’s clearly a proud momma. 

“What size boys’ shoes do we need?” I ask. 

“My boys are big,” she smiles.  “Size 15.” 

“Shana,” I laugh.  “I don’t even know what size 15 looks like!”  There’s nothing close to fitting her 6 foot 4 son so we move on to women’s clothes. 

In a back corner, items fill three tables.  It’s here kids may shop for presents for their parents. 
“I’ll block your mom so she can’t see what you pick out,” I say, pointing Shana’s daughter towards the parent gift table.  I hold up two fingers.  "Pick two," I mouth.   In the back, two Sycamore High School students wrap presents that kids choose. 

Shana seems thrilled about the idea of a wrapped present for herself on Christmas morning.  With five kids, I wonder how many years she’s done without. 

Shana and I turn a corner and continue to fill her cart to the point of overflowing.  Socks.  Scarfs.  Shampoo.  Conditioner.  Razors. 

We stop at the toys.  “Each child gets one small, one medium and one large.”  New board games, LEGO kits, footballs and Barbie dolls line the walls.    

Shana reaches over and gives me a hug.  “I’m never going to forget this,” she says. 

Me either.   

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Filler Up

Day 76
I dislike filling up for gas when it’s cold outside.  I amend.  I hate it. 

I don’t have gloves and I’m dreading the feeling of flesh touching metal, but my gas light glows red. 

Unfortunately, I need to fill up.  Now.  Or prepare to push.  

I turn into Shell and pull forward until my gas tank is level with the nozzle.

I punch in my Kroger number to receive my 10-cent-per-galloon discount.  Then I swipe my debit card.  Man, it’s cold.  Each transaction only prolongs my time outside. 

I pick up the nozzle.  Nothing.  I place the nozzle back in its home and pick it up again.  Nothing.  I punch the gas grade button.  Nothing. 

It only takes another nozzle and two more button pushes to accept that the pump isn’t working.   

I pull forward and start over. 

A car pulls up behind me into the stall that I just vacated.

I turn and jog over to her car.  “Before you get out of your car,” I start, “the pump’s not working.” 

She rolls down her window.  “Thanks for telling me.  Gosh, it’s cold out here.”   

You’re telling me.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Baking Soda, Anyone?

Day 75
“How much? One cup?” 


The girl scooped up the flour.  With the measuring cup half full, she poured it into the glass mason jar.



This time her “measured” cup was a heaping mountain of flour.  In it went. 

As a baker, helping the third graders build “cookie kits” as presents during their holiday party was a little more than distressing.  I tried to coach kids on filling the measuring cups up to the top and leveling them before adding them to the jar. It didn’t work. 

One girl dropped (at my count) three tablespoons of baking soda into her mix when ¼ teaspoon was required.

After the third child, I gave up.  Instead, I kept up a constant chatter of “Looks great!  Yum!  Who’s getting that one?  Lucky!”

While maybe not edible, the jars were adorable. Layers of flour, brown sugar, white sugar, and green and red candies made a colorful design inside the jar. The room mom printed recipe tags to tie to the jar’s top with ribbon.

Covered with flour and sugar, they enjoyed themselves.  More than one enjoyed a stray M and M that missed a jar and landed on the table.   

The kids had been instructed to wash their hands before starting but I didn’t see if they had or not.  With all the ingredients inside the jar, the last group through our station smashed everything down with their fingers before adding M and Ms.

I turned to a friend standing next to me, “What do you think these are going to taste like?” 

I was trying not to think sweaty fingers.