Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gifts - The Teacher Gift

Gifting this time of year is a generous way to express our appreciation for those who have served us throughout the year. One such person deserving of a gift is your child's teacher. From Nursery School through the elementary grades it is common practice to offer the teacher a token of your appreciation for educating your child. Some well-loved middle school and high school teachers are even singled out and showered with gracious gifts by their students who adore them (I was lucky enough to be a recipient of these sweet gestures throughout my tenure). The conundrum for most parents is what is appropriate to give the person responsible for the education and well-being of one's child while the teacher is actively in charge of him and her? The gift should not come across as a bribe for good grades nor so personal as to suggest a "brown-nosing" relationship. The gift should be something the teacher can use, share, or save as a keepsake of your child. After receiving dozens of gifts from students I have compiled a list of the most appreciated holiday gifts by a teacher.

-Baked goods - As a teacher I was usually teaching until Christmas Eve. Whether a guest or hosting the big day I rarely had time to put all my energies into baking several different kinds of cookies/confections. I always appreciated when a parent/student sent me their beautiful and delicious baked treat that I could share at home with my family.

- Boxed candy - Whether I was to keep this for myself for a pick-me-up at school, or take home to share, a box of candy was another appreciated gift. Like baked goods, it rounded out my dessert offerings at the holidays.

-Gourmet jellies or mustards - a jarred gift of this type was always interesting and added a little zing to a breakfast or lunch spread. Bonus points if it came from one of my student's travels!

-Ornaments - If you know he or she celebrates Christmas this is a wonderful gesture. I have every ornament my students ever gave me. They are all special and make me feel great each year I take them out of the box!

-Gift card to a restaurant, Dunkin' Donuts, teacher supply store, Michael's/A.C. Moore or Wal*Mart - This type a gift is typical of how class moms are doing things now. They collect a set amount from each parent and the money is pooled to purchase a gift card. Teachers tend to love this idea because it has a bigger impact than 20 individual gifts. Still, other parents may chose to gift a card in a smaller denomination to the teacher for "classroom supplies" or "a cup of coffee on us".

-Flowers/potted plants - I've never known a teacher who didn't appreciate the gift of cut flowers or a potted plant. Even if you have a black thumb, these gifts are lovely and brighten up the classroom (or house).

-Books for the classroom or Barnes&Noble/Amazon gift card - Teachers in every classroom I've ever been have always had a wish list of books for their classroom. This is the gift that keeps on giving.

-Tissues, wipes, anti-bacterial cleaning wipes, hand sanitizer, & school supplies - The items that get used up the most in the classroom are tissues, especially this time of year, and cleaning wipes, both for the kids and the surfaces. Check the policy of your school before sending in hand sanitizer, but all of these types of items get used up and quickly. If you argue your taxes go to tissues and cleaning supplies, ask your son or daughter how rough the school-issued tissues are - they'd rip the hide off your nose in an instant! Imagine being sick and wiping constantly! And I'd prefer a teacher interested in wiping the desks, toys, pencil sharpener, etc. in the classroom periodically so maybe my kid would come home with less illness! Pencils, pens, erasers, etc. are always welcome in the classroom for the kids (and it might be yours one day) who forgets theirs and needs one.

-Mixed CD of favorite music or playlist for an MP3 - If you know the teacher's taste and think you or your child has some 'perfect' songs to share with him or her, feel free to do this. Just make sure there are no inappropriate lyrics or themes.

- A letter from you, the parent - This letter, written by you, the parent, telling the teacher how you have seen your child grow under his/her guidance is a lovely gift and always appreciated.

- A letter from your child, the student - If your child is old enough to write, even a little bit, a letter from him or her would be the most treasured gift you could give his or her teacher. I saved every single note, letter, and card a student ever gave me.

Finally, unless the teacher is brand new, steer clear of mugs as over a career in teaching you could wind up with hundreds! Of course they do get dirty/break/etc. Also, anything with scent - perfume, lotions, etc. - unless you know he or she isn't allergic and particularly likes a specific scent or brand.

Teachers are assets in our society. They work hard, love our children, and give them the foundation for success in the years to come. Take a few minutes and a few dollars to show them you appreciate the great job they are doing teaching your child.

Join me tomorrow for more holiday hints. It's time to talk FOOD!

Monday, November 29, 2010


In life expectations are ever present. We expect certain outcomes in the different situations and activities we participate. We are habitual creatures and are comforted, in large part, by routine. Some of you may balk at that statement and argue your uniqueness and devil-may-care, fly with the wind attitude, but I hazard to guess routine is part of your life in some way. We human beings expect outcomes because we are taught they occur. We try to stack the deck in our favor - learning what we can and going through the correct hoops to achieve the results we are expecting. During the holidays expectations become huge, emotionally charged, and, at times, largely unachievable. This past Thanksgiving holiday weekend my experience fell far short of my expectations. But this is a story of acceptance.
For weeks I'd been gearing up for hosting duties for this Thanksgiving celebration. My in-laws, people whom I truly adore and consider my second set of parents, not intruders who disrupt my life, were the guests at my table. My children and I were excited for our visit, delighted to see Grandma and Grandpa, and eager to share this classic meal with them. I read the children story books about Thanksgiving, they discussed the significance of the day in school ad nauseam, and we planned the day's events at night, every night, for weeks. "Mommy will make a special breakfast," I'd begin. "With pumpkin pancakes?" my son would ask. "Yes, of course!" I'd reply. "Then we'll watch the parade from start to finish while Daddy prepares the bird to roast," I'd continue. We talked about poems to be read at the dinner table, the Indian garb my youngest son made at school and would don during the day, songs we'd sing, and the foods and desserts we'd eat. Then we'd talk about "Black Friday" and how we'd put up our Christmas tree, house decorations, etc. We were expecting a perfect Thanksgiving celebration. Then, reality struck.
On Wednesday evening, after a lovely meal out, I lost all energy and spark (quite unusual for me I can assure you). My husband sent me to bed. I tried a warm bath to soothe and relax me, but it did nothing to make me feel better. By 10:30p I was sick! A nasty stomach bug held firmly to me and would not let me out of it's grasp. After a fitful sleep I awoke Thanksgiving morning feeling so much worse than Wednesday night! I never left my room! Thanksgiving was happening and I wasn't a part of any of it! My older children were seemingly fine, but my one year old daughter, a definite creature of habit, wanted her mommy! My in-laws were wonderful salvaging the day for my family, but by 3:00p my husband caught the bug and we were both down for the count! I tried to rally, but after an hour with the crew I had to go back to bed. My in-laws were left to entertain, feed, and care for the three kids while my husband and I contemplated how we'd get through the aches, chills, and queasy feelings that were wracking our bodies. They carved the turkey and stowed it so we could have Thanksgiving dinner together another night. They fed the kids chicken fingers and enjoyed some paella from the dinner the night before.
The rest of the weekend was a roller coaster ride. I felt better, then I didn't, then I finally did. My husband got back to normal the earliest. My father-in-law was afflicted by Friday morning. My mother-in-law must be immune because she coasted unscathed through the weekend. Our tree never made it up until Saturday night. The garlands we hang were not lighting so several had to be replaced. The Thanksgiving dinner we ate on Saturday night was all heated through in the microwave and was not served on the traditional Thanksgiving plates. But, it was delicious!
No one expects to be sick for the holidays. No one plans to have every strand of lights go out on their garlands after they tested fine before they were hung up but then don't light up once they are hung. But this stuff happens... to everybody at one time or another. The secret is, let it happen. Deal with it. It stinks, yes, but try to stay positive. It is the most valuable lesson to teach yourself and the younger generation. Life does not always happen the way we expect it. You can either let it crush you or you can roll with the punches and make the best of the situation at hand. I'm still not "fully decorated", but it will happen, or it won't. I've yet to organize and clean the basement thus it is chaotic and hard to maneuver down there. We'll get to it, eventually. We were sick for Thanksgiving. We'll try to make Christmas an illness-free event. But, if someone (or everyone) were to fall ill, we'll still have Christmas. Keep your expectations low and in check. I was never very good at that. I was not very flexible. Now after going through Thanksgiving in this way I'm learning first hand that you have two choices when life deals you this kind of hand; you can roll with the punches or you can pout and let life pass you by while you bemoan the fact that what you expected didn't happen. My picture perfect Thanksgiving gave way to a messy, sick, impromptu, abbreviated celebration, but all of the important people were there and I was able to count my blessings; that's what really matters.
Here's hoping your Thanksgiving gave you opportunity to be thankful and grateful for all you have in your life. Mine certainly did.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Music Blog

I live! It seemed touch and go for a while, but I rallied in the 11th hour and fought back. Although a bit weaker, I am ready to resume my duties here. Enormous thanks and gratitude to my husband, Racer 187, who pinched hit for me yesterday. I had no idea until I logged on and read. I am indebted to him for looking out for me and so blessed to have the most awesome readership (and friends) who care about me. Thank you all.

I trust and hope you all enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving.

As today is coined Black Friday, it is still a Friday and that means Music Blog day! Instead of fighting the crowds, do your shopping online (Amazon has great deals, check out my link to the left of this blog!) and check back to this blog periodically to add more selections and see what others posted.

Today's focus is songs with "Black" in the title. There must be an endless list, no? So let's comprise the longest list the Friday Music Blog has ever seen at this site!

Eleven weeks complete and I am as committed as ever to continue on this journey. To those of you who join me daily, thank you so much for your continued support. For everyone who finds this blog and takes a gander, thank you for your interest. There is so much more to come in the days, weeks, and months. I hope you continue to make me a part of your daily reading habits.

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend! I am so grateful for all of you!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thankgiving!

Hi everyone. This is your substitute blogger Racer187. Chief is a little under the weather with the stomach bug that the kids brought home for Thanksgiving. She is devastated that she is unable to come downstairs and post her Thanksgiving blog. At some point in time today she will try to come down here and post and I think she would appreciate a warm welcome. If you can find some time, please post a "Get Well" comment for her below. She would LOVE to see them when she is better.

Thank you for visiting her blog. Other than the kids, this blog is her life. Your comments, posts, feedback are the racefuel that keeps her motor running throughout the day. Thank you for being a part of her life.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Keeper of The Memories

When I launched this blog back on September 13th I was a few weeks into an exercise regime that was the beginning of a lifestyle change for the better. Adding the daily writing enhanced that change and has made it even easier to head to my basement to work out on my elliptical machine. I am fortunate to have an old television set and VCR down there to keep me company. I have always enjoyed watching family home movies, the family I created as well as the original family I belonged. Having been insistent throughout my life that major moments be videotaped, I have enjoyed the last three months of weekdays workouts viewing archived Christmases and other special family occasions. Although I've yet to run out of tapes to watch, I stumbled upon some truly vintage home movies from the late 1970s that places me at a very tender age. Watching these tapes has given me a new perspective on family dynamics and the importance of capturing these times .
My father was the first man in the neighborhood to own a video camera in 1978. He researched his purchase, saved for it, and invested in the best he could afford. He knew that capturing the images of his young family on tape would be a terrific gift. We, my brothers, parents and I, were all *hams* in one way or another. We yucked it up for the camera, trying to garner a laugh, become a star in some way. Only when the camera was left rolling long enough did our true personalities shine through because we would forget the camera was running. At first every moment of our lives was seemingly documented - from family mini-vacations to the evening television repast. Eventually the tapings dwindled down to an occasional birthday celebration and a few scattered Christmases. I used to beg to watch these tapes, but I was usually the only one who was interested in the show. After 1984 the camera laid quiet for some time until I urged my father to dig it out for Thanksgiving 1991. You see, by then I was in college and away from home for the first time. I knew I was missing a family dinner with relatives I did not see often but were dear to me. I begged my dad to dust off the camera and video tape the evening like I was there watching and listening to everything. To my surprise and delight my father did just that! This brought the camera out of retirement and Christmas of 1991 was also documented on film. It would take a few more years, but eventually I got custody of the video camera and religiously taped Christmas. There are now more modern cameras, smaller tapes, and larger families, but a video camera is ever-present at our Christmas morning celebrations.
Along with the video camera I also was given all of the old family videotapes from 1978 and up. Much of the tapes are filled with hours of endless experimentation, my father's car collection, a train ride through the Pennsylvania countryside, and endless summer days spent on a lake in the Berkshires of my brothers and cousins waterskiing. But the parts of the tapes I watch tirelessly are the Christmas celebrations, not because of the gifts, but because of the perpetually young faces staring at the camera. I see my six year old babbling self, a gawky eleven year old brother who was a rapidly growing bean pole, and a fifteen year old brother trying to find himself. I see my parents at an age that is (gasp!!) younger than I am now, their hair dark with no signs of gray (of course, my mother looks the same today!), their skin much paler than the Florida glow they sport year round. And, the best part of the tapes, I see my maternal grandmother, elegant and coiffed, risen far too early on a cold New Jersey Christmas morning, smiling and soaking up the joy in her grandchildren. I watch the dynamics between she and my mother. As the Christmases captured saw the children age, I noticed how, in my pre-teenness I was not nearly as cute or sweet. I hate those scenes. I wish I could make that young woman see that you don't get a second chance at life - I would tell her to always speak with respect, to appreciate every moment, and to value the time you have with loved ones. Thankfully that smart-mouthed young woman figured most of that out before my grandmother passed in 1991, a few months before the Thanksgiving was videotaped. I had forged a rich and loving relationship with my grandmother that lasted until her passing... and continues today.
Now I tape the Christmases so my children can watch the family dynamics of their family. We've been so lucky to have both sets of grandparents with us most years. I feel so delighted knowing that I am capturing hugs and kisses, laughter and stories on our tapes so my children can one day look back to see not just themselves in their youth, but from who they came. As I've been the Keeper of the Thanksgiving Plates, I am also the Keeper of The Memories. I find there is nothing more precious to leave the next generation than movies of the older ones in joyous times.
I wax nostalgic with the approaching Thanksgiving holiday. I wish for all my family and friends to be surrounded by love when they sit down for Thanksgiving dinner. I send hopes for making wonderful memories and a wish that some of those memories are archived so they can be witnessed for generations to come. I am forever grateful to my father for the foresight he had when he bought that video camera and to my husband for continuing the tradition in our family. Cheers to all of you who are the Keeper of The Memories in your families!
Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Keeper of The Plates

Growing up I was a fan of Thanksgiving because I was given a few days off from school and it meant we'd be able to decorate the house for Christmas shortly thereafter. I rarely understood the importance of the day, or the magnitude of having a day set aside to give thanks for all of my blessings, nor the awesomeness of having extended family share the day with us. My mother labored, alone, in the kitchen to produce a picture-perfect, scrumptious Rockwellian feast, set the lovely table with my paternal grandmother's Thanksgiving plates for more than our normal five places, and outdid herself year in and year out with her presentation and execution of this arguably most important meal of the entire year. I watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, dressed in some beautiful outfit she lovingly picked out for me, and, like most children, ate little of the dishes she prepared because my tastes had yet to develop to maturity. All the while I unknowingly was stockpiling warm memories of these dinners and storing them for a time, like now, when I would need to recall them to somehow reproduce a tiny part of what she did for my own family.
I am so blessed my parents are living and we are so very close, in our hearts. They live in Florida and I in New Jersey. During the summer I see them daily as they own a small summer cottage on a lake near my home, but once the autumn leaves become emblazoned with color, they retreat to their home down south. Whereas they return for Christmas most years, Thanksgiving, we have agreed, is a holiday they are more comfortable spending at home in Florida. This leaves me the hosting duties for this all-important feast day. And with these duties, and my maturity, I see how Thanksgiving is really the best holiday on the calendar!
Once my parents relocated to Florida they gave away many of their possessions to their children. Among the things I received were my grandmother's Thanksgiving plates that had graced my mother's table my entire childhood. The dishes have a glorious look; a brown and white color scheme with a lovely house in the snow and a majestic turkey in the foreground. There are approximately twenty plates and a huge serving plate. When I became "the keeper of the plates" I felt like I had become a valid and capable host of Thanksgiving. My husband and I, after assembling this all-important dinner for many years now, are always so proud to set our table with the Thanksgiving dishes and present our feast for family and friends. On occasion we've even brought our dishes to extended family on my husband's side to dine off of for the day. Thanksgiving dinner just looks (and tastes) better on those plates.
On Thursday I will lovingly take the Thanksgiving plates out of storage and set my table. I'll call my parents to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving and walk down memory lane for a few minutes before we ring off the phone. I'll assist my husband in making a glorious feast for our family of five and his parents who arrived last night to share our holiday. That afternoon, when we sit down to dine, we'll go around the table and tell what we are thankful. This year, like I have since I've had custody of them, I will silently be thankful for being "the keeper of the plates". And I'll say an extra prayer thanking God for giving me three children, one of whom will one day inherit the title of "the keeper of the plates".

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Traditions

As a history teacher for 8th grade middle-schoolers I always found it appealing to diverge from the curriculum during the holidays. Knowing that my mind was definitely fixated on the festivities, I didn't want to have my students struggle to focus on someone else's history when they were much more interested in their own. So, starting with Halloween and ending with the December holidays, I assigned three different "Traditions" papers. The papers dealt with the child's individual family traditions for the holiday in question. Halloween, being the first and the one with the least traditions, always perplexed my classes and yielded the least stellar examples of writing. The Thanksgiving Traditions paper was my favorite. The students started to identify with what were truly unique traditions to their families and what bonded them. I would collect these assignments on this, the Monday of Thanksgiving week, and for the next three class sessions have the children set in a large circle and give a short presentation of their traditions based on the paper they had written. This assignment, though seemingly a time waster, actually was quite difficult and academic. The students were graded on content, writing/grammar, and their oral presentations. They were made to dissect the common activities of the days surrounding these major holidays and reflect on why they are the traditions their families hold dear. This is no easy task for most, but especially for 13-14 year old children. What I found as their teacher was a common thread woven around each child's family. From watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, to turkey roasting in the oven, and to football being a large part of Thanksgiving celebration. But I also found the most interesting nuggets that sparked wonderful ideas to bring to my own traditions. So, for that reason I am resurrecting the "Thanksgiving Traditions" directive here.
Please list your family's Thanksgiving Traditions. From menu to travel plans, television viewing to shopping, and holiday decorating to sleeping on the couch, list your Thanksgiving weekend traditions for all of us to read and enjoy. Not into writing in essay form? Use bullets! Not sure what you do? Ask the "boss" of the house (she'll tell you!). Traditions changed recently? Explain why! What I learned as a teacher and now as I writer, it's that we are more alike than dissimilar. That our habits and traditions tend to be related during these celebratory occasions, but when we have differences they are fascinating to read about and sometimes enticing to try for ourselves and our families. Help me to shine the light on the various Thanksgiving Traditions of my readership. And, for those of you in charge, did you take the bird out to thaw yet? It's probably time to do so!

Happy Thanksgiving Week to you all!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Music Blog

Welcome back to the most popular segment, the Friday Music Blog (FMB). Throughout the ten weeks I have been posting, the FMB has garnered the most page views and interest among my readership. I am always thrilled to dig deeply for an original topic and see what everyone has to share by posting their selections that adhere to that topic.

Today's focus is song's with the word "Believe" in the title. As with most of my topics, any and every genre is fair game. From Rock to Pop, Country to Gospel, Classical to Alternative, R&B to Polka, and everything in between, list every song that fits the category. This week's blogs have shed the light on the upcoming gift-giving holiday season. From "I Believe" posted on Monday to the "Gift"-centered blogs of mid-week, I am trying in earnest to share the tips and ideas that have enabled me to enjoy rather than dread the Christmas Season I spend with my loved ones. I chose the topic today because believing is the central core that shapes Christmas in my mind. Believing in the story of the First Christmas, believing in the gift bringer, Santa Claus/Father Christmas, and believing in yourself to put on a fantastic celebration, one that others and you can enjoy.

It is with great humbleness, incredulous honor, and a bit of pride that with this, my fiftieth blog posted on my own site, I am on the verge of my five thousandth page view (and no, I do not count my own views of this blog)! With any luck I should make that milestone this morning. Not only do I believe in Santa Claus and having a blissful Christmas, I believe in all of you! And you are showing me that you believe in me, too. Thank you so much for your support, silent or otherwise, that allows me to continue to share my life and perspective on things.

Please join me this weekend for a special posting about the Amazon link I feature. With the upcoming holiday weekend (Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving) so much is happening sale-wise I wanted to inform you.

Have a wonderful weekend, check in a few times to see how the FMB is doing and to see what Amazon has in store for you. And please join me starting Monday for another week of original blogs!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gifts - Part 2 of Many

So, the list of gift suggestions from the other day left you either with a whetted appetite for more suggestions, numb because you are simply not ready for the Herculean task of shopping for everyone on your list, or unimpressed because that was just "the tip of the iceberg". I promised more ideas so today I'm delivering. It is vital to me to get the majority of my holiday shopping finished before Thanksgiving because I do not like to shop among the throngs who wait until after that time. Everyone feels differently about when to shop, I'm just offering suggestions now; it's up to you when you want to get the job done.
One of my number one rules is to steer clear of gag gifts, the gift that is supposed to be uproariously hilarious, but is typically a waste of money and falls short of the intended joke. Unless you know the recipient will truly appreciate this gesture, I recommend sticking to thoughtful and more traditional gifts. Classic gifts are universally welcomed and thus seem much more budget-friendly. The gifts I always gravitate toward for children include dolls, baby or Barbie, Legos, or Matchbox cars. These tried and true names rarely displease, are made with superior quality, have offerings in all price ranges to fit most budgets, and, unlike other toy names, have definite staying power in the marketplace. Other classic toys would include Slinky, Lincoln Logs, Bristle Blocks, Play-Doh, Hot Wheels, Mickey Mouse, Thomas the Train, and Madame Alexander dolls. Modern classics include the Melissa & Doug brand name of puzzles and unique wooden toys and just about anything Harry Potter!
For teens it is best to remember they prefer the independence of choosing their own style, so stay away from clothes as gifts unless they have picked out their own outfits or dropped major hints. They may enjoy, however, a designer accessory, say a scarf, handbag, or wallet with the designer name that is popular with them (not adults).
Classic board games are another super way to gift to a person or a family. So much time is spent on video games, either on the television or handheld, that true face-to-face gaming is all but forgotten. Bring it back! Monopoly, Clue, Battleship, Life, Risk, Stratego, Scrabble, and Othello are wonderful games for adults or families. For young children games like Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, and Match games are winners. Other wonderful games are Backgammon, Checkers, and Chess. As a card player and specifically a bridge player I'd also selfishly recommend gifting a dual deck of cards with a "How-to" book for games like Hearts and Bridge. Card games can provide hours of fun at a very low cost. And not all card games need start with the word "poker".
Books, actual and audiobooks, are fantastic gifts. Children are usually off from school during the Christmas break and reading is a perfect way to spend time. From Little Golden books to Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, from teen romances to Harry Potter tomes, and from the endless titles out there for adults who adore fiction or true stories, books are a superior gift choice. I always have a few books on my Christmas list and I always gift books to my recipients!
Most adults would probably enjoy, depending on the climate in which they live, a warm scarf (cashmere, merino wool, acryllic) in fashionable colors, or a great pair of gloves. Socks, although seemingly mundane, are a fantastic gift for adults because they wear out! Giving gifts that are usable and get used up is a great way to go! Wallets are also lovely gifts for adults as well, as long as you know the type they prefer; men choose between bi- or tri- folds, ladies have unlimited choices in size, lengths, and styles.  Picture frames make great gifts, especially if the recipient has children/grandchildren. Dish towels are another terrific idea as, like socks, they wear out. Choose ones that actually dry dishes! Another brilliant idea is assembling your own gift basket for a friend or family. Buying items in bulk, whether at your warehouse store, local grocers, or discount store, allows for breaking up the items and redistributing them to several people. If you are creative you choose a vessel - basket, colander, hamper/laundry basket, etc. - fill it with consumables - food, cleaning products, etc. - and present it to your recipient with a wow! Most stores charge a premium for 'gift baskets', but the simple truth is, it is reasonable to assemble these yourself using everyday items, even specialty pieces, if you do a little leg work. Interested in more gift basket ideas, just ask. I've made several in my time and would love to share my ideas in future blogs.
These suggestions should help equip you with more ideas as you set out to tackle your list. In future blogs I'll tackle the subjects of teacher gifts as I was a teacher for a decade and have some serious input to offer. I'll also dedicate one blog to my all-time favorite category of stocking stuffers.
Please join me tomorrow as we get back to our "normal programming" and examine a new Friday Music Blog topic. Until then, happy gift gathering!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Gift Journal

Yesterday we began exploring how to begin acquiring and gathering the many gifts we plan to give this holiday season. Throughout the weeks ahead I'll offer more ideas, strategies, and places to find more *perfect* gifts (as long as you remember there is no such thing as perfect). Once gifts start coming into your home it is important to inventory them to remember what you bought and who it is going. Years ago, out of necessity, I took a blank decorative notebook, hard-bound, and dedicated it as my gift journal. A gift journal is the journal I keep that is designated only for the gifts I buy year round for birthdays and especially Christmas.
My gift journal reads "2010 Gifts", a title I gave when I began it on December 26th of 2009 and is the place I list every single item I have bought, made, or regifted that year. I do it in the order these gifts make it into my home and do not put them in storage or wrap them until I have recorded them in my gift journal. I mark what the gift is, who is receiving it, if I know at the time, and for what occasion it is being gifted. This may seem tedious, but it is fast and helps me stay organized. It is important to note that I start buying the day after Christmas and hit all of the big sales throughout the year. I bring my reduced priced treasures home and inventory them in my 'gift journal' lest I forget how much I've found throughout the months. This visual keeps me apprised of how much I have for each person on my gift-giving list and truly keeps my budget in check. I rarely have large bills in January due to Christmas gift-buying frenzies as I've been shopping year-round to fill the coffers! Hitting enormous after-Christmas sales as well as other post-holiday sales, Back-to-School sales, etc. keeps my supplies rather full at a nominal cost to me.
Toward the end of summer I start a page for each person I am gifting to and fill in the gifts I've already bought with their name next to it. I am highly organized, don't over buy or panic in last minute situations, and have a running tally of who is getting what, and, after years of doing it, what I've given to each person year after year. I jot down ideas, web sites, and stores with great sales. I mark if a gift was well received or if it fell flat. It is my ever-present present recorder! I've even broadened the topics to include holiday menus I've concocted and how easy, tasty, and time-consuming they were. This is my one-stop holiday planner, organizer that I created with my own ideas and inexpensive blank book of paper! I highly recommend it!
I store my gifts in Rubbermaid (type) plastic storage boxes, but before they go in there I inventory each item, no matter how small or inexpensive, in my gift journal. As a wife and mother who hosts Christmas in my home annually, and as the daughter, sister, and daughter-in-law of dear family who come to my home to share in these important festivities, I take my role as "Christmas maker and gift giver" very seriously. The gift journal I created has been my most reliable tool in helping to make my Christmas planning a year-round successful event. I hope these ideas inspire you!
Join me tomorrow and each day in the weeks to come for more gift-giving ideas, recipes, entertaining tips, and more to help you prepare for and enjoy this holiday season!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gifts - Part 1 of Many

Whether you are a year-round shopper or a procrastinator, shopping for gifts is now a priority for many who exchange this time of year. Children, friends, parents, neighbors, siblings, extended family, teachers, bus drivers, the dog walker, your hair dresser, etc. may all tentatively be on the list of people you need to buy gifts. This may be a daunting task if your list is longer than your budget, but with some creativity, attention to detail, a good plan, and a vow to rework your shopping style by next year, things will work itself out. For the seasoned shoppers out there, please feel free to add your own tips, ideas, and bona fide success stories. For the rest of you, although you may want to skip reading today's blog because it's "not your thing" or "I hate shopping, especially for gifts", just humor me and get to the end of the blog. It should be rather painless and may even net you some good ideas as you move begrudgingly into the gift-giving season. Even if your spouse or parent does the bulk (all?) of the holiday shopping, who is giving to him/her? At this time of year, young, old, or in-between, gift giving, not receiving, should be the goal. Money is tight, financial futures still may look bleak, but part of what makes the holidays magical is the exchange of a thoughtful gift with someone you love.
Where do we begin? At the beginning, of course! Who do you need to shop? Make a list of every person you think you need to buy a gift. Once finished, reread the list critically. Are there people you can cross off? Many friends/neighbors and acquaintances would possibly be relieved to mutually agree to forgo gift exchanges this year so they could concentrate on keeping their budget in tact as well. Perhaps calling them this week to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving (it is next week, people!) would be a lovely gesture and mention something to the effect that you value their friendship/place in your life, but in lieu of a gift exchange you'd like to have them over for pre- or post- holiday shopping hot cocoa. It's a great way to entertain without serving a meal, it helps to get rid of the ever-present Christmas cookies, and it shows those people you still care about them without having to spend copious amounts of money on them.
Once your list is streamlined it is time to gather bits of information. If you are buying clothes do you have the sizes? What are the interests of the people you are buying gifts? Definitely fix a budget before you set out to shop and stick to it. Many people believe in filling an envelope with the person's name on it and when the money is gone that person is "finished".
Some people ask for lists so they can choose a pre-approved gift from that person's wish list. I see the benefits of this and have utilized this option, but I much prefer going my own route. I am a person who enjoys shopping, but if you do not, the list option is a good one. Shopping from my own "list", however, usually gives me endless options of getting more reasonable items that will surprise and delight the recipient. This is a completely personal decision for the shopper.
Where do you shop? Nowadays ordering gifts online is a wonderful way to go. There are countless stores to connect with all personalities you are buying gifts. Always check for coupons by going to your search engine (i.e. google.com) and type in the store's name and the word coupons. Many times the larger retailers will offer some discounts on price or shipping or sometimes both. Try it now or after Thanksgiving when cyber-retailers offer cyber-Monday deals (akin to Black Friday at brick and mortar stores). Even some cyber retailers will offer the same deals on Black Friday as their stores do without the lines. Check out the clearance and sales sections of your favorite online stores. A lot of times the coupons you get online work on those items, too. Try to shop the cyber stores that offer free shipping. This year LL Bean is offering free shipping for any purchase, and Amazon, my personal favorite for obvious reasons (please use my link if you'd be shopping there anyway) will give free shipping with purchases over $25. Each store has their own minimum purchase so be aware before you buy. Still, other stores will allow you to have the item shipped to your local store for free. Investigate all of  your options, it doesn't take too long.
If you are going to a "real" store, arm yourself with all the tools you need for success:  coupons, circulars, comfortable shoes, and a good attitude. Waiting this long may net you incredible deals, but stores are crowded and sales people are wearing thin at being treated like crud. Shoot them a winning smile, ask them how they are, and wish them a happy holiday season. Coupons are a necessity when you shop at stores that issue them. Never pay full retail, use as many coupons as allowed per transaction, and, if they are sticklers for one coupon per transaction, check out as many times as you have to to make each coupon work for you. There is no shame in this; it is worth it to save as much as you can! Just keep smiling and do not apologize. Retailers like Bed, Bath, & Beyond have a fantastic policy regarding their coupons. Every retailer could and should follow suit.
Don't forget to shop garden centers for plants, trees, and/or tools as they make excellent gifts. These stores also sell holiday trim, lights, and collectibles. Retailers like WalMart and Target are popular for a reason - they typically offer the customer the lowest prices - I, for one, cannot pass that up. Shopping for a man? Try your local hardware store. Not Lowe's or Home Depot necessarily, although they are good sources, but the local Mom & Pop shop that carries everything. Shopping for the hard-to-buy? Many people just have too much stuff. Offer them an experience - theater/concert tickets, sporting event tickets, museum passes, hot-air balloon ride, a ride on your motorcycle and lunch, a ride in your vintage car and a picnic, a ride in your mini-van and a movie (Harry Potter anyone?!). Are you talented in creative ways? If you bake enroll your loved one in your own "Dessert of the Month" Club. For 3, 6, or even 12 months offer one dessert per month delivered to the recipient. Perhaps you are handy in the garage. Offer 2 free oil changes and then follow through making the appointments to come over and do them. Photography your thing? Offer to take a family or couple portrait, do a landscape, or whatever your specialty is, and frame it for your person. Writer? Write each person on your list a lengthy letter about why you care about them and what makes them special to you. I did this after the birth of my first son for his first Christmas. There wasn't a dry eye at our Christmas dinner table. Words, in that case, meant more than something in a box.
This blog is long... and unfinished. I have myriad suggestions and will blog about them continuously in the days and weeks leading up to the holidays. If you have your own ideas, post them below. If you think I'm a loon, post that, too! Whatever your responsibility during the gift-giving season, I hope you take time to enjoy the people who mean the most to you and not fixate on how many gifts.
Tomorrow, the highly anticipated blog about "The Gift Journal" Stay tuned for that, other blogs about "gifts", and much more to prepare for the upcoming holiday season.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I Believe

Ever since I was a very young child I have believed in Santa Claus. This may seem rather usual as many children share this believe that a grandfatherly figure arrives on Christmas Eve to leave gifts and toys for all the good girls and boys, but my belief was staunch, adamant, and unwavering. As the youngest of three children with brothers nine and five years older than me respectively, it was a difficult childhood maintaining my beliefs at first. My middle brother tried to gather me into his schemes to "spy" in the house when our parents were out to see if we could find presents they had stashed away. And, of course, when we found gifts packed into a closet that wound up under our tree on Christmas morning my brother was convinced that our parents were really Santa Claus. I may have given up a little ferocity of my beliefs after that time, but by the next Christmas I had completely reformed my views. Santa Claus exists. I know he does. My lifetime has been spent looking for evidence - I am a historian - and I have found it.
My parents are the first people who told me about Santa Claus. They are good people who I cannot believe would lie to me...at least about that. Each Christmas Eve my mother would read to me "'Twas The Night Before Christmas", the poem by Clement Clarke Moore which illuminated and immortalized Santa Claus. With each reading I became more familiar with Santa Claus' features, his routine, and his generosity of spirit. Once I began to read I poured over the poem at all different times of the year; there seemed to be no holes in the story. And, true to the poem, each Christmas Morning I would wake up to a magical Christmas scene with gifts from Santa Claus! Surely the poem was truth!
As I grew older, elementary school-aged, I was exposed to television specials and movies which also told the tale of Santa Claus. My eldest brother would watch, religiously, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, the Rankin/Bass animated special that aired yearly showcasing a biography of Santa Claus and answering many questions that had previously been unknown. This delighted us both year in and out. We still agree on the importance of this show in our lives.
My father introduced me to one of the weightiest arguments proving there is a Santa Claus and that came in the form of the movie Miracle on 34th Street. This movie, starring an adorable and precocious Natalie Wood, takes place in post-war New York City and proves once and for all that there is a Santa Claus! The movie is riveting, smart, and magical. If you haven't treated yourself or haven't seen it in a long time, do so and without commercials. This cemented a trust between my father and me that Santa Claus is real and taught me that, "Faith is believing when reason tells you not to." There was no better statement uttered on film and I live by those words even today.
As a child, however, I did believe that Santa Claus needed some help. He was extraordinarily generous to my brothers and me, but my parents were never treated to his surprises. This irked me, so one year, not even ten years old, I asked my grandmother (GaGa) who was visiting for the holidays for some tiny boxes. Without question she took out the costume jewelry from 3 of her boxes and handed them to me. On Christmas morning Santa had left gifts for my mother, father, and GaGa wrapped in tiny boxes. Inside each box was a crisp one dollar bill and a shiny quarter. My father's box also contained three extra pennies. The adults were incredulous and shocked. My GaGa figured things out, but I simply praised Santa for being so good to the adults in our home, especially my father who had to pay the bills!
By the time I was a teen-ager I was throwing money, any spare change I could get my hands on, into the pots the bell ringers manned for the Salvation Army. I was learning that not everyone had plentiful Christmases. It struck me as unfair and terribly sad and something I needed to try to rectify. I started buying toys and donating to the Toys For Tots program and I always bought for the Food Pantries in town.
As with many who suffer crisis of faith I did go through several Christmases questioning life, getting depressed, let down, and feeling overwhelmed. I was without children, swimming in material goods but lacking in spiritual fulfillment. I continued to assist Santa by supplying my parents with stuffed stockings, but even that was not as joyful as it had been. I was needing to find more solid proof that Santa Claus existed in this modern world and I was put here for a more important reason.
Having my first child calmed my inner turmoil. I was desperately looking for a soul to love and care for and by having my son I was able to begin to cure mine while helping to tend his! Shortly after he entered my life I was  once again thrust into the role of Santa Claus. I was beginning to be host for the holiday and needed to make sure all people, not just children, were treated to Santa's generosity in our home. I was in a bookstore one day near Christmas and found a book that I was compelled to buy and read immediately titled, The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Santa himself and Jeff Guinn. I had seen biographies of the Big Guy, including one from the Biography Channel that I used to show my students during the holiday season, but never had I seen a book written by Santa himself. I began reading immediately and discovered myriad facts about Santa Claus (nee Saint Nicholas). I was enthralled! Here was the proof in Santa's own words! I never needed to question again whether Santa Claus existed. He does, just like The Sun proclaimed to little Virginia! Now I had the proof I'd been searching for a lifetime!
I am one of Santa's Helpers. I work year round to assist him with his gift-giving duties on that one night a year. There are many valuable tips I have learned and developed to successfully prepare for and enjoy Christmas each and every year. Stick with me and I'll share these tips with you each day leading up to Christmas.
I believe. I understand how scores of others cannot. My hope is to get the word out that we all can assist Santa Claus and make this holiday season a lot brighter for ourselves, our neighbors, our families, and those in need. It just takes kindness and a generosity of spirit. I learned that from Santa Claus. I believe, do you?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Music Blog

Happy Friday! We've made it to the end of the work/school week and are inching closer and closer to the holidays! We explored our deepest joys and luxuries, and even conversed with our younger selves. It's been a productive week and now we close with the popular Friday Music Blog. I encourage all who read but have yet to comment to please feel free to leave your selections. The longer the list the stronger it is and the more we have to read, agree, or debate!

Today's topic focuses on songs with "life" in the title. Since we spent so much time examining our own lives this week, this topic seemed appropriate. So do the searches that conjure up any and every song featuring the word "life"

For a second all new Friday Music Blog topic log on to http://rowdy.com!

As I close week 9 of this blog I am more encouraged than ever to continue. The feedback you all have given me is driving me to seek out identifiable topics, explore deeper emotions, common concerns, and keep a handle on the entertainment side of what I do here. From movies to music, from passion to anger, from parenthood to coupledom, and from dependency to independence, no topic is off-limits. I'm trying each week to keep positivity at the forefront of my posts, be honest with myself, and keep a connection between me and my readership. I am honored and humbled by those of you who consistently check in with me and this blog, tickled by the growing numbers this blog attracts daily, and inspired to continue posting! Thank you for accompanying me on this journey.

Have a great weekend, take a few minutes over the weekend to check back on the blogs that interest you and see how the Friday Music Blog fairs, and I'll see you back here on Monday for a whole new week of original topics!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Letter to My Younger Self"

*First, before I tackle today's topic I'd like to express my deepest gratitude to the countless men and women who currently serve, have served, and those who have sacrificed greatly to the service of our country. On this solemn and important day in our country I feel it is vitally important to remember and honor those who put Country first. God Bless you, your families, and God Bless America.*

Today's topic is one that hopefully is affecting many around the USA today. A nationwide "party" led by The New York Times best-selling author Ellyn Spragins is occurring today to facilitate empowerment and enlightenment through self reflection and sharing. In essence, women are meeting in myriad public places across the country to write their younger selves a letter revealing their hard-won, inner-wisdom (information provided by The NJ Herald, Sunday, November 7, 2010).

Being that I have a father, two brothers, a husband, and two sons I detest when men are left out of seemingly important and informative exercises. I think this task could certainly be fun, creative, and enlightening, but I do not believe only women can benefit, therefore I am broadening this directive to all of the men as well. I believe that men and women equally have the capacity to teach to their younger selves.

Instead of treating this like a school assignment, I simply want to extract the fundamentals and play with them. What wisdom have you gleaned in your lifetime that you wish you could whisper into the younger you who was scared, stressed, heart-broken, anxious, or depressed? What calming information could you relay about love, life, career, education, or friendship? Would you address the you in high school and tell him/her that people will chill out and this isn't the "end all be all"? Would you tell a heartbroken twenty-something to "stay the course" as true love is right around the corner? Perhaps you might tell a former self to pay attention more closely in school, to make education a higher priority. Or maybe you want to let the younger you know that spending the extra money on the car was "totally worth it!". Whatever wisdom, knowledge, or beliefs you have now that could enable the younger you to benefit then is the idea.

This may seem burdensome or a time waster, but I believe that reminiscing and reconnecting with your younger self with the added understanding that you have so much to offer the younger you, and, in turn, the younger you wasn't really so lost, is worthwhile of a few extra minutes today. Won't you join me in this self-taught assignment? Perhaps what you print will not only reverberate with you, but someone struggling with something currently. Please join me...

Dear Younger Me,

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Life's Grandest Luxuries

Each year for the last eighty-five the upscale department store Neiman Marcus has issued a Christmas book; a catalogue of gifts available for their finest clientele. Among the items listed in the annual Christmas book in previous years are their famous cookies, specialty jewelry, and one-of-a-kind delights like a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course in your own back yard for a cool $1 million.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the His & Her Fantasy Gifts Neimen Marcus instituted to bring a new element into luxurious spending for the holidays. When the category began in 1960 the gift was matching His & Hers Beechcraft airplanes costing $176,000. Today's offering for the His & Her gift is the MetroShip Houseboat costing $250,000.
After turning our introspective eye inward at the beginning of the week to identify the "great joys" and "little luxuries" we revel, it's time to open the floodgates of our imaginations and construct our own Fantasy Gift catalogue that incorporates the luxuries we'd all love to possess. The sky (or beyond) is the limit! Working together to "fill the pages" of our fictitious booklet may be even more fun than actually getting any of this stuff - well, not really, but we have the opportunity to make our Fantasy catalogue now, most do not have the means to buy this stuff!
Think as outrageously as you can, but try to make it what you would really love to own in your wildest fantasies, not just something expensive but you could care less about. Let's personalize this creation. Are you a baseball fan, a car enthusiast, a jewelry lover? Do you adore fashion, electronics/technology, or toys? Are exotic vacations your thing? Are music, art, or the written word your passion? Identify where you would spend your money and make a page or two of offerings you would love to see in a Christmas Fantasy Gift book tailored to you. For each person who responds we'll have a more luxurious catalogue! What could be more fun than getting in touch with your ultimate wants?
Join me and post your Christmas gift (or Chanukah or whatever gift-giving holiday you observe) fantasy list here. Be specific and, if you are so inclined, include the prices you think the items you mention would go for in reality. Let's start the window shopping this holiday season in our own catalogue!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Life's Little Luxuries

Continuing the week's themes of equipping oneself with tools to make one feel good, today's focus is on life's little luxuries. These are the things we employ in our days that add refinement to living, not just the necessities. These are the items that add enormous pleasure, beauty, and indulgence to our mundane existence. These items need not cost a fortune, but they do enhance life and add immeasurably to our enjoyment.
Each list, though we may identify with others', is not universal, should be unique to you. Create a list of your 'little luxuries' that you count on to lift your spirits, boost your mood, and cannot do without.
The following is my list of "Life's Little Luxuries":

 1. My hair - cut, color, product are all the finest I can afford and maintained painstakingly throughout the year. It may be costly compared to home processes, but my stylist is the professional who trained for years and keeps my hair healthy, soft, and gorgeous. If I am experiencing a bad hair day it deflates me. I know this is vain, but I dare say I am not alone in feeling this way. We must look in a mirror daily and present ourselves to the world. Why should I suffer with bad hair? I love myself too much for that!

 2. With a nod to my good friend Buck Fever, baths definitely make my list. I do not get to luxuriate in a hot bath daily, but I do take several each month and relish each moment I sink into the bubbly concoction I create. Those instances revitalize me!

 3. My cashmere wrap gifted to me from my children (thanks, Honey) for Christmas a few years ago. It is a black cable knit cashmere shawl/scarf that is warm, rich, soft, and large enough to cover me as a good wrap should. I live in this thing 3 seasons of the year and would adore one in another color just to expand my opportunities to wear it!

 4. Sushi is a household favorite. Being it is rather expensive it is truly used for special occasions. My entire family - including our one year old daughter - loves Sushi so sometimes, "It's Saturday, it's a 'special occasion!'" works! It is a rare treat, but sushi is unabashedly adored...and devoured in this home.

 5. Watching our favorite programs from television on the DVR (sans commercials) when we are available. No longer are we slaves to the programmers. If I am at Karate when Glee is on, I simply DVR it and watch it later when my children are asleep and my husband is situated on the couch next to me. I love Glee.

 6. Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments are a category unto themselves. Fresh out of college I worked at a Hallmark Gold Crown store for a couple of years. When I worked there I could never afford the designer ornaments I sold. When our careers took off we started collecting a few ornaments selectively. Over the years we amassed a tremendous collection and can now decorate at least two or more trees with what we own. This is the first year we have not bought any (one of the many luxuries cut to make it through this dreadful economy). But we anticipate each year opening the boxes, adding the batteries to those that need them, and decorating with our prized Christmas gems. The children have their own and are so proud to place them lovingly on the tree. We have a theme some years to the trees while other years it is just a mish mosh. We always hang our Star Wars garland in the kitchen. It is quite impressive! Pictures will have to wait until we decorate this season! The children's favorite are the Peanuts ornaments that play "Linus and Lucy" and the aforementioned Star Wars ornaments.

 7. Rides in the Daimler. With 3 kids I rarely get to ride in my husband's race car/street car, the Daimler SP250 Dart. This is one of my favorite things to do, especially because it means time alone with my husband. But as the children get older I know opportunity will present itself again.

 8. Date night is one of the luxuries that I would also place in the 'necessities' category. I believe in keeping the relationship with my husband vital and a priority lest the children make us totally insane. Our relationship came first and I want it to be there when we have those rascals permanently out of the house, so I tend to the relationship often and well.

 9. My computer is also teetering on the line between luxury and necessity, but I know we used to live without high speed internet at one time and even without computers, too! Spending time online writing, commenting, communicating, visiting, researching, and exploring is mind-blowing. I would hate to ever give it up!

10. Town & Country magazine is a favorite of mine. If you are unfamiliar, it is a magazine for the well-heeled in society. Those with the money, means, education, and class who can afford all of life's grand luxuries are written about and the target audience. I adore simply looking at the advertisements that feature the best jewelry designers in the world! I am a jewelry fanatic! That luxury, little, grand, or in-between, is one I can scarcely give up! Flipping through the pages of this beautifully crafted magazine makes me feel like I am part of the elite. The magazine came into my realm when I was a freshmen in college (1989) and my father called to tell me he and his car, a 1913 Zinn Buick, were featured in the October issue of Town & Country. I rushed out to buy my copy, read my father's article and admired his large picture printed in color, and then perused the rest of the magazine. That started a love affair with the periodical that has endured to this day. Only in the last year have I actually had a subscription; I used to buy one or two issues a year. Now I allow myself this little luxury.

Here is my list, quirky, silly, and uniquely mine. I urge you to create your own. Perhaps you have only 2 or 3 items on your list, maybe you have 25! Either way, leave your list (or do one on your own for personal consumption only) here and admire how well you allow yourself these luxuries that enhance your life. Value yourself, honor yourself, and take these facts to steel yourself against the stresses that may await with the approaching holiday season. I am no Scrooge; I adore the holidays, but even I know they test the best of us.

This week's focus is on what makes us feel good, join me as we continue to amass the list.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Great Joys

In the hustle and bustle that comes with life, especially life with the holiday season on the way in short order, how do you find great joys? Can you identify them easily and make time for them, or are you too disconnected, bogged down, and out of touch with what makes you truly happy?
Some equate great joys with money and in this economy that is a dangerous way to pin moods and capacity for joy. Others can only conceive of joys revolving around media - television, iPod, computer. What I propose is a list of true great joys be constructed personally before another day goes by. Take a few minutes to find out what truly makes you happy, turns you on, and keeps you moving in a positive manner throughout your day.
For me this list would have to include spending time with my children before bed reading them a story, talking, cuddling and bonding before the next day begins. They are at their most serene and sincere and the stresses of the day, annoyances that may have cast a pall, gone into the ether, and all that is left are pajama-clad Angels who smell sweet and clean, feel soft and huggable, and who sprinkle my face with tinkly kisses. Those are among the greaest joys in my life.
Spending quality time with my husband would also fall into the category of great joys. For some this is a no-brainer, but, unfortunately I understand not all couples actually enjoy one another's company. I thrive on time spent with my husband be it with our family or alone. We are the best of friends, have much (but not all) in common, and share many passions.
Entertaining friends is also high on my list of great joys. We had two different couples over for dinner this weekend. The evenings were relaxed, full of interesting and hilarious conversations, and a good time was had by all! More often than not we are having people over to hang and dine. We have friends from high school all the way up through recent times and we make time for all of them because we value friendship so highly. It is easy to  isolate, fend off issuing invitations because "the house isn't clean" or "I don't know what to make", but entertaining for us is a wonderful excuse to keep the house in relatively neat order and the food is as intricate as a five course meal or as simple as pizza and soda!
I'm finding great joy where I'd least expect it in recent months. I now enjoy my time on the elliptical early in the morning. I used to detest exercise in all of its forms and would not see the benefits. Now I know that not only is my body benefitting from the daily movement, but my brain is as well. Spending all day with three dependent children is taxing. Starting the day alone, working up a sweat, and swimming in my uninterrupted thoughts is one of the greatest joys I have ever experienced!
Reading is another joy for me. I adore getting lost in the written word, escaping to a new world, befriending characters in a story whose images I alone conjure up. It is and always has been an endless joy. There is far too little time for me to indulge in this joy, but I do as often as I can and know one day I will have far too much time for reading. My children will one day be gone and I will have books surrounding me. I'm trying to enjoy each minute I have with them when they steal me away from my book, magazine, or article.
Writing, as most of you now know, is one of my all-time great joys. I am finding so much more out about myself on this journey that began with this blog project. There are myriad topics I've yet to examine from my perspective and so look forward to exploring. I am honored that you come along with me. Having you here adds such depth to the joy I experience!
Here's my list written extemporaneously as I sit at my computer at 5:00 a EST. I have logged thirty minutes on my elliptical, written the blog, and have the day laid out before me. The last great joy I could imagine today would be having a ton of responses to read offering up your lists of great joys. Let's compile them and ward off the stresses that are bound to accompany the upcoming (Joyful) holiday season! If we can find great joy somewhere every day then we are certainly equipped to handle anything that comes our way!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Music Blog

It's quite obvious to me that this is a movie-loving crowd! Movie blogs will become a more regular feature here, but Fridays are Friday Music Blog days! Today's topic, appropriately enough, asks for your favorite movie songs. These can be theme songs, songs written exclusively for movies, or songs featured in movies. The only caveat is the song must have some connection to a movie.

I want to thank each and every reader for taking the time to log on to this site, read my blogs, current and older material, and joining me on my journey. It is a strong and persistent feeling of vulnerability to write something for public consumption and wonder if anyone will log on to read. You all have been a tremendous readership comprised of dear friends, old friends, new friends, and simply wonderful people who, for some reason, like what they saw and stuck around. I thank you all for honoring me by returning each day.

I ask you to return next Monday as I've already begun formulating new blog topics. This journey is still at its beginning stages and I am so glad to have you with me every step of the way!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Kid Vacation

My children are home from school today and tomorrow because of a statewide convention for teachers sponsored by the state teacher's union. They are thrilled beyond belief to have their schedule interrupted and to have a four day weekend. I am thrilled for the same reasons! Although I embrace routines and can rarely function without them, I find I am as giddy as they are to have this glorious reprieve. It makes ME feel like a kid again!
For those of you with children home, how do you fill the hours? Juggling the three kids I have here, ages 8, 4, and 1, there doesn't seem to be much downtime, but I want to do something "special" to punctuate this time off. With money being tight I cannot justify going somewhere with a fee, so I am trying to construct a combination of free play and structured activity so the two oldest children do not wind up battling each other like Transformers, Jedi/Sith, or Batman/Joker.
What were the activities you enjoyed as a child when you had a rare day off from school? What have you found works for you when your children are home? Are you crafty? Do you go for a hike? Do you cook/bake? As a child, did you stay in bed and read? Were you organizing a trip to the movies or the mall? Did you beg your mom/dad to have a board game/video game marathon? Were you treated to a mini-vacation away from home?
The time off seems long as it stretches out before me, but as with life with children, the hours fly by and the next thing I'll know it will be Sunday night and a new week will be upon us. I want to slow the pace, make some magic memories, and simply relax. I want them to fill the days with activities they enjoy and try new things to add excitement. Your input is most appreciated! Help me plan an ideal "kid vacation"!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Can't Stop Watching" Movies

My husband and I enjoy watching movies; we don't get to very often, but we do enjoy it! When time allows we order up a movie from our Netflix account (either on an actual DVD or from our Wii console) and sit down to watch. Sometimes we pick aces, but other times the movie doesn't deliver a strong punch. Our tastes run the gamut and we enjoy many different genres. On the other hand, sometimes we sit down for a few minutes at the end of a long day and just "flip" or "surf" with the remote. We have nothing in particular we are looking for, but when we see a certain movie we both (or individually) adore, we are compelled to stop, no matter what part of the movie it is! There are many that we cannot stop watching.
One of the movies we must stop and watch is any of the Star Wars trilogies. We adore all six movies and, even though we own them all, we stop to watch and recite the lines! There are purists who feel the older movies are the only good ones and others, younger generations usually, who only regard the later trilogy as worthwhile, but in our family any of the six movies is lauded and watched with pleasure!
Another movie I cannot flip away from is Star Trek 2:  The Wrath of Khan. I saw this in the theater with my oldest brother and, although he was already a long time Star Trek fan and I was not, became one myself during that viewing. The story line is compelling, the acting, though over-the-top from Shatner and some of the others, still leaves me breathless and teary at the end. This is a highly quotable movie and lines get used in my life all of the time.
Tombstone is a favorite of my husband and mine. This movie starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer is a gem that is timeless and classic in its telling of the shootout that ultimately occurs at the OK Corral as well as events leading up to and following. Superb casting, acting, and direction tie this movie into a "not to be missed" category.
I delight in finding A Few Good Men on television. I find this to be one of the few (only?) movies I can watch Tom Cruise in and actually feel he is acting...well. The supporting cast is terrific, the story line is intense and interesting, and Jack Nicholson's role is over the top in the best of ways. The final courtroom scenes are famous and riveting, but the whole movie is gripping.
Another fantastic Jack Nicholson movie is As Good As It Gets. Nicholson is superb and brilliant in his role as a man suffering from OCD. He interacts with the waitress who serves him daily, his agent,  and his gay neighbor who has recently experienced major trauma. The story that weaves their lives together is fascinating, emotional, and a thrill to watch. This was Nicholson's tour de force!
An all-time favorite is definitely When Harry Met Sally. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan hit career highs as the title characters who met several times throughout their twenties and detested one another, remet in their thirties, became best friends, and discovered new layers in one another. The writing is flawless and hilarious, the supporting cast adds richness, comedy, and dimension, and the love story is optimistic and delightful. The scene that occurs near the end on New Year's Eve has people falling in love continuously! And, yes, Mallowmars are "quite possibly the best cookie..."!
Grease is a movie musical I've written about before; since I was a child I have loved this movie and although I rarely have time to sit and watch the entire show, I cannot pass it by. John Travolta was smoking (hot) in this movie and Olivia Newton John was gorgeous as Sandy. The music is catchy, eye-raising, and fun. The images are burned into my memory and are a part of my soul. Grease IS the word!
I know there are more, but now I am interested in reading what movies make you stop flipping/surfing and stay put to watch? I'm always looking for new movies to add to our viewing list. I await your responses with high anticipation!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Influences Part 2: The Later Years

Influences spring from all sources, especially as one gets older. The scope of influences continually broadens as the aging process takes a child out of the home and into the world. School, the work force, the ever-expanding social network allows for a plethora of people, places, and events to influence a person. Once my life began outside of the home in earnest the influences began happening at a rapid pace and became increasingly difficult to keep track!
The men in my family, my father and two brothers, certainly were and are enormous influences on me. I constantly find a deep connection with my father that showcases how similar we are. His guidance, support, enthusiasm, and provided opportunities have fostered a safe environment for me to spread my wings and fly while knowing that I always had a support system in place. My brothers, older by nine and five years respectively, influenced everything in my life from music choices (they could not stomach a sister who enjoyed listening solely to Olivia Newton John and Michael Jackson so I was exposed to Meatloaf, The Who, Steely Dan, Jethro Tull, The Doors, The Doobie Brothers, and Bruce Springsteen among many others) to familial relationships. They continue to be a great source of love and comfort to me and we are still a tight-knit family.
Teachers certainly have held a huge place in my life. I was blessed with some very charismatic, knowledgeable, and dynamic teachers who not only inspired me as a student, but coaxed me into the field of education simply by their wonderfulness! From grade school through high school and again at the college level I made strong relationships with my teachers and realized the best career choice for me directly out of college was teaching at the secondary level (grades 8-12) in a public school setting. Those years were completely rewarding. In addition to my teachers being influences, my students were also impacting in shaping the me I became.
Once I became a mother my job shifted back into the home. My life, although not sheltered, left me seeing fewer people on a day to day basis. My eldest son influenced me tremendously in his first four years. Together we trudged through the mother son relationship and formed a bond so tight that I trust it will never be broken. His brother and sister arrived in later years and they, too, color my world with their own unique flair.
Me with 3 influential people in my life
With Buzz Cutler of Rowdy.com and my husband
Once home and dealing with children all day long, I started to find new sources for influences. The biggest untapped area for me was the internet! When I was introduced to the NASCAR Fan Social Networking site called Rowdy.com I found a warm, welcoming online home. My desire to write came full circle at this site and I became a daily blogger. Influences at the site include Buzz Cutler who supported my efforts from day one and the many "Rowdizens" who I interact.
One of those "Rowdizens" is a man who calls himself Art Tidesco. I will credit him with being an enormous influence on me and my writing because he was the one to plant the seed and cultivate the idea of me writing...every day. I was a once-in-a-while poster who only wrote when I got around to it and thought I had something brilliant to say. Art impressed upon me that the only way to get better and hone my craft was to challenge myself and to write, daily. I balked at first, but reluctantly took the gauntlet and ran! I wrote daily from February 2009 up until my daughter was born last October. The posts were well-received, I garnered a larger readership, and found I not only enjoyed my daily writing, but thrived on it! It took nearly another year after my daughter's birth to realize I wanted more for my writing. This blog was born on my middle son's birthday, September 13th of this year. Thanks to Art's influences, prodding, and support, this blog came to fruition and I am forever grateful. Thank you, Art!
Finally, the single most influential person in my "later" life came into my life at age fourteen. My husband has shaped the woman I am, the way I see the world, and the life I lead. We have grown together, supported one another, faced adversity (a lot), and shared amazing successes, not the least of which are our three beautiful children! We are friends first and foremost and also share a passionate marriage. We are a team and he is, was, and will always be the ultimate influence on my life.
Who are the people, places, and events that influence you in your later years? I'm reading if you are writing...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Influences Part 1: The Early Years

Influences are the forces that help shape the person we are; they are integral in forming our personalities, guiding us, and molding us. Influences can come from all places, people, and even events, objects, and programs; the only requirement is that something was gleaned from it allowing for a transfer of inspiration or, at the very least, a reaction.
My early years can be traced to influences in the home at first, but ultimately driven by pop culture. Initially my strongest influences were the women in my life, my mother and her mother. My mother was a stay-at-home mom who was ever-present and involved. She nurtured me, rejoiced in my being a daughter (she had two wonderful boys first), and lavished me with all things feminine! She modeled what I deemed to be the ultimate role of being wife and mother and still shades my thoughts today, Her mother, my maternal grandmother, lived far away in Colorado but was still a strong and influential person in my life. When she and I had opportunities to meet (she visited NJ and we traveled to CO) I realized that I was not my mother's carbon copy about most things. I found I identified and connected with my grandmother on so many levels. It made me understand and not fear being a separate entity from my mother and gave me courage to venture out from my physical and metaphorical safe home. My grandmother's influences allowed me to broaden my horizons and opened me to a vast world of endless influences.
My mother with my daughter. My mother is now the grandmother influencing my children!

Among my earliest influences from outside the home came in the form of the Barbie doll. Presented to me on my third birthday, Malibu Barbie with her red bathing suit, long blonde hair, relaxed smile, and endless patience was my fast friend. She was fearless and confident and allowed me to live vicariously through her with the adventures I planned for her. As the years passed in my childhood I'd add more Barbies to the mix. One was a  Ballerina, another a Superstar, and yet another was a Western Dreams, but they all smiled gloriously at me and made me feel beautiful, fashionable, and oblivious to any rules that women had to follow. Barbie was beautiful in my eyes and was also intelligent. She was shown as a doctor, astronaut, teacher, business woman, yet was ultra-feminine in her ball gowns, holiday finery, and Studio-54 worthy disco ensembles! This plastic chick had it going on and urged me to keep "reaching for the stars". My love affair with the Barbie doll started at three and continues to this day. I am awaiting my own daughter's third birthday to introduce her to the wonders that are contained in the world of Barbie.
This year's birthday - 2 Barbie Dolls for me to add to my collection. Thanks to my niece! I'm pictured with my 2nd son.
My next influence came from a short-lived show in the 1970s called Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter. When this show aired I was so very young, well under ten years old, but adored it and insisted on watching it each and every time it was on television. I was mesmerized by the immense beauty of Lynda Carter as the heroine; she was a brunette like me, she looked amazing in her costume, was feminine and strong at the same time, and was hugely patriotic. She embodied all things I wanted to be and did it with grace, humor, and great hair! To this day I cannot turn off a rare rerun of Wonder Woman or an interview with the still ravishing Lynda Carter (she still fits in her costume)!
Around the same time on television was a program called The Bionic Woman, a spin-off of the hugely popular Bionic Man. Lyndsay Wagner portrayed the title character and showed me yet another woman who was strong, intelligent, and radiant in her beauty at the same time. My impressions of what a woman could do were shaped by these programs and allowed me to consider a world where I, as a woman, was going to be a useful, productive, important, intelligent, strong, and beautiful addition to the society.
The movies Grease and later Xanadu were favorites of mine. The two things that tie these movies together into categories are musical and Olivia Newton John. I adored this Australian singer and actress and can safely admit that I obsessed over her. I begged my mother to take me to see Grease several times in the theater and my mother reluctantly (out of boredom I suspect) relented. I was tickled to have HBO when Xanadu made it to premium cable and was granted my wish by watching that movie ad nauseam. Again, absolutely beautiful, talented, and with quirky roles Olivia Newton John inspired a creative, musical side to me that has never been quieted. I owned several Olivia Newton John albums and played them for years!
Lastly, Judy Blume was the first author who ever resonated with me. I was introduced to her through her book SuperFudge. Though not her first work, nor even her first work in the series of Fudge books, it was my first taste of this talented and prolific author known widely as a children's author. My parents bought me the book while on vacation in Florida and they were pleased when I read it to myself. What should have lasted the entire vacation was finished within the first couple of days! I had found a new passion in the written word, the style of writing, and the characters. I spent the next decade reading all I could get my hands on by Judy Blume, sailed through puberty unscathed thanks to her guidance and such books as Deenie and Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?, and did not fear first encounters due to her book Forever, a copy a dear friend lent me which was frayed and well-loved and difficult to come by in those days. I expanded my reading lists exponentially after the influence of Judy Blume and would certainly credit her with some of the reasons I write today.
So these are the influences from my early years. Some are easily identifiable for most, a mother, a grandmother, but others may be harder for some to understand or relate. But these are the forces who helped shape the me I am today. Who are your influences from your early years? Who are the people, programs, pop culture items, and events that shaped the man or woman you are today? I'd love to read your responses. Tomorrow I'll explore the influences from the later years of my life. I hope you join me today and return tomorrow. I look forward to reading your list of who and what have influenced you.