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The Greatest Gift

My daughter and I recently returned from Disneyland. It was amazing. In fact, I had more fun taking her and watching the wonder on her face than I ever had being there as a kid. We met up with her three best friends there (whom she hadn’t seen since we moved from Vancouver) and it was a full-on Princess extravaganza. I felt a little badly for the one male in our group who resorted to taking shots of testosterone each night just to survive the whole experience! (Just kidding. He didn’t really dope up, and he survived just fine.)

The trip was made possible by my aunt and uncle. When they asked what they could buy Riley for Christmas, I thought and thought and thought. She doesn’t need stuff. She is like many North American kids…she has everything she needs and then some. As such, Eric and I have been gravitating to the concept of investing in memories rather than things. Don’t get me wrong, this is not necessarily the cheapest option. Sometimes memories cost more than the hottest toy – take that Disney pass for example. But unlike the hottest toy that will be outgrown and tossed out in time, the memories will forge greater relationships in the moment and then last over the years.

As this was about memories, we took a million pictures at Disneyland. My favourite one is Riley, exhausted from the first 12-hour day, in bed in her pajamas with her dinner on her lap. She almost fell asleep as she ate her quesadilla! She was so happy and so tired!

When our friend Louise came to visit for the holiday season, she built upon this memory-building gift giving idea. Her gift to Riley (and our family by extension) was tickets to a performance of the National Ballet’s rendition of The Nutcracker. For a little girl who has been taking ballet for three years, this was a magical moment. She even wore her pink ballet outfit to the performance and got to meet some of the ballerinas.

But since Riley is a bit too young to fully grasp the concept of “memory building = Christmas gifts”, we realized that we would need to wrap some things up that represented our time together. We figured a basically empty tree and an admonition, “But remember your gift happened weeks ago” would not cut it. So we framed a huge collage of Riley’s time in Disneyland as well as the signed poster that she got at the ballet. On Christmas morning, as she tore off the wrapping paper, she squealed and relived the memories as she poured over each photo. Now those frames hang in her room, representing the gifts that she was given this year.

I realize that I am too late to give you advice on gift giving this past holiday season. But here is a suggestion for the rest of the year – Valentine’s Day, birthdays, your anniversary. Take the amount that you would have spent on a traditional gift for your lover and invest that money into a “memory date” instead. Here are some ideas:

  • A Starbucks (or other favourite coffee/tea house) card charged with enough money for 5 coffee dates together. Make the stipulation that you can only use the card together so that s/he doesn’t use it all up on the way to work each morning.
  • Tickets to an event that means something to you as a couple (or at least the person who is receiving the gift – part of this gift is participating in their interests!). Perhaps it is a concert, theatre presentation, movie tickets or even a Monster Truck Rally!
  • A gift card to your favourite restaurant so that you can escape together when life gets crazy and stressful.
  • A weekend get-away package set for sometime when you can get good deals. Book the travel and accommodations and then plan some activities so that you can present the overall concept as your gift.
  • Gift certificates from your favourite babysitter so that your spouse can cash them in when s/he decides that the two of you need to get out for an evening. (If you think that handing your babysitter a wad of cash in return for a promise of service is an unwise idea, then have the necessary amount for 2-3 nights out tucked inside an envelope that is only used for this purpose.)
  • Coupons for a walk together at the local park, a boat ride, a time tobogganing, a trip to the local art gallery, a walk in the downtown part of your city, a ride on a train, time to volunteer together at a local soup kitchen, a trip to a local tourist spot, cups of hot chocolate delivered to bed complete with whipped cream on top, and so forth.

Here is my final suggestion: if it is decent to do so (because you can most certainly spice up the suggestions I have given above), take a camera with you during your “memory date” so that you can preserve your time together. Because while the primary investment you are making is time – the return on that investment are life-long memories.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

Yesterday, we went tree hunting. We didn’t have to go far, because we live in a rather unique area. Suburbia is encroaching on farm land all around us. It is not uncommon to be driving past rows of houses and then come across a field of horses or cows and then, just moments later, pop back out in a densely developed section again. I can leave my subdivision and five minutes later I am at the Christmas tree farm where we buy our trees each year.

Normally, I am the tree Nazi. The tree has to be large, positioned just so, and decorated according to proper protocol. The lights go on first, then the bows, then the balls and then the rest of the ornaments. All ornaments must be hung equidistance from each other to give a well-balanced and uniform appearance. Ugly ornaments (which are there for the sheer sentimental value) go in the back. As you can imagine, trimming the tree can be a stressful experience for all of us as I strive to craft the perfectly decorated tree.

However, I have been learning a lot about the draw-backs of perfection lately, so this year I decided that Riley could do the tree. After all, we were doing it for her anyways, so why not let her decide what should go on? I did ask that the lights go on first, but other than that it was free game. No bows or balls? No problem. You picked the tree skirt that doesn’t match? I can live with that too. This is your tree, baby girl.

I tucked myself away in the kitchen making Mexican hot chocolate while Eric and Riley started on the tree. I pretended that this was to make us all feel warm and homey, but in truth it was more so that I didn’t completely stress out about the way the tree was turning out. When I brought out the drinks, the delight on Riley’s face was radiant.

“Will you help me, Mommy?”

“Of course. How about I unwrap ornaments and you can hang them?”

As I passed the ornaments to Riley, I realized I was retelling our history. There is an ornament with our wedding photo on it; a Belleek ornament from our honeymoon in Ireland, a hedgehog ornament because our first pet was a hedgehog named Squeeze. We have ornaments from our time living in Nepal, one from the Tavern on the Green while we were celebrating our 5 year anniversary in New York, one from a trip with my 80 year-old grandmother to Israel. We have a tin can ornament that my mother made early in her marriage when money was tight. We have an atrocious play dough bunny I made in kindergarten and some God-awful blue thing that comes from my husband’s childhood. He swears it is a Christmas elf.  (It is my deep and selfless love for him alone that has allowed it to survive in my house at all these many years.)

Riley’s first Christmas is represented on the tree. Her and her father’s shared love for the classic claymation Christmas movies is reflected there. We even have a Barbie in her Corvette. Because, well, the Corvette Barbie is just cool.

And this year, because I was not driving the tree trimming extravaganza, I was able to sip my hot chocolate and see the compilation of memories slowly reassemble on the tree. Our tree each year is a celebration of our shared history together.

I did notice that we don’t have ornaments representing the difficult times. We don’t have anything to depict financial turmoil or betrayal or loss that we have experienced over the years. However, the very fact that we are setting up a tree again means that we have made it past those times to celebrate our good memories together.  And those are the memories we treasure!

Last week, I asked you to write a letter to your lover of the top gifts s/he has given you. This week, I encourage you to think back over your years together. What milestones have you accomplished together? What have you achieved together? What new “ornament” are you going to hang this year?

I have learned my lesson. This year was much more enjoyable than previous years. No, the tree is not perfect. There are clumpings of ornaments and that God-awful blue thing is front and center. But I am much more grateful that I ever have been in past years. And that is what I will be thinking of when I look at the tree this year.

—editor’s note—

The Christmas Elf is neither god-awful nor technically front and center on the tree…though it is not hidden away on the back side this year because we conveniently “ran out of room at the front” as in years past (every year past come to think of it).   It is however a wonderful memory of my childhood (and therefore the early 1970s).  But I have complete faith in the judgment of you good folks reading this.  And so, instead of forcing you to believe how cute the ornament is, I shall give you opportunity not only to see it, but to vote on its very cuteness or god-awfulness as you see fit.  I give you:

THE GREAT CHRISTMAS ELF VOTE OF 2009

elf-ornament

I find the above Christmas Elf to be:

View Results

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The Body Song

This past week, I had the privilege of introducing my family to Paddy and Carole Ducklow.  Back in the 60’s, when my parents left Texas to move up to Canada, Dad met Paddy in graduate school and they began a life-long friendship. My father wrote his first book in the basement of their home. He logged countless hours sitting out on their deck drinking beer and debating life, the universe and everything. Paddy flew to Texas to attend his funeral.

As a child, I have many memories of the Ducklow’s being a part of our lives. Even when the two men were living in different parts of the Lower Mainland, they always stayed connected. And then, several years before our family returned to Texas, they worked together at Burnaby Christian Fellowship. Dad was senior pastor, and Paddy was on staff as the church psychologist who ran a practice in the church.

One of the programs that they collaborated on during this time was a seminar to teach kids and their parents about the concept of “appropriate touch”. The kids and parents were split into different rooms and taught about issues surrounding personal boundaries, safety and communication. I was one of those kids, and my favourite part of the whole seminar was learning the song, My Body by Peter Alsop (which was thereinafter referred to by us simply as “the body song”).

Fast-forward 20+ years. My family is driving to the Ducklow’s house for the first time and I am explaining to my daughter about the importance of this family in my life. Having a vague memory of the body song, I decided that it would be spectacularly impressive if I could teach it to my daughter to sing for Paddy over dinner. Riley was very much into this idea (life is, after all, a musical for her) and enthusiastically embraced the task. The more we sang it, the more furrowed my husband’s brow became. He finally cleared his throat and said, “Uh, honey? I think you are not remembering that song right. I am pretty sure that’s not how it goes.” I pooh-poohed his concerns and, undaunted, Riley and I sang the song a few more times – to ensure that she really knew it.

When we arrived at Ducklow’s, the conversation inevitably turned to the body song. Actually, Eric brought it up because he was so smug in his assumption that I had the words wrong and thought it would be hilarious to see Paddy’s reaction. I was hesitant because I had an ever-growing suspicion that Eric was, unfortunately, right. Eventually, he coaxed Riley and me into singing it together.  So, in a vain attempt to prove that I was correct (or more that he was wrong) I belted out with great gusto:

My body’s nobody’s body but mine.

You touch your own body,

Let me touch mine.

There was an eerie silence that fell over the room for what was only a moment but felt like eternity.  Then the room erupted!  I thought Paddy was going to fall off the couch laughing. He fell to the side and buried his face in a pillow as he howled in laughter.  It was suddenly inherently obvious to me that I had turned a song on appropriate touch into one on mutual masturbation.

***Epic FAIL***

Later in the evening, Paddy and Riley went to the computer and drudged up the words to this 1980’s song. Thank goodness for Google!

The true version of the body song can be found here and goes like this:

My body’s nobody’s body but mine.

You run your own body,

Let me run mine.

I will admit that the correct one is a much better version for Riley to be singing out in public.  But as I am not one to be easily dismayed, I will brazenly confess that personally prefer my version…even if you’ll never hear me sing it aloud ever again.

So inn the midst of all of this personal humiliation, I figured that I should try to redeem myself by unabashedly sharing the story with everyone and using it as a teaching tool to help parents talk with their children.

Eric, however, is still laughing.

The State of Our Union

My husband and I just recently celebrated our 11th anniversary and, as is our tradition, we had our annual “State of Our Union” conversation. Typically, we go out for a fancy meal, order a bottle of wine (or two) and talk and talk. This year, however, we were vacating in a beautiful condo and so we decided to stay in, get Indian food take out, and have our conversation after Riley had gone to bed. Since we were not in our own house, it still felt “away” from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. (And this is one of the most important aspects of the State of Our Union.)

During our SOOU talks, we always look back over our past year of marriage together and discuss what we have achieved together:

  • What were our marital successes?
  • What were our marital failures?
  • Did we discover anything new that really worked for us as a couple?
  • Did we like each other more this year than last year?
  • Did we like each other less?
  • Were we still growing as a couple beyond our roles of mom and dad?

Then we look to the future and dream about what we want to see in the upcoming year.  This is where we can really use our imaginations to paint the perfect year for us.

  • What will it look like?
  • What will we do?
  • How will it be different?
  • What will make it better?
  • What will be the best thing about it?

And then comes the really big piece.  We each get to ask one thing of each other. Anything we want. And that is the thing that we commit to working on in our marriage all year long. One year I had to work on combating my selfishness (this was early on in our marriage – I am completely cured of that now). One year, Eric had to work on helping around the house without being asked (he had always been superb at doing what I asked, but I was tired of being the traffic cop in our relationship when it came to the house). One year, I had to work on actually listening to and implementing the advice that Eric had for my business (up until that point, I was incredibly adept at listening to the input from anyone else other than him – even if the advice was exactly the same). One year, Eric had to work on dressing up for our dates (yes, the fact that I got all dolled up while he threw on a t-shirt and scruffy old tennis shoes infuriated me). Some years, we had very serious things to ask of each other. Other years, there were some small yet significant things that were driving us nuts.

This year, after Riley was tucked in bed and we had poured the wine, we had more than usual to reflect upon. When we had done our SOOU talk last year, we were living in a different city with different jobs, different circle of friends, and a vastly different perspective on life. While this past year has been fraught with change – some very good and some very challenging – we have a deeper sense of who we are as a couple than ever before. We have created another year of history that we alone share. We have another year upon which we will look back and say to each other, “remember when…?”. And we are once again living another year saying, “what if we could do…?” And that is one of my favorite things that makes us uniquely “us”.

What are some of the things that make you and your lover uniquely “you”?

Learning to Date Again

Why is it that we stop dating when we get married? Theoretically, once we live under the same roof we should have more money to spend on each other because we have combined expenses. Are we afraid of spending time alone because we have forgotten what to talk about? Do we confuse quality time together with the fact that we are in the same room watching TV together? If we are going to keep that spark alive – the one that drew us to each other in the first place – then it needs to be nurtured. And one of the best ways to nurture it is to date each other!

Learning to Date Again

How do you do it? Here are five ideas:

1.    Start dating again. Choose to go on regular dates with your spouse. Put the date on the calendar, book a babysitter, make reservations at a restaurant, purchase tickets to the game and go! If you are out of the habit, then begin dating your spouse once a month and make it easy to remember (for example, the first Saturday of the month is date night). Make it your goal to decrease the time in between so that you eventually go on dates once a week.

2.    Don’t let cost get in the way. I promise you, the cost of having regular dates is far less than the cost of a divorce. Build the expense of your dates into your budget so that you know how much you can spend and not feel guilty about it. Remember that this money is an investment into your marriage. However, if you are really pinching pennies, then get creative. Set up a babysitting co-op with friends: you watch their kids one night, and then they watch your kids another night. Go on inexpensive dates: have coffee at a local coffee shop; park close to the airport and watch the planes come in; take a long walk together.

3.    Try a “Happy Camper” Date. For a lot of couples, just trying to decide what to do on their date causes conflict because they have different interests and tastes. Here’s how the “happy camper” date works: one week you go on a date and your husband gets to choose what he activity he wants the two of you to do. (He gets to pick the movie, the restaurant, the hockey game, etc.) You go on this date with a great attitude – you are the “happy camper” this week. However, the following week, it is his turn to be the happy camper and do whatever you would like to do without complaining. This experience gives us greater insight into what makes our spouse tick and it builds our common history together which, in turn, leads to a stronger marriage.

4.    Set the rules of the date. The focus of the date is the two of you deepening your relationship together as a couple. So consider limiting your conversations about the kids or work (these can often be all consuming topics). If this leaves you nothing to talk about, then think of things that you used to talk about before the kids came along, what is going on in the world around you, or get a book which gives you questions to ask each other. Learning to talk again as two lovers may feel awkward at first, but the more you practice it, the easier it will be.

5.    Put some effort into your appearance. Remember spending hours in front of the mirror or in the closet picking out the perfect outfit when you were first going out? Fixing your hair so that it looked just right (women – this isn’t just directed at you. I have known plenty of men who spend more time on their hair than women!) Doesn’t your spouse deserve the same now? The art of attraction should never be neglected or lost simply because your partner said “I do.”

One of my coaching clients had an amazing perspective on marriage. She told me that her spouse is the one person who will be witness to her journey through life. We leave our parents’ home, our kids eventually leave ours, we change jobs and friends move away. But our spouse stays with us and we build a common history together over the years. Solidify this history with memories of the two of you.