You wait. I’ll be so dang merry, Christmas won’t know what hit it

Midlife Sentence - Merry Christmas

“Don’t you just get more and more excited as it gets closer to Christmas?”

This was the start of a conversation over scrambled eggs yesterday, December-the-very-first, with our exchange student, Anna. Since I don’t talk much before 8 am, my only reply was to stare at her over my coffee mug, contemplating her sobriety.

Then I thought about the relationship I have the holidays, and how likely it is I’m gonna let this girl way down sometime in the coming weeks.

If you’ve been here for any length of time, you know I’m kind of a Scrooge. Want a refresher? Well there’s that tale about our amazing city lights tour – aka the Vomit Trolley Ride of 2004, or the one about how I only do Christmas crafts as an act of revenge, or there was that time I almost came to blows with Santa.

I haven’t any excuse for this hostility. It’s not that Christmas is a particularly dark time of year for me. I don’t get seasonal depression. There’s no trauma in my past. I’m just one of those people who really doesn’t go in for schmaltz. Or shopping. Or crafts, clutter, or empty calories for that matter (except beer, that is. And I do kinda dig spiked eggnog). I’m mostly just lazy. And a cynic. And schmaltz is way less funny than cynicism.

A little research and a consultation with our own kid who’s currently living among Anna’s people, confirmed that Danes do Christmas like they mean it, and Anna appears to be keeping pace with her homeboys. Before December was even upon us, she’d been to two tree-lighting ceremonies and a couple holiday concerts, and had a stack of homemade Christmas cards ready to send. The girl is ready for the holiday.

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Sunday night lights

four-treesPoor Mike came in last night in a huff from fighting his annual battle with our Christmas lights.

What we now call the Markley Holiday Lights Smack Down usually happens something like this:

Step 1: Everybody else in the neighborhood puts up their lights.

Some of our neighbors trace the eaves of their homes with perfectly straight lines. They artfully drape various and sundry trees and shrubs with tasteful strands of LEDs. Others barf up a maelstrom of seizure-inducing twinkle-rama the likes of which would make the Griswold’s cringe. We have all types.

Step 2: We all (except Mike) ohh and ahh about everybody else’s Christmas lights.

Step 3: Mike declares we’re not having Christmas lights this year.

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Slow down season

I am not crazy about the holiday season.

There, I’ve said it. Go ahead with your heckling and bah-humbug jokes.

It’s not that anything traumatic has ever happened at Christmas to make me dread it. It’s mostly that there’s this weird thing that happens: if you do something once that turns out to not suck, you try it again the next year. If you do something two years in a row, it’s tradition, and suddenly, God forbid you buy your tree from any other lot, or miss the Real Santa, with the Real Beard and the Big Laugh who hangs out only at this event on this particular day.

When you’re a parent, there’re a whole lot of those traditions to pass down to your own kids, and then all kinds of new traditions that somehow take root. It’s like OCD, holiday edition. Don’t forget to set up the holiday model train that never works, or use those tree-shaped hangers that always seem on the verge of falling off the mantle and stabbing someone who’s grabbing at a stocking.

I am so grateful the Elf on the Shelf thing was never a phenomenon in our home. I bristle a little bit when I’m told what to do, and figuring out what to do with the dang Elf on a daily basis would have probably driven me to drink.

You know what I mean. Drink more.

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The holidays are not for procrastinators

So, it’s T-minus-two-weeks before Christmas, and not only have we not shopped, decorated, or completed the Christmas letter, I’m not even tempted to arrange the reasons why in a  cute Twas the Night Before Christmas format.

And for that you’re welcome.

Of course, because I’m a giver, I’m going to put off all the holiday rigamarole for another little while, pour another cup of coffee, and contemplate the

3.5 ways I will have destroyed Christmas before it even gets here

1. I’ll probably have a melt-down while decorating. Jack suggested we skip the tree this year. Our fourteen year-old would rather SKIP CHRISTMAS than see me blow a gasket putting up our fake tree that wore out years ago. Every year, we drag the thing up from the basement, stack the sections together, place them in the holder and painstakingly pull out branches and fluff them up to look artfully not-fake.

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A Little Rant on Santa

Santa should hang out and put the Legos together with you. Oh, wait, he does.
Santa should hang out and put the Legos together with you. Oh, wait, he does.

When our kids were still visiting Santa I tried to manage their requests.

Santa: “What can I bring for you this year, buddy?”

My cute kid: “Abba babba doodie,” or something. It’s hard to hear crouched behind behind Santa’s broad back – the best position from which to provide necessary coaching.

Me (sotto voce): “Matchbox cars and Star Wars Legos, Santa. MATCHBOX CARS, STAR WARS … and, and books, lots of BOOKS.”

Santa: “Ho, ho. Is that right? A big screen TV for your bedroom? Well, have you been a good boy?”

“HEY! you BASTARD” I whisper-yell in the most threatening mommy voice I can manage from a semi squat, “are you LISTENING? I SAID STAR. WARS. LEGOS.”

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How many kids can I piss off in one week?

Back when they liked us.

It’s the time of year when the air is crisp and it’s possible to catch refrains of holiday carols or tantalizing smells drifting from someone’s kitchen. For many the world is filled with more holiday traditions and preparations and nostalgia and whimsy than they can shake a stick at.

Unless you’re 14. Then the world is mostly full of people trying to piss you off.

The statement “I’m bored,” can be such a siren to parents, calling for the lamest of responses. Beckoning for attention: Come, sink into depths from which you’ve no hope of ever emerging once again sane or whole.

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Breaking the News about Santa – 3 Easy Steps

I have friends who are so precise about parenting it makes me wonder if there was a class along the way that Mike and I missed. Most of our parenting tactics were passed along to us by the way we were parented, a small few we adopted by virtue of the way we wish we were parented. At one point in our parenting journey I was into reading books about parenting. I had all of the “What to Expect” books, Dr. Spock, Baby Signs, and a few of the pop psychology tomes about the inner workings of the adolescent and pre-adolescent brain. I read about Love and Logic™ and actually practiced it for a few weeks before I regressed into the “Better Parenting Through Screaming and Yelling” style that I had heretofore perfected.

At one point, when Colin was little, I apologized to him for a particularly bad parenting moment. Parents are fallible, which is something I admit to my children readily, and for which I’ve asked forgiveness more than once.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve only just started this parenting thing and I’m still working at it.”

Ever the one for logical, if disturbingly inappropriate solutions, Colin responded: “Well, why didn’t you and dad train with a hobo kid first before you had me?”

Actually, the concept of a “test baby” has occurred to a number of prospective parents. Then they get a dog. Which all their friends who are already parents think is stupid. Dogs are far more forgiving than children. They won’t tell their teacher how you used the “F” bomb when your hair dryer broke before work. They don’t require explanations about what you and dad were doing in the bedroom when they barged in on Sunday morning. They’re not picky eaters or tattle tales. They don’t need help with homework.

We did, in fact, get a dog in order to prepare for parenthood. A black lab, who was bigger than I am and sure he was smarter. Come to think of it, “Hobo” would have been a good name for him. But I digress.

There are nuanced situations in parenting that may well be outlined in dozens of parenting books. When it comes right down to it, faced with such a situation four out of five parents will forget what they’ve read. This is because many of these touchstone moments happen in the life of a young parent when they’re also coping with:

–          too little sleep

–          too much to drink

–          low blood sugar, or

–          are in a rush to get to somewhere on time,

….Or some combination of two or more of these factors (one hopes not the drinking and rushing to get somewhere on time).

Here’s how our family coped with a common parenting challenge: “The Santa question.”

Step I – Wait until the subject comes up on its own ….

We were driving home from an Easter celebration at my in-laws when Colin dropped the question:

“Is there really an Easter Bunny?”

It IS ridiculous: an oversized, pink rabbit delivering eggs. What kid even likes eggs? The candy thing is reasonable, but then there’s the gruesome rite of eating said bunny in chocolate effigy. And then there’re marshmallows. Marshmallows are gross. And which of these traditions has anything to do with the reason we celebrate the holiday? It’s a cumbersome set of rituals to explain.

Our two boys represent opposite sentimentalities: the pragmatic and the sympathetic. Colin was and still is Mr. Pragmatism. At age six, he knew rabbits don’t come in shades of pink, dragging overflowing baskets of goodies to give away. In fact, bunnies don’t take kindly to being chased or picked up. They bite. They have fleas and zero personality.

Our older son is pure emotion. Like his mom, Jack will tear up at movies about dogs, and commercials about cup-of-coffee-a-day children in Africa. Not normally a tidy person, he could nevertheless be persuaded to pick up his toys as a toddler when I told him they actually felt more comfortable in their proper places, or maybe with children who would care enough about them to put them away.

Our family tradition for Easter calls for mimosas at brunch, likely followed by a couple of beers under a warmish spring sun while older kids hide eggs that the younger kids nearly kill each other to find later. There’s an early dinner with way too much food, some wine, and good conversation with family. By the time we pack up to leave, the kids are well on their way to a sugar crash and I am in serious need of a nap. Which leads us to:

Step II – When asked a direct question, answer with whatever stupid thing comes into your head ….

Which in my case was: “No, there actually really isn’t any Easter Bunny.”

At this point, Mr. Pragmatic was fully engaged in dismantling an empty Pez dispenser and no longer paying attention, but 10 year-old Jack had a follow up:

“I suppose now you’re going to tell us there’s no Santa either,” he said.

“No, honey. I’m sorry. No Santa.”

“No Tooth Fairy either, then.”

Jeez, I couldn’t catch a break. “No, no tooth fairy.”

I can’t recall specifics from this point, it was about three years ago. I know there were tears and accusations. And later, when the occasion warranted, my little people were far less willing to wait in a long line for a photo opportunity with the guy in a red suit than they had been previously.

It may have seemed to some that we drug the Santa myth out way too long anyway. I didn’t have a firm example to go on for the revelation process and hadn’t thought to make a plan. The Santa tradition I grew up with consisted of my mom staying home to “wash the dishes after dinner,” while we would go visit a neighbor on Christmas Eve. She would later join us, having stepped out of the house at the very moment before Santa arrived, ala Bruce Wayne and Batman. I knew that she had something to do with the Santa process well before I was Jack’s age. I was alarmed one year when mom walked to the neighbor’s house with us after dinner instead of lagging behind. My parents had arranged for a friend to drop off and display our shiny new bikes in the living room for us to discover when we returned.

My parents continued to address presents to us and to each other as “from Santa” well into our adulthood. My dad was the source of the sentimentality that’s been passed through me to Jack and I’m sure he never found the heart to be direct about the Santa situation. Or, more likely, no one had ever told him there was no Santa …

Step III – Duck and cover until things calm down

So time passes and we bumble our way through to the next holiday season. We no longer have to buy special wrapping paper for the presents that were brought by Santa in the middle of the night. We don’t have to intercept Santa before the kids present a list of demands for outrageous gifts they are never going to get. We don’t get to threaten to call the big guy as punishment for bad behavior.

But when March rolls around, I catch Mr. Pragmatic upstairs with a box and a stick with a string trying to rig a trap. I help him set it and stack a few crackers under the box, with some “gold” costume jewelry and other sparkly things sure to tempt a Leprechaun.

The kids go to bed and Mike and I gleefully prepare a scrap of green felt to be artfully trapped under the sprung trap, the goodies scattered across the carpet as if dropped in a moment of panic by a fleeing verdant pagan. Mike stops me before I use green poster paint to leave footprints on our carpet.

In the morning, Colin will wake up and enthusiastically buy into our ruse. He’ll tuck that scrap of cape in with his other treasurers and keep it for years. It is a memento of childhood and magic representation of mischief, raucous behavior, and lack of impulse control with an Irish fairy’s tolerance for green beer and love of bawdy, off-color limericks.

Because, in our house, Leprechauns make so much more sense than the Easter Bunny, fat guys with fake beards or kindly sprites who sometimes forget to leave cash under your pillow when you’ve lost a tooth.


Merry Manic Markleys: 2011

Online Greetings Replaced with Oldschool Solution

(Unless, of course, you are reading this online: this blog entry represents the electronic version of our traditional holiday update, sent out earlier this week) With focus groups and web analytics revealing a less than positive response to their 2010 online holiday greeting, the Markleys announced this week they will revert to their tree-harvest heavy, ridicule-inviting method of correspondence that traditionally ranks in popularity somewhere around Aunt Clara’s Bunny Pajamas and holiday fruit cake: the Annual Christmas Letter.

Jenny Thoma hamming it up with Abe in Boise

The Year of the FES

In early 2011, Jenny Thoma moved in with the family for four months, courtesy of the Rotary foreign exchange student program.  The Switzerland native took Boise High School and Bogus Basin Ski Resort by storm, and flooded the Markley home with more pink accoutrements and strawberry-smelling hair care products than the family had ever experienced.  The Thoma clan descended upon Boise in the spring to buy shoes and a teeny, white Chihuahua they named Bambi and dressed in pink and rhinestones. Jenny departed in June with a newfound affinity for Nerf guns and Star Wars movies.

Henna Altomaa, her family and the Markleys in Helsinki

Henna Altomaa, a Finnish exchange student, is the most recent addition to the family.  Henna is as serious about her studies as she is about sports.  She is nationally ranked in the top ten in her age group in the breast stroke, and enjoyed competing on the Boise High swim team this year.  She will continue with the YMCA Swim Team for the rest of the year, and plans to join the Boise High softball and ski teams.

The Lengths We’ll Go for an Interesting Holiday Letter

Jack looking out over Amsterdam

In July, the Markleys left Idaho to visit Saara Kaijanen and her family in Finland.  Saara, an exchange student from the 2008-09 school year, had subsequently returned to Boise twice, and the Markleys agreed it was their turn to make the trek to her part of the world.

Never failing to pack too much into one trip, the Markleys brought Saara along on a jaunt through Northern Europe, including Tallinn, Estonia; Koln, Germany; Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Brussels, Belgium before returning to Helsinki for an overnight train ride to the Arctic Circle (for which they were horribly under dressed) to meet up with Saara’s parents and visit with Santa. Saara was later renamed Radar O’Reilly because of her uncanny ability to anticipate train arrivals and restroom availability.

Mike and Beth in Old Town Tallinn, Estonia

The Markley children, now famous in multiple countries for various nefarious reasons including inconsistent dinner manners and an inability to quietly appreciate great works of art for more than 75 seconds (Colin’s informal review of the Van Gogh museum: “This is boring!”), are nevertheless up for formal recognition as tenacious traveling companions, who are more likely able to correctly calculate the relative value of the euro to the dollar, read a map or navigate a metro system than their mother.

Hanging out with Saara in front of the Brussles Parliament building

Over the course of the trip, the Markleys visited six UNESCO world heritage sites, and traveled by train, ferry, charter bus, tram, subway, taxi, canal bus and airplane, all the while testing their collective endurance for family time. All survived the adventure (which you can read more about in earlier entries of this blog).

News from Reality

Jack outside the cathedral at Cologne

In the fall, Jack entered junior high school.  He appears to be thriving contrary to social convention that dictates junior high students be abjectly miserable for three years. Colin’s anticipated behavior as an elementary school miscreant has yet to manifest itself as of third grade, leading the elder Markleys to wonder if earlier anxieties about future visits to the principal’s office were mistaken.

Colin and "Snow White" near Rovaniemi, Finland, at the Artic Circle

Both boys are active in sports, with Colin playing little league baseball in the spring and soccer in the fall, and Jack participating in track and basketball.   The boys enjoyed their third season of swim team in the summer and managed to escape serious injury during the ski season, despite firmly held beliefs of their own respective bullet-proofedness, which doesn’t show signs of abating any time soon.

Mike is still managing to balance fun with family and two jobs: teaching two sections of technical writing at Boise State University, and managing technical writers and project managers at the national professional services firm Aquent Studios.

In addition to continuing to provide fundraising and communication counsel for nonprofit organizations, Beth has recently diversified into broadcast media.  She partners with her mom, Pat, to produce a weekly environmental public policy program on Boise Community Radio.

The Handsome Men's Club

Beth and Mike both participated in the Robie Creek and Leavenworth (WA) half marathons, and Mike grew the worst looking facial hair ever as part of the Handsome Mens’ Club of the Sawtooth Relay. Both feel they’ve satisfactorily proved the theory that at a certain age, one must train hard to even approach the level of the mediocre in such event.

In July, the extended Markley clan, including branches of the family from Wyoming and Oregon, as well as Beth’s mom, Pat, and sister, Heather, invaded Stanley, Idaho, for a celebration of Bob and Sylvia Markley’s 60th wedding anniversary.  There was broad consensus on the need for more such gatherings before the next 60 year benchmark, something that remains a possibility since no one gained significant notoriety or was banned outright from the small hamlet as a result of the festivities.

The Markleys, the Bruehers and the Whites at Leavenworth, WA

Mike and Beth later celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, but without quite as much fanfare …they were tired.

Holiday Traditions: Ho, Ho, Hwaugh

Midlife Sentence | Merry Christmas

I won’t say who started this, but a certain person in my family (alright, it’s my mom) got a bug one year to establish a new tradition. It might have had something to do with my grandmother moving to Boise and our having had kids – four generations for whom new holiday memories must be made every year. I thought that was what the whole presents, parties, celebration of the birth of our savior thing was for, but why not pile something else on?

Among the family traditions that failed to catch on was a visit to the Botanical Garden’s Winter Garden Aglow. This is a lovely event for appreciative older children and adults who can stand and walk for a while and don’t chill easily or burn their tongues on hot chocolate. Didn’t work for grandma or the boys.

Another no-go was dressing up to see Ballet Idaho’s The Nutcracker. I loved it. So did my mom and sister. Big thumbs down from the boys in the family. Grandma fell asleep. Overall approval rating: less than 50 percent.

Another year we decided (or the person who shall go unnamed, who initiated this whole holiday tradition stuff in the first place, decided) on the Holiday Lights Tour. This is an event where one boards a charter bus/trolley vehicle, with benches along the walls. The bus/trolley vehicle makes its way through random neighborhoods so its passengers can gawk at everyone else’s holiday trimmings.

The kids were still young enough that we packed a diaper bag.

We met up and purchased some lukewarm chocolate and loaded the bus/trolley thing, which was full with about a dozen people on board and the heat blasting. The windows immediately steamed up. We drove around some Boise neighborhood that would have been indistinguishable from any other neighborhood except that it was supposed to have a large concentration of homeowners who competed each year for the  most awe inspiring lights display. There was an abundance of curvy roads and cul-de-sacs in this particular borough.

When you let kids decorate the holiday goodies you get cookie men with armpit hair.

Did, um, I mention that several members of my family tend toward severe motion sickness? Jack used to not give us much warning about his urpy tummy, so in self defense our Jedi parent senses became finely tuned to his silent puke-tells.

So we’re in this dark, overheated bus/trolly contraption, and the driver is saying something titillating like: “In 1994, when this neighborhood was under the auspices of the Mid-Boise Bench Neighborhood Association, light up holiday trolls were forbidden. They frightened the kiddos, you see ….”

I heard my sister say “Jack, are you going to look at the lights? Why are you so quiet?”

I whipped the diaper bag from under the bench, drew out a plastic shopping bag, and shoved another one inside that (you DON’T want leaks in the barf bag), and covered the lower half of Jack’s face just in time for him to hurl all the lukewarm hot chocolate up without spilling a drop. Victory.

But that victory was going to be short lived if we didn’t act fast. Neither one of my kids is blessed with the one-and-done strain of motion sickness. We’ve had Jack get sick more than half a dozen times on a 70-mile stretch of highway between McCall and Horseshoe Bend. That’s almost once every ten miles.  When the barf train gets rolling, it’s a local, baby. There was going to be more to this show.

Then there was the fact that I was completely humiliated. And the smell in the bus/trolley thing was making me woozy. Some guy in the back said “what happened?” and his wife said “the little boy got sick.” We had to get out of there pronto.

I turned to Mike and said “we’re going,” grabbed the baby, the diaper bag, and Jack’s hand after handing Mike the barf bag, and tromped to the front of the vehicle.

“We’re getting off,” I said.

“It’s just a little bit more, I can’t let you off,” the driver said.

He was going to hold us hostage on the vomit comet against my will? Don’t think so.

“We’re getting off, RIGHT NOW,” I said.

He opened the door and we stepped out into the brightly lit environs of the most award winningest, Christmas lightingest neighborhood ever. The doors closed and the bus/trolley thing drove off. I found out later that it was really distressing for my mom, my sister, grandma and Dad to sit in the bus/trolley and watch the doors close on part of their little family out in the snow. Nobody ever mentioned anything else about how the rest of the tour went.

Midlife Sentence | Merry Christmas

I grew up in Boise, I guess I should known that at 7 pm on a week night in some random neighborhood it would be difficult to hail a cab. When Mike called a cab company we realized that first we needed to walk to a street corner to find out where in the hell we were, and after that it would take a full 45 minutes for a cab to reach us.

Edited to note: This all happened when we still used flip phones. No map apps or Lyft, so don’t @ me, all you people for whom technology has made throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of winter so much easier.

It was also written back when I used double spaces after periods. Times change. We are old. Carry on…

In retrospect, leaving the bus/trolley thing wasn’t so bright, but at the time it seemed the best thing to salvage my pride and my own stomach. Fortunately for us, Jack’s performance didn’t include an encore that night.

Unfortunately we were in the middle of winter, wandering the streets with a toddler, a baby, and a bag of puke. That was kind of a bummer.

We planned to find the nearest arterial road, follow it to the nearest strip mall, and sit in a coffee shop until the tour was over and someone came to pick us up. We weren’t able to find a coffee shop, or a strip mall or arterial road even. We wandered around that crazy circuitous subdivision until our toes froze. My arms locked up from carrying the baby. Somewhere along the way we lost the puke bag. We didn’t appreciate the Christmas lights.

My dad was eventually able to find us after driving around the neighborhood a few times. We climbed into his truck, not minding that he had the heat cranked up.

“Well,” he said with a smile, “that’s one budding ‘family tradition’ put to rest.”

On our way to see Santa…

[from Mike] At about 10am on Sunday, Mountain time, we’ll be boarding an overnight train with sleeper-cars that will take us from Helsinki to Rovanemei in the northern region or Lapland. This will be pretty cool – especially for the boys because Rovanemei is just inside the the Arctic Circle (no, we’re not talking about the fast food chain spanning in Ontario, Caldwell and Buhl–the real one). Rovanemei also serves as the Finnish home of Santa Claus.

Making the journey north was a last-minute change in plans; Saara’s parents, Juhani and Helena generously offered to send us on this excursion while they drive to meet up with Saara and us when we arrive Monday morning. We’ll tour the northern part of the country, hop over the border into Sweden for part of a day, and then drive south through Oulu, which is the home town for many of Saara’s extended family. We’ll be on the road until Wednesday-ish, when we arrive in Vaasa for a few days.

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