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Thursday, May 26, 2016

6 Awesome End-of-Year Gifts to Make YOU the Teacher's Pet

I used to be an educator back in the day, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: your kids’ teachers have enough charmingly kitschy mugs, artisanal hand cream baskets, and Russell Stover’s candy assortments to last a coffee-swilling psoriasis sufferer with a mouth full of sweet teeth six lifetimes.
Don’t do it, man. Walk away from the Gifts-R-Us mall kiosk. You can do better. I’m here to help with some off-the-beaten-path gift ideas to wrap up your school year with style.
A Magazine Subscription
In this age of all-things-digital, print media is desperate, people. The deals on magazines are outrageously fabulous right now, so score your favorite teacher a year of kick-back reading. Here are a few ideas to spark your imagination:

Don’t know your teacher’s home address? No problem. Have it sent to school. The colorful glossy will shine a giddy ray of delight when it pops up alongside all the dull, black-and-white paperwork that drudgingly populates teacher mailboxes.
A Really Nice Afghan or Throw
Who doesn’t enjoy snuggling up with a cozy blanket at the end of a long day? There’s just something about a soft, fuzzy rectangle of fabric that turns you into a little kid in his parents’ bed again. Check out these sweet blankies, or take a stab at the clearance end-caps at Pier One, Ross, or Bed Bath & Beyond. You can almost always find a cache of last-season’s home textiles at cut-rate prices.
Available at Amazon for $16.99
Available at Bed Bath & Beyond for $19.99

A Bottle of Red… a Bottle of White… Whatever kind of mood you’re in tonight…
I have given bottles of alcohol as teacher gifts before, and got a great and grateful response. However, I did realize after delivering the wrapped libations to each of my children’s teachers that it’s likely frowned upon to bring alcohol into an elementary school. Or any other sort of public school.
It also felt kind of weird handing a Merlot to the school bus driver.
And, whatever you do, don’t put bottles of bubbly into your kids’ backpacks for them to deliver. Bad juju there. Bad. Really bad.
But, if you’re okay living on the edge a little bit, it’s not something too many other parents are bringing in. Cheers!

Photo by Tom Ipri
A Nice Tote or Reusable Shopping Bag
Have you ever seen a teacher exiting his/her car on the way into school? If not for the professional clothing they’d look like homeless people carting all their worldly possessions on their persons. Seriously, teachers have lots of stuff—activities and books and materials they amass and prepare and transport for the pedagogical benefit of our children.
So help them convey their gear in style. Our school did a fundraiser with Mixed Bag Designs, and I get compliments on my reusable shopping bags every single time I pull them out. Take a look at their ingeniously cool bags made from recycled plastics, or check out the many nifty—and inexpensive—bags sold at places like Marshall’s, Trader Joe’s, and Home Goods.
Available at Grab Bags for $14.99
Available at Amazon for $21.90
Available at Mixed Bag Designs for $27.00

Most teachers I know appreciate literature, and summer is the season when many of us catch up on our want-to-reads. Give the latest bestselling fiction, or a really good non-fiction tome in your teacher’s field, to bulk up their beach-reading collection.

Gift Cards
If all else fails, or you’re hard-pressed for a gift right this very minute, you can’t go too far wrong with a gift card. My daughter’s fourth-grade teacher once told me his favorite meal was chicken wings and a beer, so we gave him a night out at Buffalo Wild Wings to celebrate the end of the school year. If you really don’t know where your teacher likes to eat or shop, there’s always a Visa or MasterCard gift card—but be warned, those companies charge a $4.95 “activation fee”. Every time I forget that and buy one I stomp my foot and yell, “Phooey!” (or something a little bluer than that) after I get home. Highway robbers, those credit card companies.
Gift Card by nightowlpapergoods
And lastly, please tuck a note in with your gift. You can’t imagine how infrequently teachers hear the words, “Thank you”. In fact, most teachers I know would be grateful for nothing else but a note telling them they are appreciated.
Actually, pretty much everyone I know would be grateful for a note telling them they’re appreciated.
Then go enjoy your summer, and count the days till the cherubs head back to school! (103 here.)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Pride & Preachiness

Photo by impala ark
I don’t trust anybody who thinks they’re completely right about something.
Liberal or conservative, religious or atheist, democrat or republican, pro-life or pro-choice… anyone who thinks they’ve got the whole package wrapped up and tied with a bow is either too superficially acquainted with the wider world to recognize how little they really know, or they’ve got a too-desperately vested interest in maintaining their image as an authority to take off the mask and gloves and get real.
We send our kids to public school. We think this is the right choice for our family. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t. But we revisit that decision all the time. Like when we overheard the six-year-old tell his younger sisters that, “There used to be dinosaurs but they all died and then the monkeys turned into people and that’s how we got here.”
You bet the dad and I cleaned up that simplistic take on earth science, and spent some time reviewing our litmus test on school choice. (It’s “Are our kids being an influence, or are they being influenced?” The answer is rarely simple.)
A pastor once said in a sermon that he’s wrong about God in some way. He doesn’t know what he’s wrong about though, because if he knew he was wrong he would change his perspective on that point. But if he doesn’t think he’s wrong about anything, then he purports to possess the mind of God, which knows the full truth about every matter in the universe.
Wow. So, I’m wrong about stuff. I just don’t know for sure what stuff I’m wrong about. Because if I knew I was wrong, I’d stop being wrong. Because nobody wants to be wrong, right?
But there’s the problem: insisting that you are right doesn’t in fact make you right. It just makes you prideful. And arrogant. And pretty stinking obnoxious. And it makes the people who don’t already agree with you click the little X in the upper right corner of your blog post.
If we want to influence others toward our way of thinking, we really ought to give those others credit for having some salient grounds beneath their own ways of thinking. And we should view ourselves as imperfect judges of good and bad, right and wrong, wise and foolish. That’s the only way a genuine and meaningful conversation can start—one where, hopefully, both parties can move a little closer to actual truth. Or at least walk away feeling heard and respected.
I suppose I could be completely wrong about that, though.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Cat for Sale: Cheap, Cheap!

Our eleven-year-old cat has been “thinking outside the box”.
Last winter Jasmine decided that the canvas tarp we put down in the basement for months—due to a never-ending, one-thing-after-another, please-God-make-it-stop, basement flood/electrical/asbestos/sump-pump debacle—made a spacious and convenient open-air potty.
Did the canvas resemble a twenty-foot Zen-garden of kitty litter? Did she mistake it for a sand dune? Had she resolved that eight months was long enough to put up with her digs suffering construction?
We rolled the tarp up, put it away, and the cat spent the evening wandering around the basement, confused and despondent and yowling. I feared she’d succumbed to dementia.
Because then she went on the carpet. The new carpet. The beautiful, slate-blue, undefiled, I-got-a-little-peeved-when-our-guest’s-baby-drooled-on-it, new carpet.
So I hauled her miserable carcass to the vet.
In the eight years we had the cat I only took her for medical care once, when someone gave me an Easter lily and Jasmine decided to snack on it. Here’s what happens to cats when they nosh lilies:

One of the most immediate symptoms of lily poisoning is the sudden onset of vomiting. In addition, cats that are experiencing lily poisoning will often exhibit signs of depression, diarrhea, dehydration, and lack of appetite (anorexia). If the condition is left untreated, death can occur within four to seven days of ingestion []

So we checked her into a kitty hospital and I don’t even want to talk about what we spent to keep a cat breathing.
Never again. My children have never run up that size of an E.R. bill.
So once again I wrapped the #*@& cat’s head and sharp parts in a bath towel and inserted her, back end first, into the kitty crate I excavated out of the basement storage area. I anticipated a shaming of biblical proportions at the vet’s office for not bringing her in every year and dropping a couple of hundred dollars to get an indoor cat’s teeth checked.
But the veterinary staff were actually very nice.
To me.
Jasmine, on the other hand, made no friends that day. Besides getting a thermometer up the MroOOwrr! and having her head pinned to the table while they did a physical exam which made my last mammogram seem like an aromatherapy massage, she also got deported to the back room, out of sight of me and my two daughters, for the vet to “express her anal glands”.
Ooh. That doesn’t sound nice for anybody.
I did not know that my cat—nor any living creature—could make sounds like those that emanated from the laboratory. I feared she had massacred the entire staff of the veterinary clinic, shredding their remains into bloody ribbons of cappellini-like flesh.
But they vet came back unscathed and reported that they found nothing wrong.
The blood work came back fine. The stool sample didn’t show anything. Nothing physically wrong with this cat.
“It’s likely a behavioral issue,” the vet said.
Jasmine continues to alternate between using her box and my new carpet. Despite my daily sanitation of her personal sandbox. Despite her regular feedings and pettings from the three adoring children. Despite having a better life than 98.7% of the other animals—and peopleon this planet.
You know that old expression, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat?”
I’m thinking I need a new pair of ear muffs. Or boot cuffs.
And Jasmine’s just about the right size.
Anyone want a cat before I rev up my sewing machine?

(It's the Cat's Meow.)

Friday, May 6, 2016


      I waved goodbye to my parents after a week-long spring visit and watched their rain-wet, silver Rav-4 pull away from the driveway. It curved left with the southward, bloom-strewn arc of our suburban street, and flashed its red brake lights twice before disappearing around the corner in front of the pink and white azaleas at little Baptist church.
My inner voice whispered, “Your father is eighty.”
We celebrated his milestone birthday at one of our favorite restaurants. The waitress brought dessert—a square, stacked, strawberry shortcake heavy with spirals of cream and fat berries and buttery wedges of yellow cake, the words Happy 80th Birthday written across the edge of the plate in cursive chocolate icing letters—graced with a single lit candle.
I remembered my mother’s forty-second birthday, when she was younger than I am now, but seemed so very, dodderingly old to my tweenily egocentric mind. Though I possessed enough forethought to hide her cake in my upstairs bedroom before dinner, my inadequate savvy did not prepare me for the consequences of lighting all three and a half dozen of its candles there. By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs I held in my outstretched hands a two-layer, chocolate ball of raging wildfire. I screamed for my father. He knocked back his chair, barreled to my side in no more than five dad-bolting-to-rescue-his-shrieking-daughter steps, and blew out my marbled-wax inferno with the force of the Big Bad Wolf devastating a little piggy’s house.
I can’t remember if any of that cake could be salvaged to eat.
I don’t know how much longer I’ll have my parents in my life. While we did dishes together one evening during their visit my mother said, “I wish I could see your children grow up, and find out what they’ll do with their lives.” They’re young—eight, ten, and twelve—so it’s possible Mom won’t.
Twenty years ago or so my grandmother said to me, with a crackly timbre to her voice that only Grandma could produce, “Oh, Maria. I just hope I live long enough to see you get married.”
She did. At our December wedding reception the videographer recorded her laughter, and the tears streaming down her be-rouged cheeks, as my dear friend entertained us on his guitar with a dedicated-to-Grandma-from-Maria rendition of Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. All the guests joined in on every chorus.
Grandma even lived to meet my first two children.
The cast of characters in my kids’ lives is completely different from those who peopled my childhood. My all-male cousins alternately tormented me and inspired me to be a tomboy (when I wanted to play with them) or an uppity princess (when I didn’t). My son, however, is the oldest and only boy drowning in a sisterly-cousinly sea of estrogen. He’s been given an honorary Uncle Society membership card, and serves as the surrogate son for a clutch of men who in their own homes trip over tea sets and jeweled tiaras and Elsa dolls rather than Legos and Nerf rifles and light sabers.
A number of my elder relatives could’ve been colorfully described as Holidays on the Rocks with a Twist. (Or two.) I might not write the way I do today if not for some of the stories I heard, behavior I witnessed, and questionably-ethical card games in which I participated. I’ve forgotten more insults and dirty jokes and swear words than I suspect my dear husband has ever heard, even if he was in the Navy for the better part of a decade.
The aunts and uncles in my children’s lives are all—every single one of them—godly people who reinforce what we’re teaching our kids with the tacit testimony of how they speak and parent and live their own lives.
A few of them don’t drink alcohol at all, though. And I’ll be honest, that bums me out sometimes. Vestiges of my own checkered youth, apparently.
My father is eighty. I have no grandparents left in this world. Some of my aunts and uncles have passed on as well. Everything and everyone I’ve ever loved has gone or will go. As will I, when it’s time for my children to carry on into their future without me, toward lives filled with people I may never even meet.
It’s sweet, this little slice of time we get.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Things I'll Thank You Not to Do in Front of Me in the School Drop-Off & Pick-Up Line

Photo by Rachel Clarke

You’d be forgiven for calling me critical, ‘cause yeah, I am.

Deep down I do recognize that I’m a flawed human being in need of grace as deeply as anyone else. But in my moment-to-moment, workaday life, I also know how everything should go and what everyone should do every moment of every day, and if others would just toe the line I inscribe in the dirt our society would operate more efficiently and joyfully and the people would cry, “Thank you for sharing with us your abundant wisdom, O Woman of Great Understanding!”

I have yet to hear that though. From anyone.

But in an effort to improve the functioning of this chaotic world, I will now gently and humbly rebuke the following offenders of School Pick-Up and Drop-Off Line protocol.

The Lingerer

Oh, fretful, wistful, overprotective Mama or Papa. Once your child has exited the vehicle, PUT YOUR CAR IN GEAR AND DRIVE AWAY!

No cataclysm will befall your baby during the twenty-foot stroll between your van and the school door. See that teacher standing there? She’s not going to let your kid make a break for the 7-11; she won’t high-five a child abductor who pops out of the bushes; nor will she tell your little one to suck it up and get to class if your tot trips and falls on the sidewalk, thereby snapping off a limb or two.

Your child is safe on school property and will return to you in the afternoon.


The Parker

If you successfully procured a driver’s license in the United States, you must already know that a curb painted yellow is not a parking space. Doubly so when signs posted beside it read, “FIRE LANE”, and “SCHOOL PICK-UP AND DROP-OFF ONLY. NO PARKING”.

If business inside the school requires that you exit your vehicle, PUT YOUR STINKIN’ HONDA IN A PROPER PARKING SPOT AND GET IT OUT OF MY WAY!

The Double-Parker

You’re a jerk.

When you pull up on the left and make your kid navigate between the cars in the official line on the right, you are announcing that your time is more valuable than that of anyone who’s waiting in accordance with the established social contract, and also that you don’t really care if your kid ends up a smushy little grease spot between two bumpers.

You’re not that important. Believe it.

The Line-Cutter

You opportunistic little weasel.

My car is ten years old. I will not hesitate to grind its front quarter panel into your passenger side door if you snake up on the left and attempt to force your way in.

There’s a line. Get in it at the back, like the rest of us peasants did.

The Chauffeur

If your kid is older than four years of age and not disabled in any way, s/he can open and close the car door unassisted. This is a simple little exercise toward independence, and should any problems arise, the teacher attending the drop-off/pick-up line is there to help.

I aim for a fifteen-second maximum idle for drop-off: “Go! Go! People are waiting behind us! I’ve got places to be! Out the door! Move it!”

Honestly, it shouldn’t even be necessary to come to a full stop. Kids can hit the ground running. Ever seen one leap off a swing from fifteen feet in the air?


The Left-Exiter

If I were a person who would ever use an uncouth term like “WTF?!?” I’d say WTF?!?

Do you have too many children? Are you trying to prune your family tree? Did that kid really tick you off this morning?

Because have you seen the jerks and weasels who zip along the left lane like near-sighted NASCAR drivers who haven’t won a cup since 1997?

Boot your kids out on the RIGHT side of the car, people! We ditched Great Britain in 1776.

The Cell-Phone Aficionado

When I see someone operating a two-ton vehicle while simultaneously attending to the four-by-six-inch screen of a mobile phone, I am nearly overcome with the urge to pull a Towanda on his multitasking wazoo.

I will grant you a tip-of-the-hat for pulling over and ceasing to drive blind while you are consulting your GPS or checking your email, or talking to the best friend with whom you haven’t chatted in, like, twenty minutes. But I will also thank you to MOVE YOUR VEHICLE OUT OF THE DROP-OFF/PICK-UP LINE WHILE YOU’RE DOING IT!

You’re in my way.

And I don’t like things in my way.

Get more gentle, humble musings.

It’s better reading than the back of a cereal box.

(Well, occasionally. If you eat stuff like granola, Or oatmeal.)