Sunday, December 20, 2009

Chasing the New Year’s Eve Dream


Which is worse? Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve? Both holidays involve culturally mandated fun. Both are loaded with unrealistic expectations. Both measure the success of one’s social life and tend to make you feel like a loser if you’ve got no plans.

In my earlier single days, I would have been quicker to say Valentine’s Day was my least favorite. There’s all that pressure to be coupled or, if you are seeing someone, all that pressure to validate the relationship with the perfect box of chocolates. Still, it’s easy enough to eschew the pink-hearted mushiness if you choose. Chances are there’s a group of like-minded friends you can join for ice cream or martinis and share the “We Hate Valentine’s Day” sentiment. One of my friends used to throw an anti-Valentine’s-Day party every year (ironically, one or both of us typically ended up hooking up with someone afterwards).

New Year’s Eve is trickier. It takes more than a dinner date or a cynical cocktail with friends to feel like you’ve met the cultural obligation of The Biggest Party Night of the Year. You’re not required to have a partner; you’re required to have a wild bunch of fabulous friends to help make it a night to remember. It’s supposed to be the most incredible, over-the-top fun you’ve had all year. The New Year’s Eve myth is harder to deconstruct, because it’s not as obvious as the couple-centric Hallmarky Valentine’s Day myth. Cynical as I am, I spent a good part of my 20’s chasing that New Year’s Eve dream.

I suppose it all started in the mid-1970’s for me, attending the Hickory-Farms-cheesiest New Year’s Eve party ever at my mom’s friend the Avon Lady’s place. I was only 7 or so, and I thought her house was the height of elegance because it was filled with fancy Avon knick-knacks and had those white fake fur things draped over the pea-green sofas. I remember settling into the comfy shag carpeting and gazing enviously at her bright blue eyeshadow, imagining she was a queen. The concept of New Year’s Eve was new to me, but I was instantly captivated by the romanticism of it all. You stay up until midnight and a whole new year begins, right there in front of you! And there’s fondue!

Unfortunately, my mom was keeping a close eye on our snack consumption. At our usual bedtime, we were sent to her friend’s daughter’s room with the rest of the kids. We all thought it was incredibly unfair. At first, we kept sending my littlest sister out to the party to sneak chips back to us, but the adults got wise to that pretty quickly. As the Avon Lady’s daughter played her Captain & Tennille and Donny & Marie records for us, I grew more bored and frustrated by the minute. The grown-ups sounded like they were having so much fun out there.

Every disappointing New Year’s Eve I’ve had since then has been some version of that first one – stuck in a dull room while the real fun appears to be happening elsewhere, inaccessible. I’ve attended several parties where I was the only female guest in a roomful of my hapless buddies and their bitter “Women Don’t Like Nice Guys” friends. Then there was the time my boyfriend and I were feeling too vaguely sick and weary to go see Poi Dog Pondering like we’d planned, so we ended up watching SNL reruns on his crappy old couch instead. We watched the VCR clock turn over to 12:00, but he thought kissing at midnight was too lame or “establishment” or something and flat out refused me.

Even those times when I did manage to scrape up some conventionally fun plans, it kind of left me cold. One year, for example, I spent hours waiting for my friends to call and tell me where to meet them. They finally got around to remembering me at 11:30 and it was shortly after midnight by the time I made it to the club.

The place was packed, smoky, and sweaty, but I found my friends easily enough. These were people I’d been going out with that whole year, and every time was such hilarious fun. But not this time. I had one guy nagging me to talk about my Problems so he could Help me with them. Two more guys were drooling all over themselves thinking my friend and I were a lesbian couple. Meanwhile, another friend staggered off to make out with some random dude. He tagged along with us to a diner after closing time, and you could tell she was already kind of sick of him.

Come to think of it, this wasn’t much different from any of our other nights out. I don’t know why I remember all those other nights so fondly but regard this one as being kind of lame. Expectations, I suppose. If this had been a spontaneous night out in March or August, it might have seemed more exciting. Maybe it was the “Amateur Night” factor, being out on the streets with all those neophyte partiers from the suburbs bumbling around trying to hail cabs and walking six-abreast down the narrow sidewalks. Whatever the reason, I still hadn’t found the elusive euphoria of New Year’s Eve. Not in parties, or clubs, or quiet nights with a boyfriend.

Until 1998 – my first New Year’s Eve in Seattle.

Mr. Black had been living here for a few months, and I was in town finalizing my plans to join him. I’d just signed the lease on a new apartment that morning. I’d be heading back to Philly in a few days to pack up my old place, get my cat, and join my love in Seattle once and for all. The whole thing felt so blissfully surreal. It was every moment in every romantic comedy that we’ve trained ourselves not to believe.

We’d been so wrapped up in our rain-soaked apartment hunting, New Year’s Eve was more of an afterthought. We went to the gritty U-District Safeway and bought a bottle of cheap champagne, poured it into a thermos, and walked down the Burke-Gilman trail to Gas Works Park.

That night was cold and remarkably un-rainy for a change. Boats adorned in Christmas lights sailed along the ship canal toward Lake Union. The closer we got to the park, the more people joined us on the path, heading down to Gas Works for a great view of the Space Needle fireworks. But it wasn’t crowded or obnoxious; just casually merry with a friendly neighborhood feel. We found a good spot to cuddle up, enjoy a perfect skyline view, and share our thermos champagne. Mr. Black’s not much of an “establishment” guy either, but he had no problems kissing me at midnight.


Now that’s what New Year’s Eve is all about. What could capture the true spirit of welcoming a new year more than that – standing on the brink of the biggest change in your life, next to the person you’re taking the plunge with, on the edge a lake full of festively-lit boats and fireworks. I haven’t even tried to top that one. How could I? That was the one time in my life when ringing in a new year really meant something.

This year, we’ll be flying home from Pennsylvania on New Year’s Day. I expect our New Year’s Eve activities will involve little more than packing up the suitcases, watching a DVD, and sharing what’s left of my dad’s Sam Adams holiday beer sampler. And as long as my guy still kisses me at midnight, that’s good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Big Three

It’s funny how a visit to the hospital still brings on the pregnancy déjà vu. I had a moment in the parking garage on Monday, checking to make sure I’d left enough room next to the other car to get my big belly through the door. Oops.

No big belly here. My “baby” turns three today, in fact, and I was only at the hospital for my “Hey, You’re 40!” routine mammogram. Nice to know that even though the baby factory is closed, there are still plenty of opportunities to slip on a hospital gown and get probed. Standing there at an awkward angle while the tech carefully spread out each breast on the cold surface like a homemade pie crust, it really wasn’t much different from all those ultrasounds and blood tests of yesteryear.

Except, of course, it was completely devoid of that deliciously giddy prospect of a new baby, which takes the edge off of just about any unpleasant medical procedure. Even now, walking around that hospital is like flipping through a photo album of precious memories. (Aw, there’s the waiting room where I downed that bottle of noxious orange stuff for the gestational diabetes test! And there’s the hallway where I had all those contractions while waiting to be admitted!)

Did I mention my baby girl is THREE today? Three. Older than her big brother was when she was born. I wrote about her baby days for her birthday last year, and I’m so glad I did. Reading back over it now, there are so many details I’d already almost forgotten.


Where did that baby disappear to? This past year she’s grown so beautifully into her child-self, from the full head of hair to the full-fledged love of Bill Nye the Science Guy. She speaks in complete, thoughtful sentences now, always with a pressing story to tell. She attempts jokes and responds to them with a finely honed fake laugh. She can sit next to us at Taco del Mar and chomp down a black bean burrito with no help at all. There are plenty of tears and tantrums, of course, but for the most part she is sunshine itself. Everything about her shines – her mischief, her imagination, her absolute joy in her favorite things.


I thought I would be missing babies by now. And I do, sort of. I’m always happy to see one bobbing along in his Moby wrap or flapping her arms joyously at something shiny. But at the same time, I can definitely feel my own baby window closing. In a good way. I can look at another baby without the compelling biological impulse to swoop it up and care for it. When I hold someone else’s baby, it doesn’t instantly zap me back to my own postpartum days anymore. It just feels like . . . holding a baby.

What I really miss is my babies. Or, rather, I miss the time I spent with them. I miss when it was enough to bundle them up in ducky pajamas and just sit around listening to each other breathe. I miss heading out for long, dreamy walks with a baby snoozing contentedly in her wrap. I miss when the “firsts” were innocent and easy. Baby’s first laugh. Baby’s first ride on the playground swing.

Mostly, I think I miss that intangible bliss of the transition to parenthood itself. Yes it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, and I wouldn’t want to go back to the sleepless nights. But the stretch of it all . . . realizing we were capable of raising a newborn at all (and then another one!), and finding those little corners of pure happiness amid the chaos . . . I’ve never experienced anything quite like that. I used to tell people it felt like getting pushed off a cliff at the very moment you discover you’ve had wings all along.

The Christmas season is already so evocative, with its twinkling lights, carols, and whatnot; ready-made for nostalgic warm fuzzies. And each year I realize a little more just how truly amazing and special that first Christmas season was, welcoming our new baby. Our daughter. Little sister. The final member of a nuclear family which, for a long time, had been largely hypothetical.

The previous years had been a rapid current of transitions – the move to Seattle, new jobs, the new house, the marriage, the miscarriages, the birth of our first child. And now, with this final tremendous change, with the nights getting longer and our loved ones gathering to celebrate the holiday, we were finally ready to settle here for a while. Things would still keep changing constantly, of course. But at least we’d established a setting and a cast of characters. And with that, a new chapter was ready to begin.

And here we are. Three years of driving a station wagon with two car seats in the back and saying things like “Don’t ‘But Mommy’ me!” without irony. Three years of gathering them both into my lap for stories and silliness. Three years of being a team with these incredibly smart, funny, constantly evolving little people. They never cease to amaze me, and these have been some of the happiest years of my life.

Happy birthday, Little Girl.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Very ACLU Christmas

There was a so-called “war on Christmas” long before Bill O'Reilly and friends went mainstream with it a few years ago. I should know. I worked in the ACLU’s Philadelphia office in the mid-1990’s, and it was my job to open the hate mail. Most of it arrived during the month of December in the form of Christmas cards. Nice picture of Mary and the Baby Jesus on the cover. Scrawled scathing message encouraging us to burn in hell or die painfully on the inside. Joy to the world, indeed.

It was all because of that pesky “separation of church and state” which, at least in those days, typically meant your courthouse couldn’t have a crèche on its front lawn. (Unless you went 
this route.) Our lawyers were much busier with other pursuits -- helping the woman who'd been evicted over her boyfriend's race or the man with Down syndrome who wasn't allowed to ride a merry-go-round at a local amusement park. Crèche-busting typically required a few phone calls in the middle of a hectic afternoon, then they’d move on. But that’s what gained us the most notoriety.

Our lawyers didn’t mind the hate mail. Some of them thrived on it, in fact. These were people who loved a good fight; being told to burn in hell just meant they were doing their job. I didn’t take it personally either. But it did make me think. I’d just be sitting there at my cluttered desk in my little hippie skirt making my little $20K a year and listening to my little mix tape, wondering what sort of Christian would think I deserved endless pain just for showing up and doing my little support staff job that day.

And what a job it was. Our office of ten people served all of Pennsylvania. There were two or three lawyers in Philly, another one in Pittsburgh. Phones rang all day long. Mail poured in. I did everything from photocopying to event planning to producing a newsletter. There were some exciting days, being in the midst of important cases and press conferences. There were downright degrading days, dealing with big egos and unkind words from our superstar freedom fighters. But there were plenty of slow, peaceful days, too.

That’s how it was right before Christmas Eve that year. My major projects were finished for the time being. No fires to put out. My mom was coming that night to take me out to dinner and give me a lift home for the holidays. I was clearing up some of the months-old clutter on my desk when I heard some bustling in the foyer area.

I saw Frank, our long-time senior citizen volunteer receptionist, sitting at his desk and speaking earnestly with a young man wrapped in a coat while two small children, a boy and a girl, squirmed in our uncomfortable waiting-room chairs. Each child was holding a gorgeous oversized mesh plastic “stocking” stuffed with toys, clearly yearning to open them but showing remarkable restraint.

Except for the children, it was a familiar scene. All sorts of folks dropped in on our office from time to time, seeking help. Frank would listen patiently to every word of their stories before he would purposefully explain, in his Jim-Ignatowski-meets-Grandpa-Simpson manner, that the ACLU does not handle such cases and refer them to an agency that did. Sometimes they’d get angry, but Frank took the verbal abuse stoically, patiently listening again before restating his position. And listening. And restating. Eventually they’d move on.

But this family was different. From what I was overhearing, this was clearly not a situation the ACLU could help with in an official capacity. But Frank didn’t give him the speech. He kept listening. He kept asking questions. The children got antsier and louder as the conversation continued. Some of us came into the waiting area and tried to keep them entertained with whatever random toys we had on our desks. Stress balls. A Marge Simpson doll. Finally, their dad gave them the go-ahead to open the stockings, and merry chaos broke out.

In the midst of all that, our Legal Director and chief crèche-buster came blustering out of his office on some unrelated matter. He asked Frank what was going on, and Frank discreetly explained. This family had nowhere to sleep tonight. They’d been staying with a friend of the dad, but they couldn’t go back there now. The friend molested the little girl. The lawyer’s tone shifted in a way I’d never heard before, from busy and important to sincere kindness and concern. He invited the young dad into his office.

Which left the babysitting to the rest of us. But no one seemed to mind. Children rarely made an appearance in our office, and they lightened the mood considerably. They pulled crayons and containers of Play Doh from their stockings, and we all got creative together. We made up games and let them run up and down the long hallway.

The meeting went on for most of an hour. Our Legal Director was on and off the phone, networking with his colleagues in social services, tracking down a place for this family to stay. Finally, he was able to line something up. We helped the children gather up their stockings, got them into their coats, and off they went into the Philadelphia winter dusk. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat as I picked the squished Play Doh bits from our waiting-room carpet. Sweet little girl. Who knew what was going to happen to her? It broke my heart just to think about it. But at least she had somewhere safe to go on Christmas Eve.

The “Very Special Christmas Episode” message here is probably pretty obvious, but it bears repeating: The ACLU may have caused the relocation of a few plaster Mary-and-Josephs that year. But an ACLU lawyer also found this real-life unfortunate family some room at the Inn. And with all due respect to Mr. Schulz, I’d like to suggest that that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Dedicated to the memories of Stefan Presser, Larry Frankel, and Frank Kent.
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