Our First Family Visitors

S&G&ME&D chi 12-08
Originally uploaded by conner_dick

This is Dad, Gillian, me, and Mary (from left to right) in the living room of our Chicago apartment. They came to visit us between Christmas and New Years in 2007, and had a great time. We did an architecture tour by bus on a frigid day (it was super fun), had some really great food, and enjoyed a much over-due visit. I’m so glad to be in closer proximity.

Christmas Gift Exchange

This year, my family all agreed to give gifts to charity instead of to each other. We still drew names as we do each year, but we made gifts to non-profits in honor of each other. It was really great to not feel the usual pressure of the holiday shopping craze, to know that I won’t be the recipient of stuff I don’t need, and to give to something that will make a difference. To me this is truly celebrating the meaning of Christmas.

Everyone shared the inspiration for the charities they chose.

Aimee chose The Make-a-Wish Foundation with the following story:

The Make-a-Wish Foundation helps seriously ill children achieve dreams that would otherwise be impossible for them. Dream vacations, dream experiences, meeting the person they admire most, getting the toy/game their family never could afford, usually due to bills regarding the illness.

When I worked at the University of Minnesota in the ’80’s, I saw first-hand what wonder this organization can bring to an otherwise hopeless situation. Michael was 8 years old, and had had a relapse of his leukemia in spite of a bone marrow transplant. The Make-a-wish foundation sent Michael and his entire family (two siblings and his parents) for a week-long visit to Disney World and Epcott Center, ALL expenses paid. Everything. They had a blast, and the family was given exceptional memories of Michael doing what he’d wanted to do for a very long time. Michael died 2 months after they returned home. I will always carry this foundation in my heart.

Elizabeth supported a film about Lyme Disease:

In addition to giving to a local food shelf, we decided to send our annual holiday donation to the film, “Under Our Skin,” a spectacularly accurate and well done documentary about chronic, late-stage neuro-borreliosis (Lyme Disease). Particularly, it shows with great sensitivity how common the disease is, the depth of suffering it causes, how few people understand or know how to support their loved ones who are infected, and how difficult it is to get treatment. The film is in need of funds so that it can be finished.

Amy Tan said, “I now know the greatest harm borrelia has caused. It is ignorance.” At this point in time, sadly, the best way to fight the disease is to fight the ignorance. This film will do that.
Elizabeth is blogging about her personal experience with Lyme Disease, which will tell you more about her motivation for her gift to the film. It’s truly inspiring.
Margaret made a gift in Peter’s honor:

I know how much he likes books and reading because he is a librarian and all. Sarah [her daughter] helped me find a charity in Africa that builds and promotes reading in small towns in Africa. It is called African library project. Now his joy of books and reading is being shared with those in Africa also

David used a web tool to help him find a charity that appealed to him:

This was really a cool way to celebrate Christmas. And it’s true, there are so many great charities out there it was really hard to decide which one to give to.

Being new to this (Although we give to local charities every year) I found a great site which finally led me to the one I ultimately chose. http://www.charitynavigator.org/It’s supposedly the largest charity evaluator on the internet and was very helpful in locating the charity about which I felt the strongest. They have charts which display how they spend their money, their reputations, etc. It’s awesome.

I finally chose The Global Fund for Women. Here is what their web site says: “The Global Fund for Women is an international network of women and men committed to a world of equality and social justice. We advocate for and defend women’s human rights by making grants to support women’s groups around the world.” Check it out – it’s not only an amazing organization but their web site is a model of design and communication.

David’s wife, Amy chose Best Friends Animal Society to honor Margaret:

When David and I moved into our apartment, there was a cat living in the parking garage. A cat had come in there to have her kittens, and some of the children in the building were petting one of the kittens when it was too soon. The mother cat rejected her kitten, so she lived in our parking garage. I called her Sweetie Pie. She was a lovely, though mostly feral, cat. But she desperately wanted to be a lap cat (as they all secretly do).

Despite my landlords warnings, I fed and watered her continually. The care and feeding of this cat became my one-woman-against-the-man mission.

I first became involved with Best Friends when I was looking for a humane place to relocate her. Feral cats are notoriously hard to relocate, and Sweetie Pie deserved better than to be put to sleep because some well meaning children gave her a pet when it was too soon. Best Friends Animal society believes the same. They are an organization dedicated to the humane treatment of all animals.

Best Friends Animal Society has airlifted animals out of New Orleans during Katrina, they are taking care of Michael Vick’s fighting dogs, they rescue dogs from puppy mills and cat collectors, they help internationally with animal rescue operations, they are active politically to ensure humane treatment of animals, and do all sorts of wonderful things for our furry (or feathery, or scaly) friends on the planet who are in trouble or in need.

I love these people. Truly. You can also watch their new show on the National Geographic Channel – Dogtown. The donation made in Margaret’s name will help care for animals at one of their various sanctuaries.

And, honestly, the notion of someone saying ‘Hey Sparky, you’ve just had your balls snipped thanks to the generosity of Margaret’ kinda made me giggle.

Sarah, my niece, had the following to say.

Invisible Children Inc. is an organization that began as a journey. Three young men and a video camera went to Africa in search of a story. They ended up in Uganda, where they met children, who are both the weapon and the victim of this story. These children are caught in the middle of a war being waged by the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Many of these children run away from home at night to seek sanctuary in the hospitals, miles from their homes. What are they running from? The LRA kidnaps kids and transforms them (physically and mentally) into child-soldiers. The Ugandan government has attempted to protect its civilians by relocating thousands to camps. But these camps are over-crowded, impoverished, and disease ridden.

The three young men created a documentary called “Invisible Children: Rough Cut,” which has been viewed by millions. The overall response to this documentary has been concern and compassion. They began this organization so that the people who are moved by the plight of these children can make a difference. The money that they raise go to fund highly researched development projects that address the need for education, mentorships, the redevelopment of schools, resettlement from the camps and financial stability within the Ugandan community. This partnership between Invisible Children Inc. and the Ugandan community focuses on long-term goals that enable children to take responsibility for their own future an the future of their country. You can visit their website AND store (Totally cool! Check out the bracelet campaign!) at this website.

Dad and Mary had the following to say:

The charity that Mary Elise and I chose is known as Jeedovaya, Center of Hope. I scanned in the article that describes how the sisters of St. Joseph of Baden Pennsylvania have developed shelters for boys in railway stations in India which have become centers where they are safe, their lives are stabilized and they become trained for jobs. They essentially are rescued.

These shelters have worked well for boys, ages 4 to 14. Now the sisters are about to establish a center for young girls which is am even more difficult task. This is what we contributed to.

Gillian chose a subscription to Slow FoodUSA for Dad. This organization supports food justice in many different ways. Through its educational programs, Slow Food promotes the consumption of fresh foods, embraces food traditions, supports local economies and environmental sustainability, and promotes human health and nutrition. This is a deliberate movement away from the culture of consumption that is destroying our health, our cultural traditions, and our planet. Being a member of Slow Food connects you to people in your community who are helping to build the slow food movement.

I chose Heifer International whose aim is to end world hunger. Their mission is to help people in poverty find and create a sustainable source of food. I chose to put my donation toward purchasing a heifer (you can choose other animals and gifts, too). The idea is to give a gift that will benefit the entire community. The livestock produce milk, eggs, fleece, manure for the fields, and offspring. They work in impoverished communities all over the world, offering culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable education to people so that they can produce food for their communities and support local economies.
I’ve known about Heifer International for years, but they came to mind recently when Gillian and I were looking for housing here in Chicago. We drove by the local offices one day, and I got all excited, so they’ve been on my mind for a while. When it came time for the gift exchange, I just knew that’s where I wanted to give. Gillian and I are trying to live more greenly, which in every way makes you realize how connected you are to the world around you, whether its just outside your door or across the world. Living out the principals of environmentalism, sustainability, and supporting our local community, while also recognizing our incredibly privileged place in the world inspired me to make a gift that would support a community in another part of the world where people are trying to do the same thing.
So, these are our stories. I was so excited when everyone agreed to this gift exchange, and then started sharing their inspirations. I just knew I had to share them here. I feel grateful for my family’s generosity in a whole new way, and I love this way of exhanging gifts and honoring each other.

Reclaiming Christmas

For years, the adult members of my family have had the tradition of choosing names out of a hat each Christmas. The name you pick is the person you are getting a gift for that year. It is a really nice tradition, relieving us all of the pressure to buy presents for each member of the family. That way, each of us can also sped a little more money on one gift than we otherwise would if we had to buy several gifts.

I have really appreciated this tradition over the years because it did help to get me out of the holiday frenzy. Since I have been an adult (and when or if that has actually occurred is up for debate), I have never really enjoyed the holidays because of the Christmas chaos. I have hated everything about it: the insanity at the malls, the lines snaking out the door of the Post Office, the incessant holiday music wherever I go, the boxes of cookies and candies around the office which I feel obligated to imbibe only to end up feeling sick later, and the flowing cheap wine, egg nog, or other nasty alcoholic concoction that makes me feel even worse. I dread the lines of cranky people with crankier children at the airports going to visit Grandma, the crowded planes. And I, along with millions of others, have persevered through all of this to reach the crazy family at the other end of the journey, whom I love, but let’s face it, at the holidays we’re all a little more challenging than usual.

The pressure of performing at Christmas gives me anxiety. I have chosen some years not to participate, or to participate in a limited way, not traveling, not sending cards, not decorating my house, and abstaining from the candy and cookies. But ultimately I have found that I still get sucked in against my best intentions even so. At best, I would feel inspired to shower my beloved with gifts and spending beyond my means. At worst, I ended up feeling sad about not reaching out to friends that I normally don’t have the chance to connect with over the year, and really sad that I didn’t find a place to hang the stockings or put up the few decorations that I have.

The truth is, I love Christmas. And much in the way that I am in a constant struggle to embrace my Christian identity which has been hijacked by right-wing zealots with a heartless political agenda, so has Christmas been hijacked by the retailers and architects of an economy that is entirely driven by consumers. It is true, and even though everyone seems to know it, we all seem to turn away from the fact that Christmas is the single most important consumer holiday. The majority of retail sales happens between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And this just isn’t a sustainable way to have a healthy economy. I don’t know much about economics, but I do understand that it is folly for an economic system to rely on our collective ability to make money during the work week, go to the mall on the weekend and buy stuff, most of which will eventually end up in a landfill.

The way most of us celebrate Christmas isn’t healthy or sustainable for many reasons.

I won’t wax nostalgic for times gone by that were simpler and better. I have no illusions that Christmas wasn’t the chaotic consumer frenzy that it is today when I was a kid. I loved Christmas as a child, and I loved the presents (I don’t know how my parents did it with five children). As a child, for me Christmas was about the anticipation of the gifts I would receive. I loved all of the other things, too: the decorations, the carols, the food, the gatherings, the television specials, and the telling of the story of the birth of Jesus.

But for a child, it was all about the presents. For an adult, it has become all about anxiety and stress.

I think I have finally found the way to celebrate Christmas in a way that I can really enjoy. My beloved and I did not exchange gifts. We are staying at home together for a cozy day of relaxing, game-playing, reading, eating great food, enjoying each other’s company, and being grateful for all that we have. This year for the family gift exchange we all made gifts to charities in honors of each other instead of buying each other stuff that we don’t need (more about that in posts to follow). We didn’t get a tree that we would have to dispose of later, though we did hang some lights and put up a few decorations. We will send out a few New Year post cards to let our far-flung friends know that we think of them and love them even if we can’t see them.

And I will continue to write these blog postings as an exercise of creative expression and as a way to stay in touch with people. I figure if I keep putting it out there, people will stop by and keep connecting or reconnect. And it’s working!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

A Close Call

Gillian and I ran some errands this weekend, and had a perilously close brush with holiday stress, the kind of stress I have vowed to avoid while at the same time participating in enough activity so that I can enjoy the season. Its a delicate balance, easy to topple, we found.

We needed supplies for truffle-making, so we went out and about in the world, braving the holiday shopping chaos. It was really quite fun. There is an aspect of holiday shopping that I actually enjoy, if you can ignore the consumer greed. There is a palpable excitement in the air, coming from the energy of people bustling about getting very important things done. This past weekend was so cold in the Bay Area that it really felt like winter “back east,” as we like to say in California. The cold made me feel cozy and Christmasey. We werre bundled up, getting done our list of important things, bustling around, running into old friends, and enjoying the scene.

After much debate, we decided to get a tree. Already feeling we had put in a full day of bustling, we persisted in getting our tree on Saturday. Young men with chainsaws were taking orders from a much older man who looked like he had seen some hard times. We showed the man which tree we wanted, and he said that he would have it ready to go after we paid for it. We went in the store and paid for the tree, got hot dogs on the way out, fetched the car, and drove up to the curb to claim our tree.

The young man helping us was none too happy about it. It was clear that he wanted to be doing anything but help us strap a Christmas tree to the top of our car. The poor kid was clearly not happy in his work. What should have taken 10 minutes took 45. Gillian and I didn’t know what to do to prod this kid along. We’re not professional Christmas tree fasteners. We didn’t want to tell this guy who so obviously hates his job that he was doing it too slowly. And we were pretty certain that he didn’t care that we had to get home to decorate the tree and make chocolate truffles for our friends. But we really wanted to get home! We were risking getting cranky and tired.

We finally got the tree home, and it took a lot longer to set it up than we thought. Putting a six-foot tree in a tiny apartment is not easy (although I do believe that no matter what, there is always room for a Christmas tree). We had to re-arrange some large furtniture and our entire entertainment system, but we were determined and we got that thing to fit! Then the decorating: We had to string the lights twice because we realized that it works better to string from the bottom up with the lights plugged in too late. I think I have to re-learn that every year. then the process of hanging the decorations, going through the Christmas box, gushing over the angel cow ornament and the baby ice skates that I used to wear as a kid (my mom turned them into holiday deorations after I grew out of them. They are pretty cute.).

We had planned on making truffles that day, but by the time we got home and got the tree decorated, it was about 8:00. We were tired and couldn’t possibly get started that late. We’d be up all night! We agreed to skip church (gasp!) and stay home and get started in the morning. We also had to go to a co-worker’s Hanukah party the next day (which I really wanted to attend), which would no longer be convenient since we’d be in the process of making truffles. Undaunted, we were determined to do it all.

Mind you, this is how I get into trouble around the holidays. I get overly ambitious. Really, its the story of my life. I guess when I grow up I’ll have the goal of not having eyes bigger than my stomach. Right. Like that’s gonna happen.

Gillian and I started to disagree about process. To start, our disagreements were friendly debates, and for quite a while, we were able to work things out amicably. Gillian finished the ganaches (I assisted and washed dishes), and by noon they were all setting. We went to the party, had a nice time socializing with friends from the office, played with cute babies, ate yummy potato latkas with home-made apple sauce, caught up with a few old friends, and finally made our excuses, which people were willing to accept because they knew they would benefit from our planned afternoon activities.

We came back home and immediately started making truffles. Without the truffle-making, we had already had a full day, I think most would agree. But we were determined, and we perservered.

The process took far too long, and half way through, we realized that we didn’t have enough paper cups for all of the truffles. Gillian was going to have to drive accross town to get more. I really didn’t want her to go. I wanted to have a stress-free day of holiday activity and not have either of us go anywhere. I immediately became cranky, and we argued. Was it better to just make due with the paper cups that we had, or should one of us just bite the bullet and go get what we needed? I felt we should stay home, but Gillian is more of a perfectionist, especially when it comes to food. She wasn’t going to be relaxed unless we had everything we needed. I gave in and let her go, but I wasn’t happy about it.

We were both tired, and we both new that we were going to be up too late. I had to go to work at 6:30 the next morning, and I wanted to go to bed. It was 10:30 and we still needed to box the truffles after the were shaped and rolled in cocoa. We were in the middle of a long process, and we didn’t have enough time to relax, and for a moment it didn’t feel like we were having fun. It felt too close for comfort to holiday stress.

We bickered and whined at each other. My feet hurt, and I wanted nothing more than to be horizontal by 11:00. We had a hard moment discussing whether or not I should go to bed or stay up and see the process through. We never settled the argument, but I stayed up and helped assemble the boxes, and the process went by pretty quickly. Once we got past the crankiness, we were punchy and silly, laughing at ourselves because we were so tired that we couldn’t accurately count truffles any more.

In spite of ourselves, we had a fun time, managing to fill our weekend with holiday activities, creating an unrealistic agenda, accomplishing most everything and then some, and avoiding a close call with holiday stress.

Merry Christmas, indeed.