Tag Archive: friends


last minute

Christmas ornaments

Photo Credit: James Hawkins; Licence: Public Domain

In past years, despite the faithful nagging of my wife, despite my own distaste for crowds, despite the promises I had made myself in prior years, I have always left holiday shopping to the last minute.

It’s not like I have a lot to do.  Both our extended families, having found that the prospect of purchasing for everyone fostered a sentiment of bitterness about giving (which ran rather contrary to the whole spirit of the season), have opted — and I daresay, after a good amount of urging on my part — to adopt a gift exchange approach.  Each person draws or is assigned a single name and purchases a $50 gift for that single person.  It has restored the proper atmosphere of the holidays in our homes, has eliminated begrudging gift-buying, has reduced the pure commercialism of the season, and has eradicated the nauseating surplus of impractical “junk” we don’t need.

My wife takes care of purchasing all the gifts for the kids, which she usually has finished by May.

Sandra and I do not purchase individual gifts for each other but instead have a tradition of taking each other away for a weekend in January or February.  We don’t get away together very often, so it really is the most meaningful gift we can give each other.

As a result of these traditions, I am only responsible for two gifts and, frankly, I rarely even have to do that, as Sandra has an endearing penchant for returning home from a mid-October shopping trip with a grin on her face and a declaration that she found a gift for So-and-So.  “I thought I was purchasing for So-and-So this year,” I’ll comment quizzically.  “You are!” she replies proudly.

That usually leaves me nothing but Sandra’s stocking to take care of, and store cameras typically capture me dashing in frantically on December 23rd or 24th, an expression of frustration on my face.  So much for holiday cheer.

This year, I learned my lesson, and finished all of my holiday shopping in October.

Just kidding.

did, however, go a day earlier — today, December 22nd — and I did adopt a few practices which very legitimately removed all stress from the experience.  Having tested these practices, I want to pass the knowledge on.

So, today, I’m stepping away from my “Today, I am grateful for…” recipe in favour of something a little different.

Behold, I give you the 11 Tips for Surviving Last-Minute Holiday Shopping.  Why 11, you ask?  Read on.

Tip 1. Don’t leave holiday shopping to the last minute.

I anticipate you will feel a little cheated by that one, which is why I will produce 10 more.  That said, if you remain faithful to Tip 1, you can ignore the rest.  Happy Holidays and I hope you’ll come back for tomorrow’s post: Little Graces.

Still here?  Figured as much. Let’s continue.

Tip 2. Estimate how much time you will need to do everything you need to do, and then double it.  I find myself always getting angry at the delays. I’m screaming at drivers who don’t accelerate as soon as the light turns green, I’m tapping my foot impatiently at the person ahead of me in line who is confirming the price everything against the flyer, etc.  If you block off ample time and don’t waste it with procrastination, you won’t feel rushed.

Tip 3. Patronize local, independent businesses. They need your business more than the conglomerates, and because everyone else is at Walmart and the like, the independent businesses aren’t as busy.  Less busy = less stress.

Tip 4. Try to go to stores that don’t have shopping carts. It seems trivial but, really, the chaos of holiday shopping can bring out the worst in people, and those shopping carts can quickly turn into vehicular weapons.  Steer clear of those and you can avoid frustration at shopping cart traffic jams and avoid injury too.

Tip 5. “Brain shop” before you shop. Try not to take the approach of wandering around a store trying to find stuff. If you’re leaving shopping to the last minute, spend your time in traffic on your commute home from work in the days leading up to the holidays by thinking about what you are going to purchase. Then, see if you can find out online who has those items. It will make battling store traffic a lot easier and faster if you know exactly what you’re getting at the store and can just go in and get it.

Tip 6. Have alternatives. Don’t rely on an item being at the store or at the price you expected it to be. If you show up and it is not there, or three times as expensive, you won’t feel so much frustration or anger if you have a “back-up.”

Tip 7. If you’re able, walk to the stores, or take the bus or, if you drive, park far away from the store entrance. A good portion of my last-minute shopping stress comes from fighting other drivers for those parking spots near the store entrance.  Today, I parked way at the back of the parking lot and walked.  I enjoyed the walk, and never had to fight anyone for the parking spot.

Tip 8. Smile, and be helpful. I kept a smile on my face throughout all of my shopping today. The effect was two-fold: (a) studies have shown that the very act of smiling makes the person smiling feel happier (it works); (b) when you smile at everyone, you find that a good number of them smile back. Everyone wins. Being helpful takes it a step further. If you see someone struggling with taking shopping bags to their car, or someone who doesn’t know where something is, offer to help. That’s what the holidays are all about, right?

Tip 9. If possible, shop without children. I know. This falls into the same category as, “and while you’re at it, I’d like a pony.”  No matter how bad you expect it to be, shopping with children right before Christmas WILL ALWAYS BE WORSE THAN YOU EXPECT IT TO BE. If you have generous friends, family, or an available babysitter, don’t guilt yourself out of asking for their help.  Maybe they’re too busy to provide their help, but it can’t hurt to ask.  Don’t forget to give a small token of thanks for their help: bring back a coffee, or offer to make them dinner, etc.

Tip 10. Be charitable. Organizations like The Salvation Army always have donation kettles at places where people shop. If you can spare a dollar, two, five, ten, twenty, it finishes your shopping trip nicely to deposit it in the kettle and know that someone else’s holiday will be a little happier because of you.

One last thing: Shopping doesn’t have to be done in stores. Make a gift for someone, give something you already have.  At my youngest’s last birthday, my niece very proudly gave him one of her favourite stuffed animals.  Also I, for one, would much prefer to open a card that informs me that someone else in need has benefitted from the giving, than to unwrap baubles.  Donate to a local charity and let the person know that the gift you gave them is that someone else has been made happier, or safer, or healthier.  Will some of those recipients think you’ve “ripped them off?”  Yes, some will.  Tough luck for them.  Like I tell my kids: that warm feeling you get in your belly when you do something good or right is better than any reward in the world; and it is the very essence of this holiday season.

the power of great things

This year seems to be a good one for fireworks.  In August, I wrote of the serendipity of checking into a hotel in Gatineau to visit with friends, and discovering that a fireworks competition was taking place right outside the hotel.  This weekend, I was in Toronto for a conference and it turned out the Toronto Cavalcade of Lights was taking place across the street from the conference centre.

I am a person who hates Toronto very nearly as much as I love it.  Like any metropolis, most days it’s an overcrowded maze of unfriendly people, suffocating subways, grueling gridlock, and discourteous drivers.  It’s a place where there is destitution on every corner, where alleys are bit darker, where people’s dreams are chewed up and spat out, and where the gap between classes is more pronounced than elsewhere, having grown from a dichotomy of the wealthy and the poor to one of the obscenely rich and the profoundly indigent.

But it is also a place where everyone has a niche.  No matter how bizarre your interests, no matter how depraved or puritanical your lifestyle, there will be some alcove in any metropolis where you can find others who appreciate your tastes.  And it is a place where you can see things you will never see elsewhere.

While watching the fireworks at Nathan Phillips Square, sandwiched between throngs of people to the left of us and hordes of them to the right — a circumstance which would normally bring me close to a panic attack — I found a surprising calm and warmth wash over me.

Some of that tranquility found its source in the fireworks show itself because it seems that, the older I get, the more boyish is my fascination with them: the ecstatic bursts of colour, the thunderous booms of each explosion, the majesty of the orchestral track — I find it all thrilling.  Mostly, though, it arose because, for a moment, I pulled my focus away from the show and looked at the smiling faces upturned. There was no place here for family disputes, no place for unruly children and disciplining parents; the rich and poor and everyone in between saw the same show; people who, elsewhere in the world or at another time, might hate or fight or kill each other, stood side-by-side; the only skin color that mattered was the polychromatic glow the fireworks cast indiscriminately on the faces of all assembled; children’s faces were filled with wonder; lovers held each other closer; in short, all was well in that tiny corner of the world.

There is nothing of the experience of watching marvels that is so unique to Toronto, nor even any large city in the world.  But when that peace descends on a city normally filled with coldness and hate, it means something.  In a city so multicultural, where racial tension and ethnic intolerance run high; in a city so uncaring, where the gratuitousness of poverty has exhausted the empathy of so many; in a city so loud, with honking horns and flashing lights heard and seen every second of the day — yes, that peace means something.

homeless children playing

These things happen on a smaller scale every day.  Midst the rubble of catastrophe, people share moments of fraternity.  When I was younger, I remember during a visit to Toronto watching two homeless men embrace, the one flashing a toothless but immensely genuine grin when he saw his friend.  Then the other man pulled back his stained coat to show a treasure: a bottle of whiskey he had managed to palm.  He had come back to share it with his friend.  Yes, I know the bottle might have been stolen.  Yes, I know the men might have been riddled with addictions.  And for those reasons, I did feel a measure of sadness witnessing the scene.  But if I quiet those objections for just a moment, what I see is a brief glimpse of happiness in the lives of the downtrodden.

Today, I am thankful for the power of great things to give us pause and grant us a few moments to appreciate — either consciously or simply by the mere fact of our presence at, or participation in, an amazing event — some of the truly important universal values: togetherness, equality, wonder, and love.  For a little while, it makes me feel that, maybe, the world will turn out all right in the end.

“best day ever”

It’s a good thing I’m not paid to write this blog. If I were, I would be fired. I discovered today that I only posted four times in October.  I’m not precisely sure how I should feel about that, but “ashamed” seems close to the mark.

And it is not that I’ve had no feelings of gratitude. But the last few weeks have been tumultuously busy, both at work and at home. It hasn’t been an unpleasant busy. I’ve felt a sense of efficacy and productivity at work, and home life has been packed with the sort of activities that are exhausting, but nevertheless remind me why having a family can be a great thing.

Today was an exception from the fast pace that has characterized the last month.  After bundling the kids into the car and getting my oldest on the bus, I discovered a text message from our child care provider saying she was ill.  What started as any other Monday turned into a “Daddy-Zachary” day.

father with son

Photo Credit: John H. White; Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

When I was young, my mom and I would sometimes go out together for a muffin and coffee (muffin and hot chocolate for me).  Sometimes I would save up my money so that it would be my treat, though I’m willing to bet my money never made it to the till, my mother being so very much like a mom.

One of my regrets as a parent is that, after the birth of my youngest, spending time alone with either of my boys became a rare occurrence. No doubt all children with siblings appreciate an opportunity to spend time alone with a parent.  For the child, the absence of another sibling is the very thing that makes it special: for a little while, the child isn’t just “one of the kids” but a friend, a confidant, “chosen.”  For the parent, the experience is visited with a quietude that must otherwise seem like a distant memory.  Although my sons have a fraternal affection for each other I doubt my brother and I ever shared, spending time with both of my sons together still usually leaves me feeling like a referee, and I am sure most parents feel the same way.

Today, I am thankful for the few moments in life when parents are able to move beyond the parent-child roles and be friends with their kids.  After Zachary and I returned from a visit to the library, I suggested that he go use the washroom, and then we could read all the books we borrowed.  As he began climbing the stairs, he exclaimed, “this is going to be the best day ever!”  It’s uplifting to see that much enthusiasm over something so simple as reading books with Dad.  It’s not like we don’t read books together every day!  But today was special: it was just us.

Gregory

birthday cake

Photo Credit: Lai Ryanne; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

My eldest son, Gregory, has always been a… difficult child.  And by “difficult,” I mean that I’ve put a bottle of burn ointment in my wife’s purse to have at the ready when we’re at church, in case the priest starts throwing around any holy water.

I joke.  Really, although he still presents some problems at school, he is now a predominantly well-behaved and easy child at home and elsewhere. But it wasn’t always that way.

My wife and I have both taught parenting in formal settings and, while that certainly does not make us Parents of the Year, it does mean that we are familiar with a few parenting techniques. Evidently, our methods worked with Gregory over time but, when he was younger, we were sometimes up against a wall. I distinctly remember a violent tantrum he had when he was four years old over something ridiculously trivial.  As I stood outside his bedroom, containing his path of destruction, I looked at Sandra in frustration and said, “we’re way beyond parenting technique; it’s time to call in the exorcist!”

But, despite — or maybe because of — all the challenges Gregory has presented over the years, I have developed a special place for him in my affections.  It is a place that has formed over years of sitting in school meetings and hearing the horrible things Gregory had done and, far more often, the horrible interpretations of innocuous or even amicable things he had done; because once a child is labeled “bad,” it is a label that follows him everywhere he goes.  I have seen innocent acts typical of his age become laden with sociopathic interpretation.  Knowing the wonderful child Gregory truly is, I’ve come to be his fiercest advocate and most devoted fan.

This is the kid who once, when I was bogged down with a cold, said, “when I’m sick, you and mom take good care of me, and it’s not fair that I can’t take care of you when you’re sick.  I wish I could do something to make you feel better.”  (“You just did,” I replied).

Yes, he most definitely has a special place in my heart.  It has waxed through his endearing precocity.  Recently, he was convinced that he was going to die because he believed he might have inadvertently consumed poison ivy oil through an endearingly complex and circuitous route starting with possible contact with the pernicious plant at the locus of his calf.  When I assured him he was not going to die, he demanded, “how do you know? What studies have you read?”  Another day, he turned to a visiting friend and said, “you’re still filled with child-like wonder, aren’t you?”

That special place has grown from driving down country roads, singing loudly along with Creedence Clearwater Revival, with Gregory accompanying from the back seat on air guitar and back-up vocals whenever he knows the words.  Then, when I tried to entertain him by an exaggerated bopping of my head during a guitar solo, he warned me, “now Dad, don’t get too carried away.”

And, finally, that special place in my affections has developed from Gregory calling headphones “earmuffs,” and the preacher’s bench in our foyer the “creature’s bench,” and from those quiet moments when I am alone and he will find me and give me a hug and tells me he loves me.

Childhood passes in these discrete moments and, if we’re not careful, we might miss it altogether.

Today is Gregory’s 9th birthday and, today, I am thankful for him.  As a parent, I take seriously my duty to encourage Gregory to be the best person he can be, but I also have the rare privilege of being made a better person each day by him.  The few struggles richen the good moments, and teach me to be grateful for life’s tiny joys.

the gang

Today, I am thankful for family.  This is important because I don’t think I feel nearly as grateful for family as I should.  There are times when having a break from my family is necessary for my sanity and, altogether, having young children, I don’t feel that I have enough solitude.  But, as I have mentioned before (kidcationsolitude), one of the reasons I enjoy the moments of solitude I do get from time to time is because they help me appreciate my family more.

The Gang

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

Alright, maybe one of the reasons I like having family is selfishly motivated.  It’s nice, after a difficult day at work, to be able to come home and have someone to hear my gripes.  And, no matter what mistakes I make — even after one of my cataclysmic screw-ups — I’m still loved.

Joe: But Allison loves you?

Quince: [nods, sobbing]

Joe: How do you know?

Quince: Because she knows the worst thing about me… and it’s okay.

— Meet Joe Black (1998)

I also feel that good moments are made more memorable when there is someone with whom to share them.  Not only the fun and special moments, but even the simple moments when I do something which has value to me, but which would be too insignificant to bother mentioning to someone else.  In turn, I have the chance to be a witness to my family’s lives too: their dreams and hopes; their falls and the things they overcome.  And not just a witness; a participant.

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.” 

Susan Sarandon, Shall We Dance (2004)

When my life ends, I will have had the privilege of having spent my life with not just any people, but these specific people: my “peeps,” my gang.  That makes me feel fortunate.

misfits

I mentioned previously (serendipity) that we are currently on the tail end of a family vacation.  While in Ottawa, I had the opportunity to spend some time with my good friend, Sarah.

I met Sarah in my first year of university.  I did not live in the dorms at any point in university, so sought out clubs as a way of meeting people.   We attended a club meeting and Sarah sat down beside me.  She said later that she chose to sit beside me because of the shirt I was wearing.  It was blue and seemed welcoming and safe to her.

We clicked immediately, but it took most of our first year for us to forge a meaningful friendship.  We crossed paths intermittently and, for several months, I always happened to be wearing the same shirt I was wearing when we met.  At first, Sarah joked that I must have only one shirt, but I think she later started to become suspicious that it was true.  I think we became better friends partly as an effort on my part to expose her to the rest of my wardrobe and allay her suspicions.

The following summer was a summer we later referred to as “the summer from hell.”  I actively searched but was unable to find a job, was having roommate problems, and was up against a self-worth dilemma I came later to call my “first quarter-life crisis” (and not my last, by a long shot).  Sarah, who was used to the company of others, struggled with living alone for the entire summer in a house she had rented with four other students, all of whom would not begin living there until September.  And that certainly wasn’t the sum of her troubles.  Spending time together lent us reprieve from the despair that ailed us.

On days when we felt particularly anxious, we would sprawl out on her couch under puffy duvets and watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  There was a line in the film about the mean reds and I suppose we felt it described pretty accurately the way we were feeling.

Breakfast at Tiffany's film still

Breakfast at Tiffany’s film still. Licence: Fair Use (click image)

“The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.”

– Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Other days, laughter would consume us over the silliest things.  We would make up goofy show tunes and sing them at the top of our lungs, dancing around the house to our own ridiculous choreography.

It all sounds ludicrous and puerile but, without getting overly dramatic, there is a very good possibility that, without Sarah at my side that summer, I might not have made it to September and wouldn’t be writing this today.

Years later, when I married, Sarah was my best groomsmaiden.  I know it went against tradition to have a woman stand up for me on my wedding day, but who else would I want at my side but a friend with whom I had shared some of the best and worst days of my life?

Contact is rare nowadays.  Over the years, we moved apart and now live on opposite sides of the province; also, our schedules don’t match up very well.  But every now and again, we manage to get in touch, and we simply pick up where we last left off.

When I try to figure out why Sarah and I clicked together so well, I am sometimes at a loss.  But I think it’s just because we were a couple of misfits who found each other, not unlike Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak.

This post is dedicated to all the misfits, to best friends, and mostly to Sarah, who has added a little bit of sparkle to my life.  Today, I am thankful for her.

knock knock

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Banana.  Banana Who?  (repeat this sequence three times, then…)

Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Orange.  Orange who?  Orange ya glad I didn’t say “banana?”

It’s worth a few groans, at least.  Now, let me share my 3-year-old’s version of the joke:

Knock Knock.  Who’s there?  Banana.  Banana Who?  Orange ya glad I didn’t say “knock knock?”

Insert his contagious giggling, and you’ve got a pretty hilarious joke made all the funnier because it doesn’t make an ounce of sense.  My little guy absorbed a joke, tried to make sense of it within the limited capacity afforded by his early development and experience, and then he issued it back out.  His version ended up being funnier than the original (at least for me and the rest of our family) because it took a universal phenomenon (humour), stipped it down, and fed it back to us in a way that exposes the singularly goofy nature of humour.  Really, why is the original joke funny anyway?

I don’t want to turn this into an analysis of humour.  Several people have tried to reduce humour to a science and good for them, but I want no part of it.  Funny isn’t funny when it is turned into a mathematical equation.  Similar to the opinion I expressed in tongues, sometimes the deliciously messy things in life should be left messy.

But, without over-analyzing it, today I am thankful for humour.  It’s a universal glue that binds together friends, family, communities, the world.  If you think of the people who mean the most to you in life, I would guess that most or all of your memories of them — the things that remind you why they mean so much to you — have something to do with laughs shared.

When I am hurt, when I am sad, when I am lonely… let me remember the beautiful moments and the moments that brought me peace. But let me also remember the funny moments.  Maybe they didn’t bring my life a great deal of meaning, but they certainly brought me a great deal of joy.

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