Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tip GENEROUSLY during the holidays

(This message is aimed mostly at Americans and people traveling in the U.S. during December.)
To anyone who goes out to a restaurant, bar, hotel or any other place where hospitality employees are working so YOU can enjoy Christmas, TIP GENEROUSLY. Bartenders and cab drivers don't get Christmas bonuses or time-and-a-half for working on holidays. They earn the same crappy salary as always, so show them some holiday spirit. Thank you.

On Christmas morning, this woman pauses to consider the tree while she crosses the lobby of the Hyatt North Houston.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas Eve!

I recently downloaded the Blogger application (remember that "app" is short for "application") and this is me trying it out. I'm blogging on my tablet from my hotel room in the Hyatt North Houston, where I'm staying for the holiday. Let's see how this goes.

I tell you, waking up on Christmas Eve in a beautiful hotel is the way to go. I'm taking my time getting out of bed, idly considering my breakfast options and looking forward to hours of free time here until it's time to go celebrate Christmas Eve with family. I'm no tourist. When I'm on vacation I like to pick a beautiful place to stay and then stay in it. I have no desire to explore, sightsee or exhaust myself with activities. I like hotel rooms: reading in them, napping in them, watching movies in them, meditating or doing yoga in them and now I'll find out how blogging in a hotel room works. I hope this application is good. What do you think?

Of course the reason I'm in Houston for Christmas is that this is where my family is. We made piles of tamales on Saturday and I got to catch up with cousins I see only once a year. It made me wish, for the first time, that I lived close enough to visit more often all year long. This way, I only get a glimpse of how people's jobs are going, how big the smallest kids have gotten, which cousins go out drinking together and who I have the most in common with. I wish I had more time and money for all of that. Maybe one day, if my income grows enough, I'll be able to make more frequent trips to visit my familia in Houston.

The other challenge is that the weather here doesn't agree with me at all. I need my frigid Chicago climate. Today it's in the single digits in Rogers Park and I'm missing out on it, but it's okay. I'll be back on Thursday when the temperatures in Chicago will still be in the teens, plus the entire frozen winter will lie before me. Yay!!

So for today, life is good. Merry Christmas Eve, everyone. I will now hit "Publish."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

No such thing as a tamale

A tamal on top of other tamales.
At Christmas time, we Mexicans often become more focused than usual on tamales, so I'd like to share a public service announcement from This is what I've been saying for years: the singular of "tamales" isn't "tamale." It's TAMAL.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

First Christmas after mother's death

This will be the first Christmas I spend without my mother alive. I wonder if others have experienced anything like this with their parents: while I remember good times with my mother, she was abusive to me even into my adulthood, making me relieved when she died. My mother could be loving, funny, generous and creative, and I was very close to her when I was growing up. But when she felt threatened or out of control, she screamed and slammed things and it always felt like the world was ending. 

I miss the nice mother she could be, but that person wasn't around much by the end of her life, and she died last June in a tangle of emotions and relationships. In her last years, I could find nothing of the warm person I remembered from decades prior. Last summer my mother physically died, but the person I felt comfortable with disappeared well before that.

Even to the outside world my mother wasn't an easy person to get along with. In fact, she wasn't even in the 50th percentile of easy-to-get-along-with. I'd put her in the bottom ten. In a good mood she was great to be around, but in a bad mood she was horrible. There are many people who have trouble regulating their moods and responses (it's a main symptom of borderline personality disorder which I believe my mother had), but they can get better with the proper treatment. Unfortunately, my mother never accepted that she needed such help.

It was hard enough to have a mother whose moods were unpredictable, but she also leaned hard on me to help her cope with her life. She expected me to ease the strain of her challenging marriage, uncomfortable relationships with others and day-to-day stressors. As the oldest, I ended up cast in the role of her therapist, best friend, massage therapist and other half of her brain. Our minds and emotions were so closely linked that she'd expect me to give her the word she was looking for and I usually could. I was like another limb for her, and it was decades before I understood how damaging this relationship was to me.

To be so closely tied to a woman who was unpredictable, angry and whose love was extremely conditional, terrorized me. From a young age, I learned to walk with a very light step, as if on eggshells, at all times. My radar was always up for her mood. If Mother was okay, I was okay, but if Mother wasn't okay, alarms went off in my head and I strained to do whatever it took to make things better. Often my efforts weren't nearly good enough and her tirades convinced me that I was stupid, had no common sense and never did anything right.

When I got older I struggled to establish a healthier relationship with her, but wasn't able to. She required me to be the one she could tell all her problems to and required me to accept any amount of emotional abuse. In my 20s I had to pull away from that dynamic, asking her to tell me nothing else about my father that would make me hate him. She never understood why I needed that.

With age her fears deepened, her temper grew shorter and she never stopped acting abusively towards me. The good times I spent with her became fewer and farther between until in my 40s, I made the decision to step out of her life completely. During her final seven years, my mother and I had almost no contact at all.

Last June when I told friends and acquaintances that my mother had died, I made clear that I didn't need the usual sympathy and sad looks. I said I'd stopped contact with her years earlier, healed from the relationship, and had no more grieving to do. Her death was a relief for me and brought me freedom from this woman whose anger and bitterness was so big that she spent her final weeks inflicting yet more emotional pain on her family.

As I talked to people about my mother, I found that a surprising number of people don't mourn their mothers' deaths. I discovered that the world is full of broken mother-child relationships, and many grown sons and daughters don't feel sad at all when their mothers die. I was suprised to find that I wasn't alone in feeling glad that my mother, with all her rage and pain, was finally dead.

My parents were born in Houston, Texas and almost all of my family still lives there. But back in the 1960s, my parents settled in California, away from all family. Under my mother's influence, I grew up believing relatives should be kept at a distance, physically and emotionally. I didn't get to know my grandparents, cousins, aunts or uncles. My mother made clear to me that any alliance I might form with anyone besides her -- and this included my father -- would be seen by her as a betrayal and I would be punished accordingly. My mother, who I loved, was the most important person in my world and I was terrified of doing anything that might make her angry with me. So I had no other close relationships when I was growing up, not even with my own father.

It took years of therapy for me to realize that a mother shouldn’t require her child’s allegiance at the expense of all other ties, but even after I broke with her, I continued to have little do with my extended family. It was a hard habit to break. I didn't even realize I was still doing it until my mother's final weeks when I began communicating more with my cousins and aunts. This communication represented a huge change for me: I began leaning emotionally on my aunts, making friends with my cousins and getting to know those cousins' children (with my prosopagnosia I have a lot of trouble keeping them straight). 

Another big step for me is that this year I'm spending Christmas Day in Houston, with all those great people I'm related to. I didn't do that before because I didn't want my mother to feel envious and angry that I was spending Christmas with our extended family, instead of with her.

Now that I'm free from my mother, at the age of 47, I'm finally getting to know my family better, including my father. I had stopped visiting my parents, but now it's safe to return. My dad and I email more than ever and I'm going to visit him next month. I like him! It turns out my dad's a cool guy. I have yet to face the pain of fully realizing that I could have had this great dad in my life all along if my mother hadn't blocked our relationship. I needed a good father desperately during those decades, but it's not too late. I plan to make the most of the time we have left.

It's the first Christmas after the death of my mother and it feels good. I'm now safe to love the people in my life the way they deserve, the way I should have always been able to love them. I'm grateful to be able to enjoy the holidays without worrying about the price my mother will later exact from me. This is not a sad December. I feel great freedom and gratitude and I look forward to building relationships with the family I missed out on for so long. This is going to be a good Christmas and a good rest of my life.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Thanks for not having kids!

This is an amazing piece of writing: To the Women Who Choose Not to Have Kids by Abby Rosmarin was published on Thought Catalog on Tuesday and I'm very grateful to my post-husband for pointing it out to me. This is my favorite part:

Thank you for not succumbing to the societal pressures. I’ve known far too many parents who had kids because that’s what was expected of them. Working in childcare, you see more of this type than you wish to see. The resentment is almost palpable. They love their children — at least, they have no choice but to love their children — but every single movement seems to scream, “I wasn’t meant for this.” I’ve known too many people who grew up with at least one parent who harbored that resentment, who let that resentment dictate how they parented. I’ve seen how that influenced the way these former children are now as adults, or even as parents themselves.
I can't believe someone actually wrote this publicly. The idea that people might resent having children is so taboo, I never expected anyone to thank me for not doing it. Rosmarin articulates many excellent reasons to be grateful to those of us who chose not to have kids. You're welcome, Abby and thank YOU!

This photo accompanies the Facebook link for this article.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Kids, pregnancy and "When are you going start?"

We're all aware that it's risky to bring up the following topics: politics and religion. We also tend to avoid, by silent agreement, topics like money and how much weight someone has gained. How about we add another red flagged subject to our don't-even-bring-it-up list: when/if someone is going to start a family. It's past time for us to assume that everyone who doesn't have kids wants them, and it's definitely time to stop assuming that women who want children can just pop them out on cue. Please don't raise the topic of having children to someone who hasn't volunteered the information and don't make the assumption that we're all equally able to have the children we want.

Approximately one in three pregnancies end in miscarriage (source). Premature birth is the leading cause of newborn death in the United States. The number of women who are unable to have children combined with the number whose children have passed away, plus the number of women who just don’t want kids, make it increasingly inappropriate to say anything about when or if someone’s going to start a family.

I didn't have kids because I didn't want them. You can criticize me all day about this and it won't matter to me. But the most loving, well-meaning comments like -

"So when are you going to give Olivia a little brother or sister?" 
"Now that you own a house, you can start your family!" 

-can be extremely painful for people who’ve been through hell trying to have a baby. Miscarriages, newborn deaths and infertility can leave a woman feeling emotionally raw and defenseless against a world that never lets women forget that we're all supposed to be moms. Most women don't want to share this kind of pain, which leaves them vulnerable to your unsolicited inquiries such as:

"Do you have kids?" 
"Are you thinking of starting a family?" 
"Do you want kids?" 
"Do you want to see a picture of my sister's newborn?" 

The women for whom this topic is sensitive probably won't warn you to avoid it, so if someone hasn't started talking about children on her own, just don't bring it up. 

I can hear the protest: Stop talking about babies? That's un-American! No, it's inhuman. How can we stop talking about babies when it's the best, happiest, most fun subject ever?

Here's my suggestion: when you want to ask someone about having kids, say the question to yourself in your head first, changing the "want/have kids" part to "earn over $100,000." That turns it into-

"Do you earn over $100,000?"
"Do you want to earn over $100,000?"
"Now that you've bought a house, when are you going to start earning over $100,000?"

Sounds kinda rude, right? I believe this is how we need to start treating the topic of children and pregnancy. It's all the more important to keep in mind because you never know who might be struggling to have a family. Women who go through miscarriages or fertility problems often don't tell anyone, even close family members and best friends. Someone who you think tells you everything, might keep this one to herself, so you really can't know who will be hurt by idle how-many-children-do-you-want talk.

Sometimes even when a couple wants a family very much and truly believes they’re going to have one, things just don't go that way. Let's confine the baby talk to the people who you absolutely know like to talk about babies. If a woman has children, she'll most likely tell you all about them (and don't I know that!). If someone doesn't bring up the subject of children, just let it go.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Pink Christmas tree!

Okay, the tree isn't pink, but every single ornament is. Pink is my favorite color and now that I live on my own again, I can do anything I want with my apartment. This photo shows enough of the room so that you can see that this tree isn't big. I wanted a tree that I (at the height of 5ft 2in or 157cm) could decorate without a step stool or tall person. This is it: my short, dream Christmas tree.

I had to use Etsy and Ebay to find those pink traditional glass ornaments. They're all second hand because the only pink ornaments currently being manufactured are plastic and I didn't want plastic. These are the ornaments and tree I ordered in August and now I'm glad I did. I chose to put my tree up right before Thanksgiving and had everything all ready to go.

I'm finding that now that most of my furniture is red (my dream furniture) it's better to have green Christmas decorations to go with it. I will take my time over the next several years building my collection of Christmas decorations, kitchen towels, tree skirt, wall hangings, etc. I'd love to buy it all now, but refuse to blow my savings on Christmas 2013. As much as I adore Christmas, I think I made a wise decision.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Christmas: don't grow up

Many people who celebrate Christmas see it as a time of great expense, thankless effort and having to get along with people they can't stand. It's a time of ill-fated expectations, endless holiday tasks and extra responsibilities. People who experience the holiday season this way dread its arrival and can't wait for January.

I don't understand them, but then I don't understand anyone who chooses to grow up, that is, have kids, establish a career, take on family responsibilities and move from being the child who enjoys Christmas to the adult who has to create it for someone else.

I'm 47 and a half years old and I've carefully crafted a life that contains exactly what I want and no more. Without children, family nearby or any dependents whatsoever, I get to make the holidays just what I want. When I was little I saw Christmas as an incredibly special day of celebration when no one could get mad at me or spank me, and I got to have whatever I wanted. I didn't have to earn it or deserve it; I just got have it because it was Christmas.

I still see it that way. Usually grown ups who get as excited about Christmas as I do surround themselves with children. They're parents, teachers and child care providers who love to decorate, wear festive clothing, see Santa and who never get tired of the same music year after year. I'm one of them, but without the kids. I've been dreaming about decorated trees since last March and have waited all year to wear my Christmas brooches and earrings again. Even though my mother died last summer and I'm going through a divorce, I'm still ecstatic about Christmas.

Whenever I see ads for holiday sales and hear the message to "BUY BUY BUY," it instantaneously gets processed in my brain as "It's CHRISTMAS! It's CHRISTMAS! It's CHRISTMAS!" In spite of  my big-brain tendency to overthink everything, Christmas makes my mind shut off and my heart go yay! Are there other adults who similarly never changed their child-like view of Christmas and just love it, even if they have no children in their lives?

I don't know what to say about people for whom Christmas is an ordeal of family abuse and ill will. I've suffered through Christmases with a histrionic dictator of a mother and I've even spent December 25th completely alone, but I know some go through much worse, year after year. I can only wish that they will one day free themselves from their destructive family members and find peace in their own rituals, making the holidays exactly as they want.

Even though many of my Christmases have been far from ideal, December is my favorite month. The anticipation is really my favorite part: I spend December in a state of blissful excitement from the 1st until the 24th. What difference does it make how Christmas Day itself goes? It's enough for me just to imagine it for 24 days. The anticipation is where the magic is for me.

This doesn't mean I don't recognize the cynicism and gross commercialism of the holiday season. When people criticize the rampant buy-and-sell mindset, I totally agree with them. I know that for many people Christmas has become a big equation with an answer that's in the red. But still, when I look at the greedy sales and ceaseless attempts to make us feel like we need another product, my response is, "Thank you soulless big box stores for reminding me that it's CHRISTMAS!"

I say: don't grow up. Don't move to other side of Christmas where grown ups stare at the stapled cardboard backing and think how ugly the season is. Stay on the glittery side where you can imagine that anything is possible. Look at the lights and the cheer. Ignore the marketing and the pain. There's nothing wrong with being happy. Maybe a lot of things aren't really possible, but just for one month let's pretend it all is.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

How to avoid family for the holidays (without lying)

This is a revision of a piece I first posted in December 2011.

Family gatherings are fun, pleasant and filled with love and respect, especially during the holidays. I offer the following suggestions merely as a public service for that small, practically non-existent, tiny group of people who have family they have to travel to go see, but would rather not.

1. First of all, become financially and emotionally independent of your family so there's nothing they can punish you with for not showing up.

2. If you have a job with vacation days, use them all up before the holidays and tell your family you have to work.

3. If you're flying, when they ask for volunteers to give up their seats, do it. Ask the stand-by person who's getting your seat to give you their best sob story so you can tell your family how their need was greater than yours. Then miss the next few flights.

4. Start volunteering with an organization that's active on Thanksgiving, Easter, etc. Commit to helping out on all the holidays and then tell your family it's Christmas and you can't possibly let down the children or the elderly or the botanical plants or whatever.

5. Start a serious, long-term relationship and divide your holiday time with your partner's family. Warning: this only works if their family is not as bad as yours.

6. Leave food out that is easily spoiled (mayonnaise, raw chicken, etc.). Eat it about 12 hours before you're supposed to leave. Call to cancel your visit when you're at the height of the food poisoning symptoms.

7. Establish a career in the restaurant industry. Even if your restaurant closes on major holidays, the crush of customers on the days right before and after will anchor you to the place. This also works with retail, medical and public service jobs.

8. Move to the other side of the world and don't earn enough to come back for visits.

9. For god's sake, don't have kids. Kids absolutely require you to show up at family gatherings or risk being described as someone who deprives her parents of their only grandchildren. Don't let yourself get trapped this way!

10. This is my favorite solution, but it's only for the brave and mature (like myself): tell those family members who you'd rather not see, exactly why you will not be visiting. This might include statements such as:

"Because you screamed all through dinner last year" or

"Because you're kind of a dick when you drink a lot" or

"Because I don't want to get another letter from you a month later telling me what I did that bugged you."

This won't be an easy conversation, but it will be honest and might help them look at themselves in a new way. Chances are they won't, but maybe they'll hate you and then your problem is solved next year when they avoid you. You're welcome.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Horror movies with Christmas in them

Do you love horror movies? Are you looking for a good cinematic scare while also getting into the  mainstream American spirit of this season? I've been absolutely binge-ing on horror movies over the Thanksgiving weekend, so here's some guidance. Many horror movies that take place against a background of twinkling lights and decorated evergreens don't mention the yuletide in their synopses, so it's always a wonderful surprise when I come across a film that combines creepiness with Christmas. Here are a few horror movies with storylines that take place around December 25th I've watched recently:

The Pact (2012) - stars Caity Lotz as a woman who returns to her dead mother's home to attend her funeral. None of the characters refers to Christmas so I couldn't tell if this was pre- or post-December 25th, but there are decorations up throughout the film. Good scariness and a satisfying ending, although during just one watching I couldn't figure out what "the pact" was.

ATM - (2012) - stars Brian Geraght, Alice Eve and Josh Peck as three stock traders who leave a holiday party together and end up trapped in an ATM booth by a hooded stranger. I can see why this film was panned by many, but I liked it.

 P2 (2007) -stars Rachel Nichols as a woman on her way to her sister's Christmas Eve celebration, but who never gets out of her office building where she has worked late (patriarchal message about women not belonging in high powered jobs?). I admit, I only watched part of this because I thought it would be a spooky cat-and-mouse chase with some killer who's only revealed at the end. Actually, the wacko gets a hold of the woman early on and the rest of the movie is about him terrorizing her and her attempts to get away. Not interesting to me. (BTW: the name of the film refers to the underground parking garage level the woman parks on.)

The Clinic (2010) - Tabrett Bethell stars as a pregnant woman driving with her fiance on Christmas Eve to visit her mother. They never make it. Disappointingly, the holiday is only referred to at the beginning of the movie when Bethell is writing out a card and in one other scene where a holiday song is playing in the background, and no decorations appear anywhere. I like more festive markers than that in my horror movies. The main action of the film takes place on December 25th in fact, but Bethell is so deep in the thick of really bad things that take place on an abandoned farm that I almost forgot it was supposed to be Christmas.

You might have picked up on the pattern that I prefer movies that star women or at least have strong female protagonists. The Pact and The Clinic actually have more female than male leads, which is rare and impressive. Other horror movies I've watched recently with strong women leads are Hunger (2009) which I liked, Airborne (2012) which I also enjoyed, The Ward (2010) which ripped-off the plotline of Identity, and American Mary (2012) which I loved, but none of them had Christmas in them. If you're okay with scenes of surgery (of a sort), I recommend American Mary. The gory and twisted story of a med student who enters the world of body modification isn't jump-out-of-your-seat scary, but it's certainly horrifiying. It was great.

NO Xmas theme, but still good
If you know of horror movies that include Christmas please let me know, but not movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night or Jack Frost. I'm talking about movies that have Christmas in them, but don't use it as a major plot device. These movies won't come up on a "Christmas horror movie" search. They're billed as straight horror, but happen to have decorations in the background.

Also, if anyone wants full synopses and endings for these movies just say the word. I love reading movie summaries with endings because it saves so much time and I'm glad to provide the service (but don't want to spoil anything if that's not what you're looking for). Merry Christmas!