Category Archives: Advent

Elf on a Shelf 12.6.14 (and other scrapped traditions)

Elf on the Shelf
Elf on the Shelf (photo courtesy of www.amittenfullofsavings.com)

Elf on a Shelf was introduced in 2005 as a children’s book.  I love traditions — especially holiday traditions.  This seemed like a marvelous addition to our family.

One of our traditions was to read a holiday story every night of December (we have a large collection of books).  I’ve kept that tradition.  This year it is reading Advent blogs and meditations.

Not to repeat the obvious, but for those who haven’t read the book, the idea is that the elf keeps an eye on the children and reports back to Santa on how the children are doing.

This did not go over well with my children – then 12 and 9.  The idea of the elf “spying” particularly disturbed my 9 year old.  I would hide the elf and when he would get home from school he would turn it around on a shelf facing backwards, he would upend it into a container with just its feet sticking out.  One day, the elf disappeared altogether.  I didn’t find it until summertime packing up his room for camp – a very stiff sock in the back of the sock drawer had been a resting place for our elf.  I still have the elf.  Just to remind myself that some traditions need to change/might not work for us/need to be scrapped, I keep him in my sock drawer.

Our other traditions were still enjoyed.  One is putting a ribbon across the steps to the room with the Christmas tree with the stockings at the bottom.  Another is always having a puzzle on a table that can be worked on throughout the holiday.

My husband is wonderful at making memories — many worth counting as traditions.

Gaylord hotel DC atrium
Gaylord hotel DC atrium

Now that our children are teenagers, a visit to the Gaylord hotel in DC, a meal at Rosa Mexicana and a visit to the annual ICE show (amazing carved ice display toured with parkas) is essential.  When I asked them what they most wanted to do, this was the first thing mentioned.  Taking in a show at the Kennedy Center (we saw ELF last year) is also a treat.  Taking in a sports game is also a favorite “tradition” – there is usually a late College football game and an early Basketball tournament.  There’s nothing like cheering loudly….

Taxi ice sculpture...
Taxi ice sculpture…

The older I get, the more traditions mean to me.  I find myself making a list of all the things I hope to do while the children are home:  Menus to make, people to see, things to do.   This is particularly comforting in times of change.  I also find myself making deliberate efforts to take advantage of the events in my workplace – open houses, departmental meetings, gatherings with colleagues over lunch.  My own social schedule is far less full than it used to be.

Over the past year, my extended family has gone through some pretty big upheaval.  Out of respect for all involved, I’ll not go into any details here, but suffice it to say that some parts of our family are no longer in contact.  This feels weird, yet not only is it probably for the best, it is also what is requested.  I’ve had to stop myself sending a card, reaching out over a funny joke to share, suggesting a visit when I am in the same town…. I don’t know if it will ever be repaired.   So, traditions connected to these family members are on hold…and the traditions associated with them.

Growing up, we lived in the Midwest.  Most of our family holidays were spent with close friends who became like family.  In the summers we would drive cross country to visit my mother’s family in California.  Every few years we would drive to Philadelphia to be with my father’s family.  It is always comforting to me to spend time with them.  The beautiful stone homes of Pennsylvania countryside, the hunt country and beautiful neighborhoods.  The historic St. David’s church where my family members are interred.  Being there feels like home.  Being with my friends who have become like family is a comfort.

This year, our boys will be home for Christmas.  And they want to BE home.  Of course, I have all sorts of plans and desire to see family (which we will), but we are also scheduling in some “down time” (which for them means sleeping).  When they have not been home, I like to do something completely different at the holidays — like be on a beach and eat pasta and everything that doesn’t resemble anything that would make me miss them.

This year, we will make the trek to Philadelphia.  We will go to the Gaylord, Rosa Mexicana and the ICE show.  We will take in some sports and possibly even a bowl game (not a reliable tradition for sure).  We may get to Cape Cod to see my dear friends from the Midwest (with whom I spent my childhood Christmases). We will read a Christmas story each night of December.  We will gather with friends…and family.  Those traditions are worth keeping.

And some traditions fall away.   As a reminder, the Elf on the Shelf will stay parked in my sock drawer.

 

 

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St. Nicholas Day Eve (an ode to shoes)- 12.5.2014

St. Nicholas Day
St. Nicholas Day

In Europe, particularly Germany, on the evening of December 5, children put out their shoes for special treats from St. Nicholas.

At 10pm the night before, I was home with my husband Lyn.  I got an urgent text from my Mom, who lives (I later learned) 1.4 miles away, that she needed some help.  I pulled on my Mickey Mouse Sketchers (bought at Disney World a few years ago when I chaperoned a trip for my son) and drove to my Mothers.  She needed some juice opened and some other liquids to help keep her hydrated.  After about a half-hour, I left making sure I securely locked the door.  So securely – it turns out – that I locked myself out.  My keys and phone were inside.

I rang the bell a few times, but to no avail.  I knew my Mom was upstairs and without her hearing aides.  I walked around her townhouse seeing whether a door was open or there was a way to get in.  No luck.  So, I began my treck home.

I have never thought i could run, but tonight dressed in just a thin long-sleeved t-shirt and yoga pants, I thought it would be best to jog to work up some warmth.  I made my way through her neighborhood jogging and then to the bike path running through Severna Park.

I didn’t want to be plunged into total darkness, so I stayed along the busier street.  My shins were sqwalking and my heels hurt, but pressed on.   I had to.  I walked into our neighborhood which I have walked with our doggie, but this time it felt unfamiliar.  It was dark.  It was cold.  I was tired.

I made it home about 20 minutes later.  No coat.  No phone.  No keys. Fortunately, we had a spare set outside I could use to let myself in.

My sketchers got me home.  The next morning, I pulled on some grey sketchers for my Mom on her way to a medical procedure.  We spent most of the day together.  This was a precious opportunity.  We enjoyed a lunch and some browsing of shops in Baltimore.

After a long day, I am now curled up with my husband in a cozy room.  On this St. Nicholas Day, my fuzzy slippers are on.  I don’t know if St. Nicholas will leave me treats in my shoes tomorrow morning.  Upon reflection, I think the day itself was the treat.

Traditions are important.  What are some of yours?

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Season’s Greetings Silicon Valley 12.4.14

 

Google adirondack chair @Googleplex
Google adirondack chair @Googleplex

Working as a fundraiser has brought me to some very unique companies and environments over the years, but nothing has been more life changing than spending time in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a beautiful area south of San Francisco.  Not far from the ocean, near the bay and filled with high tech start ups and successful companies of all kinds.  This is where the hub of innovation currently resides (though we are working to bring some of that to the East Coast).

My work gives me the privilege of working with alumni of all ages – in fact our most generous donors is in his 30s and many of our newest and most generous donors are not much older.  Through them, I get glimpses of what life is like in this area.  It very much depends on your economic situation as to how that life is described.

There isn’t a home to be had for under $1M, according to one of my contacts.  He lives in a townhouse and spends $45K a year on it – renting.  That said, the homes are beautiful with well manicured lawns and have a real charm about them.  The neighborhoods are peaceful.  Charming main streets and towns have developed along the main train line.

Stanford University (and a few other institutions) provide intellectual employment and talent to fuel the corporate needs.  Companies have a hard time attracting – and keeping – talent.  There is always another start-up willing to hire away the best people.  It is therefore unusual and special to see people who have worked together and preserved their team over the years.

A venture capitalist with whom I met recently describes Silicon Valley as having a “Gold Rush” mentality.  That is, people rush here for a bit of the gold like old-fashioned days when people came to pan for gold.  Also, there is a perception that the gold is only here.  So, the talent moves here and so do the funders (some of us are trying to change that building up such a culture on the East Coast).   He said now there are international players from different countries coming in by the plane load to “throw money at start-ups”.  This is seed money.  Class A and B money is much harder to get.

This VC went on to explain that Silicon Valley is also beginning to be harder to read.  When that happens, image becomes more important.  For example, when he first worked for a major company, the early days were software-influenced.  People wore t-shirts and dressed casually.  Good work was easy to see – your code worked or it didn’t.  Technological expertise was transparent. Whereas, as they company evolved to media, it was harder to determine who was talented and capable, so image became more important.  He sees that trend happening now in Silicon Valley.  He relayed a story about a recent pitch he attended where the very well dressed, fit-the-part (gotee, dress shirt over t-shirt, jeans and sport coat) Harvard “drop out” was offered tremendous dollars for a shell of an idea.  Turns out, he had not attended Harvard (he was enrolled in a class at Harvard extension) and his story didn’t fit together in other ways.  For this professional, identifying true talent and quality of idea is getting harder and harder.

Another interesting point he made was that it is harder to market an idea than code it.  “Anyone can code,” he said, “But not everyone can bring that same software to market”.

All this pessimism aside, there are some incredible people in this region from all over the world.  One of my donors, a charming young mid-career professional, works for Google.  She is hard working and balancing two small children.  She is creating a scholarship for students to pursue undergraduate research (which she herself did).  What inspired me about her was not just her thoughtfulness about the scholarship (all aspects of it), but also that she wanted to talk to her son and entire family about it (I later learned that her son is four years old).  What an honor it is to sit with her as she signed her agreement creating a bit of eternity (this will be an endowment).  We signed the document in the midst of a game room at Google complete with a slide in one corner, pool table and four other team oriented games.

Walking outside, we walked past brightly colored umbrella tables in Google colors, brightly colored google bikes and adirondack chairs of all colors.  Evidently some holiday cheer inspired some “Googlers” and they had arranged everything in red and green.

Even thought there is no snow in California and some might say that there is a lack of depth here, my experience tells me otherwise.  This is a place of hardworking people who have created relationships, families and community.  It is a place I would love to live.  If I could afford it.  In the meantime, it is a wonderful place to visit.

For now, I’ll just have a little break in a holiday-inspired adirondack chair.

Adirondack chairs at Googleplex.
Adirondack chairs at Googleplex.
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Presents on a Plane….12.3.2014

The sequel to my travel horror story (yesterday’s blog) doesn’t get much better (initially).

My work trip went off without a hitch and I came home with a new scholarship for my University.  This always puts a pep in my step — when I earn my keep.

My return flight was delayed.  Shocker.  I dropped my car at the rental return, took the tram to the terminal in San Francisco and surveyed the amazing array of unique airport shopping and cuisine at SFO.  How do they do it?  How do they manage to keep out so many redudant chains in this town?  I could shop and eat at this airport for weeks!  However, my budget wasn’t allowing me any such thing.

I took in the various foot options and opted for a sushi snack (for later), a beautiful mixed berry cup (for now), a chipotle chicken salad looking incredibly fresh (I am terribly suspect of salad) and a beautiful soup.  This drives my dear husband nuts when we travel. I am horribly picky about food that doesn’t appeal to me (and most doesn’t).  I say because he has spoiled me so…

Back at the gate, there was no power to be found, so I took out my various chargers and extra cords and camped out on a patch of carpet leaning up against a column.  The people watching was epic.  A distinguished looking man proudly sported a kilt and clogs.  Hair of all colors.  Svelt looking seniors.

Once aboard, things didn’t look so good.  I got to my seat and a very sheepish looking Mennonite or Amish (not sure how to tell the two apart, but he wore a suit and she had on a dress and one of those transparent hair bonnets) offered up several boarding passes asking if I might like one of them.

Oh. No.  It seems they didn’t know to tell the gate agent that they were assigned all middle seats and didn’t have a prayer of sitting together.  They just picked a row.  I suspect they are used to people doing kind things in their community.  Not here on United.  No sir.  No was was going to budge.  Except me, it seems.

No one was willing to move.  I immediately went forward hoping for an extra seat.  It wasn’t looking promising.  The flight crew offered to “boot them”.  I couldn’t bear that.  I’ve been a Mom traveling with a young child.  I’ve been a Mom traveling with a young child where my husband was relocated to another area leaving me by myself with the unhappy morsel.  I couldn’t do that to them.

That said, this wasn’t like going from Baltimore to New York and “taking one for the team”.  This was cross country.  This was arriving at 1:30am.  Ugh.

I waited until the last possible moment to sit and found myself cramped between two very large basketball players from Delaware. Their elbows met over my lap and their knees met under my seat-back tray.  Good grief.

Time came for the flight attendants to take the drink orders and – much to my surprise – my order was taken first.  By the first class flight attendant.  And it didn’t just come in the flexi-plastic cup.  No, sir.  This came in a glass with ice and a cloth napkin.  WOW.  I was beginning to feel a big glad I’d been so magnanimous.  Wait – it gets better.

Plane snack courtesy of the beneficiaries of my seat...
Plane snack courtesy of the beneficiaries of my seat…

When snacks rolled through, the sweet family sent me pringles and gummy bears.  I felt like a kid at Christmas.  I haven’t had pringles in YEARS.  I was really feeling happy I had done my good deed.

"Karma Sundae" - aptly named due to my kind gesture and First Class upgrade
“Karma Sundae” – aptly named due to my kind gesture and First Class upgrade

But there’s more… The flight attendant asked me if I might like some iced cream?  She proceeded to offer all sorts of toppings.  I replied, “All of them please”.  She asked if I might like an aperitif.  “Really?” I quietly asked (people around me were starting to crane their necks at me) “Bring it on….,” was my reply.  By this point, I think my fellow passengers were feeling a bit sorry they hadn’t been kind and offered up their seat (and, I speculated, they might be thinking they were going to wind up on Santa’s naughty list).

I spent the remainder of my flight in a cozy glow of cognac.  I was all Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.  

P.S.  The little girl passenger (for whom I gave up my seat) was the cutest and quietest fellow passenger I’d ever enjoyed.  Take that you fellow Grinchy passengers you.  I even got to offer her a gummy bear when she came walking up the aisle.

Reflection:  What gifts might be unlocked by you doing something unselfish?

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Advent Calendar (Virtual) – 12.2.2014

The sister of a dear friend of mine, Maureen, is writing an Advent blog (visit it here).   This is her first Christmas since the passing of her husband.  Inspired by her first post (and now waiting with bated breath for her second….) I was inspired to try the idea out myself.

My Advent season did not start out so placidly.  I arose at 4:30am for a flight to California by way of Atlanta (reminder to self:  NEVER TAKE A CONNECTING FLIGHT FOR A MORNING MEETING).  While I was booked on Southwest, my flight was actually Airtran.  This was not a good development.  Airtran doesn’t honor TSA, their planes are OLD (like duct tape on arm rests old) and they don’t have the laid back Southwest friendliness I have come to appreciate spending so much time in the air.  Anyway, we took off late and later landed in Terminal D at Hartsfield in Atlanta.  Atlanta connections are an adventure – they involve lots of walking and trains and more walking (this is great if you have time to kill – which I did later).  I woofed down a cheesesteak (yep!) and FRIES (yep again) while standing waiting to board only to learn that my frantic scurry for food could have become a leisurely four-course meal.  Just AFTER all the pre-board passengers were loaded, it was announced there was a “ground hold”.  New departure time:  12:45pm.

WTF??!!!  I quickly got on my tablet and searched Expedia for any flights leaving Atlanta.  Delta had one.  United had one.  All leaving within minutes of where I was standing (and so impossible to make with the distance).  I flew down the terminal with my charger cords dangling past me whipping at my legs in search of a new flight.  I walked all the way to Delta and decided the $700 fee wasn’t worth it (not on State $$$).  So, I sulked back to Southwest and found a kind gate agent to see what was possible.  Had I not been so frantic in the first place, I would have learned that there was a plane leaving for San Jose (the next airport over) through Denver, but – the door had just been closed – and they would not open it (never mind that I saw many passengers arriving late after doors were closed later in my trip).  I was FURIOUS by this point.  Ah well, I found a cozy Southwest lounger with working (this is often not the case) power and settled in.

This is where I found Maureen’s blog.  Thank goodness.  Her sweet descriptions of Christmas Advent calendars describing the idyllic town scene and the images behind the doors were just the antidote for my frazzled nerves.  I took a virtual journey with Maureen to a quaint town near her, watched over her shoulder as she selected an advent calendar, felt the loss of her husband through her description of contemplating going to the movies by herself, silently encouraged her to invite the lady who sold her the calendar (and wished she could go to more movies) for a visit in the future.  By the time I reached the end, I was eager to find an advent calendar and even peek ahead (I used to do that).

Facebook was a welcome distraction.  My friend Julie pointed out a nice restaurant One Flew South in the E Terminal.  My Sweet Briar College friends, Karen and Kelly, offered wine and dinner if I didn’t get out.

After a very long flight to San Francisco, getting my car and going straight to dinner, I was rewarded by finding on-street parking along an idyllic street in Mountain View, California right next to – get this – not one, not two, but THREE bookstores within a block of my parking space.  Was this accidental?  I declared not.  I vowed to find an advent calendar.

Book Buyers holiday tree in their window.
Book Buyers holiday tree in their window.

Book Buyers – The first bookstore had a tree made of books and ribbon in the window.  Once inside, I noticed the distinct smell of old books – a mixture of dust, organic material and my attic (filled with my Mom’s beloved books).  I figured there wasn’t likely going to be an advent calendar inside.  This was a book reseller.  It figures in Mountain View, California – near Stanford University and in a town filled with very smart people – a book reseller could actually make a profitable go of it sitting in prime real estate.  I pressed into the store and meandered through several narrow aisles stacked from floor to ceiling with books – used books, rare books.  I never saw a shop keeper.  It seems the store runs on the honor system as there was a note on a table saying, “Gone for a snack, leave cash or call me with your card later….”  Aside from a table of books selected for the holidays (for their literary entertainment, no doubt), there was no calendar to be found.  However, I decided that the tree in the window would make a nice advent image. I stood in the doorway of the store briefly under the overhang (more on that later), pulled up my hood (it was raining steadily) and dashed across the street to a welcoming book store, East-West Bookstore.

Fountain inside East West bookstore
Fountain inside East West bookstore

East-West Bookstore‘s motto is “Know Thyself”.  This was worth the trip itself.  Once inside, I was enveloped with the fragrance of incense.  Books of every type to inspire, coach and transform were on Scandinavian inspired shelves of light wood.  Each section had beautiful stones, jewelry and handmade items.  In the center of the store was an altar complete with figures of Buddah and a large water fountain.  I admired the smooth stones and the sound of cascading water.  No “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” playing here… just the peaceful sound of water and faint chimes.  While there was a nativity scene in the window, when I asked about an Advent calendar, the clerk looked at me quizzically.  At the same time, a waif-like looking girl asked, “Are you still taking the aura photos?”  The man who helped me thought for a moment and said, “Ah, yes, I remember as a boy my mother having a little calendar with windows.  Yes!  Yes!  I remember now.  But, no, we don’t have them.  Perhaps you’d like a meditation pillow?” (gesturing to a large stack of silk pillows).  Walking outside, the rain had stopped, but a faint mist swirled around the lights.  I dashed across to the end of the block to Books Inc.

Books Inc. Mountain View, CA (photo:  Yelp)
Books Inc. Mountain View, CA (photo: Yelp)

Books Inc. felt like a more traditional book store.  Cute racks of cards.  A children’s section with young people curled up on the floor with books.  A local school was sponsoring wrapping tables and refreshments.  Upstairs, a cafe overlooked the space.  Bouncy holiday music played overhead.  I took a moment to stroll through the different sections noting the number of families and unique books and gifts they offered.  It was refreshing to be in a store — and a city — where chain stores were not the norm.  In most places around me stores feel like cookie cutters of their step sisters and brothers in numerous towns across America.  Not here.  I inquired about Advent calendars and was in luck.  Not exactly the type I had envisioned; however, I snagged two Snoopie themed calendars for my two sons, Kent and Leland.  I also got a blow-up reindeer and a melting snowman.  But, no Advent calendar for me.

Street lamp in Mountain View, California
Street lamp in Mountain View, California

Coming out into the rainy night with my package under my arm, I was struck by the beautiful glow of the street lights all along the main avenue in Mountain View.  The lights were large globes which, covered in the mist, resembled snow globes.  In the distance, twinkling trees were reflected in their orbs.  Here — in the midst of a busy street — was an image worthy of any Advent calendar.  I thought to myself, perhaps I will do an Advent calendar of my own.

With my own pictures.

And here we are…..

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