Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Do you wanna build a snowman?

I hope this person gets sunburned.

January has been your-skin-will-freeze-in-under-five-minutes-if-exposed-to-the-elements COLD. Before this winter I had never heard of a polar vortex. I had never heard of school getting canceled not once, not twice, not three times, but FOUR TIMES due to “extreme cold.” (I understand why the districts canceled, my point isn’t to whine about the kids not having school—I support that decision—it’s to say that this weather is breaking all kinds of records.) I find myself skipping over my friends and family’s Facebook photos where they're vacationing on the beach (I'm pretty sick of the popular "I'm-not-going-to-show-you-me-in-a-swimsuit, just-my-bare-legs-and-painted-toenails" shots) /lounging by the pool/ enjoying a lovely al fresco dining experience in tank tops and t-shirts, because it just seems so INHUMANE. We have dangerously cold temps one day, a blizzard/commuting nightmare the next, and still winter stretches on for at least another two months (minimum).
But because we’re hardy Minnesotans who stubbornly refuse to hibernate, we still find ways to enjoy life. If we don't, we become bitter and hardened and angry and jealous, and that wouldn't do well for our "Minnesota Nice" reputation. (That, and it would make for a very long winter season.)
At the beginning of the month, my immediate family celebrated my mom’s birthday with a nice lunch at Granite City, followed by a trip to Como Zoo and their Tropical Encounters exhibit (highly recommend, esp in this weather!), we signed the boys up for Saturday morning swimming lessons at my old junior high, which has not changed one little bit since the late 80s (Adam hates the lessons; Ben loves them), we went sledding with my niece and nephews at my sister's house, my parents babysat one afternoon so that Aaron and I could go snowboarding at Welch Village (with friends), followed by pizza and beer at the Red Wing Brewery, my brother organized his annual ice fishing contest and about 35 people showed up, Aaron and I asked Uncle Jeremy to babysit—we ask him once a year—so we could go on a date to see Cabaret (so good, such talent! I was surprised to recognize one of the downstairs Caribou baristas as one of the actors, but have yet to get up the courage to bring it up in conversation), and Grandma Patti babysat overnight so we could help our close friend Remme celebrate her 40th birthday at a back-to-the-80s surprise party, complete with bare shoulders, neon, big hair, big earrings, leg warmers, and way too much blue eyeshadow. Now that the majority of my friends are married, and most of them are busy bringing their kids to various activities, the big milestone celebrations are one of the few times we all get together. Old people still know how to party!!

The Esprit bag was a big hit.

My favorite photo of the evening. Who invited THIS guy?!

Crimped hair. Why, 80s? Why?
Celebrating a great friend!
January also brought the notice of another close friend's work departure. Sniff, sniff. I feel the same way I did when other good friends told me they were leaving. I will miss working with her, laughing at her crazy stories and impersonations, and seeing her every day, but am genuinely glad she landed this opportunity. Plus she'll only be two blocks away, and still involved with our work events, and still up for happy hour or dinner or just hanging out on the East Side, so I know she’ll always be part of our lives (the boys absolutely love her and ask when she'll babysit again).

It also brought a move to a really beautiful assisted living facility for my only surviving grandparent, which was a relief for my aunt and mom (her main caretakers), and a heartbreak, too. Is she lonely? is she adequately cared for? is she eating ok? sleeping ok? does she resent this move? does she miss her old life and routine? does she feel happy? sad? confused? what does she do to fill her day? does she even want to be an active participant or simply fall asleep and not wake up? Oh, my poor, sweet grandma. She's the only grandparent I have left and she's slipping away.

Four generations, Christmas break 2013
This month also brought a phone call from Adam’s teacher—while I was at work, talk about nearly giving me a heart attack!—to see how he’s handling his best friend’s cancer diagnosis. She said he’s a caring, compassionate friend whose face lights up when Michael is near him, and very loyal and protective during the times Michael is away from school, undergoing chemotherapy. (He saves his spot on the bus.)
"I know how he worries, so I just wanted to check in," she said.
She deserves a Teacher of the Year award. 
"He's doing good," I told her. "Thank you for calling. He knows Michael is sick, but really doesn't talk a lot about it."
Adam has had close friends before—particularly his "amigos" at daycare—but this friendship is different. He loves his friend so much. He would do anything for him, give him the last bite of his Chipotle, his best Pokemon card, even forfeit court-side T-wolves tickets to let Michael go in his place (ok, maybe not that one). 
It's really a beautiful thing.   
"He's my BFF in the whole world," he proudly told Aaron and I one night before bed.
"Do you know what that means?" I asked.
"Something about a best friend?" 

He hasn't asked many questions about cancer, and I don't offer up too much information for fear of overloading his delicate brain with scary facts. He knows what he needs to know. 

"I'm also calling to let you know that Adam hasn't been eating his lunch," Mrs. B said in a more concerned tone.
(The lunchroom monitor alerted her, so she had lunch with him one day to observe, and sure enough, he had some pudding, ONE bite of pizza, and the rest of his tray got dumped.)
"I want to be able to help him, but I'm not sure how," she added. "I thought maybe we could figure it out together."

You know your kid's lack of eating is a problem when the lunchroom monitor tells the teacher, and the teacher calls you at work

It looks edible, right?

That night, Aaron and I had a heart-to-heart with Adam about the importance of eating lunch. It feels like we've had this conversation a billion times. It doesn't seem to sink in. He readily admitted he hasn't been eating lunch regularly, sometimes not at all. Sometimes he will just sit there and watch his friends eat. This makes me very, very sad. 

What about bringing a cold lunch?

Argument No. 1 = “I don’t have the right lunch box.” (He has a traditional hard-sided Star Wars lunchbox, a gift for his sixth birthday.)

Fine. We will buy you a new lunchbox. I actually found two options at Target, both soft-sided. In the sporting good department, because why would they be in with the kitchen gadgets? That would just make too much sense. So ... here, Adam. Choose your lunchbox! Which do you like best?

Argument No. 2 = “I like that one but don’t know how to bring cold lunch. Everyone will stare.”

Ok, I get that. He hates to draw attention to himself, and he worries when anything is out of his usual routine. I said he could bring cold lunch on a day when Aaron or I or my parents ate lunch with him and his friends. We could show him how. (Oh, the innocent things anxious 6-year-olds worry about.)

Argument No. 3 = “I don't want to. Nobody brings cold lunch.”

I have a very hard time believing this, but FINE. THEN EAT THE LUNCH PROVIDED BY THE SCHOOL.   

He can select a PB&J, a salad, or the hot lunch, I mean, it’s not like he doesn’t have CHOICES. He won’t eat the PB&J because the jelly is different than what he’s used to eating, and he won’t eat the “lettuce” [*I can’t imagine many kindergarteners choose salad for lunch], and at least half the time he doesn’t like what’s served for hot lunch because some part of the meal is different than how we make it at home. I remember those school lunches, and while they weren't exactly gourmet, they were edible. I swear, he is the PICKIEST KID IN THE WORLD. (Or at least in the top 20.)

The fact that he's not eating lunch makes me weep for two reasons: he’s throwing away our money (the less of the two reasons for concern), and the big one—the kid NEEDS FOOD. He’s going to make himself sick. He’s already so small and fragile — he needs fuel for energy and strength, he needs food to GROW, he needs food to stay HEALTHY! Little Adam, your mom and dad say this out of love and compassion, PLEASE EAT YOUR FREAKIN' LUNCH!!! 

What do you do when your six-year-old goes on a lunch strike? I'm open to any and all suggestions.

We also saw "Frozen" this month. I love that Disney portrayed two strong, powerful princesses celebrating their differences (best used for the common good) and the shared love between them. I also appreciated two surprise twists near the end of the film.

All in all, January was a month of good days and a few "glad-this-one-is-over" days when the boys did their share of fighting and arguing one minute, then playing together, laughing and hugging like close friends the next, followed by wrestling until one kid has the other in a painful hold, ending in protests of "I'm telling on you!" and tears and "You're mean! I hate you!" and/or clumps of pulled hair. (I wouldn't be surprised if Adam develops a bald spot. Ben can be one vicious hair-puller.) January has brought with it the usual hurry-to-work, hurry-to-preschool, hurry-home to figure out dinner/dishes/laundry/baths/homework/read books/then try-not-to-fall-asleep-while-reading-my-own-book routine (it gets easier when the kids are older and more self-sufficient, but it is still exhausting). I don't crave sleep like I did when they were younger, but I do crave a vacation now more than ever!

Since a vacation isn't in our immediate future, we do our best to find fun ways to spend our weekends together. This weekend a group of friends and family will be going snowtubing and out for drinks as I celebrate another trip around the sun. I'm looking forward to having all four of us out on the hill. I wonder how the boys will do. Last year, Ben went down once (with me), got a face-full of snow, and spent the rest of the two-hour session in the chalet with Grandma Patti. Adam stuck it out for a bit longer, although it was hard to tell if he did it because he was having fun or he did it because his cousins were out there (peer pressure). This year, though, both kids have loved going sledding. Adam wants to spend all of his time outside—even in below-zero temps—and Ben has been a total daredevil, insisting on going down alone, laughing when he's landed face-first in the snow before shouting "Again! Again!" so who knows? One year can make a world of difference.

One year can make a world of difference. It can mean the arrival of a new baby, a new job, a move to a new city, a new routine, a new house, a subtle or dramatic change in health (for good or bad), or the loss of someone close to you. So much can change in such a short time. Every year we're above ground is worthy of a celebration. (It's also a great excuse to get together with the people you love.)

In the wise words of author Anne Carson:

“Come here, let me share a bit of wisdom with you.
Have you given much thought to our mortal condition?
Probably not. Why would you? Well, listen.
All mortals owe a debt to death.
There's no one alive
who can say if he will be tomorrow.
Our fate moves invisibly! A mystery.
No one can teach it, no one can grasp it.
Cheer up! Have a drink!

Let the rest go."

Monday, January 6, 2014

Year in Review: 2013

1. What did you do in 2013 that you’d never done before?
I went to my first school birthday party (Pinz bowling alley/arcade for my best friend Michael).

Aaron: I went to San Diego with my friends (Steve, Jesse, and Luke) to celebrate our 40th birthdays; went to Santa Cruz for a work trip, went backpacking/camping along the Superior Hiking Trail this fall with Shawn, Jeremy, Kyle, and Josh.
Chrissy: Went to my 20th high school reunion and had a BLAST.  Joined Weight Watchers and even went to a few corny meetings (and decided it definitely wasn’t for me, although—if you stick to the plan and count points—it can be highly effective. One week alone I lost four pounds!) Judged the Aquatennial floats at the Torchlight Parade. Crossed the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park. 

2. Did you keep your New Year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Adam: What’s a resolution?
Aaron: I don’t know if I ever made one last year.
Chrissy: Yes! Well, sort of … maybe not to the extent that I wanted, but I started walking at lunch with my friend Anna anywhere from two to four times/week. (The Convention Center is our personal indoor track.) I love this lunch-time routine. It’s not only a good way to get a little workout, the conversations have brought Anna and I closer. I also cut down drastically on diet soda, and only drink it occasionally now instead of every day.

3. Did anyone close to you have a child? 
Chrissy: Katie D. had Ruby, Amanda had Maisy, Katie S. had Teagan, Emily had Christopher, Kirsten had Henrik, and Christine had Sofie. Baby boom!
Aaron: Coworkers Heather had Colin and Irina has Conley. 

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Thankfully, no.

5. Where did you travel?
Chrissy: Sadly, I didn’t board an airplane in 2013. I did go on some little road trips, though. I went to Minocqua, Wis. for the annual college girls’ get-together, to Wisconsin Dells (this time The Wilderness vs. the Kalahari) for our annual indoor waterpark trip with our Green Bay friends, to Criviz, Wis. for the Fourth of July, and to Itasca State Park for our annual family vacation.
Aaron: I went to California twice and to Lutsen for a backpacking/camping trip (see #1.)

6. What would you like to have in 2014 that you lacked in 2013?
Chrissy and Aaron: Less screen time, more quality family time. More planned-ahead (healthy) dinners. Better budgeting.

7. What dates remain etched upon your memory and why?
June 22: Aaron and Russ’s combined 40th birthday bash at Flat Earth Brewery (day) and then to O’Gara’s (evening) in St. Paul. Fun night with family and good friends!

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Aaron: Our upstairs closet remodeling project.
Chrissy: Helping Ben with potty-training. Talk about a lesson in patience.

9. What was your biggest failure of the year?
Aaron: Hmm …
Chrissy: I wanted to volunteer somewhere, and never did. I think that every year. When will I actually do something about that thought? 

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Thankfully, no.  When you have your health, you have a lot.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Adam: Pokemon cards
Aaron: Surly Overrated
Chrissy: Triple A (the Vue was our problem child!)

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
Aaron and Chrissy: Those who helped defeat the hateful/hurtful anti-marriage amendment and everyone in Minnesota who voted to legalize gay marriage.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Aaron and Chrissy: Politicians fighting so hard against gay marriage. 

14. Where did most of your money go?
Adam: In the bank
Aaron and Chrissy: The usual: Mortgage, groceries, bills, daycare/preschool (so expensive!)

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Adam: Getting Pokemon cards, going to the indoor waterpark with our friends
Aaron: Trip to the Dells; California
Chrissy: My dad’s retirement party, my mom’s surprise retirement dinner, my high school reunion (seeing Tonya!), Aaron’s 40th birthday, camping with friends at Hok-Si-La, trips to Green Bay (friends) and Itasca State Park (family). I would be more excited about the indoor waterpark if I didn’t have to spend so much time in a bathing suit.

16. What song will always remind you of 2013?
Adam: “Roar” by Katy Perry “I’ve got the eye of the tiger inside me …”
Aaron: “Royals” by Lorde
Chrissy: “Clarity” by Zedd (reminds me of camping in the rain), also “Reminder” by Mumford and Sons (they sang this acapella at the X, from a special stage in the center of the main floor. We were only a few rows away. It was a very intimate, very memorable performance.)

17. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) happier or sadder? b) thinner or fatter? c) richer or poorer?
Adam: a.) Happier, I’m in kindergarten b.) What is this question!?! c.) Richer  
Chrissy: a.) Same b.) Slightly thinner (by only a few pounds) c.) Same 
Aaron: a.) Same  b.) Same c.)  Richer

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Adam: Played more football
Chrissy: Followed through. Volunteered somewhere. Been kind to myself.
Aaron: Running

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Adam: Let’s see, hmm. I wish I’d done less driving. No, wait, not driving, um, sitting in the car. Riding in the car, because when I’m riding in the car, I can’t do other fun things.
Chrissy: Spent less time on FB when I should have been giving the boys my undivided attention.
Aaron: Chewing (bad habit!)

20. How did you spend Christmas?
Adam: It was GOOD. We went to Grandma and Grandpa’s and Grandma Patti’s.
Aaron and Chrissy: We celebrated with friends and family throughout the month of December.

21. What was your favorite TV show?
Adam: Watching the Timberwolves. I love them.
Aaron: Modern Family, Parks and Rec
Chrissy: I love Modern Family. This year I'd like to watch Orange is the New Black, The Midwives, and Downton Abbey. We’ll see if that happens. (I watched the first season of DA and loved it, totally my kind of show.) I also love Ellen.

22. What was the best book you read?
Adam: Jack and Annie 
Chrissy: Definitely Wild by Cheryl Strayed 
Aaron: The Hunger Games trilogy

23. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Aaron and Chrissy: Not really a ‘discovery,’ but a new appreciation for Trampled by Turtles and Jay-Z after seeing them in concert.

24. What did you want and get?
Adam: A race car track and Pokemon cards
Aaron and Chrissy: A nice, understanding, supportive kindergarten teacher for Adam and a familiar face in his class (Michael!); a smooth transition from daycare to preschool for Ben.

25. What did you want and not get?
Adam: I don’t know. Wait, I know. Probably another 60-pack of Pokemon cards. 
Aaron: I don’t know. I can’t think of anything.
Chrissy: Self-cleaning underwear for Ben, less anxiety for Adam.

26. What was your favorite movie of the year?
Adam: Smurfs 2
Aaron: Did we even see one at the theater last year?
Chrissy: Gravity. I loved, loved, loved that movie (and I honestly don’t understand the people who can’t share my enthusiasm. What’s not to love, you crazy people?!) *I saw this with my parents, not Aaron.

27. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
Adam: Six. I had a party at my grandma and grandpa’s house.
Aaron: I turned 40. We went to O’Gara’s. I also went to California with a few buddies.
Chrissy: I turned 38. We celebrated by going snowtubing at Green Acres  in Lake Elmo (it’s become tradition) and then had dinner in Oakdale. I also had a nice dinner with my parents and the boys on my actual birthday.

28. What would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Aaron: What is this thing and when is it done?
Chrissy: Answer the question. I’m trying to engage with you.
Adam: Yeah, we’re trying to watch the Timberwolves, Mom.
Chrissy: Just answer the question. Only a few more to go.
Aaron: Ok. More family time.
Adam: Getting another 60-pack of Pokemon cards.
Chrissy: Self-acceptance

29. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2013?
Adam: Sporty
Aaron: I don’t think I have a personal fashion concept.
Chrissy: Casual, with one or two trendy items mixed in. I even wore a short dress and high heels to my reunion. (A fashion risk for me!)

30. What kept you sane?
Adam: What does sane mean?
Aaron: Surly Overrated beer
Chrissy: Aaron and my parents, my brother and SIL, Jeremy, my wonderful girlfriends

31. Which celebrity did you like the most?
Adam: Kevin Love!
Aaron: Jimmy Fallon
Chrissy:  Justin Timberlake. Also, RIP Paul Walker. You were my No. 1 for a long, long time. Gone way too soon.

32. What political issue stirred you the most?
See #12, 13

33. Who did you miss last year?
Adam: Grandma Patti. I wish I could go there more.
Aaron: My grandpa Lowell
Chrissy: Tonya, even though I got to see her twice this year! The person my grandma used to be. Aaron’s grandpa and my deceased grandparents.

34. Who was the best new person you met?
Adam: Christopher, he’s in my class.  
Chrissy: I really like Adam’s kindergarten and Ben’s preschool teachers.
Aaron: Best new person? Hmmm …

35. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2013:
Chrissy:  Your check cards are not as secure as you think they are (sorry, Target). Don’t attempt to potty train your kid in three days. Cancer doesn’t discriminate based on age, and visiting a six-year-old at Children’s Hospital—your son’s “best friend in all the world”—will quickly put all of your problems in perspective, make you pray like you haven’t prayed in a long time, and realize how strong and resilient little bodies (and minds) can be, even though they seem so frail and small. Also, Minnesotans, when they stand on the right side of history, will make you feel a sense of love and PRIDE for the people of your hometown state.
Aaron: Life is short. Make the most of it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Christmas 2013

I sat down to blog a few nights ago and just couldn't find the words, which is rare for me. Blogging sometimes feels a little bit like posting status updates on Facebook, when you want to share what you're doing — either to remember it yourself or because there are people genuinely interested, but don't want it to seem like you're painting too perfect a picture, because we all know life isn't perfect, (case in point: hardly anyone actually enjoys getting those braggy Christmas letters (do they?)), but on the flip side, who wants to dwell on all the negativity when there's enough of that out there in the world? As Aaron would say, you just try to keep it real.

My last day at work in 2013 was December 20. That Friday feels like a lifetime ago. Thankfully I've been checking my work email from home or I probably would have forgotten my password. (How many junior high and high school kids will forget their locker combos tomorrow?). It's amazing how quickly we adapt to new routines, and how wonderful it is not to have to set an alarm. It seemed like the perfect amount of time to be off. 

We had friends over December 20 for a little last-minute holiday party. Aaron bought fancy cheese and crackers, Kelly brought home-made Polish vodka and her roommate Jill, Jeremy brought a giant suitcase filled with shorts, t-shirts, sunblock and flip flops (Aaron brought him to the airport at 4 a.m. -- he was headed to Arizona, to spend Christmas with his parents), Kyle and Rachel brought beef stew in the crockpot and the "official" announcement that she's expecting a little one this July (so excited for them!), and Russ and Katie brought Christmas cookies and gifts for the boys (so generous and thoughtful). We drank, talked, laughed, ate, attempted to play Trivial Pursuit (I hate that game. I always wind up feeling incredibly stupid), then gave up and played Scattergories instead. I knew I was tipsy when I started making up answers. Ben fell asleep on the couch at 10:30 and Adam hung in until nearly midnight. It was a really fun night.

On Saturday evening, we joined Aaron's extended family in braving the cold and the crowds downtown Minneapolis for the last Holidazzle ever. There were 13 of us in our group (Josh was doing work down in Florida (Becky still went), Kayla was at her dad's, and Morgan and Jake just didn't want to deal with the cold), five little kids and eight big ones (age 29+). Parking was a total nightmare, some of the spectators were kind of grinchy after being jostled around in the crowd, and it was very, very cold, but the kids loved it, so that made it worthwhile.

My father-in-law was extremely easy to spot in the crowd. (Warm, too!)
We had dinner at the 8th Street Grill, then checked out the tree inside Crystal Court. 

On Sunday night we celebrated my "little" brother Nick's 30th birthday at Applebee's with my parents and Nick's girlfriend Ashley (how is he 30?!), then drove over to a cluster of homes on the East Side that had synchronized holiday songs and lights. Adam didn't like it (he said he felt dizzy trying to look at all the flashing lights) and Ben was freaked out by the lifelike Santa that kept peeking out the window. Aaron and I loved it.

On Monday, Day One of Family Vacation Togetherness (the kids were home from December 23 to January 1), I felt the onset of Stir Craziness creeping in right after lunch (two energetic boys cooped up in a small space = fights, fights, fights). I was very crabby. Aaron's last day at work in 2013 was that Monday and he had to work late, so I was "ridin' solo," which didn't help. I think the temp was 4 below and, out of desperation, I bundled up the boys and we walked to the park. Yes, the park. In below zero weather. The fresh air helped me reclaim my sanity. And for once, we had the park to ourselves (shocking that no one else would be enjoying the beautiful winter day, HA HA). Everything was dangerously icy and slippery, but the slides were AMAZING. It was fun to watch the boys shoot out onto the snow below. I even went down once (or three times).

On Monday, after Aaron got home, we packed up and headed to Forest Lake for the night, our home away from home. We figured we'd make the most of Christmas Eve if we stayed over and spent the whole day there, sledding and then celebrating with my side of the family. It was a good plan, even though Mother Nature was still (cruelly) dropping below zero temps our way. My dad joined us on the hill while my mom watched from inside. I was nervous sending Ben down alone, but he couldn't get enough. He even fell off once or twice and came up laughing, white-washed and all. Adam was more cautious, and usually wanted to ride down with either Aaron or I. Ben only wanted to go down alone, leaning way back on his sled so it looked like he was competing in the luge.

And then, after an invigorating hour outside, family began arriving and we did some of this:
 And some of this (Lucy dog in a sweater! So cute!):
And this:

 And another round of this! (This time, just my brother Shawn and I took the kids out.)

My mom, dad, April, and Aaron prepared an elaborate Christmas Eve meal — linguine, shrimp, salad and bread. Tara made four different types of dessert. It was labor-intensive but delicious. My mom had a blast in the kitchen with her "helpers."

All 13 of us opened gifts around the fireplace my dad built this past summer/fall. It felt very cozy and "Christmasy."

Ben thought he was pretty cool with his very own Minnesota Wild outfit and hockey stick and puck. Adam was so excited to get more Pokemon cards that he jumped up and ran across the room to hug my mom. They received toys and clothes and money. We were overwhelmed, once again, by our family's generosity.

We got home around 9:30 (slow going on the roads Christmas Eve night), tucked the boys in bed, unpacked, and started wrapping. The adrenaline kicked in around 10:30. It's hard not to get swept up in the Santa magic when you have two little believers under your roof. This is a fun age for Christmas. When you have kids, it takes you back to when you believed. Ahh, the innocence. The magic. The North Pole, Rudolph, Mrs. Claus, all of it. I overheard Adam telling Ben that he shouldn't ask for a Power Rangers mega sword from Mom and Dad, he should ask for one from Santa, "so Mom and Dad can keep their money." I also overheard Adam telling Ben that the mall Santas weren't real, the real Santa was too busy to be "doing pictures at the mall." He has gifts to deliver. 

On Christmas morning, Aaron and I woke to both boys standing by our bed. They never both come into our room. They were grinning from ear to ear. This was one wake-up call I didn't mind. (It helped that it was after 8 a.m.) Aaron went downstairs and plugged in the tree, then came back up to retrieve everyone. Lots of tired smiles at our house that morning. Aaron and I also received heartfelt gifts from the boys, a sparkly ornament from Ben, and a gingerbread ornament from Adam. They were very proud of their creations, and they have quickly become my favorite ornaments in our collection. Thank you, preschool and kindergarten teachers, for giving the boys the opportunity to feel so grown up and important.

Ben wasn't really sure what to think of his Leap Frog, but he loved his Power Rangers Mega Sword,
Batman sweatshirt, and Ninja Turtles gear. 
Adam was so excited to get the same tennis shoes as his best friend Michael. 
Santa also brought him a Kindle. Let the gaming begin.
At around noon, we headed to Coon Rapids for Christmas with Aaron's side of the family. Patti made a great meal of ham and deep fried turkey, cheesy potatoes, green bean casserole, and salad. Amy brought the pies. (One was Candy Cane pie from Baker's Square, my favorite.) We ate, the kids played, we talked, we opened gifts (once again, such generosity from the grandparents, aunts, and godfather Josh—Batman toys, clothes, games, an art kit, a Batman backpack (!), movies, and money), and later we played Pictionary with the older cousins. Since Ben can't read, we let him "play," too. He just kept "drawing" the letters "B," "O," "A" or "H." We stayed until 10 p.m, not wanting to leave the warmth of Patti's house and deal with loading and unloading in the deep freeze. Both kids fell asleep in the car. 

Ben: "Which one should I open first?! Decisions, decisions."
Aaron's mom surrounded by her beautiful children.
Thankfully we had nothing to do on December 26. We were all pretty wiped out.
Adam counting his white coconut-flavored Jelly Bellys from Auntie Tonya. (Over 500.)
Painting birdhouses (delivered from Santa). 
On Friday we met up with friends for our annual bowling tradition. Usually we get together to see our out-of-town friends Steve (Michigan) or Robyn (Michigan), and Jesse and Colleen (California), but they didn't make it this year. Remme also couldn't make it. I was glad Aaron's brother Josh and girlfriend Becky joined us at the last minute. Thanks to Josh, poker was involved this year. I have never played before, and somehow won the second game. It was great to have a kid-free night out (my parents generously babysat), even though I'm ashamed to admit I couldn't break 100 the first game. Katie blew everyone away when she bowled a 170. 

On Saturday morning, Adam went to his first ever classmate birthday party—for his best friend Michael—at a bowling alley/arcade. (He's been to many family parties for his cousins, and parties for the kids of my close friends, but never a school friend.) He was extremely nervous about going to the party without us being there, and had a minor anxiety-induced meltdown ("I changed my mind! I don't want to go!"), but realized we weren't going to let him stay home, no matter how hard he cried or protested. Not surprisingly, he had a blast with all the kids. He hardly looked back when Aaron dropped him off, and hardly looked up when we all came to get him. He was smiling so much I'm surprised his face didn't hurt. First school birthday party = success! 

Right after Michael's party was over, we drove down to Austin, Minn. to celebrate Christmas with Aaron's extended family (all 34 of 'em). We stayed overnight at a hotel with a swimming pool (the boys were in their element. Adam loved the hot tub; Ben loved the pool) and enjoyed quality time with Jay, Pete and Max, Josh and Becky, Aaron's cousins, and his grandma, who is such an inspiration to me at age 80. She organized the party, rented space at the nature center (the family has outgrown her house), made the majority of the food, and suggested we do a white elephant gift exchange. On Sunday, everyone met at the nature center for lunch, conversation, kid-wrangling, and gifts. The most touching part of the day came when Aaron's grandma gave each of her four children, 12 granchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren bears that she made out of Aaron's grandpa's shirts. (Lowell died in 2009.) Aaron's sister Amy said, through her tears, that it was one of the most meaningful gifts she's ever received. I think the sentiment was shared by all.

On Monday afternoon I visited my friends Kirsten and Nate at their Minneapolis home. Kirsten had Baby Henrik right before Thanksgiving (what an adorable and good baby!) and I was eager to meet him and see her. When you're away from it, you forget how tiny newborns are, with their little "dolphin sounds" (Nate's words) and exaggerated movements and how the smallest fussing makes you wonder, "Is he wet? Is he hungry? Is he tired? Does he need to poop? Does he have gas?" It's such a guessing game. But man are newborns cuddly, and innocent, and so sweet. I couldn't get enough of him.
During that same mini getaway (Aaron stayed home with the boys), I did the only shopping that I did during break when I stopped briefly at Marshall's and bought a sweater. *The fact that I only went shopping once from December 20-January 1 is a huge feat.

 On New Year's Eve, the fam headed back to Forest Lake for more sledding, a toasty Tom & Jerry drink by the fire, a nice dinner (Aaron was in the kitchen once again, this time making steak and chicken fajitas), a very funny game of Scattergories and Apples II Apples, and the hopes of making it to midnight. One by one people started disappearing. First Ben fell asleep, then my grandma wandered into her room, then my mom decided to "watch TV in her room" (aka fall asleep), then Adam petered out. My dad, Aaron, and I were the last three standing (or, more accurately, sitting on the couch, trying hard to stay awake) when the ball dropped. I surprised myself and made it until 12:30 a.m.! I think this is the second year in a row I've seen midnight come on NYE. Times have changed since the days of getting dressed up to go out and party. I like this tradition better.

Making goofy faces on NYE.
My grandma was also at my parents house this weekend (my aunt Karen and mom alternate caring for her—she can no longer be left alone), and even though she spends a lot of time at my parents' house when we're there, this time it hit me just how fast she's fading. Her health has been going downhill for many years, but now I see the red flags of Alzheimer's, and it's heartbreaking. She forgets names, she doesn't know if it's morning or night, she forgets where she is, she asks about people as if they're total strangers and not long-time friends or family. I wonder if she thinks being here, being alive, is a burden rather than a blessing. I wonder if she wakes up and asks "Why?" rather than saying a silent prayer of "Thank you." She doesn't say much (she has a hard time hearing, even with her hearing aids in) but she loves watching Adam and Ben play. Maybe it helps her forget about her own aches and pains a little bit. I love to hear her laugh, and the boys have the power to get those from her. She used to be so fun. She was my grandma who owned a resort in Wisconsin. She used to take us to the beach, to the A&W for root beer floats, out fishing, out swimming past the end of the dock, to her Catholic church. She was always giggling. There's a video of her playing volleyball with her kids, circa 1970-something, and she looks so cute, so tiny as she laughed and tried to jump at the ball. She had on shorts (I hardly ever saw her in shorts) and wore a bandana around her hair, making her seem younger than she was. I wish she could feel that way now, youthful and carefree and, most importantly, happy. Now my mom has to remind her to take her medication, and help her get dressed, and bathe her, and change her, and make sure she eats nutritious meals. She walks with a walker. She has a hard time going up and down stairs. It's weird how they've reversed roles, the child as the caretaker. And yet—even though my grandma's not who she used to be, even though she has arthritis and high blood pressure and her eyes and ears are slowly failing her, even though she can't do the things she once did without help from others—she still has a sweet personality (always complimenting others), and she never misses an opportunity to thank the Lord for her family. Because, at the end of the day, whether you're 38 or 85, whether you hope to be lucky enough to have many years ahead of you or secretly hope the end is near, your family is what you're left with.

Right now, late Wednesday night—the start of a new year—my family is sleeping. The house is tiny, it's not in a great neighborhood, and the rooms are in desperate need of a serious makeover, but it's warm (it's 18 below windchill outside the window), it's got everything we need, it's home. Aaron and I both have jobs that we enjoy (usually), there is food in the fridge, and we have clothes on our backs. We have each other, we have supportive friends and family, we have fun. I hope 2014 brings more happiness, good health, a sense of peace, a sense of purpose, and a never-ending sense of gratitude to appreciate it all.