‘Tis The Season For Tipping

money_tree5After years of uncertainty, I have mastered the art (certainly not a science) of holiday tipping. Even still, I have a perverse need to compare my tipping habits to the various standards published at this time of year. Am I tipping the right person? Is the gift an appropriate amount? Is it really OK to NOT tip my hairdresser (or lawn guy or other service professional) when s/he owns the business? For this year’s annual comparison, I consulted CNNMoney.com.

Turns out, I’m in line - more or less – with the “norm.” 

  • I tip the paper carrier, house cleaner, garbage collector and mail deliverer.
  • If I use the services of a manicurist, hair stylist, massage therapist or dog sitter in the weeks surrounding Christmas, I provide them with a more generous tip. (Although I don’t give a set percentage/amount, nor do I make a special effort to go in and tip them if I don’t have an appointment scheduled.)
  • I do not tip (or give gifts to) the UPS or FedEx guys. (And, really, even if I did want to tip them, their stealth deliveries are usually so unexpected that they’ve come and gone before I even realize it.) 
  • For the entrepreneur whose team takes care of our yard each week, I send a cash tip with our monthly payment and a note indicating the tip is for his employees. (That is, I did that back when we actually used a lawn service.)    

All told, I probably spend $350-$400 on holiday tipping. Is that amount a lot? A little? I’m not sure. But, I do know it’s what I CAN give with an appreciative heart and in the holiday spirit. And, to me, that’s the beauty of holiday tipping being an art, not a science.

So, Wise Women, how do you handle holiday tipping?

P.S. For those of you curious how Kids Night Out turned out from last week, know that at 10:10 pm I was toasting a successful event with my glass of Merlot. Successful. that is, if you don’t count the desperate search for a NorthFace jacket that went missing, the need to call a parent to pick up her homesick children, the icepacks needed for kids who collided during theatre sports games (I still don’t understand how bodily contact even happened),  the escape artist child who eventually required a one-on-one monitor to keep him corralled, the brother/sister team who delighted in tormenting each other and required continuous separation, and … well, you get the picture. It was successful because it was OVER. And no one was maimed or lost during the evening.  And, from the looks of the faces of most kids, a good time was had by all.  Thanks to all for your support and empathy as I angsted about the event.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

school-houseI have a confession to make, and I hope you won’t think any less of me:

I really do not enjoy volunteering in my kids’ schools!

You’re thinking, “What’s wrong with her?!?! What an ungrateful, unloving, uninterested mother!”, right? Well, if you’re not thinking it, I’m thinking it enough for both of us …

For the last twelve years, I have volunteered in a variety of capacities: stuff Wednesday folders, help kids select books at the school library, run an activity at the class party, buy the teacher gift, make copies of newsletters, serve as the Class Parent, go on field trips, organize an activity for Field Day, chaperon play rehearsals, help out at school registration, bake, buy and bring in treats galore.

Writing it all out makes it seem like I’m gunning for Volunteer of the Year. But, the reality is that I strictly limit what I say yes to and volunteer far, far less than many parents. 

I still don’t like the experience that much.

And, right now, I’m in the midst of Volunteer Hell.

I signed up to be a parent liaison for a Kids Night Out scheduled for this Friday. I purposefully chose to help out with this particular activity as (1) it’s been held before – no need to start from scratch; (2) the Night is suppossed to be organized and run by students - parents are in the background and help only as needed/requested; and (3) it’s a discrete task that has a definite end point (by Friday night at 10:00 pm)

Did you know that, as of the moment I’m writing this, there are exactly 61 hours and 30 minutes until Friday night at 10:00 pm?

I won’t bore you with the details of how this has turned out to be a such a pain in the @)# that I’m keeping a running countdown in my head. Suffice to say there are about a dozen cooks in the kitchen (not an exaggeration), literally hundreds of emails that have flown back-and-forth from said cooks, student “leaders” who have disappeared into a black hole, and, incredibly, few details worked out notwithstanding six weeks of communication about the event. And only 2.5 days remain. 

As a Wise Friend suggested, I’m planning an “Elaine Day Out” to help erase this experience from my memory. And posting the cynical “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” mantra to my office wall in case I get tempted again to do anything more than bake cupcakes.

61 and 20 minutes to go …

When you need that extra Push…

212_degree_1209441860097I just wanted to share a quote that I saw last week that has really stuck with me.  I’ve shared it with my children, and it can provide inspiration when you feel like you’re about at the end of your rope.  Maybe that one last extra push is more than worthwhile….

At 211 degrees, water is hot.

At 212 degrees, water boils.

And with boiling water, comes steam.

And with steam, you can power a train.

One extra degree makes all the difference.

Now, go out and conquer.  Wouldn’t you rather power a locomotive than just be extremely hot and sweaty?!

Making A List, Checking It Twice

writing-listEvery holiday season, I like to make a list of up to five activities that I commit to make happen during the month of December.  Last year – aka the stressful year from hell – only one item appeared on my mental list: decorate the Christmas tree. (As you may remember, we had struggled to assemble the pre-lit tree, but never got around to hanging ornaments on it.) 
We finally decorated the tree the 24th, albeit with distracted minds/hearts. We also managed to knock off a few other holiday activities like send out Christmas cards, but they were “extras” as they were not on the official list. Christmas had a different vibe last year, but I was satisfied with the celebration – and all because we managed to decorate that darn tree.
I began chopping Christmas traditions off my “must do” list the year my father died. I could not gather the energy or interest to send out holiday cards, so I didn’t. And I  discovered the world continued to spin on its axis just fine.  
With this scaled-down approach, our holiday traditions ebb and flow depending on what’s going on in the world.  Some of our activities have included: 
  • Taking a day off from work to shop with Wise Hubby while our young kids were in school.
  • Getting dressed up (tux/long gown) for his firm’s annual blow-out holiday party.
  • Making several dozen Christmas cookies to share with teachers and neighbors.
  • Crafting Christmas letters and/or designing annual photo cards.
  • Attending a friend’s annual Advent service.
  • Hosting a low-key Christmas Day dinner for the few family members still in town on the 25th. 
  • Hanging a lit wreath on the picture window.
  • Attending a Christmas concert.
  • Watching It’s a Wonderful Life.

This year only two of these traditions are making my short list. We may end up doing more, but, again, those will be extra and not essential to whether or not we “did Christmas right” this year.

According to W. Somerset Maugham, “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” I like that sentiment! 

What traditions will you be following (or not) this holiday season?

Soup’s On for Thanksgiving

Bacon_Cheese_n_Potato_ChowderI like to have a soup on the stove on Thanksgiving, to hold off those hungry tummies mid day as we wait for a mid afternoon turkey to come out of the oven.  This year I think it will be Ina Garten’s French Onion Soup, but I wanted to share a recipe I’ve made a couple times this fall to rave reviews (well, at least from my 16 year old son).  I meant to publish this sooner, in case anyone wanted to incorporate it into their Thanksgiving day plans, but at least you’ll have it for the start of the winter season.

If anyone would like to share any favorite soup recipes, please do!

Potato Chowder with Green Chiles

Warning:  I’ve found if I follow the recipe exactly, there is way too much heat (and we’re a family that likes spicy).  I’ve written my edits in parentheses.

1 large red bell pepper (I do two – three large bell peppers)

4 large poblano Chile peppers (four makes it too spicy; 2 – 2.5 is enough)

5 cups of chicken broth

1 large potato, peeled and cubed (I throw in a bit more than 1 – this just didn’t seem like enough for “potato” chowder)

1 large onion, chopped

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped (I did not use this at all)

1 tsp salt

1/4 to 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1/3 cup flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp dry mustard

1/4 to 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

2 cups half and half (I use light cream, and used 1.5 cups of light cream and 1.5 cups of skim milk)

1 cup milk

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

6 bacon slices, cooked and crumbled

1 bunch green onions, chopped

BROIL bell peppers and chile peppers on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet 5 inches from heat about 5 minutes on each side or until peppers look blistered.

PLACE peppers in a heavy duty zip lock plastic bag or paper bag; seal and let stand 10 minutes to loosen skins.  Peel peppers; remove and discard seeds.  Coarsely chop peppers.

BRING chopped roasted peppers, chicken broth, and next 5 ingredients to a boil in a Dutch oven over medium heat.  Reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes or until potato is tender.

MELT butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat; whisk in flour and next 3 ingredients until smooth.  Cool, whisking constantly, 1 minute.  Gradually whisk in half and half.

STIR white sauce and milk into chicken broth mixture; cook over medium heat 8 to 10 minutes or until thickened and bubbly.   Sprinkle each serving evenly with cheese, bacon, and green onions.

Source:  Southern Living (Top Rated Recipe from December, 2000!)

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

When the Bed Bugs Bite

DSC_0767Endearingly whispering “Don’t let the bed bugs bite” in your child’s ears as they drift off to sleep seems to be taking on a new reality.  Once a sing song phrase that was interchangeable with “Mama’s going to buy you a Mocking Bird,” bed bugs seem to have arrived on the scene in a big, unexpected way. We’ve read about them in the press. Hotels are shutting down, retail stores are shutting down.  High end … low end … it doesn’t seem to matter.  Friends who are traveling take pause when booking their hotels, trying to determine which place will afford less risky sleeping accomodations.

I haven’t given much thought to this pandemic, until today.  My high school kids came home reporting that a student at school had brought a bed bug into school in his back pack.  This coincided with a newspaper article from two days ago about two other schools in town where the same thing happened.  Unfortunately, this student happened to be in my daughter’s health class, and she is reporting that she is not attending school tomorrow (“It will ruin my social reputation for life and turn our home upside down if I get bed bugs” she states).

The school called homes this evening to report this occurence, and to say that it was being dealt with in accordance with health department recommendations.   My son appeared out of nowhere in an outfit dug out of our basement that I had never seen before – reporting this is how he would dress for school in the AM, ready to attack.   Some neighbors are talking about stripping down their kids when they walk in from school and throwing everything in the washing machine, others are being a bit calmer and recommending prudent checking of surface clothing and backpacks.  Many high school students facebooks report a boycott of school tomorrow.

All of this has made me question, just where are all these bed bugs coming from … all of a sudden.  It is a bug that has been around, troubling souls, for hundreds of years.  But after WW11, bed bugs were essentially wiped out in developed nations with the use of the pesticide DDT, now banned of course. With the increase in international travel and immigration, bed bugs are back.  And you don’t want them near you.  It sounds nightmarish (on the level of dealing with lice, if not greater) of eradicating these things from your premises if you are one of the lucky ones they decide to visit.

Has anyone had any experience with bed bugs?  Somehow I need to convince my daughter that one bed bug in a large school does not require running for your life.  But I also must admit that my back has gotten awfully itchy while writing this blog…

Fashion Icons: Princess Di, Kate Middleton and Me

diana-ringI thought my days of being swept up into a fashion craze were over.

My first memory of seeking a new, trendy look was back in the 1970′s. A fledgling figure skater, I decided to have my long hair chopped off so I could sport one of those cute Dorothy Hamill cuts. When the stylist turned my chair back toward the mirror to reveal the new look, my tween self was horrified (and then tearful). My wavy hair was not the right type for a wedge cut. I spent years regretting and growing out that fashion blunder.

Then came the decade of argyle sweaters, painter’s pants, corduroys and Bermuda purses. Eventually, I tired of looking like everyone else at school and decided to resist the latest styles. I watched skirt lengths rise and fall and didn’t mind that my skirts (when I wore them) never varied their length. Although intrigued, I skipped the animal print phases. Over time, my fashion ignorance evolved from a deliberate, individualistic stance to a necessary survival strategy during those early and frantically busy parenting years.   

Now, it seems that I’ve unwittingly joined the fashion masses once again. According to reports, Prince William has given his fiancee his mother’s gorgeous and well-known engagement ring; as a result, a frenzy to buy sapphire and diamond rings  has been ignited within the last 24 hours.

And my engagement ring looks just like Princess Di’s (and now Kate Middleton’s) 18-carat ring – minus about 17 carats. My husband did not set out to buy a replica during his engagement ring expedition almost 25 years ago. He just knew I’d prefer something other than a traditional diamond. He was right, and I treasure that ring, regardless of its past or current trendiness. 

Which fashion trends have you enjoyed over the years? Which ones have you despised? (I’ve heard whispers that parachute pants may be making a come-back. Say it ain’t so!)

When Life Gets in the Way

DSC_0916No, this light fixture doesn’t hang in some obscure corner of my house – it’s front and center in my entrance way.  Before I go any further, I must let you know since Day 1 of moving into this house, I have not liked that light fixture – it has been on my to do list for replacement.  Since I haven’t gotten around to replacing it yet after seven years, you can see it is dying a slow death on the vine.

A few months ago we looked up and noticed that all the glass panels were precariously leaning in all sorts of different directions – creating quite a hazard for anyone standing below.  We quickly removed them all, and there they still all sit on my dining room buffet.  At this point, there is only one light burning, two missing bulbs which were transferred to the outdoor lamp post, and three burned out light bulbs.  Yes, our front hallway does seem a bit on the dark side these days, but if I even happen to notice as I’m quickly passing through, I make a mental note which is quickly forgotten.  There’s an intricate display of cobwebs encircling the top.

Well, as ugly as it is, doing anything about it hasn’t take high priority (obviously).   And maybe that’s a good thing.  Life at this point is moving too fast to worry about this relic, the nicks of missing paint around the door frames, the yet to be painted door frame around a remodeled room (hmmm going on about 3 years), the dust that sinks down in the crevices of moldings.  Mind you, these things do take up a small fraction of brain space, but nothing that compels me to action…

Maybe I’ll get to it in my sixties….in the meantime, anyone need a light fixture?

Wise Women Learning From Wise Men

man-sleepingA local hospital sent me one of those freebie magazines chock full of health advice and fitness tips.

(Confession Time: I’m a sucker for any written material that comes in the mail. I carefully go through the Valu-Pak coupons. I read the local newspaper that is sporadically and mysteriously sent to me. I even read those faux newspapers with pseudo-articles that are touting the latest in real estate trends or kitchen design. I am, in short, a direct mail marketer’s dream customer.)

Back to the health magazine  … One article focused on the healthy habits adopted by women that help them outlive men. The “habits women have right” include: (1) eating right and exercising so they look attractive, (2) practicing prevention from a young age, (3) expressing their emotions and surrounding themselves with friends, and (4) listening to public health campaigns.

But, what I found MOST fascinating was the sidebar that detailed “3 Habits Men Have Right.” Referencing Debbie Mandel’s book Addicted to Stress: A Woman’s 7-Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life, the magazine urged women to learn from these wise habits:

  • Men use their free time to unwind.
  • Men express what they want around the house.
  • Men know how to delegate.

Mandel then went on to explain how the above habits reduce stress that leads to cardiovascular problems and increased mortality risk.

To me, the article reframed the age-old tension of how men and women spend their “down time” at home. In many households, women complain that they must scurry around with their to-do’s list while men kick back, usually in front of the TV. After reading Mandel’s list, one could argue that men are taking care of their health by plopping on the couch while women are ignoring their well-being by rushing around until they collapse into bed exhausted.

What do you think of this after-work gender dynamic (how’s that for a fancy phrase?) and the health implications? Do Mandel’s points take any of the edge off the resentment you may experience at home?

Money Down the Drain

14sign_roadAs I was driving through town last week observing the many political signs placed in front of homes, businesses and schools, I started thinking, as I had two years ago, about the expense of running an election. One of the high profile spenders was from my state, Linda McMahon, who spent $50MM on her bid to become Senator.  Meg Whitman of eBay fame vying for the California governership, spent almost 120 million, $47 for each vote that she received.  Both women lost.  And oh, how that money could have been spent more wisely.

Almost four billion dollars were spent on political campaigns for the mid term elections.  That money could have gone such a long way in supporting education programs, community programs, feeding the homeless.   I would be thrilled if our political candidates could get their message out via media sources, public rallies and debates only.  After all, a poster in a yard or a postcard in the mail with a couple of sound bytes doesn’t tell me much about the candidate anyways.  When it comes down to it, I receive my most informative and actionable details for what shapes my thinking through the media, my friends, and public appearances by the candidates – not their many off colored commercials and direct mail.

Has anyone had these same thoughts?

I don't want to be a passenger in my own life.
Diane Ackerman

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