With the hustle and bustle of life keeping us in an ever-increasing flurry – what needs to get done, who needs to be where – this time of year can lose a bit of its magical luster as we get older and slip into the robe of responsibility that is adulthood and parenthood.
We carry that magic around with us well after childhood. It might not always be so easy to see as we grow older and our focus finds itself divided among so many other things than we concerned ourselves with as children (though several years ago, I did spend winter wearing a Macy’s “Believe” button on my coat), but it’s still there, even if below the surface. It’s in the smiles on our faces, the kindness in our hearts and minds, and our actions to others – now, and hopefully all through the year.
So when a child, all but the age of six, starts asking questions on just how Santa Claus can do all he does, I admit, I started to wonder if the magic of the holidays season was already beginning to fade away from our household. I was feeling crushed.
When what, to our wondering eyes did appear, but a tiny little gnome, but no reindeer.
Not long after the questions began to arise from our oldest, our family returned home from an evening story time at Barnes & Noble and there, sitting in our living room, was a small gnome. With him was a note, explaining to us that some of Santa’s elves were doing reconnaissance work in the area and dropped off this little gnome, who wanted some visiting time with a good family. Unlike those elves on shelves we hear so much about, the note explained that gnomes aren’t the mischievous types or cause trouble. Instead, they just like to play hide and seek, careful not to move when we humans are around, but often enjoying finding places to hide out until we can find them.
Though his stay is only temporary until he hops a ride back to the North Pole with Santa, the little guy, whom our kids named Rex, has reinvigorated the energy and magic of the holiday in our home. Since his arrival, our kids awake, anxiously looking forward to what funny places Rex found to hide in overnight. Together, we share in the silliness, the laughs, and somehow, this little guy has very simply brought back a bit of magic to all of us, and made many of the questions of weeks past fade away.
Thanks, Rex. We owe you big time for the visit.
With the crisp, cool weather of autumn in full swing, and the chilly frost of winter preparing to make its way in (if it hasn’t already), I absolutely love the coziness of this time of year. Hunkering down inside the house, watching the leaves blow by the front windows (and later the snow fall to the ground), some festive music on the radio or programming on the television, and a good drink in hand to sip on while soaking it all in.
Yes, I sound like one of my favorite Onion articles about Mr. Autumn Man making his triumphant and cliched return, but that’s okay.
All that in mind, I have to admit, that one beverage I miss having in my hands as I hunker down is a nice glass of beer.
For those of you who aren’t tired of hearing about my low-to-no carb and added sugar diet in an effort to bring my cholesterol down, it has meant that beer, like much else, has been off the menu the past several months. I’ve instead been having an occasional glass of red wine, which I enjoy, but it admittedly is an entirely other animal.
So, this season, I’ve picked up a new favorite as I enjoy all the cliches of the season – hot apple cider. When the kids go to bed and I’m attempting, post-our nighttime responsibilities (because let’s face it, when those kids finally fall asleep, it’s a shotgun start to get anything done around the house or next-day prep we couldn’t get to earlier), I’ve been pouring myself a mug of apple cider and popping it in the microwave for a good two minutes so that it’s nice and piping hot for a little bit of time on the couch decompressing with the window, the TV, some music, or even a little silence.
Hot cider with spices, known as Wassail goes back centuries to Europe, a yuletide tradition.
My own transition from beer to cider as my indulgent beverage of choice seems to be in direct opposite to their paths (especially that of hard cider) in early America, where, according to the Smithsonian, the once popular apple beverage (popular with and easier to make for colonists and settlers than beer because barley was harder to grow in New England), was eventually dwarfed by waves of Germans and eastern Europeans settling in the midwest where an easier environment to grow barley in, and their own love of the brew, brought beer across the pond in a more robust way.
So while I admit to some longing for an Oktoberfest or Winter Ale as we move into this chillier holiday season, I’ll stick with it, saving the beer in the fridge for company and keep substituting a nice steaming mug of apple cider when that cold winter craving (and weather) comes a calling.
The crinkle of leaves, the windy nights.
You can go ahead and enjoy all the pumpkin spice whatever you like. I’ve never been a fan of pumpkin other than decoratively.
For me, other than the aesthetics of a neighborhood or roadways lines with multi-colored leaves, the thing I look forward to the most this time of year is Halloween specials. I’m not a horror movie guy, so Jason, Freddy, the rest of you will have to sit this one out. The old, original Universal crew of Dracula, Frankenstein and friends? Okay, those I’ll get behind. And maybe one day I’ll talk about the wonder that is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Or how I have to watch Arsenic & Old Lace with Cary Grant at least once a season.
But beyond those, there’s something I really, really dig this time of year on the same level of those classics, and that’s watching family-friendly Halloween specials with the kids. I love it. Absolutely love it and look forward to it every year. Sometimes it’s a weekend, nighttime treat with a big bowl of popcorn for all of us and some apple cider to sip on. Or, it’s just a spur of the moment afternoon viewing because it’s Autumn and why not?
Either way, Fall and Halloween specials with the kids are my bag, and I wanted to pass along some of my personal favorites to recommend for anyone looking for some non-scary, but intensely entertaining treats for the eyes of your little ones, or even just you.
So, let’s hope into this leaf pile of nostalgia and spooks, shall we?
The Skeleton Dance, a Walt Disney short from 1929, in all its black and white glory, is simply that – a group of skeletons that come out of the cemetery when the sun goes down and dance the night away, with macabre music made on their very own bones.
Lonesome Ghosts is a 1937 Disney short featuring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy as ghost hunters tricked into an old house by a group of mischievous ghosts looking for some entertainment. This one, in full-color, is another Disney classic.
If you possibly get iffy at times about the use of firearms in old cartoons, as I tend to be a bit wary of, know Mickey does bring a shotgun with him into the home. Standard for cartoons of the day, it’s good to know upfront should you want to put it into both a historical and safety context for any young ones, as I’ve tried to while we enjoy. Or, if unlike me, you don’t care about that sort of thing, then enjoy all on its own.
Capping off the Disney trio is my favorite of the three – Trick or Treat from 1952, featuring Huey, Dewey and Louie enlisting the help of a witch named Hazel (voiced by the late, great voiceover legend June Foray) for some Halloween comeuppance against their Uncle Donald, who proves to be the worst uncle in the world with the tricks he plays on the boys.
The opening and closing song of “Trick or Treat” will get stuck in your head, but it’s so much fun to sing, you won’t mind.
I’m always intrigued by the fact that the Grinch was one of Dr. Seuss’ most popular characters, but only appeared in that one published tale when he stole Christmas. Other than that, he’s been relegated to screen appearances, perhaps fueled by the adage about small doses. With its typical Seussian rhymes, it focuses on a young Who from Whoville who confronts the Grinch on Halloween/Grinch Night in an effort to stall him from making it to Whoville and scaring the entire population.
There’s familiar canine companion Max, and a lot of bizarre, surreal elements during the scare-sequence that might seem like something out of a Dali painting brought to life, but in the end, this sing-song tale of facing your fears is a fun Halloween romp that was actually written by Dr. Seuss himself! Minus Karloff this time around, Hans Conried, a familiar face to TV audiences in the 50s/60s and prolific voice-over actor, brings his refined diction to the titular Grinch.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Come on, does this one really need much of a write-up? This one has been a classic for decades.
Though no matter how many years go by, you can’t help but ask why this group of kids are so incredibly mean to poor Charlie Brown (and in this case, Linus, too).
Linus waits in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to arrive on Halloween night, while the rest of the Peanuts gang go trick-or-treating in ghost costumes, where ol’ Chuck gets nothing but rocks. While yes, moments in it serve as a great reminder to not be so mean to people (what is your problem all the time, Lucy?!) the classic animation and characters still make it a fun tradition each and every year.
Curious George Halloween Boo Fest
I refer to this as a contemporary classic and it’s quickly become one of my staples of the fall season.
Seriously. I will watch this whether kids are in the room or not. And it’s not just because the Man in the Yellow Hat is my spirit animal.
Taking place primarily at the Man’s country house (my favorite setting for the PBS Kids Curious George TV series, which alternates between their city apartment and the man’s family home in the country), George is intrigued by the neighborhood tales of No-Noggin, the scarecrow whose head disappeared years and years ago and now comes back at Halloween to kick off people’s hats and take them as his own.
Great songs, great characters, and just enough spooky Halloween atmosphere without being scary, this has become such a favorite of mine that when it recently came off of Netflix, I had to go out and buy a copy on DVD so we could have it.
So there’s your homework this season. To enjoy some fun viewings with your little ones or on your own that still stand the test of time in my opinion and are the perfect on-screen companion to the month of October.
Grown-Up Bonus Viewing: Send the kids to bed and delight in all the kitsch of 1970s pop culture with the Paul Lynde Halloween Special, where Mr. Center Square himself guffaws his way through a haunted castle with Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton at his side and cameos by everyone from Betty White, to Florence Henderson, to KISS and H.R. Puffenstuff’s Witchiepoo.
It’s been a big week in our household.
It was my wife’s birthday, which required a little detour from our plans to go out to dinner as a family due to authorities searching for an armed suspect in the wooded areas outlying our neighborhood.
So, we ate at home, Meg insisting upon cooking a delicious dinner of breaded chicken, broccoli and mac and cheese, despite my offer and attempts to cook dinner myself. (Though admittedly, she’s a much better cook than I could ever hope to be). I gave the kids baths while she got dinner underway and we kept abreast of the events unfolding outside (a shelter in place was activated for the neighborhood and surrounding area, advising us all to stay indoors) via a scanner app on my phone.
Dessert was provided in the form of a yellow birthday cake with chocolate frosting (Meg’s favorite) courtesy of her sister who baked it and dropped it off the night prior. And I had taken the kids birthday shopping over the weekend, so presents were already on hand. A few candles later and we had our own little birthday party amid the chaos going on nearby, and an impending storm to boot!
In the end, it probably worked out for the best, as our little lady of one year was a cranky-pants and our little guy of four years was in that over tired-loopy-careless-so I don’t pay attention to anything around me at all mode, so a restaurant night with the two of them may not have panned out so well.
The kids were excited to unveil their gifts, which they picked out themselves – a scarf, an adult coloring book (“To calm you,” the little guy told her) and a book on Thomas Jefferson (“Because I know you like history, and books, and Thomas Jefferson’s your favorite president,” he explained) and a copy of Mike Nesmith’s new autobiography and the accompanying CD from me.
The evening wound down with the storm on its way out of the area, not as strong as once predicted and everyone settling in for the night after an evening of excitement, both good and uneasy (they still hadn’t located the suspect, who disappeared into some swampland and authorities having to pull out as the strongest part of the storm rolled in).
And believe it or not, that wasn’t even the biggest dose of excitement for our week. We had one other bit of energy running through the household as we told the kids, and then friends, that this Fall we’ll be welcoming yet a third little one to our home, outnumbering parents but making for an equal cat to kid ratio.
So how about that?
I know. Sometimes I question our sanity too. 🙂
The adventure continues!
This past Valentine’s Day, our son and daughter each got cards in the mail from their grandparents. Inside our son’s card was a ten dollar bill. He immediately became very excited, with a wide smile and look of excitement on his face. I imagined that images of a new action figure or some type of toy was dancing through his head.
He pulled the money from the card, his smile still ear to ear, looked at Meg and I and said “I know exactly what I want to do with it!”
Here it comes. We braced ourselves for whatever store he’s earmarked this for already.
“I want to donate it to someone who doesn’t have a lot of money so that they can use it.”
Flabbergasted. The only way to explain our reaction as we stood there taking in the response that we completely did not expect.
Don’t mistake my surprise for anything but, as despite my shock, Meg and I were so incredibly proud to realize this is where our little guy’s heart lies. Trips down the toy aisle, looking through store ads, or the ubiquitous little mini catalogs that seem to come with many of his Imaginext action figures could often make us think that’s all he thinks about, point to each one he wants (and it’s usually the equivalent of, oh, all of them).
But here, faced with the reality of cash in his hand, he wanted to give it away, to help someone less fortunate than he and it meant the absolute world to see.
Altruism is defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.
During a 2008 talk at Stanford University, Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany discussed about his research on “processes of social cognition, social learning and communication, and language in human children and great apes” and very notably, the idea of altruism and its natural occurrence in children.
According to Tomasello, children have an almost instinctual desire to help, inform and share, doing so without expectation or the desire for a reward.
“There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children’s altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization,” Tomasello said during the discussion as chronicled by the Stanford Report.
As the children grow older, though, their spirit of cooperation becomes shaped by how they judge their surroundings and perceive what others think of them. As they become more aware of what’s around them, Tomasello says they also become more worried about what it means to be a member of a group.
“They arrive at the process with a predisposition for helpfulness and cooperation,” he said. “But then they learn to be selective about whom to help, inform and share with, and they also learn to manage the impression they are making on others – their public reputation and self – as a way of influencing the actions of those others toward themselves.”
In contrast, Tomasello’s studies showed that apes were in it mostly for themselves. Undergoing similar experiments as the children were, the apes had the ability to work together and share but instead chose not to do so. He says that while a child’s sense of guilt or shame might guide a decision to share candy with another child who helped them get it, the apes had no qualms about working with another to get a piece of food and then keeping it to themselves.
According to Tomasello, human beings have a sense of “we,” a shared purpose, a bond that he says explains even simple social norms such as what makes it rude to walk away from an activity with another person without any type of advance warning.
“This sense that we are doing something together – which creates mutual expectations, and even rights and obligations – is arguably uniquely human even in this simple case,” Tomasello said.
Uniquely human. Yet it’s amazing how many of us, so uniquely human in our altruism at that early age, have it fade away as the years go on, focused more on how any given situation, person, or the world, can benefit us, rather than those around us. I think that we’re all guilty of it.
So what do we do? How do we help a child maintain that sense of heart and generosity? How do you foster it now so that they can keep it as they continue to age? And is there a way to turn back the dial on ourselves and shed the selfishness that for some come with age?
I have no idea. I wish I knew the answers.
What I do know, though, is how proud Meg and I are of the boy he is today and have no doubt he’ll continue making us proud for many years to come.
So here we are. Halfway through the winter season here in the northeast, the holidays over, the decorations all put away (minus the red and white lights out in front of our house that seem to nag at me whenever I see them yet never call to me with the urgency needed to get my butt outside and take them down), and a new year has begun.
I know I can’t be the only one who deals with feelings of a letdown post-holidays. In fairness, though, I fully admit I reach a point over the holidays when I’ve had my fill of everything – festivities, openings, family gatherings, the clutter, all of it, and want back to the normalcy and routine of the rest of the year. So let me make that part perfectly clear from the get-go.
I think you know what I mean, right? When it’s all over, you’re stuck cleaning up, putting everything away, in some cases finding room for additional things in the house (especially if you have kids).
I mean, sure, you might catch a great post-holiday sale (net lights for under 3 bucks?! Ornaments for under a buck? A nice wreath for under 4 bucks?!) and be ahead of the game for next year at a fraction of the cost.
But taking out those things, there always seems to be something else…something intangible about the way the season changes once the holiday ends. Call it wishful thinking, call it hopelessly optimistic, but no matter the year, no matter what’s going on in the world, it always seems, when the days countdown to the holiday, all those elements of the season just somehow seem to come together and create that perfect stew known as the Christmas spirit.
It’s a feeling, seen in every smile, every snowflake, every Christmas light you pass on the street.
And then, in a flash, it’s all gone.
Then it’s back to the grind and with it, there’s something just a little…different about the attitudes in the air.
I certainly don’t want Christmas every day. For that, I refer you, as I do my son when he starts wishing it was every day, to the first tale in the Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas special. In it, Huey, Dewey and Louie’s wish for Christmas every day is granted and when they wake each day, it’s Christmas morning. And boy do they get sick of it really fast.
What makes it so special is gone.
But what about that invisible something? Is it only special as well because we don’t get the best of each other all the rest of the year, even if we want to?
Is it possible to bottle it for the rest of the year?
It makes me think of a song from 1978’s Christmas Eve on Sesame Street – a special we break out every year that still remains one of my favorites. It’s lyrics, perhaps, sum up the best way to to maintain the spirit the other 364 days. How to, Keep Christmas with You, so to speak.
When Christmas time is over and presents put away, don’t be sad
There’ll be so much to treasure about this Christmas day and the fun we’ve had
So may happy feelings to celebrate with you
And, oh, the good times hurry by so fast,
But even when it’s over there’s something you can do to make Christmas last
Keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
You can keep it near.
Think of this Christmas day
When Christmas is far away.
Keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
Save some Christmas cheer.
These precious moments,
Hold them very dear
And keep Christmas with you
All through the year.
Christmas means the spirit of giving
Peace and joy to you,
The goodness of loving,
The gladness of living;
These are Christmas too.
So, keep Christmas with you
All through the year,
When Christmas is over,
Save some Christmas cheer.
These precious moments,
Hold them very dear
And keep Christmas with you
All through the year.
It’s that time of year for many.
Decorations go up, lights strewn around the house, frantic attempts to finish shopping in time, and that age-old question “what do you want for Christmas?”
It’s an answer that in youth came with ease. I see it in our son with how easily he rattles off a few ideas whenever anyone asks him what’s on his Christmas list (and, we, the killjoy parents reminding him there’s such a thing as too much). But I get it. I was there once right where he is, where the possibilities were endless and exhilarating.
As time goes on though, I find myself puzzled when asked that question by a relative getting ready to do some holiday shopping. I rarely have an answer. Even as an adult, in the past, there’s been books, or a nice sweater or shirt. But, the more time that passes, the more I really and truly find myself wanting nothing.
Scratch that. Wanting nothing but the chance to just get together, have some good food, some good company, and spend time with people.
I know. It’s a cliche. A total Christmas commercial cliche.
Maybe it’s a sign of age. Or maybe it’s a sign that I’m becoming quite boring (if I was ever really interesting to begin with), but whatever it may be, it has become what I look forward to the most at the holidays.
It may sound naive, it may sound cliche, but I’ll gladly take it. No wrapping required.
“You really have built yourself a wonderful life.”
For a lot of folks, the end of a year is a bit of a refresher, closing out the bad of the previous 365 days while welcoming the good and the potential of the year ahead. But it can also be quite a time of reflection, looking back at the year that’s coming to an end and seeing how far our lives have come from the year before, the year before that, the decade before that, and so on.
Relatively recently, as a friend and I were catching up on life, and what was going on, including the birth of my daughter this past Fall, the incredible growth of my son, now 3, and what both my wife and I had been up this past year (from family outings and projects, to fixing up our little home, her increased freelance writing gigs, my baby steps into some publishing), my friend looked at me and said, very casually “you really have built a wonderful life for yourself.”
And he’s right.
It’s the kind of thing that I don’t take stock of as often as I really should. I’ve admitted in the past to what a list-maker I am – constantly setting multiple goals each day and mentally flogging myself for not accomplishing all of them. Always looking to what the next project or accomplishment can be. Whether it’s another attempt at trying to sell a script, a job pursuit, a house hunt. It’s always something. Some, next attainable goal, leaving little to no time to reflect on how much I really do already have.
When I met this friend roughly ten years ago, I was in my mid-20s. I was fresh off a delayed graduation from college, living at home, trying to cut it art-wise as a low-budget indie filmmaker, and working a quality control job at a factory with my eyes set on journalism.
Needless to say, my life’s changed quite a bit in those past ten years. I left the Quality Control Job at the factory, landing an entry-level reporter job at a weekly paper. That led to a full-fledged reporter job at the daily paper soon after, leading into a foot-in-the-door job doing digital media/web content for a local television news station. That in itself then led to various positions over the years, from assignment editor, assistant news director, a reporter, and a new anchor. It was a long journey over almost a decade, but the experiences along the way were, despite the struggles within, what was dreamed off as I sat doing quality control forms back in the day. And during my tenure in news, I re-sparked my love of the theatre by getting involved in community theatre productions, meeting the woman who’d become my wife, bought a house, got married, and had our first child.
I’d leave news for a job on the professional side of academia, keeping my feet in the creative pool through pieces for this blog, various websites, and the occasional TV appearance on Mass Appeal, one of my favorite stops in New England, to pal around with hosts Ashley and Seth and some mid-morning Dorky Daddy life tips.
I’d see the publication of my first comic book series, which, as a fan of comics most of my life, is still an incredible feeling, to hold one’s own work, tangibly, in their hands.
This year we welcomed our second child, our daughter, to the world, and nothing beats coming home to see her crack a smile and the open arms of my son, who can make you feel like you’ve been gone an eternity with the welcoming hug upon arrival.
In those 10+ years, I went from drowning in credit card debt to not owning a single credit card. Sure, the student loan debt is still there, but it’s paid on, steadily, and more than the minimum amount, every month, chipping away as best I can.
The day job isn’t always perfect. But then, very few jobs are, am I right? Neither was my career in news, no matter how much I miss the work at times.
Yes, there are bills. There will always be bills. Yes, the small house that was perfect for the two of us seems a bit cramped with us, two kids and three cats. But that too will eventually change over time.
You catch my drift, I think.
So much time can be spent focusing on what we feel has to be accomplished next, that we don’t step back and see just how far we’ve come.
And man, I feel I’ve come a damn long way.
Thanks for the reminder, Clarence. My friend’s name isn’t Clarence, but it seems appropriate in name-changing to protect the innocent.
Maybe with a new year beginning, I need to make it a point to still maintain goals, but not to allow them to make me lose sight of what wonderful things I already have in this life. Because it will (and already has) go by pretty quick. If you don’t realize, respect, and appreciate what you have while you have it, it’s going to go by even quicker.
I’m by no means the person handing out toothbrushes or bags of pennies that I sometimes encountered when I was a kid, but I do like to break things up a little bit from the sugary sweets that kids find at so many houses on that night of ghouls.
So, in what has become a bit of a tradition, I hand out comic books to kids coming to our door. Age appropriate, of course.
It began with piles of coverless comics that I would buy in bulk from my local comic book store. Often times they were from the 70s or 80s and had lost much value due to their lack of cover. So, the store was just looking to get them off their hands, selling them in piles for around $2-3.
I couldn’t resist. They ranged from talking animals (Disney Ducks, my favorite!) to long-underwear wearing Superman or Batman (the classic derring do-gooders of yesteryear. Not the dark avengers so commonplace today).
And with piles in hand, I would hand out books to kids as they made their way up our front steps.
Another year I was not so lucky to find such coverless treasures, so I would raid 50 cent bins, but that could get pricey. Sometimes I’d just go through piles of comics I didn’t want anymore that I knew would take more time and effort to sell than they were worth.
Then, last year, something quite fantastic happened. Comic book companies and distributors got together and following in the steps of the annual Free Comic Book Day (traditionally in May), began offering stacks of full-color mini-comics specifically to be handed out on Halloween in what they call Halloween ComicFest.
Fortunately for me, my local comic shop was participating and for $5 I was able to purchase a pack of 20 comic books to hand out to the ghosts and ghouls at our door. With different titles to choose from, I spent $20 and walked away with four packs. That’s four different comic titles totaling 80 books. We were well-stocked and fortunately for me, well-received when kids would come by.
Those kids who didn’t care for the comics had a choice of a small, plastic Halloween toy, like a spider-ring or vampire teeth, that my wife had the foresight to pick up.
So, I followed suit this year, with three packs of comics safe for all ages – Archie, Grimmiss Island, and the Boom Studios Halloween Haunt, featuring various short comic stories that are safe for kids but can entertain adults as well. And this year there’s 25 comics in a pack, so I got more bang for my buck!
I really recommend it.
And I won’t lie. When there’s a lull, I tend to sneak a few reads while I’m waiting for the kids.