Friday, December 30, 2011

Bargain whore........

I love me a good deal just like any person. I'm a couponer, although not an extreme one, because, really, why would anyone need 47 of the same deodorant sticks? I would get bored of the scent after the second round. Lame. But shopping for the holidays is like a strategic game of getting the most bang for your buck, and while I pretty much always fail miserably at sticking to a budget, I do often have a few great holiday bargain victories that seem to lessen the blow.

For instance, I often receive coupons from JC Penney for $10 off a purchase of $10 or more. Hello, people, that's free money! Go in, pick something that's $10 and voila! Free stuff! Even if it's a little more than $10, you can still walk away with a pretty good deal. Today I bought $35 worth of merchandise for 53 cents using a coupon and taking advantage of the 70% off sale. Whee!

After Christmas I'm always broke, and I often wish I'd budget a certain amount for those amazing after-Christmas sales. I never do, therefore, I had very limited (read: no) funds with which to participate. However, I did eke out a little money to spend on some bargains at Target. The kicker? I only bought things that could be used for Valentine's day. Red heart ornaments? Yes!

I also had a $5 coupon to spend at the Eddie Bauer outlet. I don't shop there often, and there's rarely anything for $5 so I thought I'd have to spend at least $10 to use the coupon. Wrong! Not really needing anything, I found a coffee cup (the kind you put cold drink in, with a straw) for $4.99. Plus tax and I got a new, useful item for just a few pennies (taxes, bleh!).

And then there are the returns. I only had a few, but a couple of items in particular at Ross netted me two new tops. I know, I know. But it was money already spent! How could I resist?

I was also carting around a $10 off coupon for Victoria's Secret. Since Victoria has not told me the secret yet, I am generally unable to fit my curvy frame into her lacy floss items, so I purchased new undies for my eldest daughter in her favorite style and got a nice discount.

I also had the unexpected bonus of receiving some great gift cards. One to a bookstore netted me a new book and two new inserts for my Magnabilities necklace. Yay! Another, to Macy's, scored me a new pair of jeans I've been coveting (and they were on sale! Bonus!). It's like Christmas all over again, only I get to choose everything.

Tonight we used our generous gift card to a restaurant, given to us by my parents for Christmas. Our meal, plus dessert, was covered by the gift card with $2 to spare. I know as well as the next person, I'm not going to tote around a big chunk of plastic for the next time I might eat at the restaurant, so I slipped the card and the balance to a friend who happened to walk in with her family. Hey, $2 is $2.

I love the guilt-free pleasure from using coupons and gift cards and scoring an amazing bargain for things you'll really use. And I've found it's best to just use up those cards as soon as possible to avoid losing them, or forgetting about them, and having them contribute to the millions in unused gift cards each year. Just go ahead and have a day or two of indulgence and get some new stuff!

I still have a balance on my Starbucks card too. It's the little things. Especially when you're between paychecks and the money runs out. Yay for gift cards, coupons and bargains! Happy shopping!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Charlie after all...........

Today we picked up Charlie's ashes. They were in a lovely box with an engraved nameplate for us to put on the box. It was really a lot nicer than I expected, and along with it, a little ceramic paw print with his name stamped into the clay. A very sweet farewell to a precious doggie. I was surprised when I teared up at the sight of the paw print. We decided to put the paw print, his collar and some photos into a shadowbox frame. The ashes we had planned to spread at Grayland beach, but now we're not sure. I always thought it was a little creepy to have a pet's (or human's) ashes on the fireplace mantle for all to see, but that's exactly where I put the box. One of my cousins suggested burying the box. I guess that's an option. We will wait till all the kids are home to make a decision.

In the meantime, we've been having "Charlie sightings" around our house. Weird as that sounds, most of us have experienced some odd phenomenon or other involving our recently deceased pup. Hayley, baking in the kitchen one night just after he died, swore she saw him walk past the counter. And it was not just a fleeting glance - she swears she SAW him walking by just as he always did, and he was chubby, as he had been before getting sick. Arlie and I have both sworn we've heard his nails tapping in a familiar "Charlie" pattern on the hardwood floors downstairs. And Hannah had an odd dream where Charlie was in the house long after he had died, but he was missing his back left leg. In her dream, she had asked Jeff which leg they put the IV in when they put him down and Jeff had replied "the left back leg". In reality, it was the left front leg, but still. It seems Charlie has not left the building.

And maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. After all, our animals move in and around our lives so fluidly, matching our movements, following us as they are being fed, seamlessly moving toward the door as we open it for them to relieve themselves. We become so accustomed to their movements, their constant presence and their shadowy stirrings in the corners of our rooms (and their not-so-shadowy stirrings under our feet when we're hauling a laundry basket full of freshly washed towels up the stairs) that it is not surprising that their presence is felt long after they're gone. But actually seeing them? Hearing them? What do you think?

It's always hard to imagine a loved one "gone" - simply absent from this Earth with no reminders of their time here. So, it is nice that we have the customs and rituals that we do to remember them by. Whether it's a pet's paw print or a cherished heirloom from a beloved family member, it's nice to have something to hold on to. To remember. To keep them here long after they are gone in body. And perhaps that presence, that spirit, is really Charlie after all. We have his pictures to remember his deep, soulful brown eyes, his rotund belly, his embarrassed look wearing a plaid sweater. We are lucky enough to live in a time where we have video so we can see him running, watch him do tricks and sleep in front of the fire so long he's panting from the heat. And now we have his forever paw print and his ashes. Things to remember him by. Charlie after all.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Aftermath.........

I worked really hard today to clean up the house from the Christmas disaster. We filled a huge bag with wrapping paper trash and there were piles of presents everywhere. I helpfully put them into boxes for the kids to take up to their rooms. It was hard, but I resisted the urge to suddenly and swiftly rid my house of all its Christmas trappings and start fresh. I actually have some New Year's decorations (silver sequined stockings, for instance. I know, who gets stockings on New Year's? But they have this Elvis/Vegas feel to them and they sparkle. Like the promise of a New Year. Or something like that).

Since I felt guilty sweeping Christmas out of the house so soon, I organized our movies and video games. I do this frequently, but then they get mixed up again and I find empty cases and DVDs with no cases. Argh! It makes me crazy. I selected a tall pile of DVDs to pass on to someone else and the kids vetoed half my choices. But I still managed to whittle the pile down and already I've found five of them new homes. I'm not one to watch movies over and over. I'd be fine just watching it once and then passing it along. Like books. There aren't too many I need to hang on to. I read them and pass them on to someone else. Recycling at its best! Plus I have a stack of movies I anticipate watching during the rest of the break. It's a VERY optimistic pile (20?), but why not go big?

And since it's "boxing day" I also recycled some boxes. HAHA!

My 16-year-old slept till 3 p.m. How can anyone even DO that? I mean, I went to bed at 1:30 a.m. and still got up at 6. Sure, I lay in bed till 11:30 or so, and I tried to doze, but I was pretty much up for the day. And now it's nearly 11 p.m. and I'm tired, but not like I'm going to pass out. HOW does one sleep till 3 p.m.? I think this is a record for my family. Have you ever slept that long? Do you have a kid who's done that?

But I digress. When do YOU get rid of Christmas? I like to keep everything up till the New Year. If we're hosting a party, I might put a few things away and put up some New Year's decor, but mostly I just leave everything up till the day before life returns to reality and we all go forth in fresh anticipation of a new start. And it's so sad when everything is put away. The house seems so vast and empty. January needs a theme. Something optimistic and fun. With lots of color. Ideas?

National Lampoon's Powerless Christmas Vacation

We awoke to a lovely Christmas morning. Kids all in their matching Christmas jammies, presents galore, Butterbraids baking in the oven. We then sat down to watch The Grinch and open stockings. All was well until the final scene of the movie when the power went out. We waited a few minutes, figuring it would flicker back on momentarily. But it soon became apparent that the power was out for the long haul. At first, all was well. We watched home movies on the computer, and three of the kids had their iPads to entertain them, a lavish gift bestowed upon them by their father. We all had our phones, some of them with internet connection so we could update our Facebook statuses appropriately with laments about the lack of power. Amid choruses of "what are we gonna DO?" and "I'm hungry" the parental units escaped for a quick slumber, always the most appropriate choice when one is without power. However, all naps must come to an end, and so we were once again faced with problems of boredom and hunger, with no way to cook Christmas dinner. Here is how we coped.

Husband: a true man of the earth, Jeff was enamored with the opportunity for all of us to unplug and live life as pioneers. He proclaimed that he could, indeed, cook our roast over the barbeque. He busied himself in the fading light of the afternoon prepping for a fishing trip and doing all manner of "man things" in the garage while envisioning the womenfolk churning butter and stitching samplers in the kitchen. He also snuck upstairs to read a book on my Kindle.

Me: I was fine until my phone battery started dying and then I started to panic. My connection to the outside world was becoming threatened! Plus, I was bored. Bored and racking my brain for a fun family activity we all could do. A walk around the neighborhood? SIGH. Everyone was still in their pajamas. Go somewhere? No one was ready, and besides, at this point the power had been out for hours and what if the hot water ran out for six showers? Board game? Only if it was LIFE. And I HATE LIFE.

Hayley: Since connectivity was still going strong in the early hours, she made the best of her laptop, iPad and smart phone, texting the contents of her Christmas morning loot to her boyfriend who is on vacation in Canada. As each gadget ran out of power, she became more and more bored. When hunger overcame her, she grabbed her purse, still in her pajamas and said "Screw it. I have money. I'll pay for dinner. Let's go find something open." When her phone died, she went to bed. When the power came on a couple of hours later, she emerged from her den, freshly renewed with the promise of wattage.

Hannah: The iPad was her best friend. Plus, her phone never ran out of battery. And she was smart enough to get a shower before heading downstairs to see what Santa brought, so she was the cleanest among us today. She was just drifting off to sleep when the power returned and she ran downstairs with her sister cheering.

Arlie: The least affected of us all, because she owns neither an iPad nor a smart phone, Arlie busied herself with actually taking her gifts up to her room. Hannah let her play on the iPad for a while, and she managed to entertain herself by constantly texting her friends. However, once the power was restored, she flew downstairs cheering "power!" "lights!"

Harrison: Possibly the most affected of us all, Harrison was fairly smothering from boredom, despite having his iPad to entertain him. He had failed to upload several hundred apps when he received it yesterday, and with no WiFi to access the internet, he was forced to play Stupid Zombies for hours on end. His phone buzzed with texts and he eyed my Kindle Fire enviously. He was mostly on the floor in front of the fireplace all day and mentioned "starving" and "dying" several times. He also didn't want to go anywhere in the house once it was completely dark.

Despite the apocalyptic air in the house, we survived. Our stomachs were growling and after dialing a pizza joint and finding it closed, we decided to go out exploring to see what might be open. Earlier in the week we had noticed a sign saying Jack in the Box was open. So, we headed there. Myself and four kids, in matching pajamas. Jeff stayed behind to man the several candles that were burning. He asked as I was leaving, "Is there anything I can do for you while you're gone? Vacuum or something?" Such a joker. I replied "Make more light!"

We waited in line 45 minutes at Jack in the Box. In the drive-thru. So much for fast food. When we got our food we were missing fries and a drink. (Note: if you have a big family, NEVER leave the drive thru window without checking your order). We finally got everything squared away and by the time I drove out of the drive-thru line, most of the kids had eaten half their food. After all, they were ravenous. And who knew where or when we'd get our next meal?

When we got home, we were greeted with an assault to the nostrils. Something along the lines of the scent gasoline or wax filled the air. I, being gracious and all, said "what the HELL is that horrible smell?" to which Jeff replied, "I made more light!" He had filled a very old kerosene lamp with lamp oil and lit it up. This lamp had been in his grandpa's farm in Kansas. Like, over fifty years ago. And besides it's quaint "Little House on the Prairie" charm, the smell was horrid. However, after our lovely dinner of fast food on this most special of days, I moved the antique lamp to the kitchen and lovingly prepared peanut butter balls for the kids' dessert, a no-bake treat. We sat around the table and did something odd. We talked. With our mouths. Facing each other. It was novel.

But, still. It was dark. Very, very dark. We were bored. Very, very bored. And finally, Harrison, not being able to stand another minute not fully connected to the social network world, called his dad and asked for an escape. You see, although his father lives just a mile down the road from us, he is on a different power grid and had power all day. Finally we settled down, me with my Kindle and a bit of battery life left, Jeff with an actual book and a headlamp with which to read it by, the girls upstairs, all snuggled in bed, while visions of sugarplums.....oh, never mind. Hayley was already sleeping. There was a knock at the door and the father arrived to whisk his son away to the world of lights and cable. He gathered his things and they drove off........just as the lights came on!

I'm not gonna lie. We couldn't plug stuff in fast enough. Recharge! Recharge! Connect! Update status! Watch TV! Whew. It's a good thing we got things back on the grid. For tomorrow we may have had to churn butter....

Nothing went "right" this Christmas, but nothing went wrong either. We spent it together, and despite our original plans to have a movie marathon and a delicious, home-cooked dinner, we had a lot of laughs and it's a Christmas we'll never forget. But would rather not repeat. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Christmas Eve Eve........

I don't know why, but every year around this time I start to feel kinda sad. I think it's because: 1. My kids go to their dad's on Christmas Eve Eve and have their own Christmas with him, and wake up in the morning to open their presents, then return home in the evening so we can have our own Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. This sounds like a pretty good deal, huh? I mean, if you have to share your kids and all. But it makes me kind of sad because it breaks up my "week" with the kids and I always feel like we get cheated out of a day of possible holiday wonderful-ness, even if we do absolutely nothing. I don't know. I can't explain it. And 2. The other reason is because we have absolutely NO family living in Washington or the nearby surrounding area with which to celebrate the holiday. I wish, and especially at Christmas, that my family all lived close by so that we could have one of those huge family gatherings with noise and chaos and little kids running around, and a big dinner and "feast", and the endless telling of stories from holidays past. Instead, we've had to create our own traditions and Christmas is a quiet little day with just our family. Which is lovely, but we have many, many quiet celebrations with just our family and at Christmas, I want noise and chaos. And people. Especially the people I love the most.

And, as my last Scroog-ey post illustrated, it's been kind of a non-Christmas-y season for me. I always have high hopes and expectations that never seem to get fulfilled, often for lack of resources or time. For instance, I'd love nothing more than to have a tradition of going downtown at Christmas time and doing all the "Christmas-y" things and seeing a show and perhaps staying all night in one of the hotels. But that's always out of the picture, especially at Christmas, when all the finances go towards gifts. I know I could plan for this, and perhaps I will and start a new tradition, but it always bums me out when I want so much to take the kids to a fun show but can't swing it. Last year it was Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular or The Christmas Story musical. This year it was Cinderella. I thought that would be amazing. Jeff says I set the bar too expectations are unrealistic and I should just enjoy things as they unfold. And I know he's right. But I still wish.......

It's not that we don't have traditions of our own. We make and decorate sugar cookies, build a fort to sleep in, buy Christmas pajamas, open Advent calendars, watch Christmas movies. But I think as the chief shopper, wrapper, organizer and do-er, it's a lot harder to even find the time to relax and enjoy. While the kids are watching Christmas movies, I'm doing chores or working on something else. I do plan to just chill on Christmas eve and day, and perhaps get some of those movies watched. But it seems every year, before I know it, this day is here and it feels "too late" to get everything done I wanted to. And yet......everything is done that needs to be.

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is checking the mail every day to see if we've received Christmas cards. I LOVE getting Christmas cards. I love seeing pictures of friends and family, reading Christmas letters or just seeing all the pretty cards that arrive. Getting the mail is never more fun than in December. But this year, I've noticed we've received less cards than normal. And I've heard many, many friends say they have given up sending out holiday greetings. Too expensive, not enough time, never got a good picture, never had time to write a letter. I get all of that. Every year I turn into mean mom as I force my family to get a good family picture. I'm not one to send out anything other than a photo taken specifically for the holiday (beach photos in December? Pumpkin patch? LAME!). I try to make it fun, I really do, but anyone who takes pictures knows getting six people to look good in one picture is a feat. Then, there's the time required to design the card. Even if it's a Costco card, it takes time to decide which card design you like and which picture goes where. This year I went with Walgreen's and had the option of several pictures so I spent tons of time arranging and rearranging the photos and sending text picture messages to the kids for approval. Finally, we decided on a card and I sent in the order. And, they are quite expensive. Certainly at holiday time when there are so many other expenses, I can see why people forgo cards. But, STOP IT! You're making me sad. I want all those cards. I love them! I even love looking through them after the holidays and re-reading the letters, and cutting the fronts off all the pretty cards to store in my shoebox of old Christmas card covers to re-use in some creative way another year. So......I wish more people would still send Christmas cards.

Tonight we drove around and looked at some really cool light displays. That is one of my most favorite things of all about the season. It's fun, it's free, and it's truly amazing what people come up with. The time and effort that goes into those displays really says something about their holiday spirit. And I loved that almost every display had a donation station for canned food to benefit a local food bank. What a great way to benefit those in need while creating a beautiful display for nothing but the pure pleasure people get from looking at all those sparkling lights.

Despite the melancholy that comes from the season for all of the above reasons, I love nothing more than watching my kids open all the gifts I've selected for them. Some years it's exciting because we've purchased "THE gift" and I can't wait to see them open it and be amazed. Other times it's the little things - like the appreciation they show each other for the gifts they've selected themselves for each of their siblings. At their ages, they no longer bring home the precious homemade gifts from the elementary school years, which I loved and cherished. But I still love watching them watch others open their gifts.

Most of all I love what traditionalists my kids have become about Christmas. In their minds, there are just some things that cannot be forgotten at Christmastime or done any differently. God forbid we don't have chocolate Advent calendars by Dec. 1 (thanks to Jeff for saving the day on that one this year as I was sick). I keep wondering how long the kids will build a fort and all sleep together on the floor of Harrison's room, but they keep doing it and put a ton of time and energy into it. We always have to buy everyone a new ornament each year. We have to make cookies for Santa, even though the "Believe" factor has long since departed. We have to watch "Elf" and other Christmas movies over and over. We still display all our Christmas story books even though no one really reads them anymore. All the old CDs of Christmas music are still played over and over. These traditions are precious. And cherished.

One nice thing about a low-key Christmas is that we don't sweat it if there's not a big, fancy dinner. Some years we've even skipped dinner for all the snacking that's done during the day. I love not having to stress over a big holiday meal. We have "feast", a collection of our favorite snacky foods, and we're all blissfully happy with that. We don't have to travel (with the exception of driving Arlie over the mountains the day after Christmas and the day before school starts again), and there's no pressure to have the house sparkling clean or be on any type of schedule. It's "chill".

So, the excitement is building and tomorrow it will be even more. There will likely not be a 5 a.m. wake up call of excited children bouncing on the bed waiting to see what Santa brought. With four teens in the house, no one will be up at the crack of dawn, which is another bonus - we get to sleep in! Merry Christmas Eve Eve to you! (Oops, it's midnight! Merry Christmas Eve!).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's beginning to cost a lot like Christmas..........

Since Christmas is less than a week away, you're likely in over your head (and budget) and feel like you've been spending money right and left for weeks now. Even if you stick to a budget, there always seems to be "one more thing" to spend money on and many people find themselves spending money right up to the last minute. I know I still have a "few more things" I want to pick up before the holiday arrives, and every trip to the store seems to include a novelty item or two that relates to the holidays. I always promise myself I'll stick to a budget and not go overboard on Christmas and I always fail. Miserably. But there are SOME ways I find to save money during the holiday season. Here are some of my favorites:
- Skip the ribbons. Use yarn to tie up packages and make pom-poms to adorn them. It's super easy to make them - just wrap one, two, three or more colors of yarn around your hand or fingers 20-30 times. Slip the loop off and tie onto the package in the middle. Snip the loops and, voila! Instant pom-pom! These are cute, resist crushing (so they work well for mailing packages), and can actually be re-used (or re-purposed as a cat toy!)
- Most of us receive numerous Christmas cards. I have a few ways to recycle them. For traditional cards (non-photo cards), cut off the fronts and keep them in a shoebox. Over the years these come in handy as gift tags. Sometimes, I've used a template to cut out a smaller design so the tag is much smaller than the original card. Other times, I keep the card it's original size. This year, I found a cute new use for the cards: package homemade treats in regular brown paper lunch sacks. Fold the tops over 1 inch and hold a card front to the top edge. Using a hole punch, punch through both bag and card and use ribbon or yarn to tie the card onto the bag. Write your greeting on the card. Another fun project is to lay a card flat on a work surface. Using a craft knife, cut slits in the card lengthwise, leaving a 1/2 inch margin at top and bottom. Roll the card and staple the edges. Then, "scrunch" the card from end to end. This creates a fun "paper lantern" effect that you can hang from the ceiling or use as ornaments. Speaking of ornaments, here's another fun one. Using two cards, cut a square from each card. Fold like a fan, making small folds. Once you fan-fold both squares, attach them in the center using a stapler or pipe cleaner. Then, spread the fan-folds out from the center, making a beautiful butterfly. These look pretty set in the branches of trees.
- For photo cards, I often want to keep them. But I never know what to do with them. One year I purchased a holiday photo album on sale after Christmas. The next year, I just slipped in all the old photo cards. It's fun to take it out only at Christmas and see how much everyone has changed from year to year. Another year, I cut off the holiday greeting part and kept the photos to put in a regular album. Bonus: the holiday greeting part I cut off doubled as a gift tag.
- Gift-giving. Everyone loves treats at Christmas. Find something great and duplicate it for all your friends and neighbors. It doesn't have to be fancy, expensive or unique. A simple candy recipe or favorite cookie is fine. Or go with something non-sweet to offset all the holiday treats. One year a neighbor gave out homemade seasoned rice mixes. I've made bath salts, soap, and other non-food treats. If salsa is your specialty, whip up a big batch and give out a bowl with a bag of chips. My sister has made rum cakes assembly-line style and wraps them up for an impressive gift. I have a great homemade Bailey's recipe that everyone loves. I make double batches and bottle it in condiment bottles I get on sale at my local one-stop shopping store.
- Christmas cards. Many have stopped sending these holiday greetings. I think it's sad, because I really enjoy catching up with friends and seeing how much kids have grown in photos. While Costco has super cheap photo cards, you can go even cheaper by taking a great photo of your family and having it duplicated at a local drugstore (take advantage of coupon specials!), and mounting it on holiday-colored card stock. All you need is a glue stick and some scissors. If you want to get creative, add embellishments, but a simple greeting on the back is all you need. And you can send it like a postcard to save even more money on postage!
- Dollar stores! I can't say enough about dollar stores for great holiday gifts at bargain prices. I love the Dollar Tree, but you might have a favorite in your area. Every year since my kids were little, we did our annual "dollar store" shopping. Each child selected a gift for everyone in the family (sometimes adding in grandparents and friends), carried their own basket and paid for their purchases on their own. They also wrapped all the gifts themselves. Believe it or not, there are some very useful items at dollar stores that make great gifts. I've received candles, note pads, makeup and soap. My husband often gets tools, flashlights, sunglasses and candy. For each other, they've purchased stuffed animals, toys, art supplies, jewelry and other items. It was a great way for the kids to choose and take ownership of their own gift-giving at a price we could afford.
- Dinner. Unless you're hosting a huge dinner party, you don't need to spend a ton of money on Christmas dinner. One year, when I was pregnant and my friend had a baby on Christmas, we were so busy celebrating the new baby that I completely forgot to do anything about dinner. We had cereal. It was still a great Christmas. For years, one of my family traditions was to have appetizers and snack type foods for Christmas eve. My family loves to eat this way (we call it "feast") and we can usually make some pretty fun foods from things we have around the house. Sometimes we'll buy a tray of shrimp as a special treat and make chocolate fondue with fruit and cake for dipping as a dessert. Slaving over a fancy meal on Christmas day, after weeks of shopping, wrapping and preparing is a terrible way to spend the day. Go potluck for big family gatherings and skip the traditional dinner for smaller gatherings. "Feast" on what you love.
- Artificial trees. I know. I once was a traditionalist. I could not fathom anything other than a fresh-cut evergreen for the holidays. But after a few years of trees so dry all the needles fell off, animals dumping over or drinking from the water in the stand, and more than a few impossibly crooked trees, we finally bought a fake tree. It wasn't meant to be permanent - I bought it because I wanted my soon to be visiting parents to see how pretty my tree was. But all the needles fell off and I had to throw the tree out. I just happened to be at a drugstore one day and there was an artificial tree 90% off! It didn't even have the original box, and the store staff just put it in a big box for me to take home. Each branch had to be fitted into the correct slot by hand. The plastic base broke one year and the tree fell on my head. We fixed it with duct tape. Finally, this year, we bought a new, pre-lit tree from Costco. The overall savings has been about $640 in the years since we've had the artificial tree. We paid $250 for our new tree. The savings alone is astounding. And the evergreen scent? It comes in a bottle these days and is incredibly similar to the real thing.
- Just don't. Don't spend too much. Don't feel you need to buy the latest gadget or get everything on your kids' lists. Don't feel obligated to run out and buy that expensive electronic they suddenly ask for a week before Christmas. Don't try to do everything.

I'm still working on that last one. But even a little savings here and there adds up. And it's nice to go into the new year debt-free from the holidays. As much as I'd love to take my kids to see a show downtown, complete with dinner and holiday festivities, my two youngest just spent the last two hours constructing a fort to sleep in. It's a holiday tradition, started by them and continued by them. It's magical and fun and little-kiddish and doesn't cost a cent. I'm going to go see it now. Have fun saving money! :)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Good dog, Charlie!

On December 18, 2011, our sweet, faithful dog Charlie passed away peacefully in Jeff's arms at a local pet hospital. Charlie had been sick and diagnosed with advanced diabetes, an enlarged heart and Addison's disease in mid-November. There was not much to be done, so we spent the next few weeks feeding him a special diet and giving him lots of love and attention. Over the past couple of weeks, he lost an alarming amount of weight and began to go downhill fast. The night of my birthday, December 17, we decided it was time for him to be put down. We planned it for Monday, but on Sunday, he took a significant turn for the worse and we decided it was time. Jeff took him to a local pet hospital where he was able to hold Charlie in a comfortable room while he was given an injection and passed away peacefully in Jeff's arms wrapped in a blanket from home. It was a sad, sad day for our family, and especially for Arlie, who has had Charlie her entire life. He has been a constant companion to her for 13 years. Here's a look back at the life of our beloved Charlie, otherwise known as "Chuck", "PorkChuck", "Chuckieeeeee", "Fatness" and "Chuckaroobiedoobie".

 He was a beggar of food.......

 His favorite place to sleep was by the fire........

 He loved his girl!

 He sought a soft place to sleep, even if it was a blanket thrown on the coffee table!

 He loved Grayland beach! His ashes will be scattered here. 

 He loved his boy!

 He was a snazzy dresser!

 He struck a handsome pose!

 He was dashing, if not a bit rotund.

 His best doggie friend and companion was Shade.

 He enjoyed sunning himself on the front lawn.......

 He looked dapper in his plaid sweater.

He always greeted you when you walked through the door.

He made a great pillow!

He was a wonderful workout companion!

 He enjoyed a snowy day as long as it was followed up with a nap by the fire.

He loved to run on the beach with his best friends, Shade and Georgette.

He was a terrific dancing partner!

 He was very stylish!

 He even got married to Piper the dog, who lives across the street, in an elaborate ceremony.

He was humble......

He spent his last morning snuggled up to his daddy.....

We said our last goodbyes........

And he took his last car trip. 

Charlie the dog.
We love you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scrooge Alert!

Normally I love the holidays. I'm not sure why I "love" them, except that when my kids were little it was SO much fun to bring the magic of Christmas and presents and cookie baking and crafts and toys to their little worlds. As they get older, there's not as much magic. There's too much busy-ness, not enough time, cookies are generally baked from some prepackaged dough ON Christmas eve because there's nothing to leave out for Santa, no one is interested in crafts anymore (and who has time?) and it really does seem to be all about the gimmes.

Sure, the kids "love" Christmas. But I'm not sure exactly what they "love" about it. Is it the gifts? The anticipation of the gifts? Watching Christmas movies? Decorating the house? This year I was sick right after Thanksgiving which is when we traditionally decorate the house. I was in bed for five days and actually felt disdain from my kids for not putting up the tree. In the end, Jeff bought a new tree, and two of the four kids have still not put their decorations on it. Arlie ended up doing most of the decorating herself. When I was finally able to hobble from my deathbed to check the progress I was horrified to see the kids had put decorations out on dusty shelves and filthy floors that had not been vacuumed. I was too sick to care and it was days before I felt like things were sort of "done" being decorated.

Tonight I came home from being gone literally ALL day, working, running errands, mailing Christmas cards and packages, and driving Arlie to dance to find the kitchen a total disaster. Hayley had made cupcakes with her friends and neglected to clean up the mess. She just left it all over the place and went out to party with some more friends. Cupcake batter in the bowl tossed in the sink, un-rinsed, on top of a pile of other dishes. Both sides of the sink FULL of dirty dishes. Dinner food left out (no one ever bothers to put the food away after dinner - it's either Jeff or me - never anyone else). Counters are covered in sticky stuff, kitchen table covered with crap including a plate from LAST night's dinner that I reminded Hannah to pick up. But she ignored me. They all do. I post chore lists, I remind, I ask, I nag, I scream, I yell, I ignore. Nothing changes. No one does anything. If they do anything at all, they do it half-assed and never with any intention of doing their best.

Many times I've watched a piece of trash get kicked around the kitchen floor for days. It will migrate up the hallway, ending up in a totally different place, because NO ONE will pick it up. EVER. I've purposely not picked things up, just to see how long it will sit there and get kicked around. And the record is.....two weeks. And then I couldn't stand it anymore and picked it up myself.

Today my son ran out of toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom. He was within calling distance of anyone who was downstairs and could hear him, never mind he's glued to his cell phone at all times, so he could have easily remedied the situation with a text. Instead he used a roll of paper towels that was sitting in the bathroom (likely still there from the last time someone cleaned up dog pee, which seems to be a daily occurrence around her because ....guess what? No one lets the dogs out!). Any dummy knows you don't flush paper towels down the toilet, but he did. And then he threw the rest of the roll in the garbage! Jeff found it and wondered what jackwagon would throw away perfectly good paper towels? Harrison's explanation was that because he used them for toileting purposes he didn't want to touch them again because they were "germy". WHAT THE EFFFF???? He cares about germs? Then, why does he never change his sheets, or leave piles of dirty laundry stacked up in his room for months, or think tossing a paper towel over a saturated carpet of dog pee is adequate to sanitize the spot? These are the things that make me want to poke my own eyes out with a fork.

And what have I been doing every single day for the past two weeks? Shopping for Christmas presents. Agonizing over whether I have "enough" for each kid, worrying that I don't have the perfect gift for their "big" present, buying extra presents for them to unwrap along with their advent house openings because candy doesn't seem adequate enough. So far they've opened two movies, a Wii game, a coloring book and a CD of Christmas songs. Why? Why do I think they need more. More. More.

They don't even take care of what they have now. Their rooms are piled with dirty laundry and "stuff". They have so many clothes, they can go without doing a load of laundry for weeks before they run out of things to wear. The girls have jewelry they never wear. There are games that are never played, iPods that can't be found because someone was too irresponsible to take care of it, and more than once, I've found Christmas gifts on the floor of their closets months later with the tags still on them. They want for NOTHING.

And yet, every year I buy them a treasure trove of gifts. I try to stick to a budget, but with the expensive electronics that top their lists, it's hard to get more than one thing within the budget I can afford. I try to keep up the magic of a tree overflowing with packages that seems to double in size on Christmas morning. I spend, quite literally, DAYS buying and wrapping gifts only to have them opened in a half hour of frenzied paper ripping, then put into haphazard piles while they go on with their day. I have to nag them to take their piles up to their rooms. And they sit there. Forever. They pull things off the pile bit by bit - clothes they want to wear, body wash they want to use, but most of it gets buried under dirty clothes and forgotten. One year, after spending several weekends cleaning their rooms, I found a whole shoe box full of beauty products, jewelry and makeup that had never been opened. I put it all in my "gift" box for birthdays and such and doled it out over the next few years whenever the kids needed a gift for a birthday party they were attending. They didn't even remember it had once been theirs.

And now. It's December 14 and I cannot remember what all I've bought. I thought I was "done" shopping days ago, but I keep remembering something or someone else I need a gift for. I could not tell you everything I've purchased for each kid. I have no clue how much I've spent. I started out keeping track of everything down to the penny. And then things got crazy and I got sick and I simply ran out of time to keep it up.

I mailed packages to my family minus the home-baked treats I wanted to include. The only Christmas baking I've done is to bake up some of those preformed and stamped Christmas tree cookies from Pillsbury. I have big plans to make homemade Bailey's and treats for the neighbors but I have no idea when I'll have time to do that.

One thing that normally gets me in the spirit of the season is holiday gatherings and attending the kids' holiday concerts and performances. I missed Arlie's band concert and both of Hannah's choir concerts (one because I was sick, the others because Hannah was sick). I missed the one holiday party we were invited to. I'm missing my work holiday party because I've already committed to something else the same night. I also enjoy receiving and reading Christmas cards. I've received exactly four cards this year. I'm guessing either everyone is as behind as I am or people just aren't sending cards this year. Maybe I should take a cue from them. I spent twice as much on our holiday card this year because I went with a different printer and I wrote our Christmas letter in about ten minutes and it wasn't funny or clever or witty as I hoped it would be.

I have a whole list of holiday activities I want to do but no idea when we'll fit them in before everyone goes to their other parents' homes for the remainder of the holiday. We only get the first week of vacation with them, and really not even the first whole week as my kids go to their dad's on the 23rd and don't come home until late on the 24th. I get cheated out of a whole day of "my" week which makes our family time together even shorter. We always run out of time to do all the fun things I've planned and then they're gone. It's so much stress and not enough fun. Every year I say I'm going to do something different......cut back, do something meaningful, spend more quality time, not get caught up in the craziness. And every year nothing changes. I feel like throwing in the towel. It's not like we have a big, extended family celebration. We rarely have visitors at Christmas time. We could do anything we want and no one would care. We could "skip Christmas" and go on a vacation. We could spend more time doing things together and less time shopping and spending money we don't have. But we don't. And I'm not sure why. Nothing changes because I don't change it. I'm the keeper of the traditions and if I change things, I, alone, will bear the wrath. I feel stuck and I don't know how to change things. But things....they need changin'.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I was RIGHT!

For all of you internet-searchers, you hypochondriac, Web-Md searchers. You, who seem to have every symptom listed under all fatal diseases, you who self-diagnose and then avoid the doctor because 1. you don't need to give them the $15 copay if you already know what you have, or 2. you're scared to find out you might be right. This post is for you.

I was right. I turned to the internet in my despair last week, sicker than I've ever been, to desperately try to find SOMETHING that made sense for the symptoms I was having. What on earth could be ailing me? And why wasn't I getting better? Being logical, and somewhat of a closet doctor wanna-be, I eliminated the most obviously WRONG things and started delving deeper into the strange and uncommon. And I hit pay dirt! I found  my symptoms, exactly my symptoms, listed under an evil name: campylobacter. This is an insidious bacteria that one can become infected with in handling raw poultry (Thanksgiving dinner prep? Check!). Some people who come in contact with it never become sick. But for those who do, let's just say it might be the sickest you've ever felt. You might say "I'm dying" and you could be right, although only about 124 people a year actually die from this bacteria. Most people with this illness will get better in about ten days, but the average person will not be able to tolerate ten days of absolute misery, and will see a doctor. In severe cases (mine) antibiotics are needed to kill the bacteria (side note - I requested a zpac for my illness, the antibiotic known best to kill this bacteria. However, since my test results were not in, the doctor prescribed Cipro, which also kills salmonella. Turns out I needed the zpac so after five days on Cipro, I will now be on azithromyacin for five additional days. Shoulda listened to me, doc!).

Most people recover completely but some will develop arthritis, or, even more baffling, a rare nerve disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome which results in paralysis that lasts several weeks and requires intensive care. It is estimated that one in 1000 cases of campylobacteriosis results in this disease. I REALLY hope that does not happen to me. Worse, it takes several weeks after the illness for this to occur. So, "out of the woods" is a relative term and the effects of this illness can last a long, long time.

One of the most common ways to contract this illness is through cross-contamination from uncooked poultry to other foods. It only takes one drop of poultry juice to contaminate other food or utensils. I believe I contracted this while preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The really disturbing part is that I am fastidious about cross-contamination and food safety. Just ask my husband! I wash the tops of cans before I open them. I throw out food that's three or more days old. If anything is even slightly "off" I throw it out. I am a stickler for washing hands after handling meat and NEVER using the same cutting board for different foods unless it's been washed in the dishwasher. I wash knives and utensils between uses if I'm going to use them on another food product. I wash my hands CONSTANTLY when preparing meat. I scrub the sink with Comet after it's come in contact with raw meat. I wipe up meat juice spills with antibacterial wipes and/or bleach. I'm a stickler.

And yet, I got sick. I don't know how it happened. I followed all the precautions. The only thing I didn't do was wear rubber gloves when handling the turkey (which I will do in the future - IF I ever prepare another turkey - ick!). It's possible a knife my son was using to cut apples and fruit for a salad could have come close to a utensil I was using on the turkey. I don't know. But what I do know is that I got sick two days after Thanksgiving and was sick in bed for the next five days. I had no energy for anything, I ran a fever, I had cramps that were as painful as labor (and I can say this with authority because I've given birth unmedicated more than once!). I had nonstop diarrhea, nausea, and ate almost nothing for five days. I drank a gallon of Gatorade and couldn't get enough ice. The only good news was I lost ten pounds, but I would NOT recommend this as a weight-loss plan. I'm still recovering - most food still sounds gross to me, and I have very little energy.

The lesson here: one, sometimes you CAN diagnose yourself from the internet. Two, no matter how careful you are, you can still pick up a nasty bacteria even with the best and most careful preparation of food. And three, if it can happen to me, it can happen to you. BE CAREFUL! After this illness I am seriously considering becoming vegetarian. I'm not sure if I can ever prepare a turkey again. We might have to start a new tradition of having tacos on Thanksgiving. Bon apetit!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sick as a...........

So, it turns out I was sick. Sick as I dunno - my dogs barf all the time so I don't really know what a sick dog does. All I know is I was as sick as I've EVER been. I missed all but Friday of work. Way to start a new job by taking four sick days your first four days. Stellar.

I went to the doctor. She said it could be this or that or.....basically she didn't know. So, she gave me anti-nausea drugs. Only I wasn't really nauseated, and the drugs said "may cause headache" and I already had a screaming headache so I didn't take them. I fished around the house and found some Vicodin from when Hayley had her appendectomy two years ago. That only took the edge off the headache but it never quite went away. It was more of a searing, stabbing pain that took my breath away, followed by intense pressure in my head. The fever of 101 didn't help, and neither did throwing up on Monday night but thank God that was only once. And my stomach was empty. I have a serious aversion to vomiting. SERIOUS. I'd sell my soul to the Devil not to vomit. EVER. To me, it's the most out-of-control, overwhelming, aliens-are-taking-over-my-body feeling in the world. Right up there with labor and delivery of a baby, which is another time your body has a mind of its own. Well, you know what I mean. Obviously I did not suffer from morning sickness when I was pregnant, or I'd have only had one child. That's how much I hate to throw up.

Yep, it was just me and frequent, frequent trips to the bathroom. Like every ten minutes. All day and night. This is where buying quality toilet paper really pays off. Only I had inferior quality toilet paper. You know that commercial where the women talk about "getting real" about what goes on in the bathroom? Well, that shit got real. For real. And I sure wished I'd bought quilted Northern. Just sayin'.

And then there were the cramps that said "remember labor? wasn't that fun? let's do it again!" Holy moly! I thought I was going to be on an episode of "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" where I went to the bathroom and delivered an 8 lb human. It didn't help that I watched a marathon of that show while I was in misery. Just watching woman fake labor when your own body is wracked with pains is stupid. I figured that out after about two hours and finally turned it off.

And of course I tuned into the internet to self-diagnose after several days of not eating, drinking gallons of Gatorade, aching all over, running a fever, and having absolutely no energy. And what I found was interesting. Here's what I diagnosed myself with: campylobacteriosis. Big word, but it's basically a bacteria you can get infected with when handling raw poultry. Well, I wrestled a 20 lb turkey on Thanksgiving, and even though I'm always super paranoid about food-borne illness and very careful to not cross-contaminate things when cooking, it's possible that the tiniest drop of raw turkey juice contaminated me or something I touched, and caused this infection. And the symptoms were all there, all in the right time frame, AND no one else in my family got sick. If I had a stomach bug, surely at least one other person would have become ill in a week. But it was just me. And, once I got antibiotics on board, I started feeling better. If it was a virus, I'd still be sick.

So.......we'll see if I'm right. I won't have the test results for a few days, but I'm putting my money on the turkey poisoning. And if I'm right, we may never have turkey for Thanksgiving again. Or at least I'm not making it!

The antibiotics I got yesterday seemed to have turned things right around. It did take until this morning to feel human again, and just getting ready for work exhausted me. Working was both energizing and exhausting and I made it through the day without even a nap but I skipped a party tonight because I'm still dragging. I know it will take a few days to get my energy back, especially since I've had VERY little food during this whole ordeal. A few graham crackers, a little applesauce. I lost ten pounds. The only bonus about this illness for sure.

And today I actually felt HUNGRY again. But it came and went. It's always hard to start eating again when you haven't for days and nothing sounds good. Tonight the kids asked to order pizza and we did and that was good! I only had one piece, but it hit the spot. And my tummy started growling again around 9:30 p.m. and wouldn't you know it, I was hungry again? Only this time homemade chocolate chip cookies sounded divine. It took a lot of eyelash batting and pouting and playing the sick card but I got my husband to make them! Now I just can't wait for them to come out of the oven! Nothing cures what ails you like homemade love in the form of a warm cookie. And nothing makes you appreciate your health like feeling good again after being so sick. What a week!