Lessons in Gift Giving

Posted: January 7th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Holidays, Little Rhody, Pets, Shopping, Sisters | 2 Comments »

The holidays are the perfect time to show kids that giving can be as much fun as getting. But I bungled my shot at teaching that lesson this year.

At Thanksgiving I had the harried working-mother last-minute realization that I wanted to find a way for us to give back somehow. But by the time I tried signing up to serve at a soup kitchen, all the places were flush with other more organized, plan-aheady do-gooders.

At Christmas I wanted us to bring toys to the local firehouse for Toys for Tots. At least, I had that thought then must’ve seen something shiny, got distracted, and forgot about it. It wasn’t until YESTERDAY when I saw a weeks-old photo of my friends’ kids on Facebook, arms laden with toys for those less fortunate that I slapped my head in a shoulda-had-a-V8 kinda way and remembered my intention.

Oh well.

Of course, it’s never too late to help others. All those soup kitchens still need donations and help and homeless kids need toys and clothes even though the Christmas spirit has been packed away and stowed in the attic for a year.

And it’s not like my kids learned nothing about the finer points of gift giving this year. There were plenty of gift swapping exchanges between them—trading toys they’d gotten that they decided they didn’t like as much as the thing their sister got. Inevitably once the new recipient of the item showed interest in it, the original owner howled to have it back. And Big Sis Kate, who’d usually contrived the often-unfair trade, would call Indian Giver. Which of course, we were always careful to point out should be Native American Giver.

They’ll learn eventually.

Other lessons in giving and receiving took place, and not just with the kids. After a long campaign between my three sisters and I, I’d tiraded against getting the ‘rents iPads feeling certain they didn’t want and/or wouldn’t use them. Instead I convinced one sib that a year-long subscription to The New York Times was just what they needed. On Day One of our visit home—with zero shopping days remaining—I saw that they already got the Times. D’oh! (And they LOVED the iPads they got from my other sister.)

This, I’ll note, was my follow up act to the previous year’s attempt at paternal gift giving. I’d decided a donation to a school in Africa was just what the man who had everything would appreciate. Paige’s preschool has a sister school in Zimbabwe and the kids there needed water canteens for their epic walks to school. After conferring with a sister on this donation-in-Dad’s-name concept, I was convinced that a gift card to a local restaurant would be more appreciated.

Dad called that Christmas, his voice cracking with emotion, to report he’d received the best gifts ever that morning. His wife had paid for some third-world kids to have surgery on their cleft palates. Another of my sisters bought desks for a dirt-floored school somewhere in Africa.

“Such incredible, thoughtful gifts,” he croaked huskily. “It was really the best Christmas ever.”

Seemed silly at that point to inquire if they were looking forward to their dinner out.

This Christmas also provided us with lessons in re-gifting. Dad and his wife received a bag of red and green dog biscuits. For their pooch, of course. They have one of those immensely-adored retirement dogs who lives the life of Cleopatra. No nutritional or manufacturing information came with the canine treats—they were in a clear plastic bag cinched with a festive red bow.

The dog treats were deemed suspect. References to babies dying in China from bad formula were made. Undaunted by the potential harm they could cause I grabbed the sack before heading to visit friends who have two very large, very hungry dogs. Those nefarious biscuits might take down Dad’s small Dachshund, but my friends have a German Shepherd and a Great Dane. I figured a few bum biscuits were less likely to kill them, based on their body mass alone.

Batting the muzzles of the dogs away, my friend took the bag, thanked me and holding it up out of reach, twirled it around to find an ingredient list. Did I know, she asked, if they contained chicken or beef? Turns out that Duke, their Great Dane, is allergic to the processed versions of those proteins. But, she said, setting the bag on her counter, her dog walkers’ dogs would most certainly appreciate the biscuits.

Or would they?

Let it be known that there’s a bag of Christmas-colored doggie treats currently making their way ’round South Eastern New England like some hot-potato fruitcake.

So then, my gifting take-aways to keep in mind for next year:

1. Reserve volunteer opportunities early at soup kitchens. Turns out those are some of the hottest reservations to book at the holidays.

2. Prioritize gift-buying impulses in this order: anything related to children in Africa or made by Apple.

3. Do not consult with—or lobby to—your siblings when buying gifts for your parents. Both approaches inevitably backfire.

4. When it comes to selecting gifts for pets, dispense with any notions of packaged snacks or treats. Opt instead for a gift card to the local fancy restaurant.


A Fish Called Wanda

Posted: October 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Kate's Friends, Miss Kate, Pets, Shopping | 5 Comments »

At a dinner party my sister hosted once, one of her guests left the table to use the bathroom and his boyfriend leaned over and whispered, “I’m sorry that Roger’s not been himself. He’s been a total wreck ever since Brenda died.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” my sis responded. “I didn’t know… Who—if I may ask—was Brenda?”

“Our cat,” the man said solemnly.

This just slayed my sister and me. Not that her friends’ beloved pet had croaked, but their cat’s name. I mean, really. How many cats out there are named Brenda?

Last week we had a playdate with a boy from Kate’s class. He, as it turns out, has two cats (neither of whom are named Brenda), two rats (who were surprisingly loveable), several fish, and a yard full of carnivorous plants.

His mother read in this here blog about our attempts at buying a fish for Kate. Our failed attempts. And as a self-described “fishaholic,” she kindly offered to give me a crash course. Call it Fish 101.

A bargain-hunter after my own heart, Fish Mama emailed me links to used tanks on Craig’s List. She offered to escort us to a pet store to pick out some finned friends when our tank was up and running. And in the meantime, she invited us to hang out at her house to meet their menagerie of pets and meat-eating plants.

Needless to say, it was incredibly thoughtful and helpful. I’d put my incompetence on display, and she was throwing me a lifeline. One that might get us closer to making good on Kate’s birthday present, instead of having to sell her on the benefits of a pet rock or imaginary puppy.

Besides, this mom and I had been meaning to get together for over a year now. Ever since I sent her a crazy-lady email following her visit to Kate’s school when she talked to the kids about her job sending robots to space for NASA. Yes, it was the most impossibly cool “What Mommy Does for Work” classroom presentation ever. One which NO MORTAL COULD EVER FRICKIN’ HOPE TO FOLLOW.

And yet, even though I lashed out at her that she’d set the bar stratospherically high (no pun intended) for the rest of us, she was genteel and friendly, even suggesting we get together some time.

Anyway, if you’d seen how overwhelmed and utterly inept Mark and I were in our recent efforts to buy Kate a fish, you might’ve thought to yourself, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to buy a kid a goldfish.”

But for us, apparently it does.

Although, as it turned out it didn’t work out that way. Because the day after our playdate—in which I was indoctrinated into the world of fish and filters and cleaning out tanks and led to believe how easy it all could be—the girls and I ducked into a bird store. A local little place that looks trapped in the 70′s, next door to our favorite ice cream shop. And there, tucked away on the back wall, Kate fell in love with a bluish, purplish fish—a betta. Just a single little dude swimming around in an old-school glass fishbowl.

I immediately tossed in the towel on the idea of an entire aquarium. And that Saturday, while I was out of town visiting a friend, Mark and the girls brought that little, inexpensive, low-maintenance bundle of love home.

For all its flowy beauty and apparent lack of brawn, it turns out the thing’s a pretty aggressive “Siamese fighting fish.” So much so that you can’t have more than one of them in a bowl at a time. I guess it turns into some sort of back-alley pit bull willing to fight to the death. Not very good at working and playing with others. Looking at the puny, femmy thing, it seems unbelievable—like calling an orchid a bully—though I have no intention of testing how amicable our new fishy friend really is.

Bettas are also one of those animals where the males get the all pretty colors and the females are more drab and dull. So the shopkeeper informed the girls that our new family member is a “he.” This fact meant little to Kate, who is resolute in her determination to believe that all the dolls, stuffed animals, inchworms, ladybugs, butterflies, and snails that she ever encounters and takes under her wing are girls. In Queen Kate’s world being a girl is the only option.

When I returned home late in the afternoon of Fish Acquisition Day, Kate raced to meet me at the door and yanked me by my armĀ  to our built-in hutch, the home of the new fishbowl. She stood in front of it, then jumped aside to do a Big Reveal (all HGTV-like) and to make the very special introduction. “Mama,” she said, her eyes shining with glee, “this is our new fish. Her name is… KAREN!”

Yes, Karen.

A week later, Mark brought a snail home from the pet store. And not because Karen was lonely (though I have fretted about that). No, Mark bought it because he’d read [Warning: The following content may not be suitable for all readers] snails EAT THE FISH’S POOP.

What, you may wonder, is the upside of that vile fact? You have to clean the fish bowl less often, of course. And we’re all about low maintenance here. (And yes, I’m currently in the R & D Phase of creating a strain of snails that you can stick in baby diapers. I know, I know—it’s GENIUS.)

After plunking the snail into the fishbowl to commune with Karen, Mark stood back and asked the girls, “What do you think we should name it?” And without a second’s thought Kate blurted out, “CARLOS!” As if she’d always known that she’d someday name a snail that.

Of COURSE his name would be Carlos. Duh.

So then, we’ve got Karen the male fighting fish, and Carlos the shit-eating snail. I take back anything I ever said about Brenda the cat.