My Christmas Dilemma

Home for Thanksgiving, I overheard a conversation coming from the kitchen where Mom was making cinnamon rolls while telling my youngest brother, JL, “I don’t think having two paper routes is a good idea in the kind of winter weather we have.”.

“But, Mom,” JL’s adolescent voice rose above the closing of the oven door, “If I take another route, I’ll be able to buy better Christmas presents for everyone.”

“JL, you’ve been buying and hiding presents for the past month. Enough is enough.”

“Yeah, but I like giving everybody things they’ll really like,” he replied.

I don’t know which amazed me more: JL’s willingness to ride his bike over the ice-slick roads of a Wyoming winter to buy special presents for his family or his self-assurance in selecting them.

I lack confidence in choosing appropriate gifts for my loved ones, and I’m not alone.

Several of my friends fret about what and how much to buy for grandchildren: “Don’t you think a full-sized St. Bernard stuffed animal is too much for a baby? My husband insisted we buy it, but I think my daughter will be horrified.”

“My grandchildren get way more than they need, and I think when they get so much, the impact of everything is lessened — sort of like the chocolate buffet on a cruise. But will giving them each one gift seem stingy compared to what they get from others?”

“Our teenage grandson wants money that he’ll probably spend on hair dye or another piercing. I love him dearly and believe you shouldn’t give gifts with strings attached, but do I want to encourage his offbeat appearance?”

Parents also fuss about the choices Santa Claus has to make. Following is a conversation some of my nieces and their friend had on Facebook a few years ago. In it, the young mothers shared their frustration with gift giving and suggested possible solutions.

Leanna: Luke just informed me that the toy he wanted so much for Christmas (the one I stood in line for an hour and a half to buy on Black Friday) is no longer on his wish list, and he’d like something completely different. An hour and a half of my life, wasted.

Shauna: I told my kids to make up their lists the week of Thanksgiving and said there’s no changing their minds after that. Santa is inflexible after Thanksgiving.

Carole: Christmas can be magical, but I am over trying to make it the perfect holiday. Give it to him anyway.

A Friend: Years ago I was sitting around with eight youngsters at spring break. I asked them what they got for Christmas. None of them could remember. I quit working so hard after that. Now I give each child a Santa gift, something to read, something to wear, and something to play with. It’s made life so much easier. Works in lean years as well as good.

Shortly after I read this exchange, I shared it with a friend who said that years ago she told her children they would each get three gifts from Santa because that’s what the Wise Men brought for the first Christmas. “And to my surprise,” she added, “they accepted my explanation without question — except the youngest who wanted to know if three was more than five.”

I like knowing I’m not alone with my gift-giving anxieties, but I still fuss. So if you see me in a store examining two different items and looking tense, please approach, point, and say, “That one.”


If Only

clipart kid

clipart kid

If I were to win the lottery, I know for sure I’d never again board a plane and park my posterior in economy: never again squeeze myself into a rear, middle seat where folks monopolize arm rests, and I stare at the bald spot of the reclined snorer in front of me while a robust child kicks the back of my seat as regularly as a clock ticks. Instead, when I win lots of money, I’ll occupy spacious first-class seats where there’s no need to be unruly and folks sip free drinks without their knees being in the way.

If I hit the jackpot, I’d also do something about shoppers who gather in crowded store aisles to chat with friends they haven’t seen since yesterday or block an aisle with their loaded shopping carts while they wander around in search of turkey pepperoni. I’d hire crotchety, roller-skating referees armed with frowns and whistles to keep traffic flowing during peak periods.

Perhaps my referees could also weed out the people who stand in line at eating establishments to order food and, when it’s their turn, have no idea what they want: “Oh, gee, uh, what kind of sandwiches do you have? Oh, right, yeah, I see the list up there. Um, do you have salads? Well, look at that, you’re right; salads are listed as well. Hmm. Which would you recommend? No, I don’t like avocados. Mary, hey Mary, what are you getting? Nah, I don’t feel like having a burger. Well, maybe I’ll just have soup. What kind do you have?”

These oblivious folks are probably the same people who block traffic while they wait for a car to pull out of a parking spot close to a store entrance when they could easily park a short walk away. This curious behavior is especially galling when the business they want immediate access to is a gym. I’d pay to have their cars towed.

Next, I would replace every wobbly table in every eating establishment in the United States. I hate it when, engaged in conversation, I lean forward to comment and send tidal waves of liquid sloshing into the laps of my lady friends. When I try to fix the problem by bending over — until my rear dominates the landscape — to wedge a balled-up napkin under the errant leg, the wobble worsens; and I lose my dignity.

I would pay someone to (1) produce packaging for dental floss and makeup that can be opened without broken fingernails or stab wounds and (2) to make cell phones that automatically disconnect within five feet of anyone in a public place who doesn’t want to hear a loud conversation about the user’s chronic bladder infection.

And finally, I’d use some of my payoff to offer a huge cash reward for anyone who could put an end to the passwords and personal identification questions required by computer land: “Please select and enter a password with four numerals, one special character, and three letters — two of which must be upper case; in addition, you should provide answers for any two of the following security questions: your middle school’s mascot, your father’s shoe size, and your favorite city with a population between 100,000 and 125,000.” Maybe my money could stop this madness.

You should send your lottery tickets to me. Obviously, I’d make good use of your winnings.

Some of My Core Beliefs

summer walks to highland at sunset

Finally, in my seventh decade, I  know myself.

I know I enjoy foreign accents, black gum drops, and mountain meadows swarmed by strong-willed wildflowers. I believe in public schools, owning too many shoes, and doubling the garlic. I also tend to interrupt others, ignore the phone, and think the world is ending when I can’t sleep.

I admit, when alone, I eat cake for breakfast, scratch my head, sing in vibrato, and two-step. I hate to polish shoes, run for planes, and shop. And I would never, ever, pierce my nose or boil a lobster alive.

Fortunately, I also have more important, rock-solid, life-molding values that define me; and though I sometimes question or modify these principles, I would neither abandon nor deny them.

I believe I should nurture my body. Shortly after turning fifty — overweight and stressed by my recent move to a new state, new job, and new marriage — I sat in my doctor’s office, hoping to learn the cause of my neck, arm, and back pain. He said my CT scan had revealed a herniated disc in my neck, so I’d need to see a specialist for treatment options.

“And, Janet,” he continued, “ you’ve put on a little weight. You might want to lose it. If you’re riding around on bald tires, you don’t want a load of sand in your trunk.”

I laughed. Then I made a plan that included more exercise and fewer snacks, followed it, and lost weight. And when the specialist recommended physical therapy, I doggedly followed the therapist’s instructions as well. I am protective of my health; I do my best to take care of it, and when something goes wrong, I do my best to fix it As a result, I am honest with my doctors and follow their orders.

Skiing River Janet

my favorite way to exercise in Craig’s long winters

I also believe in laughter. I cherish those in my life who make me laugh: fellow bloggers, long-time friends, my husband, my family, casual acquaintances. Recently a good friend and I began making fun of our husbands who were being obstinate and unsuccessful in their pursuit of a particular restaurant in an unfamiliar city. As we enjoyed one another’s harassing comments, our giggles escalated into a wonderful dose of laughter; we threw back our heads, clutched our sides, rocked back and forth, snorted, spluttered, gained control momentarily, then succumbed to laughter again. Meanwhile, our husbands, driver and navigator, continued screeching around corners, cursing one-way streets, repeatedly driving the same unproductive route, and expressing amazement each time the restaurant didn’t appear. It was glorious fun.

I believe I should be financially sound. My dad worked in the depths of the Hoover Dam, the gold mines of California, and the iron-ore tunnels of Utah. At 35, fearing miner’s lung, he went to work at an iron mill in the fiery heat of a blast furnace. When laid-off or on strike, he took any job he could to prevent “going on the dole,” which he considered more demeaning than bucking bales in another man’s field or cleaning coops at a neighbor’s chicken farm. And always, he saved, avoided debt, and made double house payments when possible. I learned at his knee, and I am grateful for his example.

Beliefs like these enrich my life. And for these values, I thank those who raised me and interacted with me as I struggled toward maturity.

“Are frugal people more attractive?”

“If you’re looking for love, show your thrifty side. It will reassure that potential mate that you’re responsible, sensible and healthy. Plus, they’ll find it sexy, new research suggests.”

I rode my bike home after a day of work at McKell’s chicken farm: feathers caught in my ponytail, chicken dust clogging my pores, cash in my pocket.

Arriving home, I hurried to my bedroom and locked the door; the flimsy hook-and-eye lock wouldn’t withstand a sibling’s determined thumping, but it would give me time to conceal my cache. Working a Mason jar from its hiding place between my bed and the wall, I emptied the contents, added the day’s earnings, and began to count.

Life didn’t get any better.

As long as I can remember, I’ve saved things: candy for an eventual binge, good deeds for when I had more time, clothes for special occasions—some of which became outdated while I waited for an event worthy of them—and money for things I wanted to buy: Christmas gifts for my family, a transistor radio, a college education, vacations, a house.

Now I’m told that my frugality made me more attractive as a potential mate. Researcher Jenny Olson at the University of Michigan found that both males and females find savers more attractive than spenders. When she showed people the same pictures of two people she randomly identified as either a saver or a spender, the saver was always seen as “more sexually attractive and hot.”

According to another study at Northwestern University, savers are also likely to have better mental and physical health than spenders. People with a high debt-to-asset level have more stress and depression, worse general health, and higher blood pressure than people who saved for major purchases and security.

I had no idea that saving money made me such a catch. Initially, I saved because I wanted things my parents couldn’t provide. Then I found I liked anticipating a money2purchase and the pleasure it would provide as much as having the item, sometimes more. Later, I began to enjoy the sense of security that saving gave me—whether in a Mason jar or a retirement fund. I wanted to know that, barring major catastrophe, I’d have money for what I needed and, if I were willing to wait, for what I wanted as well.

I also had no idea as I stood in line to add to my college savings account that any potential partners in the building were watching and thinking, “Wow, she’s hot.”



Of Children and Chores

Children in my family grew up with certain understandings: Dad gets the biggest piece of pie; don’t disturb Mom’s nap unless you need to go to the emergency room; Lawrence Welk is unavoidable.

We also obeyed a more universal decree: children do chores.

I admire parents who teach their children to work when it would be easier and faster to do the tasks themselves.

My siblings and I were reasonable about most parental requests, but we contested chores. We questioned their need, debated their equity, and dawdled about doing them.

imagesAs one of our assignments, Carolyn and I had to do the dinner dishes; one washed and rinsed while the other wiped and put away, alternating each night. She was a fastidious wiper, scrutinizing each item in the drainer and slamming it back into the dishwater if she found a smudge of gravy or spot of grease. I was a nervous wreck, pulling my hands from the water whenever she wound up for a throw and drenched by the tidal waves her force created.

When Barbara grew tall enough to reach the sink, Mom promoted Carolyn to cook’s helper, and my struggle changed. Every night with innocent eyes and infuriating calmness, Barbara insisted it was her turn to dry and wouldn’t back down no matter what I threatened. So we sometimes had to wrestle to resolve the dispute. Mom once entered the kitchen and found us locked in combat on the floor. She sighed and left.

One morning when Joel and I were visiting our grandchildren, a pitched battle over chores occurred. The task had changed; the fierceness of the exchange had not.

“No, Jack, you’re lying. I did it last time; you know I did. Mom, he’s lying; he’s a liar!” Jaynee pled her case with drama, indignation and tears: a teenager wronged.

images-1Jack fired back at top volume: “No, you didn’t, Jaynee; I did. I remember because you had to go to cheerleading practice. It’s true! I did it last. You’re the liar!” An easy-going 5th-grader with two older sisters, the boy knew how to counterpunch.

All this fuss because their mom told them she needed the dishwasher emptied—now.

My brother Bob, raising an abundant brood, once lamented that in an urban area, he had trouble devising meaningful work for his children.

“If I didn’t milk the cows, we had no milk. If I didn’t fill the coal bucket for the stove, Mom couldn’t cook. If I didn’t water the garden, our summer food supply died. What do I tell my children? If you don’t vacuum the living room, it won’t look nice? If you don’t mow the lawn, it will grow too long? They roll their eyes at me like I’m less than bright.”

images-2He solved his problem by procuring paper routes for his progeny. The older children took on afternoon and morning routes, pumping bikes around their quiet suburb, carefully placing papers on peoples’ porches. When they moved on to other jobs, their younger siblings took over.

They still tell stories about their experiences.

But they learned to work, as are Jaynee and Jack, as did I—one of the most important gifts a parent can give.

Have any thoughts about chores and children?
Please comment below.





Working with Chickens

Or How I Paid for My First Year of College



I’ve had a soft spot for chickens my entire life.

During the fifties, students at Lake Shore Elementary straggled in a limp line to Regroup’s Hatchery on the Friday before Easter. We toured the long, musty coops and peered into the egg-crating room before being handed a tiny chick dyed one of the pastel colors of spring.

At home, Carolyn, Bob and I tended our babies in a cardboard box behind the coal-burning stove. We lavished attention upon them until they died with their little feet in the air, as they always did. We then mourned Fluffy, Peeps and Rainbow and buried them with solemn ceremony.

We didn’t connect those doomed balls of fluff to our fierce, free-running farm chickens, which were mean, messy, and unnamed. When one of them provided Sunday dinner, no funerals were held.

Our neighbors, the Andersons, gave me my first moneymaking job. I was assistant egg-gatherer to their daughter, Sheila, who was eight to my six. I earned a penny and witnessed an amazing feat. We were in a dusty, twilight-lit coop, searching for eggs inside nesting boxes, when we heard a squawk and saw a hen perched on a rail above us. As we watched, it went into a frenzy of clucking and popped out an egg. Without hesitating, Sheila switched the egg basket to her left hand, reached up, caught the fragile missile in mid-air, and handed it to me. It was still warm.

When I was thirteen, Mr. McKell from up the road hired me to work weekends with the chickens he raised for slaughter. I became the wing spreader in the pullet-inoculation operation. I lodged a chicken between my side and elbow and fanned its wing with my hand, so Mr. McKell could poke an antibiotic-dipped needle through the webbing. I then released the hysterical bird and grabbed the next victim.

It was hard work, but the wages were good, fifty cents an hour, and sometimes the handsome Sterling McKell was home on leave from the army and would help. On those days, I combed my hair.

Chickens also provided employment for me in high school. Every day after school and on Saturdays, I worked at the Utah Poultry and Farmers Cooperative. I weighed grain trucks, rang up chicken-nurturing products, inventoried bags of chicken feed, and checked crates of eggs for breakage. For special promotions, I dressed as a Rhode Island Red, handed out candy eggs, clucked, and prayed none of my peers would get a hankering to stop by the co-op.

When I started college, I abandoned the chickens that helped send me there.

Now all I do with chickens is eat them. I feel bad about that.

Have some thoughts 
about jobs you had when young?
Please comment.

Learning to Work

My parents, living with seven children and a modest income, encouraged my siblings and me to accept any small jobs that came our way. If we worked, they explained, we could (a) start savings accounts for college and (b) have spending money for things we wanted beyond the basics they provided.

I wanted money for movie tickets, Malted Milk Balls, Ben Hur perfume, and shoes in colors other than black or brown, so I worked.

I specialized in babysitting, cherry picking, and chickens.

naughty-boy-mdWhen babysitting, I did the dishes, kept the floors swept, and tended sullen pre-teens resentful of my presence, children telling inane knock-knock jokes, toddlers chewing crayons, and babies needing diaper changes. As the hours crept by, I entertained myself by keeping a running total of my take-home pay.

At twenty-five cents an hour, my calculations didn’t require higher math.

I enjoyed babysitting, especially when the departing parents told me to help myself to anything I wanted to eat. I regularly hit pay dirt at the Millers: Twinkies, Cheetos, and Kool-Aid.

I thought of asking if I could move in.

The Bradfords offered no such delicacies, just four boys between six and twelve who knocked over houseplants, pulled the dog’s tail, and threw baseballs at each other—before their parents left.

Whenever I addressed the oldest with the simplest request or question—“Could you quit standing on my foot?” or “Where does your mother keep the band-aids?” — he gave the same meaningless answer: “Nay-duh kuh eyeballs.”

This strange witticism caused his brothers to laugh until they choked on the uncooked wieners they regularly sneaked from the refrigerator.

After five hours of such fun, I went home with  $1.25. And thought I was rich.

cherriesCherry picking offered seasonal employment and all the cherries I could eat. My sisters and I crashed ladders into trees and climbed headlong into high branches through the coolness of dawn. Stretching as though we were made of warm taffy, we gathered the cherries and plunked them into buckets we’d hung with metal hooks from nearby branches. As the sun rose, we ate, chattered, and kept count of the filled baskets accumulating below.

When a chugging tractor pulling a flatbed trailer approached, we scrambled down our ladders and watched carefully as the orchard boss weighed our baskets and recorded our earnings.

At three cents a pound, he didn’t need higher math either.

It wasn’t until years later that I appreciated the true value of working when young. The milkshakes and Jantzen sweaters I bought didn’t prove beneficial beyond the moment, but my recognition of the direct relationship of my work to money, savings, and purchasing power paid dividends my entire life.

An afterthought
I didn’t forget the chickens.
They deserve a post of their own;
you won’t want to miss it.

Have some ideas
you’d like to share on today’s post?
Please comment below.


Family Economics

The following post is excerpted from a chapter in my book, A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns. The parts included contain the financial values that have guided my life.

My husband Joel and I came from large families with blue-collar budgets and parents who insisted we wear it out, save for a rainy day, turn out the lights. If everyone had learned such thrifty ways when young, I wouldn’t worry about our nation’s ability to weather fiscal storms; but many folks weren’t raised by graduates of the Great Depression, as Joel and I were.

When I was twelve, the sound of my parents’ voices pushed through the kitchen floor to the top bunk of the bedroom below, where I rolled over and stretched. I liked waking to their drifting conversations, but felt uneasy when their voices were loud enough that I could distinguish words, because that meant they were discussing money.

Piggy BankThough they agreed on the governing fiscal policy for our household—buy only what you can afford, stay out of debt, save as much as possible—they sometimes disagreed on its application.

In a good month when Dad had worked long, hot hours of overtime at the steel plant, Mom might suggest they spend the extra earnings on something frivolous, perhaps a vacuum that sucked more than it spewed. Dad would argue for making a double house payment. Usually the debate ended with Dad’s oft-repeated sentiment, “I’m just trying to keep a roof over our heads. We’ll be lucky if we don’t all end up in the poorhouse.”

I imagined the poorhouse as our neighbor’s ramshackle barn, full of people dressed in grain sacks with signs saying “the poor” hanging from their necks, huddling in empty stalls, and chewing on turnips. This image guaranteed my cooperation during the family meetings held when Dad was on strike or laid off. First, Mom would explain the situation; she’d then say that while Dad looked for work, we would need to cut back on spending. Her seven children, knowing the routine, would look solemn, but feel no anxiety.

She next announced the non-debatable reductions: despite recent promises, we would continue to be one of the few families in our rural area without a TV. We would stop the newspaper, quit going to the Dairy Queen, and do without drive-in movies. When told my piano lessons would be cancelled, I managed to hide my joy. After we heard the mandatory cuts, we were asked for other suggestions, but usually couldn’t think of any, though I remember one of us suggesting that perhaps we could save money if we bathed less often.

Aging well is a mix of attitudes and habits we begin developing as children; and financial fitness—having enough money for basic needs and small pleasures—is imperative. But families need not suffer in order to be fiscally sound.

I worry about those who use their credit cards to immediately fulfill every wish of their children and themselves, rather than saving and anticipating. I wish they could discover, as I did when young, that economizing doesn’t mean the absence of family fun and that paring a budget can be a beneficial lesson when children are allowed to participate.

Have some thoughts
about a family approach to financial fitness?
Please comment below.

Summary of Comments on “Battling the Holiday Bulge”
My thanks to those who responded. T.D. Davis mentioned the essential component of weight control my column didn’t address: exercise. Absolutely right. Mercy pointed out the difficulty of following good advice, which we all experience. And Kathleen blamed her junk food habits on her snack-loving great grandmother. We share the gene.