I I I I I I I  

AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

Holiday Stuff

"No one ever went broke saving money."
- H. Jackson Brown

One obstacle I face as a parent comes from succeeding in a goal I set for myself. To a large extent, I was embarrassed by our poverty relative to my playmates as a child, and didn't feel I had any significant say in most of the decisions that affected me. I resolved that my sons' lives wouldn't be like that. Guess what: it's not! The boys have a lot of input into our household shopping habits, and Keefe has easily twenty times the number of toys I amassed throughout my entire childhood. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to understand and empathize with him. I never anticipated that his way of looking at the world would seem so alien, but it makes sense in light of how differently his universe operates. If you live in a Little House on the Prairie book, the orange in your Christmas stocking feels like treasure, and you cherish your threadbare toys as irreplaceable. For more privileged Western kids, a kind of serial attachment seems to be the best you can manage, where the new toy is the pinnacle of your possessions for a span ranging from a few weeks to somewhere around half way home from the toy store where it was purchased. One of my knee-jerk fears of late is that we'll need to buy him a new raincoat every time it rains, since he is so unconscious about what he does with his current one. Hats, gloves, and school supplies don't fare much better. It's just symptomatic of a disposable culture.

It also annoys me that several local businesses have started putting Christmas displays out before Halloween (with carols starting even a week earlier) -- making me more reflexively cranky about holiday commercialism. It's bad enough that North Americans spend enough on Christmas gifts to eliminate global hunger for six months. When are we going to collectively realize that the true path to happiness isn't in a second DVD player, and how do we help encourage that understanding in our children? At least I can be thankful that this year's over saturated must-have toy, the beyblade, is in the ten dollar price range, but how long will it take before all 150 million of them are in our landfills?

The best solution I can offer to this utter madness is to reinvest more household ritual into the holidays. We've replaced Friday's pizza-and-movie night with songs and stories shared by the fireplace to great effect. When December is a whirlwind of finding not only the right gifts but also ways to afford them, while the kids watch Christmas specials on television, I think the whole point of the season is lost. The best gifts in any loving relationship are attention and time. If there's one worthwhile thing to strive for this Christmas, it's making more time together as a family. It's got to be relaxed time, though. Read a good book aloud, or tell embarrassing family anecdotes. This moment in time -- when your kids are this age -- is precious and will never come again.

To this end, and to kill several birds with the proverbial stone, we're making Christmas gifts together. Spending a few dollars on art supplies like air-drying or oven-fireable clay goes a long way in this regard. Your child may not be Rodin, but the earnest energy with which they mold and shape makes for unique and heartfelt gifts. Three-year-old Hugh naturally assumes that dinosaurs are an ideal gift for anyone, and also loves to bake, so maybe we'll whip up a few baskets of dino gingerbread cookies. Keefe is a lot more sophisticated and pondered hard over what subjects were dear to people before making a bunch of drawings last year. Granted, there's enough people on our shopping list that we can't do this for all of them. It's also a downside of having a huge social circle that the holidays are a scheduling nightmare and you can't make time for anything deeply involved with anyone, but call me a Grinch if I suggest trimming the guest list. Start giving stuff now maybe, if you've planned ahead, and expect to be booked until early February, in time to reacquaint with your spouse over Valentine's day.

I'm having a lot of fun making gifts for the family myself. This is where technology and my iMac help shape my influence as a dad. Through the wonders of my digital camera, photo editing software, and the Internet, I can credibly insert Hugh into a T-Rex dig in Montana, beside his hero Jack Horner, the curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. Since Keefe's been so thoroughly into Spider Man lately, we made up an origin story together for a knockoff character, the Dark Spider, who got an emergency blood transfusion from old Spidey when they were snowbound together, and I'm cheating together some artwork so Keefe can swing through our local cityscape in a picture. Some iron-on paper for my printer, and voila: t-shirts, underwear, or whatever that'll rock their world for under twenty bucks, and replaceable when Keefe loses them. Finally, Jan gets a new pair of earrings made from this cool material called Shrinky Dinks, a kind of textured plastic you color with pencil crayons and which shrinks down and hardens in your oven, making durable art that looks super detailed. Best of all, you don't need drawing skills to use it: it's transparent, so you can just trace. For Mother's Day I made earrings that were portraits of the boys' faces, and this time it's little maps of the globe. They're a replacement for another pair I gave her once which got lost, and it means I can use the same cheesy line in the card a second time: "See, I really can give you the world!"

If all of the above sounds like way too much effort, and you're sleep deprived as it is, please don't mistake my point. You don't need to spend yourself deeply into debt to make the holiday special, no matter how many times we hear that it's our duty to boost the economy. You also don't have to jump through creative hoops like the ones I've set for myself in writing all of this down. What really touches somebody at Yule time, or any time, is someone who knows them well demonstrating it, and making some time for them. Put in an hour less overtime and make a loved one a nice meal instead. Play a tickling game or blow bubbles in your kitchen or get some fresh air together. Maybe like me you'll feel it was well worth it, and have a couple of bucks left over. I hope to be able to give some to a reputable charity, where some single mom whose kid feels left out like I once did will have much greater need for it than some Wal-Mart stockholder. Happy holidays.


Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh (3) and Keefe (9).  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com


AustinMama operates on a shoestring budget, which is often untied causing us to trip a lot.  Our noses could probably use a good wiping, too.  But we are decent people who will never be too proud to accept charitable donations to our cause.  We promise.

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