Saturday, December 24, 2011

Naughty Nolan - A Christmas Eve Tale

Although the whole week had been frantically busy - the kind of busy that finds you standing at your desk, wondering where the hot cocoa went that you had just poured for yourself only five minutes before, fragrant and steaming into your favorite Santa mug, only to find it, unexplainably, in the freezer by the bag of half-empty frozen peas - that busyness had slowed down. All the major work was done: the wrapping, the packing, the preparing, the readying. This last half-day was for finishing up odds-and-ends, for checking it all twice, for the calm before the proverbial storm.

It should have stayed that way, at least until Pre-Launch. But the siren rent the peace of  the relative quiet, peppermint-scented air, causing everyone to jump.

"You have got to be kidding me," said Fred, checking the readings on the monitor.

Fae adjusted her hat, which had almost slid off her head when the siren caused her to jump a foot into the air. She really, really did not want to know. Not now. Not so close.

"Who the Bells would be Naughty this close to the Big Day?" commented Sid, coming over to peek around Fred. "I mean, really..."

Moments before, Fae had been re-checking the List. Not twice, but like for the 100th time. Her mind was still half on her checklist. But she needed to change her

"No one panic," she said, as calmly as she could. " I am sure it is either a bad reading, or just a case of a Christmas Fit."

"I dunno, Fae," Fred replied, still checking the monitor. "This looks like it might be serious."

Great, Fae thought to herself. That is all we need.

Santa was leaving in less than six hours. Every Elf in the North Pole had a to-do list a mile long. She herself had at least twenty things left to go over before Final Launch. No one had time for a Naughty Case right now.

Naughty Cases occurred all year long, and they always handled each one with professional skill. Even through the month of December, when the NO team - the Naughty Office team, that is - had to constantly monitor and make final judges on all the year's cases, Fae and her team of crack NO officers managed the pressure just fine, thank you.

But six hours until Final Launch? Most children, even the chronically Naughty ones, were on their best behavior Christmas Eve. It was important. The last chance to get things right. And most did. It did happened every few years or so, that a Naughty Case popped up right at the end. Most of the time it was just a case of  what the NO office termed a "Christmas Fit" - a child so excited by the coming of Christmas that they could not contain themselves anymore, and basically melted down. Bad behavior? Yes. But would this behavior have occurred if it were not Christmas Eve? No. Christmas Fits were forgivable. The child would be placed on a Naughty Watch list, but no permanent damage for this Christmas.

So, if Fred said this time the signs looked bad, the NO office might have to present a last-minute Naughty case to Santa. And no one wanted to do that on Christmas Eve.

"All right," Fae sighed. "What do we have?"

"Let's see...." Fred murmured, looking over the monitor one more time. "3 years old. Male. Location - Texas. Name - Nolan. Told Mom "no" when she asked him to pick up his toys, screamed when she put him in time out, would not say sorry, only wanted sugar cookies for lunch...."

"That sounds like a classic Christmas Fit to me," Fae said, relief washing over her. This would be over before it even began!

"Wait a moment, Boss, I am not done yet."

Fae's stomach dropped. She could see Sid close his eyes, placing a hand on his head to massage away a rapidly-developing headache.

"Then it was time for Mom to give him a quick haircut before all the festivities begin. He didn't like that at all. He threw a huge fit, screaming, shrieking, throwing toys, kicking the walls, and finally hitting the cat."

"What!" exclaimed Sid. "Trying to give a haircut on Christmas Eve? Does Mom want the kid to be on the Naughty List?"

"Maybe it was the only time she could do it," Fae said with frustration, "Maybe his hair grew overnight? I don't know and I don't care - we have got to figure this out, and Mom is not going to be the scapegoat for the kid's bad behavior. Got it, Sid?"

Sid nodded, his mouth clamped tight.

"Listen," Fae said gently, "No one wants a Naughty Case now, not you, not me, not Mom, and not this kid. But we gotta do our job. At 3, he might knows the rules. Do we have a reading on that, Fred?"

Fred type frantically for a moment before the information popped onto the screen.

"Yup," Fred said in a low voice. "He is a Level 4."

Level 1 was for babies, who were always good. Level 2 was for toddlers, who were just beginning to understand Naughty behavior, but who were not eligible for the Naughty List, being too young to really know  how to stop bad behavior. Level 3 was for slightly older children, who knew what being "good" and being "naughty" meant, but did not get the whole Santa-thing. They most often never made the Naughty List.

But Level 4 was for children who not only understood Naughty and Nice, but who could choose to behave either way, and who got that Being Naughty could mean No Santa. Level 5 was for teenagers and pre-teens, whose attitudes made them almost always at least on the Watch List.
So, although the kid was only 3, he was level 4, which meant he was smart. He Knew Better. Which meant...

"Willfull Disobedience," Fae announced, sadness in her voice.

The three NO Elves sat in silence for a little while, feeling sad for the kid who was in danger on losing everything, just hours from Christmas.
But Fae had an inkling of an idea. It just might work....

"Listen, guys," she said, "This one is really close. He is Level 4, he is committing Willfull disobedience, but if we can just get a little...something...we might be able to get it bumped to Christmas Fit, and then...."

"No Harm Done," finished Sid, hope coming into his eyes.

"Do you have any ideas, Boss," Fred asked.

""Fred, see if there are any packages on the way."

"Right-o....Checking.....Nope. Not one."

"Right," Fae said, "Get a message to the Emergency Elves in Texas. Tell a them we have a 12-24. We need an emergency drop at Nolan's house ASAP."

Sid put on his earpiece and quickly dialed the number to the Emergency Elves of Texas. Fae heard him give the code, the address, and a few other bits of info.

"They are on the way," Sid told Fae.

"Great. Let me know when they get there," Fae said.

It was a tense five minutes in the office. Finally, Fred announced,

"The Emergency Elves have made a package drop. Mom has retrieved the package."

"Fred, can you patch us in? Can we watch?"

Moments later, the Naughty Monitor brought Nolan into view. Fae could see the grumpy look on his face. He was laying on the floor, kicking nothing, repeating "No" over and over and over. This might not be easy.

"What's this," Nolan's mom said, just closing the door. She held a medium-size box in her hands.

"Who is it from," asked Nolan's Dad, coming over the examine the box.

"It doesn't say," replied Mom. "We are not expecting anything else. We already got all the packages from the family. So, I don't know...Look! It is actually addressed to Nolan!"

Nolan stopped kicking, and switched to just whispering "no" repeatedly.

"Should we open it?" asked Dad.

"I don't know," Mom answered. "Nolan has been so Naughty today, he may not deserve a package."

Back at the North Pole, all three Naughty Office Elves were chanting, "C'mon, Mom!"

"Maybe we can see what it is," Mom decided.

Dad helped her open the box. A rectangular present wrapped with red reindeer wrapping paper came out of the box.
Nolan stopped kicking and whispering. He eyed the package with interest.

"For me?" he asked.

"Well," said Dad. "It is for you - your name is on it. But there is a note on it that says, "Only for Nice Boys, not Naughty Boys."

Nolan lay still for a moment. Fae held her breath.

Then Nolan sat up.

"Only for nice boys?"

"That is what it says," Mom answered.

"I want to open it."

"Have you been nice," Dad asked.

"No," Nolan answered.

"Then, no, you cannot open it..."

Nolan opened his mouth to scream again.

"YET," Dad finished.

Nolan paused mid-breath to consider this.

"That means you need to do some nice things, first," Mom jumped in.

There was silence for a moment while Nolan considered the proposition.

"C'mon, kid," Fae whispered, "you can do it!"
Fred chewed his nails while Sid began to rock back and forth.

"Okay," Nolan said slowly.

The NO elves let their breath out.

"Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!" exclaimed Fred, while Sid cheered and did a fist-pump.

"Hang in there, boys. We are not home free yet," Fae cautioned.

Back in Texas, Nolan agreed to eat a sandwich and an apple before he had a cookie. Then, he finally picked up all his toys and put them back in his toy bins. Lastly, he gave Mom and Dad a hug.

"Now?" Nolan asked.

"Now," Mom and Dad said.

Nolan tore the red wrapping paper off the present. Inside was really cool toy airplane, and one figure of a pilot to put into the plane. Nolan's whole face lit up.

"Wow," he breathed, smiling.

"Do you see a note anywhere," asked Mom.

"Nope," Dad answered. " I have no idea who this is from."

"Well, who ever it is, they may have just saved our Christmas."

Fae, Sid, and Fred finally allowed themselves to cheer, giving each other high-fives and handshakes.

"I think we can mark this a Christmas Fit," Fae announced. "A strategic present has changed Willfull Disobedience into Cooperation."

"Do we have to tell Santa?" Sid asked.

"I don't think so. We will continue to monitor. Any more signs of Willfull Disobedience, and we may have to reconsider. But for now, I think we are safe."

Fae leaned back in her chair, tension draining out of her back and shoulders.

Looks like Nolan's Christmas - and hers - would be a Merry Christmas, after all.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's A Wonderful Life (Mine!)

We are days before Christmas (3!!!), but I already feel like it has begun!

On Saturday, I told ArtGuy that my life is starting to feel like "It's A Wonderful Life". Not  the losing-the-mortgage-part or the standing-on-a-bridge-wondering-why-I-was-born part, but the part right at the very, very end. The happy part. The part where Mary and George Bailey stand in their living room, and people who love them surround them, bringing help, surrounding them with community so they know they are not alone.

It is no secret to our friends and most of our family that things are really tough for our family, financially speaking. I mean, ArtGuy and I have lived 15 years of financial stress, so financial difficulty is not a new thing, really. ArtGuy worked a series of under-paid jobs early in our marriage that brought us to a state of debt. I used to tell him that if I knew we were going to rack up that amount of debt, I would rather have done it buying big items, like tvs, computers, and fancy stuff. We would still have the debt, but at least we would also have some cool stuff to show for it.
Not that we would have. I remember thinking before our marriage that at while we would never be wealthy, we would also never be in debt, since neither ArtGuy nor I are big spenders.


No, instead the debt mounted up over car repairs, home repairs, and banal things like that. Ugh.
Now ArtGuy has a great job, but awful health insurance. So bad, the boys and I cannot have it - it would cost more than our mortgage. So, we are on a high-deductible, private plan.
Our deductible is so high every time I have to take someone to the doctor (or the times I have gone to the hospital) compassionate health workers sit down in front of me, look me gently in the eye, and softly say, "Are you aware of how high your deductible is?"

You know it is bad when it shocks anyone in the health care industry....

Anyway, as high as it is, we have met the past four years.

Now this year, everything is breaking. Our lights do not work in our upstairs schoolroom and hallway, my dryer has to run 3x to dry a load, our bed (a Sleep Number-type) does not hold air, and our van...our poor, poor minivan, is held together with a prayer. And we have had a couple of weeks over the past few months where I get that dreaded phone call from ArtGuy, saying, "How are we fixed for groceries?". And I know that means we are out of money, and it is time to stretch the pantry again. Rough when you have four ravenous boys.

We planned on replacing the van after Christmas. We do not have much money, so it is likely to be a similar, older vehicle, but hopefully in better shape than the one we have. In order to do this, since we have no money, we are using ArtGuy's Christmas bonus.

We began preparing the kids a few months ago that this Christmas would be small. That everything we have is going to get us a safer vehicle for the family. And good boys that they are, they accepted this with no complaints.

God really blessed me back in August, when I hit a clearance sell at a bookstore. I was able to purchase some items for the boys' Christmas then, knowing money would be tight at Christmas. And again in October, a trip to my grocery store (which has a wonderful toy section) led me to an incredible mark-down on some items for The Monkey.  So, while our Christmas will be smaller than normal, we are able to have a nice one!

I work a little every month, as a cantor singing for parish events. It is a great job. I am blessed to ever be allowed to do it. I do not make a lot, but it has always helped us out, especially for Christmas. This year I was able to get some extra work in the fall,  mainly to pay for various things (the 2nd half of The Young Adult's math class, a winter coat for Cookie Boy, etc).

Then in early December, we found out ArtGuy's car needed a lot of work to pass inspection. My whole bigger paycheck, plus some. It was devastating. I mean, on one hand, I was so thankful we had the money at all, since we cannot go into debt any deeper. On the other hand, we are now officially broke.

I cried a little. I shouted out on facebook some, just as a way to blow off some of the stress. But I have been striving to remain cheerful and trusting.

I have been trying to plan for this moment. I knew it was coming. Our financial situation has been very tenuous for a couple of years, and the van has giving us signs for a year or more that it was close to exhaustion. I have tried to find extra work. We even looked into me going back to work full-time. I even went after a job and made it to the final stages of hiring, when I withdrew.  My salary would have been about enough to cover day-care for The Monkey. Not worth it, yet. In a couple of years, maybe.
Then, I decided to concentrate on my writing. Surely THAT'S how God was going to help us. I worked as much as homeschooling 4 boys would allow, and finished one book I really believed in. But as the months went by, I received the same answer - no. Some did not publish that kind of book (for the religious ed classroom), and others loved it, but due to budget cuts and all, my book just would not make enough money for the publishing houses to publish it.

Well, then, what was the purpose in all this? If God really, truly cared, then He must know the place our family was coming to. And if He knew, and if He cared, and if He realized how hard we were trying, why was He not helping us to find a solution?

It started a little over a week ago. The first gift came, out of the blue. It knocked our socks off. And we felt blessed. But it wasn't the last gift. A few days later, I found out someone paid for The Young Adult's highland dance class for the month (we had to drop it this month. No $ = no extra activities). I cried.

But that has not been the end.

Some of our gifts have been anonymous, and some have had our friends' names on them. Some have been material. Some have been gifts of prayer, which believe me, have held me up in a very real way. All ways, ArtGuy and I feel so blessed, so surrounded by love and care. So cared for.

I cannot begin to express the fullness of my heart. ArtGuy and I still have to figure a way out of our mess, and try to keep this from happening again. The material help we are receiving will be of real, physical benefit to us. It will help pay bills, make repairs, and move forward.

But the bigger benefit of all this is not physical. It cannot be seen, but it most certainly is felt. It is the real love we feel from those around us. Why this outpouring of care and love from our friends and family now? I do not know. I do see the hand of God in it, the reminder that we are not alone, that we are not forgotten.

It is really beyond my ability to put into words what is in my heart. All I can do is give thanks constantly, and to live my life in grateful appreciation for the love we have been shown.

"I don't know what to do!" cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath..."I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!..." (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December Catch-Up

Advent is more than half-way gone. Christmas is less than two weeks away!

Life has been so busy these past few months, I just have not been able to write. I have tried to chalk it up to God wanting me to focus elsewhere for the moment. I miss writing, and hope to be called to it again soon.

     We decorated our tree last night. Actually, we put the tree up the 1st Sunday of Advent (in a brief moment that no one in the family was barfing. Yeah, Thanksgiving was not fun this year), and decorated it with our purple Advent decorations. It has been so lovely, and a wonderful reminder that Christmas is coming, but not quite here yet.
      Now we have passed the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, so now we decorate! The boys are all getting so big now. The Monkey was very excited to help put ornaments on the tree. Mostly on the bottom right part of the tree. It is kind of tipping to one side. The cat loves having those "oh-ma-nents" in reach.

   Most of the past two months have been filled, outside of normal life and schooling, with my First Lego League team. My team, Storm System, is a 2nd year team this year. They have worked pretty hard all season, but got a little complacent at one point. When they slowed down and did not seem to want to work anymore, my fellow coaches and I sighed and said to one another, "Well, at least our season will end soon." But darn it all! Those boys kicked into gear, and went into Qualifiers this last weekend ready for Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition! They came in 6th out of 29 teams over all in the robot game, and scored well in the project presentation and teamwork. They won a Judges Award and advanced to the Championships!

Storm System is in the tie-dye black. Getting ready to battle!

Getting our trophy!

In the above picture, it looks like Romeo is shooting the finger, and has been blurred out for censorship. But no. Pretty sure he was just waving a hand around. It just looks bad.
So, our season will not end until January 21, when we go to the regional Championships. Now we are taking a little break, but will start work back up soon.

In our homeschooling life, we finish up for Christmas break tomorrow. More or less. There may have to be a test or two next week, but otherwise.....freedom!

We are big Cars fans in our house. I still have never seen Cars 2 all the way through (wiggly preschooler), but we love the toys. We were SO waiting for this set! I just picked it up at Walmart today! Love it!

Catch you all soon!