Blessed Again

Our house has been a very busy place this summer. With our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren living with us for a couple of months, there is never a dull – or quiet – moment! And on July 31, at 5:01 in the morning, we added to the chaos – and joy – when our new granddaughter, Amalia, was born.

Amalia – hours old…

No, it doesn’t get less thrilling just because this is the third grandchild. We are bursting with pride and happiness at Amalia’s arrival. And  to hold this tiny bit of a person is wonderful beyond words.

Lucas and Matilda have had to make some adjustments. By and large, Amalia’s entry into the family has been pretty easy, although I think my Matilda feels a little left out. Lucas, at the grand old age of 3, is old enough to understand about the baby. Matilda, who at 20 months is still a baby herself, is less certain.

Lucas and Matilda checking out the new addition.

The kids are so close together in age, though, that in no time at all it will feel as though Amalia was always there. And soon enough she’ll be playing and fighting with her siblings.

We’ve been blessed to have our family living with us this summer. If you hear a tinge of sadness in my voice, though, it’s because it’s all coming to an end. Unless a miracle (called a job here in the States in this crappy economy) happens, our kids will all be returning to Santiago, Chile, where they’ll build their lives.

We know they’ll be happy, and that they’ll have a good life there, surrounded by his family and their many friends. And yes, last time I checked, Lan Chile still flies between Los Angeles and Santiago.

But it won’t be the same. So we welcome Amalia, and at the same time, get ready to say our farewells.

It’s Going Swimmingly, Thank You

My three-year old grandson is part fish.

I came to this conclusion yesterday, watching him joyfully splash around the pool, launch himself into the water, and confidently swim the length of the pool. Lucas loves swimming – can’t get enough. And like the other 90 percent of parents/grandparents who believe their children/grandchildren are above average, I KNOW that he’s a much better swimmer than other three-year olds!

Good thing, because when it comes to tumbling in gym class, he’s not exactly setting the world on fire. I know this because I took Lucas to gym class last week, and it was almost painful to watch him try to do cartwheels, walk on the balance beam or do straddle rollovers. He and the other boy in the class were dead last in all these exercises, while the little girls seem to have been born with springs in their legs.

Which brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend some years ago, when I had moved from communication consulting to business development for my agency. He, an accomplished physician and a graduate of Stanford, was simply astonished that I would happily talk to strangers, pitch a piece of business, negotiate terms and sign the deal. To him, this seemed the equivalent of Lucas in gym class – unnatural, hard and intimidating, while for me, it was like Lucas swimming – easy, joyful, fun. I remember blinking in surprise. “But Matthew,” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding – you HEAL people! You deal with blood and pain and disease. You hold people’s lives in your hands! All I do is make some sales calls.” To me, being a physician is my equivalent of Lucas’s gym class, but to Matthew, it’s like swimming for Lucas – you just jump in the water and you do it because it’s fulfilling.

I try to keep these lessons in mind when offering career advice to others – do what comes naturally, what is joyful, what is fulfilling. Don’t do what goes against your nature unless there is something hidden in it that makes you feel extraordinary. Some of us are gymnasts. Some of us are swimmers.

Love yourself for what you’re good at. Forgive yourself for what you’re not.

Vive la différence!

Exit Through the Gift Shop Screaming

In the past month, we’ve taken our grandchildren to the La Brea Tar Pits/the Page Museum, the Skirball Center Noah’s Ark exhibit, and the zoo more times than I care to remember. As a result, I now consider myself something of an expert on the placement of gift shops, which is an art form in and of itself.

Let’s start with the zoo, which greets visitors with an entryway that is lined with continent-themed stores.  For example, you’ll find Australia (where you can buy a thousand variations of kangaroo and koala bear stuffed toys, t-shirts, hats and yes, umbrellas), and Africa (where you can buy a thousand variations on monkeys, elephants, giraffes, etc.).

Just in case this isn’t enough, the stores have kindly set up kiosks outside their doors with particularly appealing toys – those that make obnoxious noises, require batteries or have another characteristic that draws kids like flies to honey while making parents want to get out the Raid.

So after spending an hour putting sunscreen on the children, gathering up all the required gear required for an outing, putting together snacks, filling water bottles, arguing with the three-year old about why it’s important to use the potty before leaving the house, driving to the zoo, finding a parking space, unpacking howling children, backpacks, mediating an argument over who gets to sit in the front of the double stroller, and walking a mile in the blazing sun to the zoo entrance…after all of that, exhausted without having seen A SINGLE STINKIN’ ANIMAL yet, you have to deal with the perp walk through gift shop alley hell.

We had managed to avoid this in the past, keeping the kids trundled up in the stroller and walking very quickly through the danger zone. But our luck ran out with our latest visit. Lucas wanted to walk, after losing the fight about sitting in the front of the double stroller, and once we got to the shops, he instantly fell in love with a box of plastic animals, each the perfect size to fit inside an adult’s unsuspecting barefoot arch when walking through the family room. Carolyn managed to get him out of the store – eventually – so we could actually see real animals, but on our way out, we got to enjoy an instant replay. Because you exit through those damn stores, too.

Much more subtle is the Page Museum. They actually have the gift shop tucked away, and so you may wonder why it has made my top hits parade. Ahh, because they are so very, very clever… The Page Museum is all about Ice Age fossils and reenactments of dramas from the past – the saber-toothed cat attacking the giant sloth, the giant mammoth swinging its trunk and trumpeting a cry.

Lucas, age three, was terrified by this. Matilda, age 18 months, thought it was hilarious.

Right by the exhibit of the wooly mammoth (or “Manny”, as fans of Ice Age would say), the Page has a small play area stocked with books about fossils, Ice Age-era animals and plant life, and something else. Hmm, now what would that be? Oh yeah, plush animals FROM THE GIFT SHOP, including a particularly huggable wooly mammoth that Lucas spotted. This was instantly tucked under his arm, safely embraced as the precious object it was. Well, let me tell you, separating child from plush toy was not easy.  And getting him out of the Page Museum without him seeing that he could have his very own wooly mammoth if his parents and grandparents weren’t so cheap required a fair amount of subterfuge. Which was possible.

Unlike the Skirball Center, which is the most diabolical of them all. Now mind you, this is one amazing exhibit. All the animals are made from recycled materials, and it was fabulous.

But. They really do a dirty trick with their damn gift shops. Strategically placed throughout the museum, you must walk through them to get to the next exhibit. Nothing is behind glass – everything is touchable and playable and located exactly at kid-height. So while we loved the museum, we really didn’t much like the meltdowns that occurred when we extracted a brightly colored doodad that makes noise from the grasping hands of Matilda. Who let the entire museum know of her displeasure at being denied.

Gift shops, encouraging our children to be the best little consumers of crap possible. And forcing the adults with them to just say no.

Small Helpings

I admit defeat. With my daughter and her family living with us this summer, it’s impossible for me to find the time or concentration to string together much more than a few paragraphs. But I hate to just have this time fly by with nary a word from me. Because it’s a pretty amazing experience. So rather than try to wax long and eloquent over deep subjects, I’m going to try to do shorter posts that hit some highlights. Let me know if you like it or not…

Some quick background. Last year, my daughter, son-in-law, one grandbaby and one grandson, moved from England to Palo Alto so Juan Carlos could get his Masters at Stanford’s Sloan business school. He quit his job to make this investment in their future, and between a strenuous academic program and the demands of little kids, the two of them worked their butts off all year. Juan Carlos graduated last month, and without a job to return to, we convinced them that moving in with us was a practical and reasonable solution to their summer plans. JC could job hunt, and Carolyn, who is expecting baby #3 next month, could live in an air-conditioned house with built-in babysitters who work cheap (that would be us, the grandparents).

The Monday after graduation, we helped them pack up their stuff and drive down to Los Angeles. On Tuesday, Juan Carlos left for a two-week trip to South America. The trip was the last part of the business program, and a wonderful opportunity for JC to network with movers and shakers in Chile, Argentina and Brazil. But it was also a chance for him to spend a few days with his family, who live in Santiago.

So the trip was all goodness. But.

Not ALL of us had two weeks of dinners out, sightseeing, intelligent conversations and cocktails. SOME of us had conversations like this:

Cue in the sound effect: Matilda is shrieking.
Carolyn: “Lucas, don’t hit Matilda. Stop that right now.”
Lucas: “But she stepped on my train track.”
Carolyn: “It was an accident. Could you please use your words? Hey, stop that right now, Matilda! No hitting your brother! Lucas, no shoving!”
(More wails, this time from both children)

Repeat this episode over and over and over.

We have varieties on this, of course. Sobs ensue from Matilda when she is cruelly kept from poking the dog’s eyes out with Thomas the Train. Wails celebrating the unfairness of life vibrate from their room when they are unceremoniously put down for naps. Howls of protest when diapers require changing, a favorite t-shirt gets dirty, or it’s time to get out of the pool.

Now mind you, this is intermixed with the pure joy of being with our daughter and her family. Which is no little thing. And I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. But I do have an insider trading tip for you, my friends. Go invest in Bacardi, which produces Bombay Sapphire gin. Because I’m predicting killer sales for them this summer, all coming from my house.

Martini, anyone?

Reveling in Grandmotherhood

Everything you heard about being a grandparent is true.  It’s soooo much easier than being a parent! Sure, you still worry, but not to the same extent.  This seems to be true for a couple of reasons.

  • First, you’re not the decision-maker, your children are.  This relieves you of a huge amount of responsibility.
  • Second, you’re, ahem, well, older.  Been there, done that, made those mistakes, learned from those mistakes, did some things right, did some things wrong.   Gives you a little different perspective.
  • And finally? You’re not the primary caretaker – you’re secondary.  So chances are you’re not sleep-deprived, exhausted from juggling laundry, work, spouse and little children, and you’re not there 24/7.

Like I’ve said before, it’s a great gig.

Because along with the – let’s face it – lack of responsibility, you get to totally revel in your grandchildren.  Adore them.  Brag about them.  Enjoy them.

And buy them presents.

Our grandson is going to be two this May, which is hard to believe. This is an excuse to go shopping, and while I have to be cautious about what I buy – big is expensive when you have to ship across oceans – it’s still big time fun.

Lucas is into Tommy Train, Ice Age, ducks, elephants and blocks. His favorite game is “Where is it?”. This game consists of him hiding toys behind his back and then giving an elaborate shrug, to which your response has to be…(you guessed this, because you’re way ahead of me) “Where is it?” Carolyn tells me he has now advanced to a new version – “Where’s Lucas?” In this one, he hides behind the door in his bedroom, and Carolyn hunts for him, calling out questions such as, “Is Lucas in the hamper?” To which a little voice responds, “No!”

Clearly, even the most inventive grandparent can’t improve on this game with a mere gift, so that left me with Tommy Train, blocks, videos (tricky because of different formats in the U.S. and the U.K.) and video-related toys.  And the winner is…

But don’t tell him, OK? Or forward him this blog… After all, it’s supposed to be a surprise!

To Our Children

Scott and I returned home from the UK at 10 pm on Christmas Day, approximately 6.5 days late.  We were stressed and exhausted, with minor conveniences like an hour wait for luggage at LAX flaring into major irritations.  We were talking, but there was some jet-lagged sniping, too. We’d enjoyed a very brief Christmas in London with our daughter and her family (one hour before dashing to Heathrow), but were sad that we had missed our own traditions in Los Angeles.

This just makes me laugh! Come on, kids - let's try to look festive!

When we opened the front door, we were greeted warmly by our son, his partner Charlie, the wriggling joy of Boo — and the fragrance of a fresh Christmas tree.

Since all we had hoped for was a brief scotch and perhaps leftover coal in our stockings, you can only imagine how happy this made us.

But it gets better…

On Boxing Day, we had Christmas.  Andrew and Charlie had lox, bagels, cream cheese and all the fixings ready for brunch.  Armed with food and coffee, we headed into one of the nicest Christmases I can remember.

There were gifts galore, and they were fun gifts – such as flavored salts from an LA spice store and copies of Andrew’s favorite books.  All so personal, so lovingly chosen.  We were very touched.

I headed upstairs for a nap after gift giving, and slept long and hard until I was awakened by the most amazing aromas coming from my kitchen… Andrew was preparing Julia Child’s roasted duck with parsnips and carrots, and Charlie was mixing up batches of Manhattans. O happy day!

The dinner was delicious, the Manhattans addictive, and the conversation lively. We pushed our chairs back from the table, stuffed but happy.

If holidays are a time for family, we were doubly blessed this year.  If family is being loved and appreciated, we are overwhelmingly blessed. May your blessings in the coming year be as wonderful as ours were in 2010.

Waltzing Matilda

Well, OK, she isn’t waltzing yet. But give her a little time and off she’ll go, spinning around the room.

I know this because I’ve seen it happen to her big brother, Lucas, who at the age of 19 months spins, runs, hops, and just goes nonstop.  With our grandchildren so close together, it’s easy to imagine this little pumpkin, Matilda, growing into a busy toddler who is into everything and can keep four adults busy – and perhaps, a bit crazed.

I’ve been in Surrey for over a month now. My extended visit was meant to help our daughter out with a new baby and an active toddler, surely a combo that would put most rational human beings over the top.  Scott joined us a couple days after Matilda was born, so the McKenzie grandparents are completely represented.

Our daughter and son-in-law have been incredibly gracious and welcoming.  It’s not easy to have guests, and parents bring their own set of issues to the household. And with Heathrow virtually shut down for four days now, trapping us in the UK for a week longer than we planned, graciousness is high on the list of desirable characteristics.

But enough about boring adults.  Let’s talk about children, and why you just want to fill your arms with them.  Oh heck, let’s just go right to the pictures…

Matilda, hours old, wearing zebra socks to show her uniqueness

Our lovely growing family

Emily Yoffe, who writes the Dear Prudence column at slate.com, talks about wanting to lick the heads of newborn babies as though they were ice cream cones. I totally, totally get it!

I’ll leave you with another version of Waltzing Matilda, this one a rather odd version by my favorite male vocalist, Tom Waits…