I Feel it in My Fingers, I Feel it in My Toes

There’s a chill in the air. (Not an Idaho-chill, but still, it is cooling off enough to kill all but the hardiest of mosquitoes.)  Last week my flight back from Shanghai had English Christmas carols blaring during boarding. (Not that Christmas carols are indicative of anything more than the desire to play foreign music, as I do hear them all year long in the supermarkets, but I particularly enjoyed the evening’s rousing rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.”) And the fruit stands are overflowing with mandarin oranges. (These things are the nectar of the gods and my favorite part of late fall in Chengdu!) All of this adds up to just one thing- the holiday season is upon us!

I’m a sucker for Christmas! I know all the complaints about it being overly commercialized and I understand those sentiments, but I also get frustrated when I hear them uttered by the same people who are plowing through the Black Friday crowds to get the last Play Station 4. (Although, I hear Black Friday is losing a bit of its appeal, as so many retailers are opening on Thanksgiving. That is sheer madness!! Go home, eat some turkey, read the ads in preparation for Friday and watch the Lions lose to Green Bay.)  Christmas is what you and yours choose to make of it. If you want to go whole hog on the retail side of things, go for it. Have a prettily decorated tree with a pile of gifts underneath and stocking overflowing with sweets.  If you want to focus on the service and selfless giving side of the holiday, make shoebox kits for the homeless, teach your children to love unconditionally and put an extra effort into making others happy. But, I don’t think one has to choose between these two distinct versions of the holiday.

For me, it takes great amounts of will power to hold off on the Christmas music and decorating until the day after Thanksgiving.

I totally didn’t make it this year!

It started with the Chengdu International Women’s Club holiday bazaar on Saturday and then quickly devolved into full-on holiday-ness on Sunday.  The start of the weekend saw me manning the US Consulate booth at the bazaar, selling the Chinese silk stockings that the ladies of the consulate community had sewed over the course of the last three weeks. (It was a veritable sweatshop for charity!) After a bright, warm day that felt nothing like the white Christmases of my childhood (this is Chengdu, no sunshine, just brightness), but was filled with Santa and stockings and middle school band performances,  the holiday was coursing through my blood.  Still, I thought I could hold off for just ten more days. But no. One of my favorite Christmas movies is Love Actually, which I had been telling myself I’d watch the weekend after the turkey feast, but then we had a friend in town who had never seen it, so I just couldn’t put it off two more weeks. Into the DVD player it went!

Over the weekend, the holiday seal was broken and now I’m dying to jump in with both feet!

I’ve got boxes of decorations stashed away in my apartment’s one closet. My tree (fake, of course) is tucked away in a cardboard box on top of an armoire in the spare bedroom, just waiting for the acrobatic athleticism it is going to take to haul that thing down from eight feet up. And, my Christmas gifts are all in the mail. (I his “send” on the last Amazon order, headed to friends in DC, this morning.)

Now, all I need are the Christmas music CDs and candy canes from America that are set to arrive in Chengdu on Saturday night and a tad bit of patience to make it through two more weeks until I decorate both home and the office and let the festivities ensue!

Thumpity, thump, thump

Thumpity, thump, thump

Look at Christmas come!

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How Bizarre, How Bazaar

I’d like to announce that Christmas is in the Chengdu air, but it isn’t. (Something is in the air, but it definitely isn’t holiday joy, unless you consider that the muck from Santa’s “naughty list” hunks of coal Christmas cheer.) But, I have discovered that a peppermint hot chocolate from the Starbucks around the corner from the consulate creates a little bit of Christmas in my mouth though, so that is a good start.

There might not be pine scent wafting on the breezes or small town streets lined in twinkling lights, but the calendar tells us that the holiday season is upon us, so celebrate we will!

The holiday festivities kicked off this last weekend with the annual Chengdu International Women’s Club Christmas Bazaar. This yearly event takes over the grounds of QSI, one of the local international schools. Along with vendors from shops around the city, lots of food booths and a rotating schedule of school-kid performances, the few consulates in town also join in the fun. When I took over the CLO job back in June, one of the last things my predecessor impressed upon me was the importance of this event. It is, by far, the biggest ex-pat happening in this town and the US Consulate is expected to be a major participant.

With that in mind, as the pages quickly tore off my summer calendar, placing me squarely in the midst of fall, I was plotting and planning, with the help of some tremendous ladies in our community. Hours of gluing and sticker-ing and bow tying and ink stamping created one hundred lovingly handcrafted holiday greeting cards. (You can read all about that adventure by clicking here.) Many of those same women also brought in handmade goodies for cookie plates or volunteered to help run the booth.

Having been placed in charge of our table at the event which I had never before seen, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best!

Saturday morning dawned clear (qualification: Chengdu-clear) and cool. I met up with a couple ladies and got a ride from the consulate motor pool to the school with my loads of signage, decorations, plates of treats, pies, donated cheesecakes, boxes of imported Washington state apples and bags of cards. As we hauled boxes and bags from the van to our designated area, I had a suddenly flashback of all those summer mornings on the road with my family, selling my dad’s woodworking at art shows across the northwest. Even in the middle of the summer, the air was crisp as we cobbled together our tent of metal brackets and wooden beams, unloaded apples boxes filled with beautiful cutting boards, vases and bowls, handcrafted by my parents. Last Saturday’s goods were nowhere near as impressive as the works of art my dad churned out from our backyard woodshop, but the deja vu was overwhelming.  (About two in the afternoon I was wishing I had the luxury of hiding away from the world, under the tables for an hour or two of solitude and sleep. I loved the forts created by the table clothes, the way they tinted everything orange or green and how I could lay under there for as long as I wanted, listening to people chat about the various pieces, watching all manner of feet wander in and out, invisible to adults, my presence only known by my parents.)

By all accounts, the bazaar was a success. The weather was gorgeous. It was 65 degrees and as sunny as Chengdu ever gets.  (Knowing that I am always cold and thinking that I would be chilly sitting in the shade of a tent for hours, I did what any cold-blooded American would do- layered up. I wore long johns under my jeans, two pairs of socks, as well as a tank-top, long-sleeved t-shirt, hoodie and jacket combo, paired with thin gloves and a scarf. Nearly none of which was necessary. By the end of the day I had shed more layers like hermit crab unloading too small shells.)  Our American Consulate booth made over $600 USD for local charities and I saw a lot of shopping bags headed out the gate with our community members. Success on many fronts!

As someone who usually puts off Christmas giddiness until after Thanksgiving, feeling like the fire chicken needs his annual chance at glory, I’m rearing to go this year. I want to put up our not-quite-authentic Christmas tree in our apartment. I want to put up the brand new IKEA purchased tree at the consulate. And I want to hang the Marine’s stockings by their post with care. It is taking all of my self-control to hold off until Friday morning, when I can officially declare the Christmas season upon us. It’s time to start making moves and starting grooves.  Oh, baby, this waiting is making me crazy!

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Coloring Outside the Lines

I always color within the lines. The precision and prettiness of the picture depend on it. Within those bold borders I can color coordinate to my heart’s content, mixing a deep raspberry with some dusty fuchsia  and maybe throwing in a splash of watermelon to brighten the scene.(And of course, there will be glitter, if it is an option.) Regardless of the color choices made, all 50 shades of pink will fall neatly within the prescribed outline of the princess’ ball gown.

When I go to a job interview and am asked to name three words that describe myself, I don’t, put probably should, put “rule-follower” on the top of that list.  Sticking within those bounds keeps me sane. In the sixth grade, which I would like to say was just a few years ago, but a couple decades is probably a closer estimate, I got a detention. It was my first and only detention I was every privy to in twelve years of public schooling. How does a sweet, shy middle school girl get a detention when she hardly speaks in class? Jake. It was all Jake’s fault and to this day, I blame him for tarnishing my perfect discipline record. (I had a pretty good attendance record going to, but things came up to break that one as well, very few of which were my own fault. Sometimes it was the flu or an orthodontist appointment. My senior year, the streak was intact, until I got wind of  a Clay Walker concert, which I just had to have tickets for. So, Candace, my best friend since middle school, and I decided to take a morning off from US Government and Geometry and Advanced English to  go stand in line at the ghetto-Albertsons in Caldwell to get tickets. Perfect attendance my senior year? Nope. A concert worthy of hypnotizing the moon? You bet! But, even this seeming swerve from the rules was one that was pre-approved by my parents. I would never have dared to ditch school to buy concert tickets, heartthrob in Wranglers or not.)

But back to Jake. It’s a long story, but the short version is that during music class (one of the least favorite periods of the day for this tone-deaf girl), I had slipped my generic-brand Keds off under the desk. Jake took one and tossed it across the room. He got a stern look and I got a detention. Apparently, because it was my shoe, I was responsible for it. (To be fair, there may have been some nuances to the story that my middle school mind blocked out in attempt to justify my seething-anger over the detention, but two decades later, that minutia has been lost in my gray matter.) This all went down on a Friday afternoon, so I had the whole weekend to fret about getting my detention slip signed by my parents. I just knew they were going to kill me, or worse yet, assign me as the sole-pooper scooper for the llama barn until high school graduation. It took me until Sunday night to pull out the yellow and pink pages of that carbon copy slip. In near hysteria, I handed it over to my educator-parents for their John Hancocks. (Other than trying to tell my side of the story through sobs, I don’t even remember what came of the whole thing. I do think I got out of actually serving the detention by telling the music teacher I had piano lessons that night. Again, for a tone-deaf kid such as myself, thirty minutes of piano lessons is probably a harsher punishment than after school detention anyway.)

What I am getting at is that I like to know that things are being done the right way, and rules help set those boundaries. The control that comes along with and the lack of chaos are comforting, so much so that I tend to create guidelines where none exist.

Arbitrary rules are the name of the game in my world. Thad laughs at my rule-creating but usually goes along with the neurosis, even as he makes a mental note of the craziness. There are lots of little daily-life rituals that just work best if done a certain way. For example, when making a burrito, the order of creation should go: shell, sour cream, beans, cheese, salsa, olives. Thad’s mayhem of shell, sour cream, cheese , salsa and then beans is just causing the world to spin out of control!

Some of the most concrete rules, deemed “arbitrary” by Thad, have to do with Christmas, like no Christmas music/decorations until the day after Thanksgiving and then all Christmas music ends the day after Christmas, with the decorations down before the New Year.  Why all the self-regulations revolving around the holidays? Because I love Christmas more than the Grinch after he stole it, had a change of heart and subsequently returned it. I love Christmas like gym teachers love the Presidential Fitness Awards. I love Christmas like the cockroach currently residing in my kitchen loves crumbs. (I had so many more similes I could have gone with here, but in the name of good taste I veered away from any involving things Jerry Sandusky loves or the love bestowed upon the East Coast by storm Sandy. It is quite possibly too soon to go down either of those literary device paths.) Christmas is less special if it is dragged out from mid-September through early February, as retail America has established as the new norm. Christmas is a season. There is a season for everything. (Feel free to bust out some “turn, turn, turn” at this point.)

China has made me toss this rule into the (hazardously polluted) wind. Today, November 3, I spent the day making Christmas cards. Granted, it was a for a good cause, but a tiny bit of my soul died with each sparkly doo-dad I affixed to the card stock, a miniscule piece of my heart shriveled with each ribbon tied and strategically placed to mask a mistake and an infinitesimal sliver of my mind was blown with each sparkly stocking stamp firmly placed on the project.

But, after spending a wonderful five hours with other ladies in our US Consulate community, crafting to our hearts’ content, chatting about everything from Foreign Service bidding to the challenges of schooling aboard to whether a wallet-gutting trip to the Maldives in February is worth it, I am okay that my in-the-box thinking when it comes to the holidays had its corners nicked, just a bit.

There will still be no Christmas station streaming on Pandora for a few more weeks and no hauling out the artificial tree for sprucing up the apartment for another month, but I made red and green cards bejeweled in silver and gold and life is okay.  Just like I was able to bend the rules a bit to make sure I got prime seats for the dreamy Clay Walker’s first Boise concert, I have a strong justification for the early arrival of Christmas greeting- four fabulous local charities.

But now, I’m back on the Christmas regulations bandwagon…for two more weeks. Until the Christmas bazaar rolls around, at which point I will be down and dirty in the muck of holiday madness. (But, probably secretly loving it more than Mitt Romney loves his tax bracket.)

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