What modern holiday made its debut on a popular television show in the late 1990s? Seinfeld devotees know the answer. Festivus!
Today, Festivians around the globe commonly mark the holiday on December 23. The celebration comes with a catchy tagline, "Festivus for the rest of us," and little else. Yes, it is a holiday about nothing. Yet, for many, like me, it is enough. Festivus famously allows people to make of it what they will.
In my home, Festivus has become a holiday fixture. We view the day as a little oasis of fun amid the holiday hubbub. In case you are considering a Festivus celebration, here are four Festivus lessons that may either persuade or dissuade you.
Lesson One: Anyone Can Create a Holiday
Introduced on the Dec. 17, 1997 Seinfeld episode titled, "The Strike," Frank Costanza recalled Christmas shopping to buy a doll for little George. In a crowded store, Frank has a dust-up with another man over a doll. He thinks, "There has to be a better way!" Frank creates Festivus, which brings together family and friends for an evening meal during which there were raised voices, petty arguments and the airing of grievances, both real and imagined. Here's how Frank opens Festivus dinner, "Welcome, newcomers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances; I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you're gonna hear about it!" What a great opener and one that can be used year-after-year. The pinnacle of the celebration involves wrestling the head of the household until he or she is, yes, pinned. At this point, the gathering is concluded. Everyone goes home, vowing never again to attend Festivus.
Lesson Two: Festivus is Not About Fancy Decorations
Those who celebrate Festivus, know it's not about having the biggest, shiniest aluminum poll or the best decor. It's about family, friends and holiday rituals. Sure we might complain when dad shouts, "I'll get the pole out of the crawlspace!" as Frank famously did, but holidays are about the traditions and, let's face it, not all of them are good. The best news is that you can shape Festivus as you like, since there is no right, wrong or even tinsel, because tinsel, as we all know, is distracting.
Lesson Three: A Charity is Only as Good as its Best Slogan
Haven't we all experienced it? The holiday moment when we're asked to make a donation to (fill in the blank)? We may not want to give to this particular cause but, on the other hand, we don't want to be judged by others. And, there will be judgment if we fail to contribute. An ingenious solution, devised by George Costanza, who resorted to "pulling a Whatley," with his creation of "The Human Fund. Money for People." Was the charity plausible? You be the judge but remember George almost got away with it. In the show, Jerry Seinfeld summed up The Human Fund best, "It has a certain understated stupidity." Well said, fellow Festivian.
Lesson Four: You Can Eke a Miracle Out of Almost Anything
In the Seinfeld episode, Kramer enhances the holiday by twice proclaiming, "It's a Festivus miracle!" If you embrace Festivus, you will no doubt experience its miracles. In my family, we've witnessed many miracles, both big and small. Festivus miracles have ranged from finding the perfect puffy shirt to enjoying a yummy chocolate bobka to a prolonged, but surprisingly interesting, discussion about things that shrink. My all-time favorite miracle: Scoring a table for four at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. Service was slow, and a waiter dropped a tray of food, but all-in-all it was truly a miracle.
If you want something fun to blend into your holiday mix, consider Festivus. It may be a slightly twisted holiday, but is there anything wrong with that?
Sunday, Sept. 7 is National Grandparents Day. I thought about this day of recognition when my best friend told me she and her husband will soon have another grandchild, their sixth. My friend is excited, and she can’t wait to learn if it is boy or girl and what name the parents will choose.
When baby arrives, there will be a shower with gifts of soft blankets, tiny outfits and colorful, tactile toys.
I’m delighted for my friend. I love her children, their spouses and their passel of children. Watching their infants grow into toddlers and on into childhood is fun and often wildly entertaining. I’m always grateful when my friend and her family include me in celebrations of weddings, baby showers, birthdays, family gatherings and more.
I enjoy being there, but at the end of the day, I’m always happy to say goodbye and return home.
Home to my books, music, writing and the adorable puppy I adopted a few months ago.
I am happy to be home and happy to be grandchildless.
Not craving grandbabies is a realization I’ve come to over time. For many years, I’d been playing a bit of a charade with friends and family. When they would pull out pictures of their grandkids, I’d dutifully look at the snapshots on their smartphone and then say with a pout, “Don’t you think having four grandkids is a bit greedy, when some of us have none?” This little joke always generated a laugh and a comeback from the person, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll have grandchildren someday!”
I’d laugh along. But all the while I’d be thinking, “I’m not so sure.”
Not so sure I will have them and not so sure I want them.
After a lot of soul-searching, I’ve come to the realization that that while I enjoy looking at the baby pictures and hearing stories about the baby, I do not yearn for the actual baby.
I do not feel the need to rock a baby, spoil a toddler or experience a do-over, correcting mistakes I made in my parenting. I do not care if my genes continue for another generation.
Among baby boomers, of which I am one, I am certainly an anomaly. My generation has embraced grandparenthood like baby ducklings to water.
Most boomer grandparents, intent on being the best, are deeply involved in their grandkids lives. From the very first, they make their spare bedrooms into nurseries, tote diaper bags and babysit for parent date nights. Later, the same grandparents take the kids to ballet lessons, attend preschool recitals and debate the pros and cons of all-day kindergarten.
AARP reports that baby boomers have even pushed the average age of becoming a first-time grandparent down to a youthful 47.
I’m at the other end of the spectrum. When I was 47, my daughter, Katie, was in fourth grade.
Could my lack of interest in grandchildren be blamed on the fact that I had my only child later in life? By the time Katie might be ready to procreate, I’d be well over age 70.
Certainly, I’d be no spring chicken but then again I’d had a wonderful grandmother who was around this same age when I was born. While my grandmother always seemed elderly, my sisters and I adored her. In fact, my relationship with her was the happiest part of my childhood.
So if age isn’t an issue, what is the issue? Do I want to avoid grandchildren because I’m divorced, which means I’ll never grandparent with my former spouse? Am I set in my ways? Am I selfish or even narcissistic? Am I missing the Nana-maternal gene?
Call it what you want. I can best describe it as a preference.
While I’m no doubt in the minority, I don’t think I’m entirely alone. I’m betting there are other boomers out there who do not feel that burning desire to be a grandparent.
When I told my sister about my lack of interest in a grandchild, she promptly pointed out having or not having a grandchild was not my decision. Of course, this is entirely true. The decision rests with Katie.
Katie, a college student, is currently spending part of her senior year studying abroad. At age 21, having a child is not on her agenda. Her current life plan is to travel the world, live in big cities, have romances, write a great novel or at the very least edit a few great novels penned by others.
When I was her age, I felt much the same. There was so much I wanted to do, and children were not on my radar. Years later, I married and eventually changed my mind about having a child. Every single day, I’m happy I opted for parenthood.
Will Katie change her mind?
She might. I’ve no idea what lies ahead. When I recently told Katie about my lack of interest in becoming a grandmother, she rolled her eyes and laughed. However, a few minutes later she admitted it felt good not to have the added pressure of being an only child and expected to produce grandchildren for her aging parents.
However, if my daughter does choose motherhood at a future point, I’d be supportive and as involved as she would allow. I’m sure I’d fall in love with her children. I’d no doubt take endless pictures and videos and then share them with everyone. I’d probably pick a name like Mimi or Grammie.
But if it doesn’t happen, I’m okay with that path. My daughter and I can travel together and each lead full, engaging lives. And, when National Grandparents Day comes around every September, I’ll enjoy my best friend’s grandkids and then happily go home.
The first time I met Paul Bunyan I wet my pants.
In my defense, I was only four years old — a skinny, sickly kid who was scared of most everything. That summer our family had traveled to Brainerd, Minnesota to spend the day at Paul Bunyan Land, a small amusement park that had recently opened.
Unbeknown to my older sisters and me, my dad told the person at the ticket window the name of his three young daughters.
As we walked through the park’s entrance we caught a first glimpse of the gigantic Paul perched in a sort of rustic log cabin setting high above the tourists. Mesmerized by the enormous figure in the plaid shirt, I followed my sisters to stand at Paul’s huge feet where we gazed up in awe. Babe, Paul’s trusty blue ox stood off to the side.
I remember thinking Paul’s face had a cartoonish look, but overall he appeared kind and impassive.
Suddenly Paul came alive, swiveling his huge head and raising an arm in a jerky salute. His booming voice addressed my sisters and me: “Welcome to Susan, Barbara and Nancy from Sauk Centre!”
Paul Bunyan knew my name! He knew where I lived! I felt dizzy and I’m sure my heart missed a beat. It was all too much for a little girl who rarely left her small hometown.
Wet pants ensued.
Since that sunny, summer day, I’ve seen many giant statues of Paul Bunyan (along with his trusty blue ox, Babe) and I am proud to say have never wet my pants again.
However, I’ll never forget our first meeting. That’s why when I read this Saturday, June 28th is National Paul Bunyan Day, I knew I had to write a blog post about the big guy. Why does the legend of Paul Bunyan resonate today?
For the uninitiated, here’s a little history.
The tall tale of Paul Bunyan was probably the creation of lumberjacks telling stories around the campfire. They wove tales of a giant logger with superior strengths. Over many years, Paul Bunyan stories spread steadily by word-of-mouth. Paul first appeared in print around 1916 in an advertisement for the Minnesota-based Red River Logging Co.
Suddenly, Paul and Babe were part of Americana. Paul even got his own postage stamp along the way.
Enormous statues of Paul and Babe continue today to thrill (and scare) kids all across the country from Maine to Michigan and Minnesota to California. A Google search indicates the most visited Paul statue is located in Portland. Who knew?
At least half a dozen communities — several in Minnesota — celebrate “Paul Bunyan Days” during the summer months.
Although I now recall it as an fun family outing, the grainy, black and white pictures of our long-ago trip to Paul Bunyan Land tell a different story. I’m crying in all of the snapshots and no one in my family looks as though they are having a good time.
Yet, I choose to look back with fondness and weave my own Paul Bunyan story. Don’t we all make our own family folklore and remember what we want rather than what was?
This Saturday, remember Paul and Babe, and take a minute to recall a good childhood memory — even if you have to make one up.
Sunday Morning, my favorite television news show, featured some great reporting this week. There was a profile of author and nerd-champion John Green, a segment on the flying-female WASPS of World War II and a lengthy cover story about one-room schoolhouses.
The segment on the lessons of one-room schoolhouses really caught my attention.
I grew up on stories about these miniature primary-grade schools where kids of all ages came together to learn, And, as a kid myself, I also experienced these schoolhouses.
First, my mom’s story.
Mom grew up during the depression years in rural Iowa. Their family farm was surrounded by many other farms owned by relatives of both her mother and father. Punk, as Mom was called by her family, thought everyone grew up that way.
All the kids went to ‘country school’ as it was commonly called. Their country school a one-room wooden structure named the Finnie School. Finnie was my mom’s last name and her father had donated the small chunk of land to build the school.
Unless the weather was brutal, most students made their way to the Finnie School on foot or horseback. As I’ve written about previously, Punk had a stout Shetland pony named Polly that would ferry her back-and-forth to school most days. By all accounts, Polly was a prickly, sometimes unpredictable horse that could quickly turn on a person and bite without warning. Even so, Punk could most-often keep the pony under control. Polly knew who was boss.
During its heyday, the Finnie School probably had no more than two dozen students and most of the kids were related in one way or another.
For several years during Punk’s youth Edith Miller, my mom’s aunt, was the school’s teacher. A tall, imposing woman, Edith was my grandmother’s maiden sister, and she could charitably be described as difficult and opinionated. According to my mom, Aunt Edith was especially tough on her own nieces and nephews, often holding them to higher academic standards and requiring them to arrive early and stay after school hours to clean the classroom and do menial chores.
Kids learned at a very early age that nothing got past Aunt Edith.
As a teacher and a person, Edith had high standards and always thought she was right. I can personally vouch for this as the indomitable Edith lived into her mid-90s. When I was a child, her twice-yearly visits to our Minnesota home were life-altering (and not in a good way).
Even writing about her causes me to sit up a little straighter in my chair.
Growing up I heard so many stories about the Finnie School that I feel as though I knew it, but I didn’t. We probably drove by the schoolhouse on trips to Iowa, but being the youngest in the family, I don’t remember.
By the time I became an adult, the Finnie School had sat empty for years. One day we got word that the Iowa township had decided to sell the school. Surprisingly, one of my mom’s bachelor brothers seriously contemplated buying it. Mom, being the unsentimental, never-look-back-only-move-forward person she was, just shook her head with disdain. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to save that rickety old building.
She told her brother, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, let them tear it down! Who cares?”
I’ve no idea if the school was saved or not, but I like to think it was.
Now, my own one-room school experiences.
Growing up in central Minnesota, these little country schools didn’t seem so special. They dotted our landscape and were just a part of life. By the late 1970s, the one-room school had become the relic of a bygone era. Public school buses now picked up country kids so they would have the larger, town-school experience.
Sadly, most of the one-room schools had simply outlived their usefulness. Most often, they were neglected and eventually torn down or sold. However, a few were preserved some became small stand-alone museums or were incorporated onto the grounds of other museums.
This is the case of the Little Red Schoolhouse that sits in a park in my rural hometown in Minnesota.
If you saw it, you’d agree it is a most charming school that has been lovingly preserved and restored. The school has the original chalk boards, old pull-down maps, framed pictures of founding fathers, an American flag, a bell on a rope and hooks along the back wall for hanging up coats and scarves. Sturdy, much-used wooden desks and chairs are bolted in neat rows lined on the creaky wood floors.
It is indeed charming.
The little red school is open only for special tours. The first time I visited it as a museum, it brought tears to my eyes.
I knew this place.
Several of my good friends attended this very same one-room school, before “coming into town” in seventh grade to attend junior high. I spent countless days and sleepovers at the farm of my good friend, Kathleen, whose father donated land so the township could build a school, just as my grandfather had done in Iowa so many years before.
I loved seeing that schoolhouse each time I visited their farm. We’d walk over to look in the windows, sit on its porch and Kathleen would tell me tales of her school days in the country.
Now, on bulletin boards at the back of the little school that is now a museum hang pictures of generations of the children who attended. There is a picture of dear Kathleen, unmistakable at age nine wearing a big grin and even bigger glasses. There are also snapshots of her sister and brothers and their many cousins.
This school is the perfect example of ‘the circle of family life’ in small town America.
Surprisingly, I learned from the Sunday Morning segment there are still about 200 of these single-room schools still operating today, down from 200,000 at their height in the early decades of the twentieth century. Today, kids attending these tiny but modern-looking schools use computers and study the very same curriculum that students learn in big schools. It’s not quite the same schooling that Punk or Kathleen experienced.
Am I glamorizing the one-room school house and farm life in the Midwest?
In reality, I couldn’t wait to leave my small town and experience the greater world.
Moving far, far away, I created a much different life for myself. However, the older I get, I more I realize that I can never really escape my upbringing. At the heart, there is a small town inside of me and a one-room schoolhouse off in the distance.
Post Update: Thanks to some helpful staff of the Minnesota State Legislature, I am happy to report I now have my MNsure health care policy in place and retroactive to the beginning of 2014. I do not like to use my blog and social media platform for this purpose, but I felt I was out of options. This saga took close to five months to resolve. While I am relieved, I will not forget all I had to go through to make this simple transaction a reality.
As a self-employed, small business owner, I had high hopes for the Affordable Care Act. I was giddy at the thought of lowering my premium costs, which now total $6,000 a year for an individual policy with a very high deductible.
Obamacare, as it is usually called, was passed in spring 2010, but didn't go into effect until this year. I couldn't wait to sign up.
If only it were that easy.
We all know the story: Obamacare launched and the federal website was an immediate disaster. A few states fared better than the national program as they had done their homework and created well-designed exchange systems.
Sadly, this was not the case in Minnesota, where MNsure is the state-run version of Obamacare.
When MNsure launched in late October 2013, I was probably one of the very first to go on the website. Certainly I was one of the first kicked off the website. We've all read the news accounts of people attempting over-and-over to create a MNsure account, shop for insurance and then filter through the qualifying process. I had the classic bad experience. Countless times, I went on the website, only to have it freeze up or boot me off. Then, at one point, the system would no longer let me login at all and I got a "password fail" message.
I was stuck. I was frustrated. Still, I persisted.
Personally, this was an especially stressful time in my life, as my mother was dying after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. I had moved Mom to my home and she was in hospice. I remember sitting by her bed and holding her hand while also holding on the phone for a live MNsure representative to help me in my quest to obtain more affordable insurance.
This was probably the first time I cried.
After holding for hours and hours at various times of the day, I was finally able to get through to tech support. Surprisingly, getting my password changed proved to be the easiest fix.
After that, things went very wrong.
My mother died in late November, so I probably was not at my sharpest.
However, I was determined to have new insurance by the end of the year. And, since I had been a caregiver for two years, I believed I would qualify for a healthcare subsidy of some type.
News reports indicated the MNsure website was more stable and it appeared to be true. I logged on easily and sailed through the application process. Next, I started shopping for healthcare policies. To my surprise, the policy costs were about the same as the open market and there didn't seem to be any way to find out if I qualified for a reduction due to my income level.
That's when I discovered, I had clicked on the wrong tract -- the tract that was for those who wanted to purchase insurance with no financial assistance. This proved to be a mistake that would cost me, both financially and emotionally.
Back to the phone, which meant more hours calling and calling and holding and holding. Many times, I would simply have to hang up since I had a life with responsibilities and obligations. Other times, I would be holding for a long period and suddenly the call would disconnect.
That's when I cried again.
I was beaten down and I was frustrated. But I persevered.
Finally, on the last day of 2013, I held for 90 minutes until I finally reached a live person who listened dutifully to my tale of woe. She cheerfully told me to "disregard the first application" and submit a second one on the website, this time following the tract that would allow the system to determine my eligibility for health insurance assistance.
Really? It was that easy?
With high hopes, I hung up the phone and began a second application. .
This second application was my second big mistake.
The MNsure website indeed allowed me to create and complete a second application. I could even see both approved applications in my account. However, individuals may not have two applications. MNsure does not like two applications. Two applications will prevent the user (me) from doing anything further.
I was locked out.
That's probably the third time I cried.
Luckily, I had not cancelled my existing policy so it would continue into the New Year. I still had insurance but it was continuing to cost me dearly.
After my holiday visitors left in mid-January, I reluctantly opened my ever-expanding healthcare folder again. I think I deserved credit for my persistence and my patience.
I would need this patience as 2014 began.
My latest quest for affordable healthcare coverage included a long series of calls, emails and more calls to various MNsure personnel. I encountered individuals, who always sounded nice and chipper at the beginning of our calls. Yet, as my problem became more challenging for them, they would lose interest. It was never possible to talk to the same person twice and non one called back to follow up.
One day, in a fit of frustration, I even tweeted about my situation. Since I have over 9,000 followers, I thought that might get some results. Within minutes, I had a response from someone obviously in a management postion. Bryan asked me to call him. I did call Bryan. He seemed interested and promised he would help me.
After exchanging emails back and forth, it was determined that I needed to speak to a specific department. I was given a phone number. I called that department, but no one could help me in the least. More emails and phone calls to Bryan in management, but I've never heard from him again.
He lost interest.
By this time, I was also losing interest. Yet, I didn't have a choice. I had to keep going.
During my numerous phone calls, I learned that compounding my situation was the fact that the people at MNsure could only see one application in my account. On their computer screen the good application appeared. My second application -- the one I actually wanted to use -- did not even appear in their system. I was told by most everyone I spoke with that, "We need to get rid of that first "bad" application and then you will be able to apply for insurance." Yet, even though everyone promised that would be accomplished in hours/days/weeks (take your pick), it never was resolved.
Three months have passed and I am still stuck.
Yesterday, I called again. This time, I spoke to someone who realized my issue needed the help of someone who really knew how to get something done. He passed me along to John, who promised the first application, or as I have taken to calling it, the "Very, Very Bad Application," would be removed within 24 hours. John actually called me back this morning, which thrilled me to no end. He promised the Very-Very Bad Application would be gone by the afternoon.
It was not.
This afternoon, I called again. I was not happy. I was upset. I wanted results.
Once again, I told my story. I was put on hold for a very long time and then the first person transferred me to a youngish man. Let's call him Tim.
Tim did not ask for my story. He thought he knew what was needed (spoiler alert: He did not). After putting me on hold for an extended period of time, Tim returned to the call to give me a long-winded explanation that involved a pie queues. Huh? First time I had heard this explanation. His estimation was that this would take weeks or as much as a month to resolve my issue "because of the pie queues."
Tim insisted it was out of his hands. He was done with me.
No sir. I was getting mad. I wouldn't let him go. Why, I asked had no one told me about the pie queue and what WAS it anyway?
Obviously, Tim did not know what he was talking about. While he really didn't want to hear my story, I insisted he listen and recounted it briefly. Silence.
Tim responded that I could forget the lengthy pie queue tutorial.
Thank goodness. Although now I was hungry for pie.
On hold several more times, this phone call was now over an hour long. Yet, for the first time, I actually felt hopeful. Was Tim the Man? Could he erase the Very-Very Bad Application?
Tim came back on the phone and (very pleased with himself) announced that he had indeed deleted the Very-Very Bad Application. Problem solved, he wanted to end the call.
Not so fast, buddy.
"Wait," I said, "I need to check."
The bad application was still there. I told Tim I appreciated what he had done, but that I didn't want to hang up until I knew it was actually gone.
To bide my time, I also asked him about how to proceed once the Very-Very Bad Application was history. His response, "Just create a new application."
Wasn't this how I got into big trouble in the first place?
I brought this to Tim's attention. He did not address that issue.
I kept checking to see if the very bad application was gone, but it still appeared. Tim argued that it was deleted but just not showing up on my screen. I cleaned out my cache, cookies and more but no-go. On my screen, nothing had really changed. I had just invested another 75 minutes of my time and no progress had been made.
Tim told me it might take a day or so for the change to process through the system. Really? Perhaps, but I had heard this before, and the Very-Very Bad Application was still there.
Tim's response, "You can't be stuck in the past. You have to learn from the past. You have to move forward."
My incredulous reply, "Wait, can you say that again, I want to write it down."
Long sigh from Tim, but he repeats it.
I write it down.
Then he tells me to stop checking my account to see if the Very-Very Bad Application has indeed been deleted. He says, "If you keep checking, it won't change."
I write that down, too.
Tim is now getting antsy. He wants to hang up. "I've put in 47 minutes on this call and I have other people to help," he tells me.
After I write that down, I start to bluster. I want to keep him on the line so I know for certain deleting the Very-Very Bad Application will indeed be the big fix I need. I want to make sure the system will allow me to finish my second application, or what I was now calling the Very-Very Good Application.
Getting snippy, I change the subject and inform Tim the MNsure on-hold music is beyond horrible. Elevator music is bad enough, but elevator music that is out of sync and filled with static noise is just plain torture.
He chuckled. Tim knew exactly what I was talking about. His comeback? "We have 99,000 bigger problems than the music on hold."
Silence on my end. I am writing this down as well.
Even though I have been instructed not to check the applications, I do so and report to Tim that both applications still appear in my account. Nothing has changed.
Tim is exasperated with me. I tell him I won't hang up and he will have to hang up on me. I plead with him. Really, I am at the end of my rope.
Tim does hang up, but not before telling me, "No one can do anything more for you."
I look at my handset, hear the dial tone and start to cry.
It is March 19. I think MNsure has broke me.