Just when you thought you might consider maybe sticking that wretched Elf back up on the shelf (the better to ensure some good behavior from the kids through Christmas) along comes Jen Mann to remind us why that
creepy little marketing juggernaut … excuse me … doll is such a P.I.T.A.
Yep! The playground set’s Dorothy Parker is baaaaack with a deliciously barbed book that skewers all manner of holiday celebrations from Christmas to Halloween (and just about every occasion in between). When you’ve reached your limit on the seasonal treacle dished out by the Hallmark Channel, et al., go lock yourself in the closet and binge-read this. Filled with seasonal goofs and gaffes, crazy faux pas and hilarious snafus, Spending The Holidays with People I Want To Punch in the Throat is the anti-holiday reader for those who understand that Thanksgiving to New Year’s (and possibly through Easter) is the most stressful time of the year.
As she shares her myriad tales of celebrations gone south, Mann gleefully laces her holiday hum-buggery with a snark that zings without being the slightest bit Grinch-y. The result is a wickedly delightful reminder that no matter how much our own festive attempts may fall short of the mark, things could always be worse. Or hysterically funny.
I managed to catch up with Jen by phone to chat about her latest book and how she really likes to spend her holidays. (You can check out our first interview here.)
Norine: If I recall, even though Spending the Holidays With People I Want to Punch in the Throat came out last month from Random House, it was actually your very first book, the book that caught Random House’s attention to sign you as one of their authors. How’d that all happen?
Jen Mann: That’s correct. I started blogging in 2011, and that Christmas one of my posts went viral. My new-found readers immediately started asking for a book. A genius friend suggested I write a holiday-inspired book since my viral post was about the Elf on the Shelf. I didn’t have a literary agent or any connections to publishers in New York, and I knew how slow they moved, so I went ahead and wrote and self-published the book in 2012. It ended up being a best-seller on Amazon. I used that success to attract the attention of a literary agent. We worked together to come up with the book proposal for People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges (2014). A publisher mentioned they’d be interested in a new and updated version of Spending the Holidays with People I Want to Punch in the Throat as well as the suburbia book. I had always planned to add more to it, and so I agreed to add it to the proposal. After a bidding war, I went with a two-book deal with Ballantine, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House. Ballantine chose to release the suburbia book first since it’s a more general book and could attract a wider audience.
The new version of Holidays is a bit different, isn’t it? My favorites are still in there: The Over-Achieving Elf-On-The-Shelfers; Skeevy Santa; I Want My McDonald’s; the White Trash Dollhouse. (Good save by your dad, by the way, telling you that Santa wanted YOU to finish building it. That was masterful.) But now there’s a whole section on other holidays, which I thoroughly enjoyed. (By the way, I really felt your pain when you blew it with Gomer and the Easter Bunny.) Was that your idea or your publisher’s?
Yes, all of your favorites from the previous version of the book are there, and now I’ve doubled its size with a bunch of new essays. If you have the original, you’re still going to want this one, because it has a lot of new material. I did add some more Christmas stories, like what the Hubs does when people show up unannounced on my porch to sing Christmas carols on a cold December night. But as I got going, I realized that you can only tell so many Christmas stories. My family is funny, but they’re not THAT funny. So, I emailed my editor and suggested we add some more holidays to the mix. I told her that I had a good Halloween and Mother’s Day story and then while I was writing the book, I totally blew Gomer’s mind during Easter and so that needed to go in there. I wasn’t sure how to package these stories, because usually I try to keep my books chronological, and I didn’t think it would work to mix a story about our Chinese New Year celebration in between two Christmas stories. My editor came up with the idea of dividing the book into three sections, and I was very happy when she did.
So now we’ve had People I Want To Punch in the Throat and Spending The Holidays With People I Want To Punch in the Throat. This seems like the perfect series to keep producing. Are there plans for, say, Spending the Summer With People I Want To Punch in the Throat? Or Going On Vacation With People I Want To Punch in the Throat? Touring Europe With People I Want To Punch in the Throat? I mean, this is the gift that keeps on giving.
The third proposal is written, and my agent is reviewing it right now. It’s about all of the terrible jobs I’ve ever had. Like when I had to pick up my billionaire boss’s dirty underwear from his hotel room because he forgot them and didn’t want to buy new ones. Or when I spent a week filling out that boring job review thing, only to have my boss draw a big red line through it and tell me that my job was being eliminated. Or the time I worked in an office where we were given one pen at a time to write with, and we had to turn in the dry, empty pen to get a new one. Maybe Sharing a Cubicle with People I Want to Punch in the Throat??? I also have an outline for a book about traveling. So, for sure, I’ve got at least two more in me.
That’s great news for Throat-Punch fans, myself included. I couldn’t help but notice that you’re also releasing Kindle Singles. You have, what? Three? Four volumes out now? Tell me what those are about.
I am! I love doing the Kindle Singles. I have four volumes out, but I have at least 12 planned. Blogging has changed a lot over the years since I started. I’ve always been more of a long-form writer who doesn’t use a lot of visuals. In this new world of Instagram and YouTubers with millions of hits, my style doesn’t translate as well anymore. So I decided to move some of these longer essays that might not work as well for the blog over to Kindle. It’s a great way for my loyal readers to find brand new, ad-free content to read, and it’s a great way for me to find more readers who are interested in reading. Each volume has three original essays that don’t appear anywhere else. They’re stories from my childhood, opinion pieces, funny family stories, ranty stuff, etc. It’s a grab-bag of throat punches.
I’ve always loved grab bags. Which, by the way, is a perfect, not-awkward-at-all segue to talk about your anthologies, which pull together a diverse assortment of bloggers. Your third, I Still Just Want to Pee Alone, came out this past spring. Woman, I do not know how you do it, but brava!
I enjoy doing these anthologies. The first one—I Just Want To Pee Alone—was funny mom stories about parenting. Then I did I Just Want To Be Alone which was more about relationships. But the one that has always been “the little book that could” was Pee Alone. Two years later, that one is still going like crazy. It’s always up there in the rankings. I think it’s because we’ve always got a new crop of new moms coming in. If you look at Amazon, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy is always up there too. I remember someone giving that to me when I was pregnant with my first child. I’d never read a funny pregnancy book before, and I was like This is great! Then I realized, it was 10 years old. There’s not a lot out there for moms who are looking to laugh when they’re pregnant, so my husband and I decided that we’d go back to the Pee Alone format and go back to motherhood again.
Any favorites returning from the first Pee Alone book?
Kim Bongiorno of Let Me Start By Saying. She is like my right hand. And I’ve always got Bethany Thies of Bad Parenting Moments. She’s an amazing writer. She’s been in all of my anthologies. If you read the reviews, several of them call out her essay in this book. The opening line is “I wonder if my mother in law likes my tits.” Everyone likes that line and what she’s doing is pumping milk. It’s the early days when you’ve had your baby and you really don’t give a damn who sees you doing what. And so she’s in her living room, pumping, and then she starts mooing because she feels like a cow. In her mind she’s thinking, I wonder if my mother-in-law thinks I’m crazy. But then it comes full circle at the end when her mother-in-law tells her she’s beautiful and that she’s done something so amazing by giving her a grandchild, and isn’t motherhood great and now we have that in common. It’s a really warm, touchy-feely story.
The other one who stands out is Beth Caldwell of The Cult of Perfect Motherhood. She wrote about having very serious breast cancer and how she just assumed that she’d be there for her children’s future, and the reality is she probably won’t. The way she writes is so amazing. It’s not sappy. It doesn’t pull at your heartstrings. It’s really short and powerful. She just lets you in and lets you feel it. It’s just beautiful.
Any new voices this time around?
Ashley Allen of Big Top Family wrote “The Day I Got Taken to Church.” This one will stand the test of time. She wrote about how she doesn’t swear in front of her kids. I really related to that because people always think I swear in front of my kids because of how much I swear on my blog. But I don’t cuss in front of my kids. So, she’s taking her kids to church. and they almost have a car accident; someone almost hits them, and of course, she swears. Then she’s like, “Oh crap! Did my kids hear that?” And her oldest, maybe 6, says, “Mommy, you said a bad word.” And she says, “I’m sorry. I thought we were gonna die!” and he’s like, “You thought we were gonna die, and you wanted THAT to be the last word we heard??”
That’s totally happened to me before. My kids are total hall monitors. They’re always worried about what I’m going to say next.
Ha! I hear that. Especially this time of year. Which reminds me, when I was a kid, I remember the holidays as just wonderful. Now it’s just stress, stress and more stress from Halloween to New Year’s. What’s up with that? And, more importantly, from a publishing point of view, why’s it so important to come out with a just-this-side-of-bah-humbug collection for the holidays?
Well, when I first wrote Spending The Holidays with People I Want to Punch in the Throat, back in 2012, Pinterest was a huge thing, and everybody was trying to outdo one another with ah-may-zing holiday creations and memory-making. Now that Instagram has joined the fray, I feel like there’s even more pressure to holiday better than your neighbor. What we see online is so phony and so staged (and anymore, it’s usually sponsored by some big company). I think it’s important to show those messy corners of your life and to laugh about them. Those are memories too. My kids won’t remember the fancy clothes I bought them for our annual family picture, but they’ll remember that that morning, I was rushing around so much to make our picture perfect, I spilled a whole cup of tea down my shirt. I had to change, and I didn’t match everyone. We’ll laugh about that for years.
That’s absolutely how holiday memories and family traditions are made! A few years back my sister had me get apple and pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving. So, I went to the supermarket and grabbed some pies from the frozen dessert section. My sister goes to put the pies in the oven as we’re sitting down to dinner and calls out, “Didn’t I ask you to get apple pie?” I’m like, Yeah, I did! “No,” she said, slowly, as if I were learning-impaired. “You got peach pie!” I’d been in such a rush at the supermarket, thinking about ten thousand other things (as we do) that I didn’t check the label. I’d only eyeballed the box and grabbed what looked like an apple pie. So now the joke in my family is that the writer can’t read. That story gets trotted out every Thanksgiving, especially if we have guests at the table. But since then, it’s a Dworkin Family tradition to have peach pie for Thanksgiving.
You know, so few of us can live up to the insane holidays we see in movies or on television or on the Internet. I like to be the one who sets the bar so low everyone can say, “Well, at least I didn’t lose my kids’ Santa gifts like Jen did last year!” I’m that friend. And I’m happy to be her.
Me too. So tell me, what’s your secret to staying sane for the holidays?
It’s the same secret I use to stay sane all year round: laughter. Life is stressful, and we can laugh or we can cry about it. I’d rather laugh every single time. Yes, I spilled tea down my shirt. But, no, the picture isn’t RUINED. I might as well wear orange and really stand out and be different. I lost my kids’ Santa gifts, but it will be hilarious once we find them. I’m not saying I never get stressed out, but I also try not to care too much about things that will cause me stress. Tree is half-decorated? Who cares? Presents aren’t wrapped? That’s what gift bags are for. Invited to another holiday party? You can always say “No, thanks.” Money is tight? Be honest with your family, set a budget, and stick to it, regardless of what the Joneses are doing this year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I don’t know what to tell you? I guess Aynsley’s mother loves her more if she’s spending that much this year.”
Can you share one holiday tradition that you’d love to see die a quick death? (Or slow and painful, your choice.) And one holiday tradition you absolutely adore.
A holiday tradition I’d like to see go away: Of course, I have to say cookie exchanges. You’ll have to read the book to see why I hate them so much.
That’s page 100 for those following along at home.
And a holiday tradition that I love: Looking at Christmas lights. We have our favorite places that we like to hit every year. My house looks like crap, but I appreciate the work that everyone else does.
Me too, my friend. Me too. And now, as Jon Stewart would say, here’s your moment of zen:
Spending the Holidays with People I’d Like to Punch in the Throat is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and wherever books are sold. Follow Jen on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.
Valentine’s Day! The perfect opportunity to exorcize your pent-up craft-making demons. It’s been WEEKS (maybe) since you packed away your handmade Christmas ornaments, and we know that glue gun has been burning a hole in your craft holster. Spending an “leisurely” afternoon crafting with your five-year-old ought to put those demons to rest, just follow these seven easy steps…
Spend two weeks scouring Pinterest for the perfect, handmade Valentine idea for your daughter’s class Valentine party.
Blow $50 at the craft store: $20 on necessary supplies and an additional $30 on cute stickers and glitter she INSISTS she needs. Ignore the fact that store-bought cards for 30 kids would have run about $10.
Set up your craft station, aka Production Zone, and outline the plan to your 5-year-old.
Within three minutes, realize that any sort of “plan” was pure fantasy as your 5-year-old spends the next 20 minutes covering the first card with 80 stickers and an inch of glitter glue; declares she’s “done” and gets up to leave.
At this rate you will need two months to finish 30 cards. Steer her back to the table and kick into high gear. Begin furiously shuffling fresh cards in front of her like a blackjack dealer in an attempt to get at least one child-made mark on each card. Sensing you have less than five minutes before a craft-induced meltdown, break out the stamps (even though they are Christmas themed), arm her with one in each hand, spread out the remaining cards and direct her to stamp away! Whack-a-Mole style. Bribe her into signing a total of four cards before giving up completely.
After she goes to bed, open some wine and complete the rest of the cards. Toast your whimsical composition and fresh color palette. Decide that you have truly missed your calling as a powerhouse Pinterest craft-blogger. Instagram your project and make a mental note to tweet pictures to @thistlewoodfarm. Consider misplacing her cards in favor of yours.
The next day at the class party, notice several children have clearly signed all their own cards. Tell yourself that they began their cards right after Christmas.
This post originally appeared on Bonbon Break.
If you are a Christmas tree aficionado … If you wait all year to let your inner Martha Stewart run rampant with ribbon and garland and tinsel, oh my! … If you summarily reject ornaments because they are not the “right” shade of Christmas red … If, to put it mildly, you are a Christmas tree-decorating perfectionist … then these are the words that will strike fear into your holly jolly heart like a candy-cane shiv:
Mommy! I wanna decorate the tree! By MYSELF!
So there we all were — me, my husband Stewart and our 7-year-old son Fletcher — the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We’d just polished off the leftovers my sister had sent home with us from her grand feast. And once the last of the sweet potatoes and stuffing and cranberries had been scraped from their plastic containers, Stewart decided it was Time To Put Up The Tree. Nothing shakes off a tryptophan stupor like testing tree lights and schlepping boxes of ornaments down from the upstairs closets.
Regular readers know that I attach no religious importance to this particular symbol of the Christmas holiday. I am an atheistic Jew, married to an atheist WASP. We put up a tree because A) it’s pretty B) I love the scent of pine — even if it’s just that stuff we spritz all over our fake tree like perfume, and C) because even though I am not crafty or even particularly artistic, there is something about Christmas that brings out my inner interior decorator.
Alas, my inner decorator is also a bit of a bitch. With a wicked case of OCD.
Despite the lack of Christmas tradition in my traditional Jewish upbringing, I have seen the Hallmark movies. I know how this tree-decorating thing is supposed to go. I get that families are meant to decorate the tree together, drinking hot cocoa as Bing Crosby sings about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But to my mind that’s like asking for Christmas chaos. I have a system. I have a process. I have a plan. It’s very possible I also have a Christmas Tree Decorating Disorder.
It bothers me when there are too many snowflake ornaments clumped together. I start twerking like Miley if the proportion of bows to balls is off. I’ll spend days rearranging extra ornaments in a glass bowl, shifting the balls around and around till I find the right distribution pattern of reds to golds to silvers that looks like I casually tossed them together in a moment.
“DON’T PUT THAT THERE!” I’ll snap when my husband starts hanging ornaments, willy nilly. “Hanging ornaments, just anywhere? Are you mad, man?!?”
And that would be his cue to back slowly out of the room and go hide out at Loews, leaving me to drive myself crazy decorating the tree in peace.
But while I can roust my husband from the scene — he’d rather be doing manly things at Loews anyway — I couldn’t very well deprive my child of this seminal childhood experience. How else would he grow up to know why his future wife was yelling at him for doing it all wrong?
“ALL THE ORNAMENTS ARE GLASS, so be careful,” I cautioned as Fletcher and I carried box after box of ornaments down the stairs. He didn’t even hear me. He was finally old enough to really decorate the tree, and he couldn’t wait to tear into the boxes and find the treasures within. Within moments of the last box being set on the floor, the living room was a mess of red, gold and silver glass balls, green wire hangers, shreds of garland and glitter. I felt my blood pressure starting to rise.
“Spread them around so they’re not all in one place,” I directed as Fletcher started to hang the glitter snowflakes on the tree. I tried to remember to breathe.
“I KNOW, Mommy.” I could hear the annoyance in his voice. But before it could fully curdle into 7-year-old attitude, Fletcher let out a delighted squeal. “Oooh, Mommy!” He held up two ornaments, one orange; the other blue. “Where should these go?”
I felt my OCD shift into overdrive. Stewart had brought these particular ornaments home from Target a few years before. They were bright. They were festive. And they clashed completely with the red and gold baubles I dressed our tree with each year. I hated them.
Most years I conspired to keep them buried deep in the ornament box.
“Hmmm. Let Mommy think while I pee, okay?”
I beelined it to my own bathroom, shut the door and sat on the toilet.
It doesn’t have to be perfect … It doesn’t have to be perfect … It doesn’t have to be perfect I chanted to myself, fingers pressed to my temples.
Who was I kidding? OF COURSE the tree had to be perfect. I wanted it to be perfect. That’s the joy I get out of the holiday. No matter how crazy I made myself and those around me in the process.
But then I thought of Fletcher in the living room, happily hanging shiny ornaments willy nilly, utterly unbothered by the fact that three gold balls were hanging right next to each other. I sighed. Oy gevalt, as my Jewish grandmother would say. It wouldn’t be the first time I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas.
Suck it up, Buttercup, I said to the me in the mirror.
So I took a deep breath, wrestled my inner Martha into a strait jacket, and said the Christmas tree version of the Serenity Prayer for good measure:
Grant me … the serenity to accept the ornament arrangements I cannot change … the stealth to arrange the rest of the ornaments as I can … and the wisdom not to rip the tree apart and do the whole fucking thing over again after the kiddo goes to bed.
Then I headed, bravely, back to the living room. Fletcher was using a kitchen chair as a step-stool to hang ornaments from the highest branches. I cringed when I saw that he’d hung the hideous orange and blue ornaments just where I’d see them every time I walked past.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, I reminded myself.
“Mommy! Guess what I found!” Fletcher looked up excited. “All the decorations I made in nursery school! Let’s put those on the tree!”
It doesn’t have to be perfect I reminded myself as the magic-markered reindeer and the paper circles strung with ribbon got added.
“Ooh! Remember when I got this at Lego Club?” Fletcher held up a clear plastic ball containing a scattering of tiny multi-colored Legos, the kind I usually throw in the trash after a model is built.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, I said as he found a place for it at eye level on the tree.
“And look! Mommy!” Fletcher reverently lifted a large plastic, silver ornament the size of a softball out of the box. It was covered in colored-pencil scribble and paint and dotted with peel-n-stick foam pieces. He’d decorated it at a street fair last year. It is truly one of the ugliest “art” projects I have ever seen.
“I forgot about this one—” he said dreamily. “THIS one definitely goes in the front.”
I gritted my teeth and swallowed hard. Then I climbed on the chair and busied myself with the enormous white and gold ribbon that tops our tree. It doesn’t have to be perfect … it doesn’t have to be perfect. Still, I fussed with the loops and the long ties till that damn ribbon looked exactly right. I climbed back down and stood next to Fletcher as he looked over his handiwork. And I realized that braided through the branches was the brief history of his own short life, with ornaments marking every Christmas season he was able to remember celebrating.
“How does it look, Mommy?”
The Christmas tree wasn’t perfect. But, as it turned out, it was beautiful.
* If you ever want her to speak to you again.
The holiday season is upon us. And having been through this drill now, a few times as a mom, I must confess that my excitement over gift-giving and getting (Oooh! You shouldn’t have!) has curdled into something closer to stone-cold fear of the horrifying things my child may receive. (Oh dear lord, you REALLY shouldn’t have!)
Over the years, I’ve learned that kids’ gifts generally fall into three main categories:
* Something the kid will hate
* Something the kid will love
* Something the kid will love … but that will earn you the stink-eye on the playground and ensure that you are forever blackballed from the cool moms drink-a-thons.
As a PSA, I’ve rounded up the absolute worst offenders in the gift-giving department. If you want to keep your mom friends—and good ones are sooo hard to find—under no circumstances should you EVER give the child of a fellow mom ANY of these eight Producers Of Hell On Earth. And if you’re even tempted to do so, just remember that your kid gets gifts too, and payback is likely to be deafeningly loud, ridiculously sticky and/or unable to be removed from upholstery despite repeated professional cleanings.
Keep in mind, these rules hold true for any gift-giving occasion. Without further ado, the verboten list includes:
Anything that makes the ears bleed. Remember Spinal Tap (“This one goes to 11”)? Any gift whose decibel level makes an Ozzy Ozbourne concert seem like the Quiet Zone is not the stuff of gift bags. And this goes DOUBLE for those toys whose Off buttons are cunningly hidden inside a panel that requires a specific screwdriver not typically found in a standard tool-kit to access. I used to wonder why one veteran mom persisted in giving my son board-books and wooden puzzles that made every kind of siren noise, engine whine and construction clang known to humankind … until I realized she wore a hearing aid. If a mom will require a cochlear implant after prolonged exposure to a given toy, for the love of all that’s good and holy, leave that fucking thing on the shelf.
Anything whose repetition will land you a suite in the Rubber Room Hotel. A subset of the Toys That Make The Ears Bleed category, these kinds of toys loudly tootle out songs that you cannot get out of your head with an ice pick — though after a few rounds you will desperately want to try. Give a kid a gift that plays the synth-pop version of It’s A Small World on an endless loop, and no jury of her peers will convict that kid’s mom for what she will do to you once she hunts you down.
Anything that makes Chucky look like a cuddly Cabbage Patch doll. Like the pink pig one of my husband’s aunts gave my son one Christmas. This little piggie, which came dressed in a glittery red Santa suit and oinked out Jingle Bells when you pulled its tail, looked like the result of a Deliverance/Amityville Horror mashup. And it went from the gift bag right into the garbage bag.
Anything that Daddy will think is HIS. These gifts usually come with a remote controller. Or they fly. Or they have a remote control gizmo that makes something fly. And while this SOUNDS like a great gift idea, what happens when Dad spies the RC Anything nestled in the tissue paper is that his Inner Child jumps out and grabs it. Your child will never lay hands on it again.
Anything requiring Mom’s participation. As any working mom will tell you, this is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Mom needs toys and projects that will captivate her kids so she can work in peace. NOT toys that require her to read instructions and mix stuff together while her kid sits next to her playing Minecraft till everything is set up. Or toys that require her to jump up from her desk every five minutes because “I need help, Mommy.” If a kid can’t take it out of the box and immediately start entertaining himself, preferably for hours, it’s a no go.
Anything Living. My friend Tina’s twin girls once left a birthday party with a pair of goldfish in a favor bag. G-O-L-D-F-I-S-H. And not the extra cheddar kind either. WTF??? Sending a kid home with a living goldfish in a bag isn’t gifting a child with her first pet. It’s saddling a Mom with the obligation to race out and find replacement fish every few days when the darn things inevitably get scooped up by the Great Fish Net in the Sky. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened to us yet, but I’m floating a rumor that I’m allergic to goldfish, just in case.
Anything that comes with a bazillion little tiny pieces that will inevitably scatter throughout the house. This was my bad, fellow moms. Learn from my mistakes. Back in our nursery school days, I actually did buy a little girl in my son’s class a jewelry-making set because what little girl doesn’t want to deck herself out in lots and lots of jewelry? Unfortunately, I had forgotten that the little girl’s father had a fucking doctorate in OCD. That is, until I got their note “thanking” me for such a “thoughtful” gift … “all 800 pieces of it.” The other thing I’d forgotten is that the little girl’s mom is an FBI agent. She knows my whereabouts. And she has a gun. Oops.
Anything that involves glitter, glue, dye or any combination thereof. Proof that karma is a bitch, the same year I gave that little girl’s dad an Anxiety Attack In A Jewelry Box, my two-year-old came home from a classroom birthday party with a favor bag containing a bottle of red glitter glue and one of those paddles with a ball attached to an elastic band. Glitter and glue are two items that should never be anywhere near a two-year-old. It’s been six years, and I’m still looking for THAT mom so I can smack her with her own paddle.
* If you want her to EVER speak to you again.
If you liked this post, you’ll LOVE the one about my OCD aka Obsessive Christmas Tree Disorder!
A version of this story originally appeared on Lifescript’s Health Bistro blog.
Halloween to New Year’s is a veritable gauntlet of great expectations and inevitable disappointment. So buckle up. We’ve got eight weeks of holiday
hell joy ahead!
12:01 AM, November 1. After the treats have been collected, the tricks played out and the sugared-up kiddos are passed out their beds, this date marks the official start of the Holiday Season. (Though if you go by purveyors of Pumpkin-Spice Everything, you’re forgiven if you thought the seasonal festivities began back in August.)
It’s time to start your ovens and refill those Xanax prescriptions. Because maneuvering your family through the Tough-Mudder/Iditarod that is the Happy Holidays Season is not for the faint of heart. Getting to Christmas morning and then pushing on through till New Year’s Eve takes strength. It takes will. It takes a cast-iron stomach, elastic pants and a forgiving liver. It takes … a survival guide.
And since now’s the time when we’re seasonally compelled to feel thankful, we can ALL be thankful that Jill Smokler, aka Scary Mommy, patron saint of imperfect motherhood, has put together just such a guide, coming out November 17 as an e-book and available for pre-order now.
Appropriately named Scary Mommy’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays, Smokler’s e-book dishes up heaping helpings of holiday how-to’s, humor and heartwarming essays, plus recipes for seasonal goodies from 41 contributors and the Scary Mommy herself (check out her Kahlua Dip on page 148!). It’s a lineup that includes heavy hitters like In The Powder Room’s Leslie Marinelli, Kim Bongiorno of Let Me Start By Saying, Deborah Goldstein of VillageQ, Sarah Cottrell of the Bangor Daily News, novelist Janie Emaus and HuffPo Parents/Scary Mommy regular Allison Slater Tate. And in a beautiful gesture of generosity, 100 percent of author profits from the e-book will be donated to Smokler’s Scary Mommy Nation charity, which feeds families in need through its Thanksgiving Project. We caught up with Smokler as she was
bracing herself preparing for this most wonderful time of the year.
Norine Dworkin-McDaniel: So, Jill, what made you decide to put together a holiday anthology this year?
Jill Smokler: The original idea was to create a free e-book that people would get if they gave a gift of $50 or more to the Scary Mommy Nation Thanksgiving Project. But I forgot I was under contract with Simon & Schuster and that any book I wanted to do, I had to run by them, first. I figured there was no way they would want this book because the turnaround to get it out was going to be so ridiculously fast. But they did! I can’t believe how fast we managed to pull this together. But it came together surprisingly well. It’s a great collection of funny essays, sentimental essays and some awesome recipes. And it’s great to have all of these contributors who have a vested interest in the book’s success. I’m really excited about it.
NDM: In the history of New York publishing, I don’t think a book publisher has ever moved so fast.
JS [laughing]: I said to my agent, Is this a record? Did we actually break a record? Because from beginning to end I think it was under three weeks. I haven’t even signed the official contract yet, and the book is already fully in production and all of the edits have been done. It’s kind of ridiculous. It was definitely fast.
NDM: One of the arguments in favor of self-publishing is that traditional publishers aren’t nimble enough to move this quickly. I think Simon & Schuster just put the lie to that.
JS: It never could have been done with a print book. This book could be expedited because it’s electronic. But it still is pretty amazing. And if the book does well, the hope is to turn it into a hardback for next year.
NDM: Fingers crossed for you. You know, one of the things I liked so much about this collection is that it’s part cookbook, part anthology. How’d you decide to weave together the holiday stories with recipes for cranberry sauce, macaroni-and-cheese, molasses cookies, etc., not to mention hilarious how-to’s like faking from-scratch baked goods and making stuffing with your passive-aggressive mother-in-law. Those two had me rolling. And the blend of recipes and essays is so very Like Water for Chocolate.
JS: That’s a good one to be grouped with! That’s just always the way I envisioned it — a mix of everything you’d need to survive the holidays, whether it’s tips to just get through the day or an easier recipe for something that you were making anyway. I didn’t want this to be some daunting book that you’d have to sit there and read because lord knows, I don’t have time for that myself, and I imagine most moms, especially during the holiday season, just want something that’s fun and easy and maybe provides some inspiration. By the way, you have to try the Kalua dip. It’s my recipe, and it’s a staple. Ridiculously easy and dangerous. It’s so good.
NDM: Oh yeah! I peeked at the recipe: Four chocolate bars, two tubs of Cool Whip and Kahlua. Just hand me a spoon. A big spoon. After a few servings, you won’t care if your turkey’s dry! Which brings me to the other thing I really liked about your book, that you have once again shown women, moms, that we’re not alone in putting too much pressure on ourselves to make our holidays “perfect” and are crushed when they don’t measure up to our expectations. We know what the holidays are “supposed to look like” from the Hallmark Channel and the Pottery Barn catalog. And we’re almost always woefully distressed when our own holidays don’t come close.
JS: And it can’t look that way, ever.
NDM: Of course not. Because nobody has a photo stylist to set up our holiday tables, deck out our Christmas trees and stage the delight and Awww of Christmas mornings.
JS: It would be so nice if they would, wouldn’t it?
NDM: And if they could also send out well-behaved actor children who are dressed in clean party clothes and say thank you for the gifts, that would be nice too.
JS: That’s the dream!
NDM: But once again, here’s a collection showing that we’re all limping through the holiday marathon from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. And of course, the message is that we should all just cut ourselves some holiday slack.
JS: I think that’s what bonds all mothers during this time of year. It’s the “happiest time of the year,” and we want everybody to look their best. And we want everything to have the appearance of perfection or close to it. It’s a lot of pressure. I don’t know anyone with children who can live up to that.
NDM: And you know as a fellow member of The Tribe, I totally related to the essays about feeling left out of Christmas.
JS: I suppose it’s because Chanukah isn’t an important holiday in Judaism. I couldn’t write anything that wasn’t based on Christmas and Chanukah being second best either. The Chanukah essay submissions I got, it’s so sad.
And look at the cover of the e-book! When they originally sent it over, it was red and green and overblown with Christmas gifts and the mom on the cover was wearing a Santa hat. I said to my editor, You know I’m Jewish. Could we get a dreidel in there? Or a menorah? Or add some gold? It needs something, otherwise it looks like a Christmas book. So, now there’s this little tiny dreidel. I showed it to my husband Jeff, and he was like, It’s like Where’s Waldo? for the token Jewish piece. But there is a dreidel for us, floating among the presents.
NDM: We’ve talked before about how you started The Scary Mommy Thanksgiving Project three years ago when you noticed a flurry of messages on the Confessional from moms having trouble just putting food on the table, let alone a holiday dinner. One of the stories that just touched my heart was the mom who worked at the welfare office. She wrote that she was so broke, she went to a food bank to get a box of food, but was denied because she made too much money to qualify. She had no idea how she was going to explain the situation to her family. Is that fairly typical of the families the Thanksgiving Project helps?
JS: What I love about this project is that it helps families that are part of the Scary Mommy community. If you’re on the Facebook page or the blog or the message boards, these are people you likely interact with but just don’t know they’re struggling to put food on the table. It’s not necessarily people who are getting government help or are homeless. It’s people who look like us, but for whatever reason — perhaps the husband’s been laid off or is serving in another country — they can’t make ends meet and don’t have the luxury to celebrate special holidays. It would just be another night where they’re eating cereal or eating tomato soup and grilled cheese. We are able to give them this gift of having a special evening that they otherwise couldn’t afford or couldn’t rationalize because if they have extra money, it’s certainly not going to a turkey, it’s going to pay bills. So it’s people who just are just like us and just need a little help to have a special night. It’s pretty cool to be able to do that.
NDM: I see that as of yesterday you’ve raised more than $53,000 and 1,075 families have been “adopted.” But you’ve got another thousand-plus families on the wait list.
JS: Fundraising is really slow this year, and I’m going around and around trying to figure out what makes this year different from last year. We’re getting a lot of $10, $15, $20 donations. That’s amazing because it’s people who can’t really afford to give, but want to make a difference in somebody else’s holiday. But I haven’t been able to get a single business to step up and give a significant amount, even though what they have versus what the people who are giving $5 and $10 have is … well, the disconnect is incredible. I started doing my fundraising outreach in June to companies that routinely approach me to do product reviews. For $5,000 they want me to do a product review. I don’t do product reviews. But when I tell them I’ve got this amazing opportunity, it’s Oh no. We’re not interested in that. I’ve heard it from hundreds of companies. It’s the most frustrating thing.
NDM: I’m floored. The Thanksgiving Project is an easy way to sow good will with consumers.
JS: I know! What’s better: Me writing a product review? Or me saying, This amazing company has stepped up and adopted X number of families. What a difference they’ve made. Read more about them here. It’s no comparison. Businesses will get such better return from doing something good. It’s a no brainer.
NDM: Agreed. Is there any story that stands out for you?
JS: That’s hard because every single person has a story. We have people who’ve left abusive relationships and are starting over in a place where they don’t know anybody and it’s just them and their kids. I can’t imagine being that isolated and alone. We have many families who’ve lost a child; some who’ve lost more than one, which is every parent’s worst nightmare. Some of these are just so heartbreaking because this person hasn’t done anything wrong, but they’re in this situation that just sucks.
You know that website Humans of New York? I think what photographer Brandon Stanton does is so cool. He’s been all over the world, interviewing and photographing people, telling their stories. And like Humans of New York, for us at the Thanksgiving Project, the bottom line is you don’t know someone’s story by looking at them. You could be envious of what they seem to have on the outside. But you have no idea of what their story is. People send in these pictures of smiling kids, and their kids look like they could be in class with my kids; they look like people I pass at the grocery store or stand next to at soccer games. You have no idea what is lying underneath the surface.
NDM: What do families need to do to qualify for a $50 grocery store gift card from The Thanksgiving Project?
JS: It’s basic information, like how many kids you have, a little bit about your family and then why you need this help and how you found yourself in this position to need this help. We read each one. There really aren’t any that we turn down.
Scary Mommy’s Guide to Surviving The Holidays comes out November 17 and is available for PRE-ORDER today! One-hundred percent of the author proceeds go to benefit The Thanksgiving Project 2014.