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.