Tag Archives: family life

Me and My BIG MOUTH!

imageI have a booming voice. As a child my parents and grandparents called it a ‘stage voice’. I believe this was something that made me prideful. ‘Stage voice’ sounded so complimentary. Like I might someday find my calling in the theater. And that ‘theater’ in my mind was a 3-syllable word.

Well, in hindsight, I think it was a nice way of saying I was loud. Very loud. I’ve come to appreciate its usefulness as I’ve learned to modulate its resonance. I speak at a normal volume in meetings or on the phone or in conversation. I save the boom-voice for such times as it’s functional. Like the years I spent as a summer camp director and had to often address large crowds while outside. Then, a booming voice is like magic. It  cuts through the cacophony and retains it’s shape even in the open air. Now it is mostly spent getting the attention of two amazingly awesome little boys who occasionally need help coming to attention.

In the course of raising these boys it’s become evident that they are going to need to attend school. If for no other reason than we need them occupied so we can work in order to keep them sheltered, fed and amply supplied. Were it not for these things I’d be one of those hippie dippie’s that w0uld prefer them to spend their days in the woods foraging and exploring and learning by reading. I’d never follow through on these things as I’m temperamentally a conformist, mostly for the sake of ease. Still, the heart wants what the heart wants.

Dig a little deeper and there’s more to it. I had a terrible experience in school. I dropped out of kindergarten and dropped out of a master’s degree program, book ending my tortured schooling with decisive, empowered rejection. So last night as I was wandering through the halls of my kids school I was prone to flashbacks to crappy times in a place I didn’t want to be. I remember the physical discomfort that resulted from my constant self judgment. It was fun!

As the night went on, however, I came around. It is really a great school. We were all there as families engaging in some fun activities put on by the school. There were media projects and fun scavenger hunts and various games and activities. The scavenger hunt looked super intense. We opted for story time in the library. Charlie was used to it so he sat on the floor where his reading teacher was going to sit. His little brother was not so into that. He took off.

‘I’ll chase.’ I said to Karen.

So we were off. Thankfully there were screens computers made available across the room. It was GREAT! They had stories he could listen to on headphones while the pages of the book and the beautiful accompanying art was on the screen. He was excited to learn how to use the mouse. It never occurred to me the mouse would be foreign to him, but of course it is. He lives in a world of touch screens.

After a bit Char and Karen joined us and as they sat there something awesome happened. The very nice mom who I met at last weeks weekend of birthday parties was standing across from me and Karen. Karen was already friendly with her before we met. We got to chatting. About school, where we were from, what brought us to here, the challenge of neighbors. It was fantastic. We were speaking to adults. Adults who might become our allies for the next 12 years. Who knows, potentially even friends!

Then it happened.

‘Excuse me. Um, could you just be a little quieter? My sons trying to read me a story and I can’t hear him.’ said the mom sitting next to the computer next to the one Teddy was on. Right in front of me.

I of course said, ‘Sure, sorry about that.’ even though what I meant for that to convey was, ‘are you kidding me, this room, this whole building is crawling with kids and parents, making endless noise and running everywhere!’

So we finished up our conversation, wrapped up what might have been the start of a friendship with my tail between my legs and our ‘friend’ chastened and chased away.

Whatever. I actually feel sorry for her. She clearly didn’t appreciate that she was in the presence of one of the worlds great stage voices. Her loss… Back to viscerally hating being in school for me.

Do You Believe In Miracles

‘Do you believe in miracles!’

 Al Michaels iconic cry as time expired in the semi-final game of the Olympic Hockey tournament in 1980 in tiny little Lake Placid, NY. The feelings this can stir in me are notable. They run the gamut from patriotism to belief to hope to astonishment. There was no way we were going to win. They were the best of the best of the Evil Empire, men driven by personal and professional and patriotic duty of their own against our upstart group of ragamuffins. A team of college stars in a sport, Division 1 Mens Hockey, that didn’t make stars. We didn’t even have all the stars. Get me on the topic for too long and I might start to tell you we even had some high schoolers getting valuable minutes. While not technically accurate, as far as narrative goes it would be true enough. We were a nation ready to believe, looking for a miracle and this team, this makeshift team did it. They gave us our miracle.

It’s a thrilling and stirring tale. One capable of inspiring tears and long bouts of sentimental nostalgia. Which is shocking and possibly troubling as I didn’t watch the game. I didn’t even know it was happening. I doubt I learned about it until perhaps 8-10 years later. As best I can tell, we didn’t have it on our radar at my house. I learned of the story by learning about it.

Still the story is worthy of everything it gets and at times I think it’s worth so much more.

I grew up in the height of the Cold War. Russian equaled bad. They were the big bad wolf out to get us, I guess. I mean I remember fearing the idea of that nuclear weapons were in the mix, but that was the extent of my analysis. I was a kid. I saw War Games and I cheered when Rocky beat Ivan Drago (the sonofabitch who killed Apollo Creed). I knew that they were the enemy. My mind and sights were clear, but really I was just a kid. As much as I’ve heard about the tensions of the time I have to say, they didn’t filter down to me.

I grew up in the heartland, really. It’s New York State, but it’s the Great Lakes part of the state. I loved and hated where I grew up. Had nothing to do with where I grew up, I’d have felt that way anywhere. But it was a GREAT place to be a kid. A stupid, oblivious kid. A great place to get your first real kiss while playing truth or dare. A place to get caught by kindly neighbors telling on you that they saw you buying cigarettes at the diner cigarette machine. A great place to fall in love for the first time and to lose your mind when you saw that girl making out with the cool guy who you could never compete with because he was two years older than you and he had not only a license but a car. It was a great place to play basketball, sun up to sundown in playgrounds where other kids were playing. It was a great place to ride your bikes uptown and get pizza or tacos or see a movie or just hang out with all the other kids that lived near, ‘uptown.’ It was a great place to walk to the neighborhood doctor who knew you since you were new. Or to catch crayfish walking barefoot through the crick. It was a great place. Still is.

It wasn’t a place for me to process the Cold War, despite all of it happening, apparently, the whole time I was doing all that other stuff. It wasn’t a place that was nervous or palpably anxious. It wasn’t a place that was out of step and it wasn’t a place that was in line. It was my American experience. I suppose the seeds of what has happened since were around. Factories closed. Our local economy had for generations been underpinned by Kodak and I did see that diminish a ton while I was growing up. Hard not to notice as it was kids parents you went to school with. Other things popped up, but nothing, no amount of things popping up could make up for losing jobs by the tens of thousands, seemingly every year for a couple decades there. Good jobs too. Union jobs for a labor force that often had only needed a high school degree. Just gone. I saw that. Didn’t know it would be such a harbinger of things to come for a pretty big stretch of the country. I imagine my elders did see it coming. Imagine those that stayed saw it coming and to some degree perhaps even got caught standing on the path.

I don’t know what my kids lives will be 30 years from now. My parents weren’t locals to where I’m from and their parents aren’t local to where they’re from. I suspect that trend will continue, but who’s to say. Perhaps my kids will love it here so much that they stay. I would be happy. I would be happy to know that they not only loved where we raised them and found a community of kind and caring friends and neighbors here, but also if they were inclined to stay because the opportunities look like staying was a good decision. I’d like them to have options.

I’m anxious. I’m scared about the direction of so many things. The economy. The hostility that seems to be so prevalent in so many. The rising social issues, some we considered if not resolved, heading inevitably in that direction in the America I grew up in. The role of America in a world in upheaval, without the terrifying order the Cold War provided. I’m hoping this anxiety that seems to be floating free in the world is resolved and my children grow up as I did. Happily oblivious to all that they will one day read about and wonder how they didn’t see it all. Nostalgic for that miracle that is awaiting us just around the corner.

Spies and Rocket Ships

Last night after dinner, before bed we were engaged in the ‘wind down.’ This is what we’ve come to call that time of night that was ‘the witching hour’, when they were younger. Now it’s ‘wind down time.’ I prefer to think that this is not an entirely misleading name for this time, but rather an aspirational one. As is the custom during this time, the boys were running wildly between floors, screaming and laughing and we were in the kitchen, ignoring them as much as we could.

Ignoring a couple of hyped up little boys is impossible, so we ignore them merely as best we can. This is quite the change over a relatively short period of time and frankly, there’s some serious growth that is to be admired in it. After all it wasn’t 4 years ago where we were so scared of anything happening to them that we lived as volunteer shut-ins. I know. It’s hard hearted to invoke the word ‘shut-in’ for the purposes of humor. Fine. We were new parent nut bags so engrossed in over parenting our little ones that we never slept, pulled the alarms for every cough and acted as spotters for the first 10-22 months that they were walking. And I mean every minute of them walking.

So, to be at a place where we can pay only minimal attention to them, to be able to hear patterns of speech without engaging other than to recognize where our required, ‘Sure, buddy.’, or ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’, were needed, well, that’s like Will Hunting fleeing all he knew to pursue his dream and his dream girl at the end of the movie, without so much as a note for Chucky and the rest of the gang knowing damn well they were family and would not only understand but be damn proud of him level of growth we’re talking about.

Well, like all good things this one too had to end, so we jumped back in at some point when we knew we really couldn’t hope to ignore them any longer. Notably, this usually occurs when one punches the other or the other grabs something they want from the other and they bite them instead of relinquishing something of such a precious nature as a tiny, long forgotten instruction booklet from a tiny Lego set we may or may not have ever had, or a found rubber band or some other precious booty they salvage from the flotsam and jetsam of our lives here on this pioneer outpost. But not tonight. Tonight it went the way it should. We ignored, they entertained each other, we re-engaged and voila, this is how you start the bedtime process a mere 2-3 hours later than you always swear you will tomorrow.

‘Did you sign up? Wait, are you signing up tomorrow?’ Charlie asks as I settle in to the couch and start to brush his teeth ten feet from a sink where he could do it himself, but instead we act as servants to these boys who pay only in affection and dependence. Granted, we make out on the deal, still, we may coddle a bit too much.

‘Oh, I’m signing up tomorrow.’ I say and tense up ever so slightly.

‘Okay’ he says.

Phew. I haven’t felt this good about faking my way through since telling my doctor, ‘yeah, I don’t know. I guess I have 2-3 drinks a week.’ Felt pretty good.

‘Remind me again what I’m signing up for?’ You can absolutely be this transparent. THEY DON’T KNOW ANY OF THE TRICKS YET!

‘Spies.’

‘Okay, spies. Sounds like fun. What is it?’ Seriously, you can be this blunt in your blatant disavowing of knowledge you ‘yeah buddy’d’ not 5 minutes earlier.

‘It’s a game.’ Charlie says.

‘Yeah, we are spies and we run around the house.’, said Teddy. He’s even less sure and more confident than me. I’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

‘That sounds fun.’ I say

‘Yeah and tomorrow we’re going to build a real rocket ship.’

‘What!’ I exclaim. This is really taking a turn.

‘Do spies fly rocket ships?’ I ask.

‘Yeah. We’re going to build a real one. A real rocket ship.’, says Charlie. He’s pretty insistent. This is a new and serious tone. They recently saw the Wallace and Gromit short where they build a rocket in the basement and spend the day on the moon, so I’m pretty sure this is real.

‘I believe you.’, I say. ‘What else do spies do.’

‘They fly to space and do experiments and build rocket ships.’ The ‘duh’ was implied.

‘Okay. When are sign ups?’ I ask.

‘Tomorrow. We’re signing up and so are you and mommy.’

Done.

Turns out Spies is a pretty great game. If you ever have the chance I highly recommend signing up.

‘I Like That I’m Weird’

‘Tell me something you love about yourself. What is something about you that you really like.’ his mommy asked.

‘I like that I’m weird. I like ‘small potatoes’. I know it’s supposed to be for little kids, but I like it anyways. I like that I’m weird like that.’ Charlie said.

img_4893img_4891When Karen came down from putting him to bed she could barely contain how excited she was to tell me about this little conversation. She was right to be excited. I couldn’t have been happier to hear it.

‘I like that I’m weird.’ How great is that?

Getting comfortable with my weirdness is something that’s taken me a lifetime. First step for me was seeing that I was weird and trying with all my might to deny/hide it. Since then, since getting to a place where I passed as a normal I’ve been working like nobody’s business to try to unburden myself of my various insecurities and collected disguises. I needed to conform, emotionally. I needed to fit in first. It left me safe and sad. Once there I needed to get back out, which was harder. It was definitely harder to reclaim my ‘weird’ than it was to fit in.

So to hear this news, well, I just wanted to wake him up and tell him how proud I was of him. I wanted to tell him he’d discovered the secret to happiness. I wanted to tell him that loving things you aren’t ‘supposed to’ is something it took me forever to learn to do and longer to be comfortable saying I loved those things. I was so impressed with him. I wanted to open YouTube and start playing endless episodes of ‘Small Potatoes’ with him.

Furthermore I wanted to tell him that his life would forever be better as long as he is true to himself. If you like sports and that’s not weird, so what, it’s true. I guess that’s it. I felt shame around my weirdness. Still do from time to time. Then I come here, I tell on myself and I learn to get comfortable being me. My weird self. My journey is as much about meeting me as it is about meeting the world and he has a moment now, one he can call back on and know, being weird, feeling different, it can be a huge gift!

I love my little weirdos so damn much.

Surviving My Kids Friends Birthday Parties

I was sitting in a room full of 5 and 6 year old’s and their parents this past weekend. We were at one of Charlie’s friends birthday parties. It’s remarkable how much a 6 year old’s birthday has changed since I was a kid. Perhaps I went to one at a McDonald’s once. I don’t think I went to all that many kindergarten birthday parties. If I went to 5 that would seem to be a lot. Now we’re busy like I was during the summers of my late 20’s when I was  traveling every weekend to weddings of friends and family.

17022102_1224967080954027_8283132131191062470_nThis was our second birthday party in as many days from this one kindergarten class and it was at the same location as the first. It was one of those former retail spots made over as a kid-party factory, complete with monstrous bounce houses and inflatable slides. This one was particularly cool as it also had scooters and floor projected interactive video games. Ultimately a perfect place for a couple hours of fun. He loved it.

I also, of course, loved that he loved it and was super appreciative of the family hosting it for giving such a fun experience to our boy. But it’s an awkward place for me. I’ll write more about that in a short while, I’m sure. It’s really worthy of milking for some laughs when you see me, a 43 year old dad to two, so socially petrified that I’m stuck staring at my phone trying hard not to look creepy to all the other, seemingly more socially gifted parents sitting in small groups chatting away. It’s just strange. And I’m not the only dad to end up this way at these things. So UNCOMFORTABLE. But like I said, you’ll get some laughs out of this in a future post, I hope.

Back to the room of kids, eating pizza and drinking juice. They sit there so confident. I recognize this confidence. It’s not social confidence. By 5 or 6 you start to see some self awareness and self consciousness start to sneak in as they observe there classmates and occasionally wonder if they are doing it right. Whatever ‘it’ is. No. This is the confidence in exactly what is shaky inside me. Confidence that those grown ups, as present and attended to as the muffled and ignored teachers and parents in the old Charlie Brown cartoons, are all knowing, never wavering, able to know exactly what to do and how to do it. It’s a blind confidence. Never questioned or examined by the kids. Its exactly the opposite of what I feel at the moment.

Should I sit down? I should sit? Shit, did I make the mom sitting next to me uncomfortable? I should introduce myself. Shit. Of course I just introduced myself to the woman I exchange pleasantries with everyday and of course we know each other. I should stand up. Shit. Did she take that the wrong way? Do I, do we have an enemy now? I’m not eating. Damn it. Should I stand by the wall or hang by the door. I just don’t want to look like a creep and everything is making me look that way. These are my thoughts while my child sits there, assured and confident because I, who knows all and controls all, is present.

I don’t know how all the other parents feel but I have to imagine I’m not the only one that has these moments where it all becomes so clear. We are all doing the best we can. It’s a blend of planning and reacting. It’s a combo of following in footsteps and improvising. It’s intuitive and learned. We all want to do well. There’s never really a time when you know whether or not you are. You win moments, sure you handled something perfectly. Those moments are followed by other moments and that goes on forever.

As much as anything this makes me realize how much of my own life was and to some degree, will always remain a fabrication of my own misunderstanding of what my parents were and what they were doing. And there parents and there parents for as far back as we go. Structures we rely on make it possible and we’ve been fortunate enough in recent generations to have stable structures. It’s hard not to feel a little off balance when so much seems so fragile.

Before I know it Charlie’s asking the nice lady in the party factory uniform for seconds of ice cream cake. Some folks are leaving, getting gift bags, saying thank yous and finding coats. I’ve actually had a nice conversation with another parent, a mom of one of Charlie’s good friends. Everything is back to normal. I know my script and am ready to dad.

‘Yep, time to go, buddy. Did you say thank you? Don’t forget to say Happy Birthday.’

Funny Boys

Charlie: I like this one.

Teddy: I like pick pun

Charlie: What’s a ‘pick pun’?

Teddy: Um.. It’s a kind of pun?

Charlie: What’s a ‘pun’?

Teddy: It’s a type of berry.

************

These conversations happen all the time now. So often I don’t even hear them. They are part of the white noise of parenthood, the ever present hum that fills the background of our lives and colors the corners of the spaces we share. They are amazing and we hardly ever notice them. But we were in the car and I happened to note the entire exchange. Once it hit me I couldn’t stop laughing. Like, fully exhaled, tears coming, hysterical laughter. This was brilliantly funny.

First is the simple mock of ‘I like pick pun.’ This is a four year old’s greatest tool when confronting an irresistible force such as an older brother with whom he is endlessly enamored with and to whom he feels the yoke of tyranny. The force is strong in Teddy and he will be free the yoke sooner than I might even imagine, but for now the older brother is living up to his first born obligations as an authoritarian leader. He can’t and won’t be dissuaded. Though we do check his power whenever we see him abusing it. We’re even preemptive if we think any situation, from which order to eat his dinner to how long he is entitled to play with his own toys before ‘sharing’ them (like a feudal tax) to his (tor)mentor, the older brother.

Charlie, for his part, ever the straight man in this entire exchange, took his younger brother at face value. He was genuinely curious as to what a ‘pick pun’ was. The air of my second child changed. What was a playful, mocking tone immediately became something far more worthy of genuine consideration. His idol and hero noticed him. He asked him a question. He was interested in what was being said to him! I could practically hear his inner monologue as he pondered what to say now that he’d found himself here. ‘OMG, this is really happening. He want’s to know something that I can tell him… Don’t blow it… What is a pick pun, what is a pick pun.. ‘It’s a kind of pun.?.’ ‘

A good deal of the humor was in this shift from total silliness to serious.

‘What’s a pun’ said Charlie.

It worked! Teddy tested the waters with nonsensical logic and he bought it. He was on the line. This was more than a bite.. Now, how to reel him in..

‘It’s a type of berry.’

Talk about nailing the dismount…Brilliant! My boy is a creative genius!

Some might say that this simple exchange is not worthy of this level of line by line analysis. To them I say leave the assessment of my child’s genius to me. For now I will proceed knowing that regardless of whether or not these boys decide to develop this act, regardless of whether they choose the fame and riches of comedy genius, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps they will find more fulfillment in some other line of endeavor. But I’ll know, I’ll always know that they will always have this talent to fall back on. Not only as a career, but as a tool to navigate everything from meeting people to handling rejection. These boys are legit and the ‘yes and’ crowd should keep an eye on this up and coming improvisational duo.

What’s a pick pun.

It’s a kind of pun.

Gold, Jerry!

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Snowy Old Christmas Eve’s at Home

Brockport is a charming Victorian village that straddles the western Erie Canal and it is made only more beautiful for its near constant snow cover for much of the year. We are natives of the snow belt and there was endless pleasure to be derived from its copious bounty. As kids that first snow fall was something approaching magical. We would watch the weather reports, sometimes as early as the beginning of the school year, but usually just before Halloween or shortly thereafter, waiting to see those snowflakes. If it was going to come in the night we’d stay up as late as we could (we were and remain a family of night owls) in hopes of seeing those first flakes fall. If we didn’t make it we were rewarded with the fresh, bright, clean sheet of dazzling white when we woke and it really did make a kids heart skip a beat.

In hindsight I have a great deal of love and respect for how my parents dealt with it. We moved to Brockport, well, Hamlin initially, but to the area when I was a month or two from arriving in the world. Myself and my brothers and sisters are natives and we saw endless delight in skating the ice and digging tunnels in the snow, making a web of undersnow crawl spaces that were so much fun to explore and play in. We couldn’t wait to go sledding down the hill next to the high bridge at the back of the park across the street. We’d be there for hours on end when the snow was good. All day. For my parents winters were a challenge. I see that now as a parent myself. But I’ve moved away from those winters. Sure, New Jersey has winter and the cold can be even worse down here, but the snow, there’s no getting around that.

Having the fairly safe assumption that we would have a White Christmas was pretty great. Our family traveled on Thanksgiving, but Christmas always was at home. When we were lucky it wasn’t just the sitting snow, it was the big fluffy fluttering of a beautiful snow dancing in the floodlights out the front window as we headed out on Christmas eve. We were going to the barn mass usually around 7pm the night before at Martin Farms. It was so cool to see all the folks and more from our weekly mass out and standing, excited and cold. Styrofoam cups of coffee steaming in hand. The kids in the Nativity scene dressed in period and regionally appropriate clothing for Jerusalem, draped over the heavy coats and winter hats. There was livestock present and lights dim.

After mass we got pizza. That was our tradition. We’d all mill around, wondering what the small gifts around the tree in the smolderingly hot living room were. We had a cast iron stove that kept the far reaches of the house warm enough to be sure but made the living room, the secondary hub of our home (kitchen is always primary, no?) at a resting temp of roughly 90 degrees. You think that I’m exaggerating. You do. You have to. The reality is I’m being conservative. I can still feel it and not in some sentimental way. I mean my core temp is still cooling. It was geologically hot.

1017044_10202956744025782_526539434_nSometime between the pizza and the wondering and the heat of the fire and the lights around everything dad would disappear. You wouldn’t notice. He’s like that. As central a figure as he is in all his life, he’s remarkably subtle and he can slip away without notice at any time. Some time after he was gone a strange rollicking would be heard from upstairs. It wasn’t quite from the roof and he didn’t enter through the chimney. Rather, Santa himself would come down the stairs. We would come to discover that he had made his way into the house through the drains. Why else would we catch him emerging from the upstairs bathroom. It started as a joke and was always received that way, but still, in our house the tradition is a tad askew, as we all prefer it. Sounds like something my older brother Mike would have come up with. It was already orthodoxy by the time I became aware.

Besides his penchant for coming in through the pipes there were other signs that our Santa was different. He wore the traditional red with white trim. His beard, though a bit cottony, was never the less white and long. The hat was a match. But there was something about that belly. It didn’t quite fit what you imagined was holding him up in those baggy pant legs. Nor was it really a belly that fit the spindly, long arms. One time I distinctly remember making out the points of a square, roughly the size of that throw pillow from the couch that seemed to have gone missing just then. Regardless, Santa was here and my extraordinarily tall, lean, and incredibly subtle dad was missing it. Again! Oh well…

Santa made it every year I remember while growing up. He would come and sit in Dad’s chair and read us all Twas the Night Before Christmas. We would all sit rapt with attention, trying to suss out how exactly we might be able to catch him this year. We all wanted to see him. We had been told quite early that he was just a story, not real, but we weren’t dummies. We knew better. We’d spend weeks planning our middle of the night espionage in hopes of capturing sight of the midnight, more ‘jolly’ version of this tall Santa with the familiar voice and lap. We never caught him, but we kept planning and trying and we always thought we might get a better chance if we could figure out from this story how he operated in the wee hours. It never happened and slowly the kids that sat at his foot transitioned to younger kids as older kids began to take in the story with mom, a bit behind the younger ones who didn’t want any distractions.

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I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus. Seriously.

Santa then took time out of his busiest of nights to let everyone sit on his lap. Even Mom! We even have picture evidence of her kissing Santa. He would tell us all how we were on the nice list and that we should expect some presents in the morning. He would let us choose one gift from under the tree to open that night. At that point the only gifts were from siblings and Aunt’s and Uncle’s and Grandparent’s. It was agony choosing and you started days in advance. Picking up, shaking, maybe even peeling tape slowly and peeking. I mean, I’ve heard that some people did that. I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure some of the others did.

Before long Pop would return from wherever he had disappeared to so mom could get ready for the midnight mass. We would all be wound up on candy canes and hot chocolate and native excitement for getting gifts that was so close you could taste it. It was all too much and eventually we would go to bed. One by one, falling off and forgetting all our plans to catch the Ho Ho Ho man in the act as the snow flied outside our windows, dreaming of Christmas in our own perfect snow globe.