Holiday gift guide

With Ryan’s birthday barely behind us and Christmas looming ahead, it has occurred to me in recent months: We have enough freakin’ toys.

Dinosaurs, in particular, have invaded our small twin home in droves. With them, they have brought their dinosaur caves, dinosaur trucks, dinosaur jeeps and dinosaur trains. Occasionally, they’ve even brought an identical twin dinosaur.

It has gotten so excessive that even Ryan has recognized that perhaps we have a few too many dinosaurs, as he recently determined we should give away all those whose heads tilt slightly to the left.

I’ve been working with him on the concept of donating things he no longer plays with to a little boy or girl who doesn’t have as many toys as he does. Last week, he happily gave away more than half of his stuffed animals and small cars/trucks to “the yittle boy,” along with all those head-tilting dinos.

All this to say: This holiday season, I have become a strong supporter of gifting either “experiences,” like tickets or season passes, or other non-toy items.

Anyone who is not currently the parent of a young child tends to stare at me sort of blankly, though, when I suggest this because it clearly means I’ve lost my mind and have entered the realm of No Fun Anymore. (On the other hand, parents of young children nod emphatically along with me.)

I think Ryan actually enjoys non-toys more. At the very least, he gets more longterm use out of them. Yes, it is initially a little more exciting to tear through some wrapping paper to find a – gasp! – dinosaur. But after the initial excitement wears off, he tends to gravitate toward the same few toys over and over and quickly loses interest in the vast majority of the rest.

You know what he hasn’t lost interest in yet? The Crayola Factory.

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For his birthday, an aunt and uncle gifted Ryan and I season passes to the Crayola Experience in Easton, PA, and he can’t get enough of it. We’ve gone once a month since then, which means we’ve already gotten more value out of the passes than their cost. And we’ll continue to go at least once a month until he’s out of school for the summer, at which point we’ll probably go once a week.

Other season passes/experience ideas: Your local zoo, science museum, natural history museum, amusement park or aquarium. Tumbling, ballet, karate, or swimming classes. One-time passes to see a movie, a concert, a sporting event or Disney on Ice. (I got tickets for my nieces to see Disney’s Frozen on Ice for Christmas, so I practice what I preach.)

I still want Ryan to be able to open things on Christmas. I still want him to wake up and run downstairs and find some brightly wrapped packages waiting for him under the tree. So I worked hard this year to find things that I think would be fun for him, that he’d get a lot of use out of and that would help to channel/tame all his boy energy without resulting to buying a bunch of toys that will ultimately take up precious real estate in my living room to collect dust.

So he’s getting….

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A ball hopper. Last Christmas, we bought Ryan a slide for the backyard. Since it wasn’t exactly “slide weather” at the time, we kept it in our living room for a few months. It was a total godsend. Every time he walked past it, he climbed and slid. It was one more way for our lively boy to get out some energy in a safe, nondestructive manner. Now that the slide is a permanent outdoor fixture, I knew I needed something indoors that would keep him moving during the winter. I like that it can also be used outdoors in case we tire of stepping over the thing by spring.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.30.03 PMA Bilibo chair. Ryan loves himself some TV. And since I work from home, I love him some TV, too. But he’s not one to sit in front of the box and stare. Even while he’s watching a show, his body requires him to dance, jump and fall all over the place. Mike and I envision many hours of TV viewing while teetering around in this chair.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.29.17 PMPunching Bag. I’ve wanted Ryan to have one of these for a long time. The kid loves a good fake fall, he loves to run into/tackle people, he loves to wrestle. The reviews say this thing holds up pretty well. Time will tell.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.33.00 PMA science experiment kit. This is the first Christmas gift we bought for Ryan this year. We’ve had it for months. We chose it because he loves sensory activities and he loves baking with me; this seemed like the perfect marriage of the two.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 3.29.37 PMKid-sized snow shovel. My boy loves to help. This is a great concept in theory but in practice, it can slow a process down if you don’t have the right tools. During his first real winter last year, Ryan constantly wanted to help us shovel snow, but our shovels were too bulky for him to manage. Not knowing how many years of shovel-willingness we have left, we figure we ought to encourage him now with his very own shovel. If this winter is anything like last year, he’ll get a lot of use out of it.

 

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Books! We always buy Ryan at least a few books because in my opinion, books are always money well spent. Have you heard of ThriftBooks.com? If not, check it out. Free shipping, extra discounts for buying multiple books, and low prices. (No, they’re not compensating me in any way – my brother introduced me to the site a couple months ago and I am simply in love.) The books are used, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s even better because I love it when old books find a new home.

 

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Flashcards. Ryan has a pack of dinosaur flashcards that he adores. He’d be happy to sit for hours with me, flipping through them, guessing the name of each dinosaur, discussing their size and what they eat. So I was excited to discover these desert animal flash cards, beautifully designed by Arizona artist Julie Rustad. Ryan will love learning about new animals — and I can use it as an opportunity to talk to him about his home state. Bonus: It’s a great non-toy stocking stuffer.

Other non-toy gifts that have served us well:

  • Mini-trampoline
  • Soccer goal
  • Scooter
  • Wagon
  • Games
  • Puzzles

Still need more ideas? Heather at Raising Memories has a solid list of 100 Non-Toy Gift Ideas. Share your best non-toy gift ideas below.

(Pssssst! Don’t forget to enter the Jac & Elsie giveaway to win a set of her adorable adult friendship jewelry.)

In honor of Small Business Saturday, I am welcoming one of my favorite small business owners (she also happens to be a friend) here to offer my readers a giveaway. I love this particular giveaway because it’s a gift for you AND a your favorite gal(s). I asked Jaclyn to tell you how she came up with her modern friendship jewelry designs.

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When I was a girl, about the age when Mom and Dad started to drop me off at the mall with my bff, I was all about friendship jewelry. I liked the statement it made about my bestie and me; I liked how cheap it was; I LOVED that I could go into Claire’s or Afterthoughts (remember that place??) or The Icing any day of the week and find a dozen or more options.

There was the small silver-toned ring with “best friends” stamped into it, strung on a long black cord. I remember two halves of a glittering rainbow and cloud. Of course, there were the traditional broken heart necklaces, and we’d fight over who got “BE FRI” and who got “ST END.” We all wanted the first. I have no inkling why.

But the best set, the golden sets, the jackpot crème de le crème sets, were the friendship sets of THREE. A heart broken into three puzzle pieces (pity the gal who got stuck with that weirdly shaped center piece), three matching or coordinated colored charms, simple pewter necklaces with either a B, a B, or an F charm.

Four years ago, a friend who knew I made jewelry asked if I made any friendship sets. She was in search of a rock, paper, and scissors set of jewelry for herself and her two childhood besties.

It was the first friendship set I offered in my Etsy shop, Jac & Elsie, and it spawned more than two dozen other designs. Because, as it turns out, it’s not just teen girls who love meaningful and adorable friendship jewelry–grown ups dig it, too.

Rock paper scissors necklaces. Best friend jewelry. Set of three necklaces. Paper bead, pewter scissors, tigers eye rock. Best friend gift.

I’m giving away one rock/paper/scissors set to a Phase Three of Life winner to share with her two best friends (or sisters, or a mom and grandma–I have heard of so many sweet ways to divide these up). You get to chose if you prefer necklaces, pictured above, or bracelets, and they’ll even come with the initial charms of your choice.

To enter this giveaway, just comment on this post about your favorite friendship set at Jac & Elsie. Be sure to leave the link the comments! A winner will be announced in one week, on Saturday, Dec. 6.

If you can’t wait, I’m also offering special savings just for Phase Three of Life readers: Use code 14PHASE323 at checkout in Jac & Elsie to save 10 percent off your entire order, good through Dec. 31.

There’s all sorts of deals going on in the shop this weekend too: Get free shipping anywhere in the world through Monday, and spend $35 or more and receive a surprise piece of jewelry.

Today is Small Business Saturday, and I hope you’ll be supporting your favorite small businesses. Jac & Elsie is using the time to say THANK YOU for supporting Jac & Elsie with a $100 giveaway!! To enter, just share the below image on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest, and BE SURE to tag me @JacAndElsie so I know you’ve entered!

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I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving and even got to hang out with a bestie or two. Enjoy your holiday season!

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Her stuff is awesome, right?

Check out her shop and comment below on your favorite of her friendship jewelry designs to enter the Phase Three giveaway.

 

My mom always says that whatever age her kids were at any given point, that was her favorite age.

I know what she’s saying. You love it when they crawl, when they can hold their own bottle, when they learn how to make just the right combination of gestures and grunts to communicate what TV show they’d prefer (no, just mine?).

One day you’re afraid to hand them a fork for fear they may try to spear a hot dog and stab their own eye instead. The next day, they pierce those dogs with impressive accuracy.

It is amazing to watch these little people learn to pull on their own pants. Or to use your words against you. (How many times do I have to TELL you, Mommy?!)

While I can appreciate the special nuances of each age, I have always secretly pined for age 4-6 months. Oh, how I loved age 4-6 months. That baby was sleeping through the night and he was all smiles and light during the day. He was a dream in any restaurant, garnering endless “what a good baby” coos from strangers.

5 months

At 4-6 months, Ryan battled ear infections but pretended not to notice. He was active but in no rush to move across the room on his own. We never argued about food at 4-6 months, it was just milk, milk, milk — and we all liked it that way.

There are segments of each subsequent age that I have enjoyed, but most of them came with less desirable side effects. Yay, he can walk; oh crap, he’s running away from us at the fair. Yay, he can use the potty; boo, we have to stop every 45 minutes on road trips to pee. Yay, he can communicate his feelings; nice, he just called me stupid.

But I think I finally found the age that rivals 4-6 months in awesomeness: Four years old.

Ohhhhh, lordy, how I love four years old.

We’re still only a couple months into Age 4, but it’s like as soon as Ryan’s birthday hit, someone (God, were you listening?) snapped their fingers and he shed his three-year-old frustration.

Suddenly, he seems free. Like he finally feels comfortable – even happy? – in his own skin.

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At age 4, he is smart. Just today, I told him to finish the little bit of milk in his cup from lunch. He clearly was not interested, but he took one sip in front of me then disappeared into the kitchen. I heard the smallest of splashes before he came back around the corner, holding the empty cup out in front of him.

I finished my milk!”

Did you just dump that in the sink?” I asked as I glanced in the sink and could see clear evidence of milk dumpage.

No, I drank it. Can I watch a show now?

That boy knew better than to argue with me over whether or not to finish the milk. He knew the easiest road was the one paved with his own creative solution (and the telling of a necessary subsequent lie).

At age 4, he is funny.

I bought myself a new winter hat today. I’m not much of a “hat person” but I’m even less of a “cold winter wind” person, so I splurged on a $5 knit Walmart special. For $5, I thought it was cute. Anyway, I wore the thing when I picked Ryan up from preschool today, and naturally, he had to comment on it.

What are you wearing??

I bought a new hat! Do you like it?

It looks silly!

I was hoping it looked pretty…

It looks silly AND pretty. It looks … pretty silly! Haha!

I want to be a little insulted but dang. That was clever.

(Despite that last example), at age 4, Ryan is sweet.

He calls me his “best mommy friend.” When I ask him if I can keep him forever he says, “Yes. Can Daddy keep me forever, too?” He gives kisses freely and excessively because he doesn’t yet know it’s not cool. He told me today that when he gets bigger, he’s going to drive me around in my car (and Daddy can sit in the backseat).

He purrs a little “mmmmmm” when he hugs me.

I wish I could write it all down. Every single thing he says right now, just the way he says it. Like how he says “the pinecones be’s on the street” instead of “the pinecones are on the street.” How he says too-mardo instead of tomorrow. Chocawick instead of chocolate.

Yes, this might be my favorite age. It might even beat age 4-6 months.

As much as I want to believe my mom that it will keep getting better, I can’t fathom how five could top this.

1995 was the year I learned a little something about holiday gift-giving.

It was a snowy, bitter Christmas day, and my parents, brother and I had finished opening all our gifts to and from each other. We’d tossed balled up wrapping paper into trash bags, we’d pulled on slacks and sweaters. We’d sprayed hairspray and slipped on our dressy shoes.

We’d packed department store bags full of more gifts into the trunk of my mom’s teal SUV – a car we’d lovingly(ish) dubbed the Mystery Machine – and we’d begun the 20-minute commute from the suburbs to my grandparents’ home in Cleveland.

We weren’t on the road for more than a few minutes when my father blurted out “Ohhhhhh, CRAP!”

He’d forgotten his cherry Chapstick.

For those addicted to the thick lip balm, there are few moments in life worse than those when you discover you are Chapstickless and will have to face a long, dry day.

The very instant you realize this, your lips begin to tighten as the last bit of moisture evaporates and you desperately remind yourself, “Don’t lick your lips, don’t lick your lips, it will only get worse if you lick your lips.”

Let’s go back,” my mother urged as my father’s shoulders slumped. “We’re not that far from home. We have time to go back.”

My mom understood his panic, having long been addicted to the “classic” flavor, the one with the black label.

My dad sighed a martyr’s sigh. “Noooooo, I’ll be fiiiiiiine.”

Mom tried to offer him a hit of her Chapstick, but he scoffed at the suggestion. A cherry guy had no use for classic. I was no help in the backseat, brandishing my blue label that boasted it contained “moisturizer.” My brother also was a cherry fan, but apparently dudes don’t share Chapsticks.

The drive was a long, quiet one for my father, who I can only imagine was trying not to speak, not to move his lips any more than absolutely necessary.

He was probably thinking about the Christmas dinner we were going to consume and how he’d have to repeatedly swipe his mouth with a napkin, how he’d have to limit his Diet Mountain Dew consumption in order to survive the day.

We pulled up the driveway to my grandparents’ house and climbed the few steps to the side kitchen door. “He forgot his Chapstick,” my mom told my grandmother, as we passed around hugs and slipped off our shoes.

Ouch,” Grandma said.

Yeah,” Dad said.

We dug into plates of cookies, popped open cans of soda (well, most of us did), and admired the colorful view under the tree. We’ve always been the type of family to open the gifts first and eat the meal later, so after an appropriate amount of time had passed, we got down to business.

The six of us sat in a circle around the living room and took turns opening gifts, one person at a time, to prolong the fun and enable us to see what each person received.

By the time we’d gone around the circle half a dozen times, though, we lost interest in each other as our attention shifted to our own new treasures.

I was busy testing out a new tape recorder I’d just opened, pressing the “record” and “stop” buttons over and over, envisioning how its use would make me a better poet or a future Lois Lane. I was going to use it to document all those deep thoughts and phrases that come on too quickly for a writer to be bothered with pencil and paper.

My daydream was interrupted by an animalistic sound of pure joy.

GLORY HALLELUIA!!!” my dad bellowed out to the room.

The rest of us fell silent as we turned toward him, wrapping paper rustling at our feet.

He was perched on the edge of an armchair, smiling the grandest of smiles, triumphantly holding a three-pack of cherry Chapstick in the air.

A couple of days before Christmas, my grandmother had wrapped up the Chapsticks – along with a jar of salty peanuts – and taped a tag with my father’s name to the top. It was a throwaway gift, the sort of thing she would buy at the last minute to ensure everyone had the same number of gifts to open.

It may have been an afterthought, but it was the greatest gift anyone in my family received that year and for many years to come. I had to admit that, under the circumstances, it even topped my tape recorder.

And that’s the year I learned the best gifts in life aren’t always the most expensive ones. In fact, it’s not even necessarily about thoughtfulness or creativity.

Sometimes it’s all about timing.

Chapstick classic0001

 

Inspiration for this post can be credited to Christmas ornament designer Patience Brewster, who contacted me with the idea of helping to spread some holiday cheer. I’m not being compensated by her in any way – it just so happens that I also enjoy spreading the cheer (and I think her ornament designs are pretty funky and awesome).

I had a nightmare last night.

Ryan and I are walking out of a store. I have too many plastic bags in my hands and am trusting/hoping/praying he will listen and stay close to me as we near the parking lot.

Of course, he doesn’t. He jumps down off the curb ahead of me. I drop a bag, reach out to grab the hood of his red sweatshirt, but I’m too late. I call out to him in annoyance, as I’ve done countless times, “Ryan, get back here! You don’t run away from Mommy in a parking lot!”

The annoyance blooms into fear as he ignores me in lieu of running toward the center lane of the lot, which is suddenly full of speeding cars.

I try to scream to him, try to scream to the drivers, try to run as the first car swerves and barely misses him. But as often happens in my dreams, when my body is needed for immediate action, it fails me. My legs move in slow motion, my voice turns raspy and useless.

I read once that this happens in dreams because your brain is protecting your body, preventing you from running across your bedroom, smacking into the closet door.

It’s a cruel trick, though, one that turns me into a mere bystander as a second and then a third car come within inches of hitting Ryan, who is like a squirrel scampering across a busy road.

As soon as the danger passes, my legs and my voice return, and I’m running to him, hugging him, yelling at him about parking lots, yelling how he could have been hit, yelling out of fear and anger and overwhelming, all-consuming relief.

I woke up thinking about William’s mom.

William is one of Ryan’s preschool friends. Both boys stay at school late on Mondays to have lunch in the extended care room, a sacred event for preschoolers and one they look forward to for days in advance.

I picked Ryan up last week after lunch and was buckling him into his car seat when he said, “Oh look! William is hiding from his Mommy!”

I turned and looked through the windshield to see a little blond boy crouched down by the far side of the building, comically peering around the brick corner with the sort of grand motions that only a “hiding” four-year-old can manage.

On the other side of the building, William’s mom was looking from side to side as she rushed through the building’s main door, pushing a stroller ahead of her. He must have dashed away when she turned her attention to the baby for a moment. Now, she was gone in search of her little boy, who was still peering around the side of the building.

Ryan was already buckled in, so I told him to stay put, cracked the windows, shut and locked the doors. I thought about how William’s mom must be beyond panic by this point but how that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to leave my own son alone in a car to go track her down. Instead, I would stay with both kids and wait for her.

I walked toward the boy, calling out his name, asking if his Mommy knows where he is. As he started walking toward me, the woman and the stroller came rushing back out the door. She was out of breath, a wild look in her eyes. She looked like she was living her worst nightmare.

William is over here,” I called to her.

She barely even glanced at me as she turned to him and yelled, “Get over here now!” As I slinked quietly back to my car, I could hear her yelling at him about not hiding, yelling about not listening, yelling out of fear and anger and overwhelming, all-consuming relief.

It’s a scary age, four years old. They’re getting big and fast and strong and smart. But they’re still 80 percent impulse and only 20 percent control.

Every moment feels like a teaching moment and although you don’t want them to live in fear and you don’t want to lecture them all day long, you are in a rush for them to understand that they can be hit by cars if they dart across parking lots. They can be taken by strangers if they hide from you. They can get hurt and they can get lost.

That was funny,” Ryan said as I climbed back in the car at preschool. “I’m gonna hide from you tomorrow.”

Oh no you’re NOT,” I yelled, feeling the vibrations of the other mom’s fear. “Did you see how scared William’s Mommy was? He could have gotten lost. She might have never found him; he might have never seen his Mommy again! Do not EVER do that. We only hide when we’re playing a game.

The next morning, as we pulled into the preschool parking lot, Ryan quietly mumbled to himself, “I hope William doesn’t hide from his Mommy today. She was so scared.”

I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. One lesson down, only an infinity left to go. I can’t relax for long, though, because we still need to master the parking lot rules.

I wonder if William’s mom has had any success with that one.

Lay with me, Mommy, his little four-year-old voice says. I can’t sweep well. I need a friend to lay with me.

I almost always say no. From the time he was born, I’ve never let him sleep in my bed, I’ve always been hesitant to lay down in his, even for a moment.

It’s because I want him to be able to soothe himself to sleep on his own, I tell myself. It’s because I’m teaching him independence, I tell myself. It’s because I don’t want to create bad habits, I tell myself.

But I know the truth. At the end of a long day, I’m just done. I’ve been touched, hanged off of, pulled on and snuggled against for too many hours in a row. My introverted skin needs distance.

So I almost always say no and I tell myself that it’s for his own good.

On this night, though, I say yes. I say yes because he’s battling a cold. I say yes because my mother is visiting and I know he’s sad that he’s had to say goodnight to her after a full day of fun. I say yes because for once, I haven’t gotten enough of him that day.

I lay down next to him and he curls into me. I rest my arm across his body, my fingers tracing light circles around his back. I pause for a moment to cup the back of his head, his soft, baby-fine hair, in my hand. I breathe in the musky smell of his soap from that night’s bath.

I marvel at how big he’s become since the day he was born, when he felt as light as a feather as he was laid across my chest for the first time. I think of all the nights I should have been laying right here, memorizing the growing size of him, the rhythmic pattern of his tired breathing.

He raises one finger up to gently close my eyelids. He wraps his beloved worn yellow blanket around my neck, the same way he usually does to himself to soothe his own body to sleep.

He doesn’t fall asleep. He can’t. He’s not used to having another warm body next to him.

So on this night, I pull myself away as he reaches for me to cling harder, not because I’ve had enough, not because I want to but because I created this. I taught him how to fall asleep on his own. I taught him how to be independent. I created what will ultimately be a good habit.

But I wish I hadn’t.

 

Happy Fall

As we were driving around yesterday, Ryan said, ”Look, Mommy! The leaves are changing color. That means fall is coming next year!”

Which made me realize that:

A) I’m doing a very good job of passing along my love of fall to my son, but

B) Perhaps I need to work a little more on teaching units of time measurement.

Regardless, FALL IS HERE, and I’m stoked. This calls for a seasonal bucket list, don’t you think?

Fall Bucket List 2014

I was finishing the list up this morning and told Mike I had room for one more item but couldn’t figure out what it should be. That’s how “Tailgate at a Penn State Football Game” made the cut, as Mike helpfully pointed out that it could be an annual item on the list.

It’s possible I already crossed a couple of these off the list before the official start of fall (coughPumpkinPiePumpkinSpiceLattePumpkinBeercough)That’s ok. I can do them again.

What’s on your fall bucket list?

My sweets,

On the cusp of your fourth birthday, that’s the name I most often call you. You have only yourself to blame for that … you went through a brief phase where you would pretend to put me to sleep. You’d hand me a stuffed animal, tuck me in, kiss my cheek and say, “Goodnight, sweets!” It stuck, as insanely cute things like that tend to do.

Part of me is shocked you’re turning four, while the other part of me can’t believe you’ve been here for what is really such a brief time. It’s hard to remember how life felt before you, how it was to live without the intense joy, love and fear of raising such a smart and charming little boy.

Oh lord, how charming you are. Your charm is my weakness and you know it. If you act out, throw a fit and earn yourself a timeout, oftentimes you’ll take a quick breath, smile sweetly and say, “I’m calm now, Mommy. See? I’m caaaaalm. I promise to be good. I PROMISE to be a good boy.” I’ll be honest — it almost works. Outwardly, I’m still stern and send you to timeout; inwardly, I’m grinning and applauding you for a solid try. (Alright fine, once in a while, it works.)

This is the year you really came out of your bashful little shell. You used to be the kid who stood on the sidelines of the playground, watching and waiting until you had the lay of the land and felt truly, deeply comfortable (by which point, it was practically time to leave). You’d smile shyly at other kids, maybe you’d follow them around a bit, but you’d never initiate conversation. This year, you run to the playground searching for new friends. Just the other day, you were elated to find another little boy your age. You ran to him and asked his name. When he responded, you said, “I can’t hear you. Can you say it louder?” “I’m Aiden,” he said. “Aiden? I love that name! That’s a great name! Wanna play with me?”

See? Charming.

You’ve become so brave in your fourth year. In new situations, around new people and – very notably – around water. At the shore last year, it took you five full days to gain the courage to let the ocean splash your feet. This year, you ran straight for it with no hesitation. It’s so fulfilling for me as your mom to see you feel so … free.

You are so, so, so full of energy. If I could pad every surface in our house, I would, so that you could safely bounce off the walls, the floor, the furniture, the everything. You even bounce off me, kiddo. Multiple, multiple times a day. You know you’re not supposed to, but you can’t seem to help it. I am constantly trying to figure out ways to help you get some of that energy out, but the truth is that it appears to be endless. Honestly, I hope it never runs out.

You are so curious. You ask a million questions a day about the whens and hows and whys of absolutely everything. As soon as you ask a question, I know that no matter what my answer is, you will have no less than five follow-up questions. (Can’t blame you for that; journalism’s in your blood, after all.)

There’s something else about you that I love — you’re a story-teller. You study characters and story lines in books and on television, and you reenact them. The other day, you were watching a Curious George episode. A character on the show made a gesture as he said the line, “You’re pretty smart, for a city kid.” You acted out that line and gesture at least a dozen times, trying to get it just right. You’re not the sort of kid who zones out in front of the TV, which is why I tend to let you watch more than you should. You pay attention, you study, you memorize, and you participate.

It’s not just that, though. You also sometimes narrate your own life. I took you to the Dollar Store two weeks ago to shop for presents and decorations for your Daddy’s birthday. Afterward, as we walked hand-in-hand across the parking lot, I could just barely hear you narrating under your breath – in third-person – what we had just done. And so it is that I will make my first official career prediction: I think you will work in entertainment. You will write scripts or you will act or you will direct or you will produce something.

(Just so you know, I’ll be the one in the front row, cheering like a maniac through whatever it is.)

You’re emotionally intense, Ry. You’re calm and happy one second and furious the next. It’s often hard to judge at the end of the day whether you had a “good” day or a “bad” day because you can fly across the emotional spectrum and back quicker than I can say “sticker chart.” It’s really something to see. But you also have a wisdom about you in the way you communicate with people. You can read people. You know how to get a rise out of someone and how to win them over. And you can do both within the span of a minute.

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Brand new.

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Four years.

Bub, you are a challenge. The biggest, best challenge of my life. But the challenge is never in trying to change you; it’s always in figuring out ways to help you claim your full potential. Because your potential is off the charts, kid.

I tell you this constantly, but I’m going to keep saying it forever: I love you all the time.

Happy fourth birthday, my sweets.

Love,

Mommy

P.S. Slow down that growing a bit, would ya? I can just barely heave you up into my arms these days … I need that for a little bit longer, ok?

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Previous birthday letters to Ryan:

Six months.

One year.

1.5 years.

Two years.

2.5 years.

Three years.

3.5 years.

Tonight, I stepped outside. We’re in that sweet spot between summer and fall, when the sun still feels warm on our bare arms during the day but the open windows invite in a chill at night that makes us curl up in our sleep.

It was always my favorite time of year growing up. It seemed romantic somehow, like that cool, clear air was cleaning off summer’s slate, making way for all the hope and promise of a new school year and the new memories waiting to be made.

I missed this time of year while I lived in Arizona; so I stepped outside tonight to bask in it for a few moments.

I took a deep breath and a memory rushed in with the air. College. Sophomore – maybe junior? – year. A wood patio off the side of a house I can no longer clearly describe. Same time of year, same crisp, still air, same stars overhead. I remembered sitting with a friend. A guy, one who was older than me, quiet and smart. A phenomenal writer. One I’ve long since lost touch with.

I smiled a bit at my own randomness of recall. Then I picked up my iPhone, hit the button to light up my screen … and looked back toward the sky. What was I going to do, check Facebook for the 417th time today?

I put the phone down. I sat and I tried to remember that night, pulling at every detail of the memory that still remained. A muffled party continuing in the house behind us, sitting on a cold wooden step with that friend, escaping the noise together for a while.

It was a time in my life in which I felt very alone. Maybe alone isn’t the right word. Undefined might be better. Not in a sad way; in an exhilarating way. So few chapters behind me, so many ahead. A pivotal time, one that would set the course for the rest of my life.

Not that I was thinking about all this in the midst of a college party.

Except maybe I was because those were the feelings that came back to me tonight as I breathed in the early fall air. Maybe I was feeling the enormity of my future that night, and I needed to step outside and take it all in.

I don’t remember what we talked about, if we even talked much. I don’t remember what we drank or how long we sat there. I just remember the smell of the air and the emotion and the sense of calm he brought with him.

And that’s my problem lately, the core of my recent bout of writer’s block. I don’t allow myself any time to think or to just be, to look around and see and smell, to wonder, to remember.

It’s not that I have zero “me time;” it’s that when I do, it’s easier to check out of life, to decompress by fixing my eyes to my phone or the TV or – if I’m feeling extra motivated – to my computer, trying to arrange words into sentences to tell the story of a little boy who has begun to define me a bit too much.

I’m spending too much time trying to write about what I think I should be writing about and not enough time poking around inside my own head.

I wrote this whole post without checking Facebook once. Maybe that’s a start.

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You know what’s cool about almost-four-year-olds? They love birthday parties. They love their own birthday parties the most, naturally, but they love everyone else’s, too.

I must have a little almost-four-year-old inside of me, too, because I’ve always loved birthdays. So my little partner-in-crime and I decided to really do up Mike’s birthday this year.

We started with a new tradition, which I stole from Kelle at Enjoying the Small Things: Dollar Store gift shopping. Mike turned 33 this year, so I told Ryan he could pick out three gifts for Daddy. He could pick absolutely anything in the store as long as he could tell me why he thought Daddy would like it.

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That’s how we ended up with this delightful assortment of gifts:

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A scarecrow (cuz he wiggles), a travel cup (for Daddy’s coffee) and a haunted house (because it has a bat).

Oh, and that drawing? That’s the first time Ryan has ever attempted to draw anything other than a few lines. I’ve mentioned before that he’s a bit of a perfectionist. He typically refuses to attempt anything until he knows he’ll be successful (and I mean successful by his standards, which are higher than most). When I told him he should draw Daddy a picture for his birthday, he said, “But I don’t know how to draw, Mommy.” “Well, I can show you!” “Oh, THANK YOU!”

I showed him how to draw a pretty basic stick figure, which is essentially all I’m capable of, and he went right to work. The picture he ended up giving Mike was actually his third draft. Here he is working on Draft #1:

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Mike’s smile was not quite right in that one. It wasn’t right in the second draft either. I think that’s how we ended up as The Mouthless Family:

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Left to right, that’s Mike, Ryan and me. If you’re wondering about my extra appendage (as was I), apparently that’s my computer. Guess he’s trying to tell me something.

On the morning of Mike’s birthday, we ran downstairs to decorate (Dollar Store blue and white decoration for Penn State, of course.)

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Mike acted sufficiently surprised/excited/impressed:

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The rest of the day was filled with football, family, food, drinks and chocolate chip cookie bars:

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At the end of the day, Ryan asked Mike, “Daddy, do you love your party?”

He did. We all did.