I’m dreaming of a Skype Christmas

Reprinted with permission by the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor

Home for the holidays is a popular wish for many, though not always possible due to circumstances such as distance, work, weather and even war. Years ago the only way to bridge those distances was letter writing or expensive long-distance phone calls. Sentimental carols like “White Christmas” or my personal favorite, “Please Come Home for Christmas,” made the longing that much more poignant.

I always knew the holidays had arrived when I saw the commercial where the college boy arrives home to make coffee and surprise his family. Tears were guaranteed.

Let’s pretend I cry this pretty.

Now I’m assured an emotional meltdown by the recent commercial of ongoing conversations between a college girl and her widower father, via computer. What can I say — I’m an easy consumer target as soon as the first hall is decked.

Times they are a-changing.

The last two decades have seen a growth in technology that has changed the world and made the simple desire to be “home for the holidays” possible in spite of the miles. Cell phones, Internet service and social media have connected us on a global level. In 2003, three Estonian software developers released Skype, an application allowing proprietary voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP). Not only does the software allow instant messaging and voice calls, but with Web camera hardware on the computer or phone, callers can see their loved one on the other end in beautiful — sometimes blurry and possibly behind a second or two — living color.

Skype eventually garnered more than 600 million users and was bought by Microsoft in 2011 for 8.5 billion dollars. Several competitive applications have been developed since then, including Apple’s version, FaceTime. The customer need only download the free software and create an account, then add contacts to their list. If both parties use the video chat, they can talk face-to-face on computers or even smart phones. The bigger and better the screen, the closer the other person feels.

Besides enhancing long distance relationships everywhere, Skype has become an invaluable business and educational tool. Employers have used it to interview prospective hires without the expense of flying them in from elsewhere and, with multiple connections allowed, audio conferencing with far-flung participants is possible. It’s even been used to assist in language exchange for students around the world.

For those of us who dream of going to the cyber office in pajamas and bunny slippers, Skype meetings make that possible. Just put on a nice shirt, wipe the oatmeal from your chin and no one’s the wiser.

They’re not hanging on every word of your presentation…
they’re wondering if you have pants on.

Professional tip: don’t stand up unless you’re positively disconnected.

Being far from those we love at the holidays can definitely be made easier with video calling. Imagine the joy of seeing your niece open her gift while you watch her reaction, or sharing a New Year’s kiss with your boyfriend while on separate coasts. Enjoy a little sibling competition by comparing the golden hues of your Thanksgiving turkey with your sister in Buffalo.

Personal tip: if you’re Skyping with grandma while wearing the hideous snowman sweater she sent that you have no intention of keeping, be sure to hide the price tag and horrified expression.

Yes, technology is a wonderful thing at the holidays, but it’s still not perfect.

The gift your kids can’t open

If you’re like me you checked your budget for the holidays and made a noise somewhere between a whimper and a groan. The money just doesn’t stretch as far as we’d like. It’s an inevitability that parents want to give their kids what they didn’t have, so trying to decide what to cut when faced with those excited little faces can be an impossible task.

This year, as I cinch my belt a little tighter and look for another corner to cut, I decided to give my daughter a gift she can’t open but will cherish and hopefully nurture through the years. The gift of generosity.

Why, yes that is a devil horn behind the Santa hat. Ignore that. Santa Kid is all about the giving. Really.

Although I’ve always instilled the need to help those less fortunate, this is the first year that my nine-year-old seems truly aware of how money works and how much it affects her directly. Instead of making this the Christmas she remembers as the year mom said “we can’t afford that” 359 times, I want her to enter 2012 with the knowledge that we are always better off than someone else, and why not share that?

We started discussing it a few weeks ago and have already begun our giving efforts with success… maybe a little too much success.

After making a trip to the huge store that will remain nameless, but is commonly known as the one where souls disappear along with large amount of cash, I assigned my daughter with two giving tasks. There was a Toys-for-Tots bin at the front so I allotted her $10 to spend on toys for other kids. Would she be able to choose something without being sucked in by all of the coveted items on her own wish list?

A few years ago, this probably would have been impossible, but she admirably moved on after a few oohs and ahhs, choosing several toys that all fell under the $10 limit. I was sure to let her separate them out and deposit them in the bin herself, feeling the warmth of giving without seeing the end result.

Her school is sponsoring a food drive for needy families, so I also gave her a canned food budget, allowing her to choose several for the cause. Her overflowing generosity backfired a little when I found her backpack stuffed full of all our canned goods from the pantry.

While money is tight, these were small expenses that I could take from somewhere else without too much pain, but to young children it was the joy of helping that was priceless. I also think it’s important to help a child choose a charity by keeping their vested interests in mind.

While it’s true we’ve all struggled these past couple of years, you may be surprised and pleased to discover that people still give, in spite of tough times. According to a report compiled by the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, generous Americans still gave over $307 billion to their favorite causes in 2009. Figures for the number of youth in that amount weren’t available, but you can bet that many adults who give learned it as a child.

A few easy — and inexpensive — ways to share the gift of giving with your child are:
• Sign you and your family up to help serve at a local soup kitchen
• Make extra cookies and holiday treats to leave anonymously for your neighbors
• Bring goodies or homemade soups and breads to the local nursing home
• Save change all year in a jar, then give the entire amount to someone less fortunate

Raising a generous child — even if she does try to give away all of your own food — is worth the effort, the time, and the money. It’s a gift they will pass on to their children in the future, and even lead their peers by example now. The best part about the gift of generosity is there’s nothing to wrap, tape or hide… just give it with all your heart.

It’s not rude if you put a bow on it

(Reprinted with permission from the the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor)

Passive-aggressive –adj: “Of or relating to a personality that harbors aggressive emotions while behaving in a calm or detached manner.”

So much is written this time of year about the joy of giving, finding that perfect gift and the true meaning of Christmas. Well, if you’re like 89.6 percent of the world, you probably belong to a dysfunctional family that would give the Lohans a run for their money. And those with sane, normal families are undoubtedly blessed with wack-a-doodle friends that keep life interesting.

Let’s face it, gift giving — and receiving — with these loved ones is not always a fun or healthy process. Who isn’t a little tempted to send an ancient fruitcake to the grandmother who still refers to you by your sister’s name and sends you last year’s calendar that she gets free from her favorite charity? Subliminal message, be damned.

Just so you know, if anyone buys this for my kid I will unfriend, block and disown you so fast your head will spin.

Sometimes the passive-aggressive generosity starts at home. You know, the husband who buys you a brand new, state-of-the-art vacuum cleaner for Christmas because he obviously enjoys sleeping in the den for a week. Perhaps you have a loving wife who buys you a gym membership because there was the time you uttered the words ‘work’ and ‘out’ — not necessarily in that order, but she read between the lines.

One friend looked deep within to appreciate the thoughtful gift from her mother-in-law the year she received “The Proper Care & Feeding of Husbands” by talk show psychologist Dr. Laura. However, based on the string of profanity in the thank you note, I’m not certain she looked deep enough.

My own mother is a sensitive yet practical gift giver, but I’ll never forget the year I received my traditional three pairs of underwear with a dual purpose. It was clear I could use a pair as a parachute if I ever needed to bail out of a plane. I tried to conceal my horror when I delicately questioned if they were the right size.

“What? Don’t you like them? They’re the same kind I wear,” she explained innocently. Hey, my mom is very cool, but I wasn’t quite ready to wear the same bloomers as someone 25 years my senior.

Some people are on the other end of the spectrum without realizing it. A woman told me she was tired of all the gifts she carefully chose for her in-laws ultimately winding up with their daughter, so she was inordinately proud of her solution this year to monogram everything. Points for passing passive and going straight to aggressive.

Countless stories of inappropriate gift certificates, hidden agendas and the blatant re-gifts litter our holiday memories like so much discarded wrapping paper. The key is smiling brightly while digging around for the receipt. When you have “colorful” friends and family, it can be a challenge to remember that time-honored adage, “It’s the thought that counts.”

Especially when you know exactly what they’re thinking.

Merry Christmas and many happy returns. ‘Tis the season to share – tell me some of your best/worst gifts with a hidden message.