I’ve been writing Christmas letters for years, much to the chagrin and amusement of many. This year, however, instead of emailing my traditional Christmas letter this year, I decided to just make a blog post of it. So here goes!

When You’re Going through Hell, Just Keep Going

For me (and honestly, for many people that I know), 2013 has been an exercise in pain. My dad’s stroke. The death of both of my dad’s parents. The sudden loss of our dogs, first Muddy and then Reba. The IRS thinking that we owed them a lot of money for a lot more money that we hadn’t claimed (if we’d earned that much, trust me, we’d have been happy to pay the taxes). Joel’s credit identity was stolen. An unusual amount of sturm und drang. The death of Karen, which on top of everything else seemed especially cruel. Every time I thought that things couldn’t get worse, my level of despair found new sub-basements designed especially for me. I’m generally an optimistic person, not annoyingly cheerful, but I can generally be counted on to see the upside of a situation or to right a sinking ship. 2013 has been enough to try the cheeriest of souls, so I’m standing at the ready to slam the door on it. I seldom stay up to ring in the new year, but I have a feeling that I’ll be doing just that in a few weeks. You’ll recognize me as being the one with bells on.

Don’t Try This at Home

Here are just a few of the things that I learned in 2013:

  1. Just because you have room to keep it does not necessarily mean that you should. I started walking some of the barns and outbuildings in January, just to see what dad had stashed in there, and when I spotted Karen Hauge’s handwriting and a mid-80s date, I knew I was in trouble. Your children and grandchildren will not mind in the least that you got rid of that eight-track cassette tape of Three Dog Night or the string labeled “too short to use.” Gut those garages, barns, and outbuildings. Purging and recycling are good for the soul. At last count, we recycled 1,200 pounds of old x-ray film, mum hauled nearly 9,000 pounds of old documents in to be shredded, and some guys at the Napa store in Bridger wanted the old washer and dryer collection for target practice and general explosive fun.
  2. There is a new type of math: one year plus two puppies equals zero sleep.
  3. In Belgium, I learned that Belgians make really really really good beer. They also score high marks for waffles and fries. I’m guessing that the Atkins diet would fail miserably there. I also learned that I will always tear up in front of Chagall glass windows–I cannot help but do so–and that the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Reims featured a lovely set depicting Abraham, the story of Jesse, and Biblical genealogy. And the Antwerp train station is a marvel of amazing beauty and ingenuity, that rare combination of functional and creative design that truly works. Ever walk into a building and feel better about humanity just for being there? The Antwerp train station is one of those places.
  4. Read the manifest before clicking the Submit button. If you do not, this is how you wind up on late-night Best Buy runs to pick up wireless network adaptors. Learn from my mistake!

Belgium, or There Is More to Europe Than Just France

In the spring, I told Joel that we could still make it to Belgium for our annual European vacation, but he’d need to do ALL of the planning this year. Fortunately, he was willing to do just that, and he stepped up to the plate and did such a fantastic job that he inherited the planning, reservations, and mapping duties for vacations from here on out.

Vacation turned out to be just the ticket, provided that you ignore the fact that United started things off by losing Joel’s luggage. They found it and brought it out to us, so things improved in rapid order. We started with a few days in Brussels, wandering through the city and finding its best macarons, and then did day trips to Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp. From there, we picked up a rental car to head south to the Battle of Waterloo, and then further south for some time in the Ardennes forest and the Belgian Grand Prix in Francorchamps. Then, it was on to the Battle of the Bulge and Bastogne, and then into France for Verdun, Rheims, and Lille for stained glass in numerous cathedrals and the largest crap fest (Lille’s braderie) we’d ever seen. As you might suspect, we had a fantastic time, but then again, who wouldn’t when you walk around eating macarons, drinking beer, sampling waffles, and the scent of freshly baked bread permeates everything?

It was nice to see Eleanor when we returned, even if she did insist on moving into our bed to ensure that we didn’t sneak off without her again. She has yet to return fully to her crate, and I sincerely doubt that she ever will, especially since Beatrice views our bed as hers now, too.

Why We Don’t Get Much Sleep and We’re Always Missing a Sock

Our house just wasn’t the same without a dog or two, so in May we welcomed a charcoal lab named Eleanor, and in November we added a German Shepherd named Beatrice (read here for further puppy escapades). Yes, we know that their names make them sound like old hennypen biddies, but that is part of their charm. Besides, few things in life are as much fun as puppy breath and puppy naps and puppy ears and puppy swim lessons. (We won’t discuss the horrors of potty training, behavior modification, and ongoing attempts to get them to be good dogs.) We have since learned that getting a puppy is a great way to meet your neighbors, and getting TWO puppies is a great way for people to think you’ve gone insane. This bout of insanity has caused me to say the following:

  • “Do NOT lick my armpit!”
  • “Get off the sofa. You have a wet butt!”
  • “Let go of the toilet paper! It’s not a toy.”
  • “I get to go to the bathroom BY MYSELF!!!!”

Eleanor also discovered that giant blue aquatic center in the backyard, causing me to leave the following note for her: “Eleanor, it was remarkably thoughtful of us to have a pool for you, but that doesn’t mean it is your personal bathtub. When I check on you in the backyard, I’m not expecting to see you put on a synchronized swimming display. Well done, however. And I guess this means that are not a defective Labrador. Congrats on that.”

Thankfully, all of the above were directed to Eleanor, Beatrice, or Eleanor and Beatrice, not Joel. But yes, they really are this cute.

Go, Smut Muffins, Go!

The Dirty Girl race is a 5k obstacle course through mud (hence the dirty aspect). You get to climb, jump, leap, laugh, and make fun of yourself and others, all in good fun. So my friend Diane and I decided to get a few friends together to join in, resulting in the team photo you see here.

2013 Smut Muffin Dirty Girl Team

We crawled through mud, waded through mud, climbed up rope ladders, climbed over walls, braved really cold and really icky water, and slid through mud. Why? Because we could. Because it’s fun.

Lastly, you should probably not let an engineer name your team. This is how you wind up the name “Smut Muffins.” But in reality, we had our own customized t-shirts replete with personal logo–thank you Oz!–and everyone thought we were completely awesome. Because we are. We were also awesomely dirty by the time we all made it home.

Scene and Heard

Over the years, this abbreviated selection of things Joel’s best witticisms has proven to be a very popular option, so I went and dug up a few of the best things that he has said this past year. (But in truth, some are mine. I’m kind of funny, too, and not just funny looking.)

  • On Christmas Eve dinner–“I love my brother! We just made the executive call to have Chinese food on Christmas Eve! Fa ra ra ra ra….” (an ode to “A Christmas Story”)
  • On fashion sense–Erin: “Which of these outfits is less awful?” Joel: “You look grape crossed with Pinky Tuscadero (purple striped shirt, printed scarf, purple vest) or like a package of Skittles that just got out of Bellview (purple striped shirt, printed scarf, lime green wool jacket).” I cannot remember what I decided to wear, but in either case I was undoubtedly vibrant.
  • On swimming habits–Joel to Eleanor: “I’m not filling your water bowl up all the way because you just turn the kitchen into Schlitterbahn.” (For those not from Texas, Schlitterbahn is a giant water amusement park.) Eleanor: scuba dives into her water bowl anyways…
  • On square dancing–I visited my friend Mary one weekend, and our first stop Friday Night was the School of Folk Music so we could go square dancing. We did Birdie in the Middle, we do-si-doed, and we were the example of what NOT to do as pointed out by the caller. And yes, as May says, “Square dancing really is the most G-rated fun you’ll ever have!”
  • On cultural sightings–Erin: “Which is worse: hipsters or lollygaggers?” Joel: “Lollygagging hipsters!”
  • On adult learning–“Here is what I’ve learned today (random order): relatively speaking, my life is easy; my father had–HAD–a frozen testicle collection; and it’s best to not refer to someone’s third wife as his “current wife.” (It should also be pointed out that the frozen testicle collection came back to haunt us all. Again.)
  • On sex appeal–“I’m sexy and I know it!” #vicksvaporub (I was sick while up in Montana/Hoth and spent the night under quilts and one of Dad’s old t-shirts with Vick’s smeared on my chest. I posted my comment, and oddly, Playboy has still not called.)
  • On alternate personalities–This screen capture from my iPhone says it all! (And no, I did not get the muppet that looked so much like me, but it was a hard decision to say no.)
  • muppet

    The Humor of Erin and Joel

Looking a Little Harder

In a year of so much bad, it’s only right to call out some good. So, some good things.

  • IBM has a truly lovely “work from wherever, just get your stuff done” policy. As an added bonus, the Internet guy in Bridger turned me up to 11, meaning that I can check files in and out off Austin-based servers as needed. Without those two things, I don’t think much of this year would have been possible.
  • Brownies are a great motivator. Just ask or witness the amazing crew at the vet clinic. When things got tough, they all dug in a little harder, thought outside the box, and delivered far beyond what I had any right to expect.
  • Joel and I went champagne tasting in northern France for my birthday. Bad years look a little less awful when viewed through a champagne glass.
  • Megan and Clint had a healthy baby boy, Hunter. Best of all, he’s a sleeper!
  • For Oscar’s birthday, I made him a bacon apple pie. (Oscar loves pie and Oscar loves bacon, so it only made sense to try and combine the two.)
  • My friend Amanda and I saw Sir Patrick Stewart in “Waiting for Godot” in New York. (For those of you that do not yet know–and there are only a few of you since I have no shame in professing my love–I do love me some Patrick Stewart. He enunciates. He wears a kilt. He’s a bloody knight.) The funny part of this is that Amanda’s husband, Ron, discovered that the play was opening the same weekend we were scheduled to be there and said, “Hey, doesn’t that girl you’re going with love Patrick Stewart? You guys should try to go to this.” So we did.
  • Bob, my mum’s giant Great Pyrenees marshmallow fluffball, likes me again. It took him a while, but he has decided that I’m okay to spend the day with in the office. All those surreptitious biscuits I pilfered for him finally paid off.

See, when things seem to be really bad, it sometimes helps to list all of the good things that have happened. It’s a reminder that perhaps life isn’t as sucky as you might have thought.

Ghosts of Christmases Past

For those readers who’d like to catch up on Christmases past, this page will take you back through a good ten years of Christmas letters. I’ve had requests for reprints in the past, and this is the best I can do. My deepest apologies for not knowing where the 2006 edition disappeared to, especially as it had the unforgettable head lice story. Nonetheless, enjoy!

Joel, Eleanor, Beatrice, and I hope this letter finds you and yours happy and well. May 2014 be a far sight kinder to us all, may we remember to be that first act of kindness, and may we remember to see people with eyes of love. Much love and happy holidays to you and yours! (And enjoy this little photographic blast from the past–too good to not share again.)

Jeff, Erin, and Sundance circa 1974

Jeff, Erin, and Sundance circa 1974