Monday, December 29, 2008

"Do they still play games on Christmas?"

At Christmas play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year. --Thomas Tusser

I had been making a joke for a month or so that since you should be with your family at Christmas, we should go to the Dundee Dell, since that’s where we have good friends and spend a lot of our free time. Ha ha ha, our family is the local bar. Well, I was partially serious because we didn’t have anything to do any way, until our neighbor called and asked if we’d like to come over for dessert late Christmas afternoon. Al was disappointed that I said yes because if he has a choice between a warm pub with a wee dram and a house full of loud teenagers, guess which one he’ll choose. Come to think of it, a lot of people probably would’ve chosen the pub, too, but what could I do? It just doesn’t seem polite to turn down an invitation to spend Christmas with someone.

Besides, our neighbors are great. All five kids, plus a son-in-law and one of the girl’s boyfriend were there. The oldest is married and also brought their new dog, the next two girls are in college and home on Christmas break, their 15-year-old son is the one who mows our yard, and their youngest son is 10, I think.

When we arrived, there was a bustle of excitement while they finished getting all the dinner dishes together. The atmosphere was the definition of “jovial.” Everyone was still basking in the warmth of a Christmas dinner and family time around the dinner table. Their house looked like Christmas had exploded. Wrapping paper, tissue paper, clothes, DVDs, games were in small piles around the living room, obviously representing each person’s haul. While Christmas carols played on the stereo, the older kids cleaned up the dinner dishes while the younger ones ran down to the basement to get another game of Rock Band in before dessert, and the parents and we had a glass of wine. The dad said they went around and opened one present at a time, and with nine people, it took a couple of hours, especially once you add in the time for appropriate ooohing and ahhhing.

Then the big decision had to be made—should we eat dessert then play a game while we drank coffee or eat dessert while we played the game. Considering how good that pumpkin pie smelled, everyone was all for dessert first. When playing a game was mentioned, I glanced over at Al who had that look on his face that said, “You didn’t tell me we were gonna have to play a game.” It’s worth mentioning that I love playing board games, but Al does not, especially, the “trivial” games where you answer questions. I think it’s because he’s just so damn intelligent that he gets bored. See, ya gotta be clueless like me to enjoy the public act of humiliation of trying to answer a question your average 16 year old would know. To make matters worse, the game was “The Battle of the Sexes,” which would really irritate Al. It pits the women against the men, answering questions that supposedly the opposite sex would know.

Now, a game called “Battle of the Sexes” is inherently sexist. The premise alone lets you know that someone is going to feel insulted, and that person was me. In this game, the men ask the women questions that a man would know, and the women ask questions that a woman would know. There were the obvious cosmetics questions for the men and sports questions for the women, but here’s what really ticked me off. Of the questions we had in this one game, the questions for the men were all focused on movies and gossipy things, while the questions for the women were about history and computers. Here’s some examples so you’ll get a better idea what I’m talking about:

(Questions for the women are in red, questions for the men are in blue.)

What 2 colors combine to make pink?

What does Blog stand for?

What does PMS stand for?

Who is the architect of some PGA golf course? (can’t remember which ones mentioned)

What actress flashed her breasts at a late-night TV host?

What year marked the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of Israeli independence? (We guessed 1997, but it was 1998)

Here’s the weird thing, the women won! I’m still not sure how that happened. I think the end of the game wasn’t the objective, so pawns didn't get moved and we lost track of how many places to move the pawns. Plus, we got lucky on some wild cards. The objective was to be together, have a good time, and laugh at the bizarre answers we would come up with. I admit to getting a little frustrated when I couldn’t answer something like what blog stands for because there were so many people talking I could think, but then I had to try to step back and realize what the true objective of the game was—to have fun.

After the game, I decided Al had done his time and we should head home. He had decided that, too, and we bundled up to walk back home. After rounds of “thank you” and “so glad you could come over” and “thanks for including us,” we walked back to our house. We were greeted by a sleepy Cosette, who decided to wake up enough to play one more time with her Christmas presents.

When I was a kid, before my parents split, we had big Christmases like that, too. My dad’s extended family is pretty big and everyone lived close by, so it was usually easy for all of us to converge at my grandmother’s house or some other brave person’s home. Lots of food, lots of drink, lots of packages, lots of noise and chaos, so being at our neighbor’s house made me kind of homesick, even though I haven’t had a Christmas like that in years. I’m not sure I was homesick as much as I was lamenting how long it had been. Al was glad to return to the quiet and calm of our home, but I was missing that chaos. People say they envied my quiet, stress-free Christmases of just the two of us, yet that night I envied the lively bedlam of a large family celebrating. Um. Go figure.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas 2008

Christmas is for children. But it is for grownups too. Even if it is a headache, a chore, and nightmare, it is a period of necessary defrosting of chill and hide-bound hearts.
--Lenora Mattingly Weber

I'm not ready for it to be Christmas. I don't mean I still have shopping or wrapping or anything like that, I mean I don't want it to be Christmas yet. I want another week to enjoy it all some more. What with Thanksgiving being so late and the ice storm and snow we've had, there just didn't seem to be enough time to really enjoy the season. I'm not ready for the commercials to be over or the Christmas shows or the Christmas movies to stop running. The radio station will return to it's usual line up and the stores will throw all their Christmas stuff into big bargain bins.

No, I'm not ready for it to be Christmas, but here it is. So, I'll enjoy these last couple of days to the fullest, literally and figuratively considering the dinner I'm planning.

I also didn't post as much as I wanted to this season. So, here are some photos to illustrate what's been going on this festive season.

Decorated for Christmas. We got a bigger tree last year, so I bought more ornaments at the after-Christmas sales last year. I got frustrated while decorating, thinking it looked awful, then I turned on the lights. Oh, it was so pretty. It's amazing how prettier it looks with lights on.

Christmas baking--I love this part of the season. I didn't do as much as I usually do. But it still kept me busy.

I baked for Al's office, making the usual Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies and Chocolate Chip Snowballs

I also made the easiest candy ever. Here's the recipe: Melt a 12-oz package of semi-sweet chocolate chips, stir in 1 cup of peanut butter, stir in a cup or so of dry roasted, salted peanuts. Spoon into mini muffin cups, then put in to refrigerator until cool and solid. I put them in muffin tins, but you don't really have to.

The craftroom exploded with presents, packaging, and wrapping.

Made my first Gingerbread House. I used a kit to make it easier on myself. Next year, I'm doing my own thing. I might even make it while everyone is here for Thanksgiving so they can join in the fun.

Took Christmas photos of Cosette. Some might call it torture, but we gave her the treats we were holding in front of her to make her stay.

Until she just couldn't take it any more.

Knitted presents--neckwarmers, the cutest hat ever, and an afghan for the in-laws.

Had our first snow, but it started out as mostly ice. It's still around since our temperatures haven't risen much above 10 degrees.

Cosette looked out the frosted storm door.

Enjoyed a glass of Samual Smith's Winter Warmer Christmas Ale

And enjoyed a Christmas Brunch with friends.

It was a pretty full holiday season!

Merry Christmas Everyone!


For Christmas is tradition time-- Traditions that recall
The precious memories down the years,

The sameness of them all.--Helen Lowrie Marshall

Recently, I attended a United Methodist Women’s Christmas brunch at our church. I felt a little silly going since I haven’t been exactly enthralled with our church lately, but that’s my problem, and I’ll try to figure it out some day. Like every good Southern woman, I’ll think about that tomorrow.

So, I braved the single digit temperatures, 30 miles per hour wind gusts, blowing snow and low visibility to go to this brunch. I told Al was going to be brave this winter and not let fear of driving on snowy roads stop me from keeping appointments and commitments. Stupid pride. Al said, “We bought the Element so you could get around in the snow.” Yes, the Element can get around in the snow, but I never actually said I would get around in the snow.

But I digress (again), so I got there and it was very nice. I had said I would greet people as they came in and I would talk about a Christmas tradition, following the theme of the brunch. Despite having blocked out a lot of my growing up years, I do have fond Christmas memories, and the tradition I decided to talk about was our Christmas Chains.

When Mom and Dad split up, Mom spent a lot of energy making Christmas special, so we wouldn’t think too much about how different it was going to be. Mom incorporated many traditions into each Christmas: painting ornaments, driving around to see the Christmas lights, singing Christmas carols, reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and relenting (to my whining) to keep putting our gifts out after we had gone to sleep because it was just more magical that way. But her brilliance came with the Christmas Chain.

Like most kids, we drove her crazy with “how many days ‘til Christmas” questions. We didn’t have advent calendars, but we had construction paper, scissors and tape. So, she had us each make a chain, each link representing a day until Christmas. Then, each night Jay and I would tear off a link, and we would be a day closer to Christmas. The chains had their place of prominence, taped to a wall, and it was so exciting to see them getting shorter. This may have been the beginning of my love of anticipation and my inevitable crash with post-event depression.

I get all giddy just thinking of tearing each of those links off. I think we started that tradition before Dad left, but we carried it on for a long time. Even when I knew exactly how many days it was until Christmas, I enjoyed counting those links. Of course, Jay and I were so competitive and we fought over every thing, so we had to tear those links off at the exact same time because it was unfair if someone tore one off before the other. Therefore, it was quite a ceremony to tear off those links.

Now my days until Christmas are counted by how many shipping days are left until it will cost a fortune to get it there overnight. Or how late can I get those Christmas cards out and still get them delivered before Christmas. It’s a whole new kind of anticipation.

As a visual reference for my story to the ladies at the brunch, I made a chain. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but I made a chain with 6 links, exactly how many days it was until Christmas. Every time I look at it, I get that same sense of excitement, that same feeling of anticipation I got as a kid.

I’ve been tearing a link off each night.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cold Comfort

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I just couldn’t face walking Cosette around the neighborhood again, so I we went to the park. There were several parks to choose from, but I decided to go somewhere new for her, and we went to Two Rivers State Park.

It was around 32 degrees and the wind was blowing, making it feel like 22 degrees. I decided to walk around one of the lakes but questioned my sanity when we stepped out of the car and a wind gust took my breath away. I was wishing I had my scarf, why didn’t I think to wear a scarf? I knit and have several scarfs! Sheesh. Cosette didn’t care at all, but then she has a fur coat. She was excited to be some place new and immediately headed to a trail around the lake. We didn’t cover much land quickly because she could smell the horses that had passed through before and was a little overwhelmed. It took a little while to get into the groove of walking and sniffing.

As we walked, the wind stopped being a hindrance and became an enhancement. The quiet around us was interrupted by the sound of wind cutting through the bare limbs and ruffling the leftover leaves still clinging to stay on. Cosette skipped along, happy in the great outdoors and reveling in all the smells. I felt warmer, maybe from the activity of walking or maybe from the comfort of walking my dog on a crisp Fall morning, anticipating family coming for Thanksgiving and the warmth of a busy kitchen.

Whatever the reason, we were having a grand time. Cosette barked at tall weeds that were moving in the wind. It must be alive! Therefore, she must bark and run away, then cautiously walk towards them until they move again, then bark and run away. With one final huff, we moved on to a new spot in the park.

During the summer, this park is pretty full, but today it was as if it was our private play ground. We walked towards the shoreline of the river because being a hound, Cosette must sniff the brambles and edges for critters. We walked along, then in unison looked up into the trees ahead of us. A trail! We both ran for it and into the small forest. The trail quickly became covered with leaves and was indistinguishable but that didn’t stop Cosette from hoping over downed limbs and zig zagging through the trees. I stopped, wondering if they allowed deer hunting in this park. It was around 7:30 in the morning during deer season and I was walking with a hyper dog in a wooded area without a reflector vest on either of us. Just to be safe, I steered us back to the entrance. Of course, I couldn’t find that trail, but we hadn’t gone that far and Cosette knew how to get out. Or at least she acted like she did.

We walked around a little more then headed back to the car. Neither one of us was ready to leave, really, but hunger was a stronger instinct at that point than the need to be outdoors. As we drove home, the dog who whined most of the way to the park was silent in the backseat. She stared out the window for awhile, then curled up on the seat and sighed the most satisfying sigh I’ve ever heard. And so did I.

The Comfort of Hot Chocolate

Each time I tell myself it's the last time, but then I get a whiff of her hot chocolate
-- Luc Clairmont
[at confession], Chocolat

Did you see the movie Chocolat? If you haven’t, you should because it’s wonderful, but I’m guessing a lot of you have. Anyway, remember the scene when Juliette Binoche’s Vianne, who says she has a talent for knowing what people’s favorite chocolate is, pours a cup of this velvety, dark chocolate that was so thick a spoon could stand up in it from what looks like a Turkish Coffee Pot, then she put a dollop of whipped cream on top? Remember Judi Dench’s reaction to that first sip? The pause, then “Mm” then a sigh and “Mmmmm”? I have been searching for that moment. I love hot chocolate, but I’ve never found anything that thick and rich or as good as I imagine that drink must taste.

Until now.

William-Sonoma has a hot chocolate mix that is wonderful. It’s not quite as thick as I would imagine I’d find in a French cafĂ©, but how thick can it be with 1% milk, really. But it’s still damn good. Oh my gosh, it is so good.

This hot chocolate is a canister of shaved bittersweet Guittard chocolate. Heat 1 cup of milk, whisk in 5 tablespoons of the chocolate and you’ve got a luscious cup of wonderful. A dollop of whip cream and a sprinkle of some of the chocolate shavings and you too will say, “mmmm.”

When Mom was up for Thanksgiving, I made everyone a cup of this hot chocolate. I did the whole thing—served them in pretty Polish pottery cups I have, whipped cream on top, sprinkled with chocolate, joking that this was a very high-end B&B they were staying in, after all. I warned them ahead of time that it’s not as sweet as the mixes that they were used to, but that I thought they’d like it even better, then I sat and waited for the response. Mom was sitting in the recliner, telling Cosette that she couldn’t have any and was faced away from me. Then, she was quiet. And using her tip toes to walk the chair around to face me, with her eyes wide and cheeks almost rosy, she asked, “Where did you get this?” She followed it with “mmmmmmmm.”

That moment was almost as good as the first sip I took.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Comforting Leftovers

The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you're hungry again. --George Miller

I’m a very lucky woman because I have a husband who likes leftovers. He’d be just as happy to put all the Thanksgiving leftovers on a plate and reheat them or make turkey sandwiches, but his wife isn’t really that wild about them. So, I try to think of different ways to use those leftovers in new dinners. That way we still get the comfort of that Thanksgiving meal, but it’s remade into something new.

This year instead of the usual turkey soup or turkey white chili, I made a pasta dish. Here’s what I did:

I cooked a pot of fettuccini. While that cooked, I sauted ½ of a diced onion and 2 cloves of minced garlic. I chopped the leftover green beans into bit size pieces and added them to the pan. Then I sliced a carton of button mushrooms, and added them in. I sprinkled in a little salt and pepper, then cooked until the mushrooms were cooked through. Meanwhile, I chopped up some leftover turkey then added that. About this time, I remembered that there was a baguette in the freezer, so I preheated the oven and got the bread ready to put in. Once the turkey was heated through, I added some of the turkey gravy that was left over, it was less than a cup. I let it heat through, then poured in a half pint of heavy whipping cream. I grated some nutmeg into it, then heated through until there were big bubbles and the sauce had thickened. By this time, the fettuccini was cooked, so I added it to the pan of sauce. Lastly, I chopped up some leftover sage and sprinkled it over the pasta and sauce. I turned it down to low, put the lid on, and waited for the bread to finish baking. When I took off the lid, the wonderful aroma of sage filled the room and all of a sudden I realized I was hungrier than I thought.

It was pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

And we finished just in time for Shrek the Halls and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. What a good night it was.

Cute picture of Cosette for today. This is one of her favorite places to hang out.

The Comfort Zone

There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.
Jane Austen (1775 - 1817), Mansfield Park

There are so many things to worry about these days and so many things to complain about, and it doesn’t do a damn bit of good to do either, so I’m trying not to. And failing miserably. So, I’ve decided that instead of using a blog to give a voice to my frustrations or my anger, I am going to use it to bring comfort.

The one thing I’m proud of is that people who come to my house tell me that it’s warm and inviting. It’s a carry over from my mom, I guess. All my friends used to congregate at our house, and now people congregate at mine. Going down to our favorite bar and sharing a dram with our friends is always fun, but I’d much prefer for our friends to hang out here and have a dram and a conversation. This is also where the Prayer Shawl group meets, where I teach friends to knit over a pot of tea, where my family comes for Thanksgiving, and where we have parties for Al’s co-workers. The door is always open, literally. We open the door so Cosette can look out the glass storm door and bark at the kids walking home from school or people walking their dogs.

So, that’s why the title of this blog has changed. The kettle’s on, so come in and get comfortable while I make a pot of tea and get us something to snack on, then we’ll have a nice chat. And for the most part, let’s talk about things that make us happy and feel content.

Oh, I’m sure there will be those days when I will need to vent, and if I can’t vent here then what the hell good is having a blog anyway? Besides, sometimes conversations go that way and that’s OK.

I’m not exactly sure where this will go. I imagine it will always be a work-in-progress, but I’m going to be OK with that, even though that’s not like me. I like things to be thought out before producing, but I’ve decided I need to let go of these control issues. Besides, the jumble of unfinished projects around me are proof positive that just because you’ve planned it out, doesn’t mean it can be completed.

So, the door is open. Please come in. Unless you’re a vampire, then you are not welcome. Sorry.