Friday, December 23, 2011

Time For the Christmas Feast

This was Christmas Eve in 2010.  It's not so cold or so beautiful this year.

My lead-up to the holiday this year has been slow.  All the annoying bumps in the road for surgery recovery have seemed finally to even out, so this week I’ve been going full tilt at completing decorations and cooking.  My mom’s strawberry bread and fudge have already been made once and distributed for gifts.  Now it’s time for round 2 for the family.  Last night my son’s girlfriend, Laurie, and I made two large casserole pans of my mom’s chicken casserole for the family Christmas Eve meal.  There are more cookies to bake today for the family gathering so that night before Christmas can be left to wrapping presents.

If you asked me what my favorite gifts were over the years, I would be hard pressed to rattle them off like men reciting baseball statistics.  For me, Christmas has always been about the food.  My family is not the sort to serve a traditional Christmas meal of roasted turkey or ham with all the trimmings served on white lace tablecloths with festive candles filling the room.  From my very first memory of Christmas, it has always been my Granny’s spaghetti, first created because there were so many mouths to feed at the family gathering each year.  It took years for anyone to write the recipe down.  When my Aunt Nancy followed her around the kitchen for that purpose she had trouble getting it right because Granny would wander into the kitchen later and add something else when no one was watching.  Through group collaboration we finally got it down on paper (the secret ingredient is bacon).

The reason for the season

Christmas is also not Christmas without my Grandma’s strawberry cookies.  You may ask what’s so Christmas-like about strawberry cookies.  Nothing, except that is when Grandma made them.  She was not a big cookie maker – more a pie kind of baker – but each December she went through the painstaking process of cooking the mixture of dates and sugar and pecans and butter that formed the basis of this treat.  When it had cooled she sat in front of the TV and spent the afternoon molding spoonfuls of the sweet concoction into the shape of a strawberry, then rolling it in red sugar and carefully creating a green leaf at the large end with a can of Betty Crocker’s icing in a can.  They were as bright and beautiful as Christmas neon.  One year after serving as her strawberry assistant I submitted her recipe to a Christmas cookie contest for the newspaper.  It won an honorable mention and a photo, but the food editors felt that they knew better and rolled the cookie concoction in multi-colored sprinkles instead of red sugar.  I suppose it worked for some, but the brilliant red and green gifts from Grandma’s hands were what made the Christmas table.

So as you sit down to share a meal with family and friends at the end of this year, whether Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s or other special occasion remember all you’ve been given this year.  Remember all who are not with you.  And give a special thought to all who suffer and are alone at this time of the year.  I wish you all the best and I’ll be back to regular posting after the New Year.  I’ve got some eating to do now.

I know I should have had photos of culinary creations today, but I just couldn’t get it done.  But stories about them are just as tasty.  What is your favorite food from family holidays?  You can think outside the Christmas season if you want and tell us about barbecue at Labor Day or latkes at Hanukkah or any family food that comes around only rarely and brings memories with it.  Please share in the comments box.

Skyler with her present from last year.  I think I'll just wrap it and
give it to her again this year.

You Must Read:  This fall two blogging friends have published books that you must rush out and buy now to read during the cold nights of January.  Kristin Espinasse, of the French Word A Day blog, has recently published Blossoming in Provence.  It’s another in her series of books with photographs and stories about her life as an American raising two French children and adjusting to life at a Provence vineyard with her French husband.  She has a wonderful eye for the scenes of France that she translates both with her camera lens and her words.

The other book you want to read is The Foreign Language of Friends, by Nadine Feldman.  It tells the story of four very different women brought together in a Spanish class but who find they learn more than the language with this chance encounter.  It’s for anybody who has faced a transition in their lives and have to choose a path.  Nadine’s blog, A Woman’s Nest, shares thoughts and suggestions on travel in the world and into a life of creativity and joy.

Read another story about our Christmas vacation that wasn’t.  Sometimes the best times are when nothing happens.

 merry merry2 122510

Thursday, December 15, 2011

10 Things I'd Edit Out of My Life, or Making Room For the Good Stuff

Some things are well worth the space they occupy, like my Russian Grandfather Frost collection at Christmas
(you should see how many are on the tree)

Before the great decorating frenzy that is Christmas at our house I looked around the living room to figure out if there were a new place to put the tree other than the same corner where it had sat for the last gazillion Christmases.  I wanted it still visible through the French windows across the front of our house, so how could I rearrange the furniture to make this happen?  The only logical conclusion was to sell my husband’s piano so I could move the couch to the wall the piano had owned since we moved into this house.  Would you like to know how that conversation went?

I went out last week and purchased more Christmas paraphernalia, despite the fact that we have a small storage room in the basement dedicated to storing what I already had.  And now I’ll have to buy some kind of container to store the new decorations in.  And so it goes.  It only seems appropriate, then, that this week I ran across a TED talk that was titled “Julie, You Better Watch This Because I’m Talking To You.  Yes, You” – or something like that.  TED is the nonprofit organization whose mission is to spread worthy ideas.  Every year at its annual conference the best minds in Technology, Entertainment, and Design have eighteen minutes or less each to give the most inspiring talk they can, and then these are put up on the internet to share with the world.

That’s where I found Graham Hill, guru of sustainable living, telling me that less stuff means more happiness. He talked about the benefits of an “edited life.”  As a writer, I know something of editing, i.e., paring a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter down to only the most essential words to convey the idea.  That doesn’t mean cutting out beauty, poetry, or important details.  Just choose what’s needed and leave the rest behind.  Life editing, Hill said, gives us all a little more freedom, a little more time, and turns less into more.  I decided to try this life editing on my own terms (you can see his talk in full, below, or here). 

10 Things I’d Edit Out of My Life

1) Time Sucks – I’m an information junkie so I waste much too much time filling my head with every detail about every event in the universe – newspaper, television, internet, cereal box. Tom Cruise to the God Particle. I have to be more selective so I can focus on what makes me grow as a person, e.g., with my writing.

2) Blame – Blaming random people and/or things for why I don’t get my house renovated, or my writing revised and submitted, or my weight lost takes up too much space.  My recovery from surgery kept me from being productive for the last two months.  Yeah, but what’s my excuse for the first ten months of this year?

3) Martyrdom – Corollary to Blame.  I need to strike this sucker completely out of my life, kill it with a red pen.  No matter how much I stomp around the house or pout, I ain’t no martyr.  Give it up, Julie.

4) Unhealthy Choices – How many times in a day do I get to make healthy choices for my life?  How many of those times do I pick the unhealthy route?  Graham Hill is right.  Less is more (except when it comes to exercise for a woman of my age – more, more, more).

5) Late Nights – Occasionally staying up late to read or to work a fabulous idea like this into a blog is a good thing.  Staying up late to watch Rachel Maddow reruns, or check Facebook “one last time,” or eat, or sort mail is just one more unhealthy choice I need to reduce, like a sequoia milled down to a toothpick.

6) Things – I don’t engage in mindless consumerism, but I don’t need to possess everything I love.  Someday I’ll write about my collections.  It’s time to start paring down now so my kids don’t have to do it later.  But this does NOT include my books.

This space could use a bit of editing, ya think?

7) Negative conversations – Mine and those of others.  A time suck, an energy drain, a distraction from really inspiring ideas.  They can’t be avoided, but they can be limited.

8) Paper – We’re drowning in it.  I hired an organizer to bring some order.  I have more work to do with her.  I know I’ll never digitize everything.  But shuffling papers, searching for papers, filing papers is a grizzly bear-sized time suck, and is a direct cause for blame and martyrdom, as well as late nights.  I need to learn to never touch a paper more than once or twice.  Act on it or toss it.

9) Perfection – Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Julie.  Don’t let it be the enemy of actually getting something finished.  Perfection is also a great, galumphing time suck.

10) (nothing more to say – 9 is enough, I don’t need a perfect 10; it’s late and I really should get to bed; spending all of this time blaming all the things I’m not doing instead of doing the things I should be doing does not get the job done, and so on)

So if I get out my great big red pen and start editing my life, as Hill urges us all to do, it won’t be long before I have more time and space for the good stuff.  Who knows, maybe I’d accomplish something that made me qualify for my own TED talk.

What did you think of Graham Hill’s talk?  Where would you start editing your own life?  Start the conversation in the comments box.

Here's what I was thinking about at the beginning of the year.  My blog has been my own little motivational cheerleader this year.  Don't ask if I've accomplished all I talked about.  But at least I have my driving directions down on paper for the next year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cheap? A Priceless Christmas Gift Is The Way To Go

12/9/11-Christmas gifts1
Nicholas had no idea why we had a tree in the house before his first Christmas as part of our family

Yikes!  It’s 18 days until Christmas and all I’ve purchased is one small stocking stuffer.  It’s not like I haven’t hit the stores.  It’s just that I seem to come out of them with bags of things only for me – new holiday makeup, new holiday necklace, new red sweater.  All vital necessities, but still not gettin’ the job done.

Aside from the savvy shoppers who snapped up the $75,000 yurts and the $395,000 sports cars in retailer Neiman Marcus’ 2011 Christmas Book, the average person says he’ll be spending just under $700 for presents this year.  At least half of that, I’m sure, will go towards batteries.  My kids are grown, so no more piles of presents taller than the tree for each of them.  My sisters and I decided a few years ago that since all the kids in the family were grown we didn’t need to go wild at Christmas buying for the extended family.  At Thanksgiving dinner we pull names for the gift giving, so with one name and a $30 limit Christmas shopping finally becomes sane.

If I had to guess, I would estimate that half of my family Christmas budget goes toward the stockings hung by the chimney with care.  It’s the gift that gives back as I sneak Gummies and chocolate Santas when my kids aren’t looking.  My mom used to wrap individual pieces of her homemade fudge and put it in our stockings.  It was a favorite because it meant that none of us would miss out on that special treat if someone beat us to the Christmas cookie tin.  Creativity came in when money was an object.

My blogging friend Nancy Mueller, who writes about all the wonderful places she travels, recently told her readers about a gift we all could give that would cost so little of our time and money but make a huge difference in a child’s life.  For only $10 we could give the gift of libraries to children living in places where such things are usually just a fantasy.  So check out Nancy’s post here about donating to the cause through Passports with a Purpose.  Consider making an extra donation in the name of a family member or friend.

Although I’m talking about the price of Christmas, it’s not expensive presents that stick with me year after year.  No, the things I remember about the season are priceless.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, all of us squeezing into Granny’s apartment on Christmas Eve.  Waking up one year to find that my mom had sewn a complete wardrobe for my favorite Pepper doll.  Eagerly waiting in the hallway with my sisters each Christmas morning until Dad had his coffee and was ready to face the chaos of the Grand Unwrapping.  How warm and inviting Mom always made the house look each December.  When I dream of Christmases past I realize that many of the best gifts I’ve received throughout my life really were free or cost practically nothing.

Here are just a few:

-- A daughter who shares my birthday – that’s a gift that keeps on giving

-- A love of reading from my Dad – I’ll have that gift until the day I die

-- No argument from my parents when I wanted to go away to college – my sisters all stayed in town, so I knew what it meant when Mom and Dad gave their baby girl their blessing to leave home and never tried to persuade me otherwise

-- Two teenagers willing to spend a Mother’s Day one year walking around the Missouri Botanical Garden, pretending to like the flowers

-- My Granny’s powder in Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev – Granny always gave lacy underwear or pajamas or beautiful blouses for Christmas.  She’d sprinkle her body powder in the box and I’d hate the day when I had to wash the clothes because I knew I’d lose that smell.  One Christmas when I was a teenager, I insisted on that book and jumped for joy when, unwrapping the present, I smelled her powder between the pages.  The best part about this gift is that even forty years later I can still smell her when I pick up the book.

-- A husband who puts up with me after almost 30 years – this is a gift from the Universe

I know they’re not as glamorous as an HD flat screen television snatched from the hands of another shopper at a Black Friday sale.  And I have to admit I enjoy the fully loaded e-reader I found under the tree.  One year, though, perhaps I’ll challenge myself to do an entire Christmas without stepping into a single retail store (that includes online shopping). Dust bunny collages anyone?   But mostly I think I’ll just keep looking for ways to give of my gifts throughout the year.  That’s truly priceless.  What do you think?

What has been your favorite gift for any occasion that cost nothing or next to nothing but meant the world?  Please share it with us in the comments box.  And don’t forget to check out the link (above) for Passports With a Purpose donations.

Yes, I actually wore this homemade Christmas pin in days past.  It's now a bit fragile.
12/9/11-Christmas gift2

I was planning on sending all of my readers something unique and wildly extravagant to put under their Christmas trees.  Unfortunately, I’m running low on wrapping paper, and the line at the post office is horrifically long, so I think I’ll simplify things a little.  My gift to you this holiday season is a wonderful recipe passed on to me from my friend, Martine, in Paris.  ‘Tis the season for soup, and this one is easy as well as incredibly healthy.  It would be great to serve with a Christmas feast or to make after an exhausting day of shopping.  Add a splash of pimento or a dash of paprika and you’ll have a festive Christmas in a bowl.

Soupe de Courgettes (Zucchini Soup) -- serves 4-6
- 2-3 zucchinis (about 35 oz or 1 kg total)
- Chicken stock for cooking the zucchinis (homemade, in a carton, or made with water and 2-3 bouillon cubes to just cover the vegetables in the pot)
- 1 onion, diced (white or yellow)
- 2-3 servings of Laughing Cow cheese (Vache Qui Rit; it comes in a round, flat box with the cheese wrapped in individual triangles)
- Salt and pepper

Sauté the onions for about 5 minutes in oil in a 3-quart pot until slightly brown.  Chop the zucchini into small chunks.  Add them to the pot and add water or stock to just cover them.  Add bouillon now if using regular water.  Heat to boiling and then simmer 30 minutes or until tender.  When cooked, purée the mixture.  Then add the cheese and mix or purée again until smooth.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Handy Hint:  If you click here, you’ll see that Mme. Monica uses an immersion blender.  I’ve recently purchased one and it is a miracle worker when it comes to mixing and blending.  If you get it with the whipping and chopping attachments you may never again need any of those bulky countertop kitchen machines.  It’s not too late to add to your Christmas list.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Reflection On My Mirror Image

Skyler says, "Things are looking up around here now that Mom can pick me up again and put me in the car
to go places.  I was getting bored."

One of the most horrendous side effects of my recent surgery and recovery was to realize that I am old.  Not “getting older.”  Not “aging gracefully.”  But old.  I now find myself drawn into those infomercials for Lifestyle Lifts, or the French cantaloupe miracle face creams that will make me look like super-model Cindy Crawford, or those electronic devices that will remove hair from places that only my grandmother had to worry about.  I am old.  Mirror, mirror in my hand, who’s the oldest in the land?

After the cervical fusion I could turn my neck only slightly to the left or right, and not up or down at all.  This lack of mobility made it difficult to handle such grooming routines as styling my hair, changing pierced earrings, or searching for errant dog hairs that took up residence in my eye.  I couldn’t comfortably lean in over the vanity in order to move closer to the bathroom mirror for any of these tasks.  I decided my best solution was a new hand mirror.

I bought one with 10x magnification on one of the sides.  That’s when I discovered a mustache growing above my upper lip that had to be a cousin to – or even a twin of – that thick patch of hair growing above Geraldo Rivera’s mouth.  How could I be so blind?  Had it been hidden by some anti-aging rose-colored glasses?  But now I see.  It’s a veritable forest of luxuriously long facial hairs waving in the breeze, so numerous that they could never be tamed simply with a pair of tweezers. With the help of my new 10x personal jumbotron I even found one of those wicked creatures trying to plant its flag and stake a claim in my chin.

Self-portrait post surgery with swollen face, cervical collar, and bone growth stimulator
But that’s not all.  Oh no, I’m even older than my mustache lets on.  In fact, I must be as old as the moon because surely those things called “pores” are as deep as those craters we see on a summer night with our telescope.  The blood vessels on my chin (I’m sure courtesy of my Grandma’s rosacea) flash like Las Vegas neon, spreading out across my fair skin like the Amazon River and all its tributaries.  My eyes somehow have become framed by the miles-deep canyons of the American Southwest.  And while I was willing to admit to the two or three small age spots on my cheek and brow, I now see that it is really a dozen small Saharas spreading quickly across the landscape of my face.

Where would I draw my own line now in resisting this newly discovered downward spiral?

I’m trying not to fixate on the magnified side of my mirror, to return to the regular side and my attitude that, although I don’t look twenty-five anymore, my face also doesn’t look like I spent my life puffing on cigarettes while frying in the sun.  I look good enough when I walk out the door each day.  I make the effort to do the best with what I’m given.

What’s a mirror image anyway?  It’s the reflected duplication of an image, but in reverse.  That piece of silvered glass shows me my age . . . decay . . . every fault.  I know that’s me inside the red frame I hold in my hand; I recognize myself.  However, it’s just an imitation.  The real me – the reverse of that reflection – isn’t aging as quickly on the inside, the part the mirror can’t see.  I finally returned to yoga class after almost two months of inactive recuperation and found that I could still stand strong in my tree pose, and I left more energized that when I had arrived.  I have a new pile of books to read to keep my mind agile.  I’m thinking about where I’ll travel next because curiosity about new places, in my opinion, is a better youth tonic than Retin-A.

I’m starting to make friends with what I found under the 10x magnification.  There might be a few things I can do to spruce up that version of Julie that aren’t the equivalent of knocking out a load-bearing wall in a home renovation project. But for the most part I think I’ll continue to put my focus on the self I can’t see, the one looking out on the world through what I now know are clearly aging eyes.  That one is easier to improve than the magnified mirrored image I saw. 
What makes you feel older?  Where do you focus your attention or energy when you want to feel younger?  My oldest friend and I used to joke that we never felt our real age (until recently).  What age do you usually feel?  Please share your thoughts on aging or your favorite “anti-aging” technique in the comments box.
The best way to get younger, Skyler and I think, is to head out for a good walk with good scenery
(our first excursion post-surgery)
I’ve been MIA on a large scale since my cervical fusion surgery.  I’ve been MIA on my blog, on e-mail, on Facebook, on Twitter, on websites of friends and organizations that continue to post compelling things I should be reading but have passed me by.  Time – and the internet – wait for no man or woman.  The surgery went fine.  I felt improvement the moment the anesthesia wore off.  What has kept me down for so long was a steady stream of physical ailments, one after another, that flat laid me out on the couch, no energy even to read.  Focusing my eyes on a computer screen seemed like too much effort.  But I’ve started physical therapy and feel back on track.  I hope to catch up with all of you soon.

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