Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nibbling at the Edges of Christmastime

I approach Christmas the way a picky eater deals with a fruitcake. Instead of wolfing down the season (and risking  mid-December holiday indigestion), I try to pull out all the stuff I don’t like, dig around for the edible bits, and savor the parts I love as much as possible.  It’s untraditional, and people look at my finished plate like I’ve got a major Christmas disorder, but it’s the only way I’ve found to keep sane. 

I found many crumbs of happiness this holiday season – little moments that meant more than any pre-packaged, tinsel-coated extravaganza ever could.  Here are some of them:

Gingerbread Houses:  For the past several years, I’ve bundled up the kids and taken them to the local community center to make gingerbread houses.  The staff is incredibly patient and kind, the atmosphere is lovely and – here’s the best part – the mess stays there.  The houses are pre-made (wonderful for someone whose architectural skills are lacking) and the array of decorations is much more than I’d ever be able to afford.  Over the years, the children have grown into tall teens, but they still want to make their houses every year.  I usually try to wrangle in a small child-shill from a friend or two, under the pretense that the teens are “helping” the little ones.  This year, we took up an entire table: three kids under age seven, a grade schooler, a couple middle schoolers and a large contingent of teenagers.  When they start driving themselves to the Gingerbread House event, we may have to develop contingency plans.

Starring in our own Movie: We usually plan one downtown day each season, and this year’s felt so relaxed and fun, with a fairy tale plot twist thrown in.  Emma was playing in the Youth Symphony at the IDS Crystal Court on a Friday at lunchtime, so I relented and let Mary Katherine ditch school early to go hear her big sister perform.  On the way into the building, Emma dutifully stepped onto a crowded downward escalator, carrying her cello and still wearing her snow boots.  Mary Katherine, holding her sister’s high heels, began waving and shouting, “Your shoes, Emma!”  Two quick-thinking businessmen, riding past us, put out their hands, and Mary Katherine gave one black pump to each.  When they reached the bottom of the escalator, Emma reported, they handed her the shoes and said, “Here you go, Cinderella.” She blushed mightily; passersby laughed and clapped.  It happened in just a moment, but it felt like a well-planned scene from a Nora Ephron rom-com, with the Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon parts played by Emma and Mary Katherine.

Santa’s Lap:  That great downtown day, I persuaded the girls to go see Santa.  It was 2:00 pm on a Friday, and the only people at Santaland were preschoolers, which made the teenagers look even larger.  But they sweetly sat on Santa’s lap and told him that they wanted a laptop (Mary Katherine) and an airplane ticket to an international destination (Emma).  Santa delivered a priceless double take and asked wryly, “Have you been THAT good, girls?” 

Double Bill:  In mid-November,we saw “Fully Committed,” a play set the bowels of a New York restaurant-of-the-moment, featuring one beleaguered reservations person and the 40 people who call him over the course of 70 minutes.  One guy does all the voices, and it’s a tour de force of acting chops and humor. Mary Katherine and I especially loved it, and quoted from it constantly.  We kept wishing we could see it again, but it felt like a major extravagance to buy tickets for a show we’d already seen. Then, as I was straightening up the kitchen bulletin board to make way for Christmas cards, I came across the “Two Tickets to the Jungle Theatre” certificate I’d won in a raffle at a fundraiser for Families with Children from Asia.  I hadn’t given it a moment’s thought since winning, but I suddenly realized that my prize could get us into that show one more time.  The world conspired WITH me for once, and I found that: 1)the run had been extended; 2)there were front row seats for Monday night and 3)Dick was in town and was willing to provide car service during (another) snow storm. We went to the show last night, and it felt like the Christmas present I was giving myself – time with Mary Katherine, a truly funny show, and a bit of non-tinsel-covered time in a dark theater.  

There is more Christmas time ahead for me, of course, and plenty of time to freak out and stress out, but I hope to find some moments in the days ahead – opening our presents on Thursday night, since we’ll be traveling; enjoying the train trip to Chicago, spending time with friends there; glamorizing for a family wedding on New Year’s Eve.  By the time I walk back into my house on New Year’s Day, I’ll be plenty full of Christmas fruitcake, but I hope I will have enjoyed just the best parts, and let all the other stuff sit on the side of the plate.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dollar Bills Falling from the Sky

Written during “Blizzard-like Conditions” in Southwest Minneapolis
I’ve been helping Mary Katherine with her study of Indian tribes lately.  I’ve learned which tribes created floating gardens, which lived on pine nuts and which sacrificed citizens so that the sun would keep rising. I’ve thought of how happy I was not to be living as an Aztec (too bloody) or a Shoshone (too boring). I’ve also found myself wondering how people a thousand years from now might view our little tribes of the 21st century.

I’ve been a tribe shifter in my life, moving from Nearly Southern to Utterly Northern, so I still observe the local customs with an outsider’s eye. As sophisticated as we humans like to think we are, our interaction with the weather is usually a dead giveaway of our more elemental selves.

Every part of the world, I imagine, has a sort of weather that shakes them to their core. I happened to be in San Diego one time during several days of – gasp – rain. Their evening newscaster broadcast live from a playground and showed images of empty swings dangling in the damp. “Children would normally be playing here,” he intoned sadly, “But it’s too wet.”

In my hometown of St. Louis, snow was viewed as a sure sign that we had displeased the gods. Weather forecasters would lead the evening newscast, no matter what had happened in the larger world that day. Stopping just short of wearing sackcloth and ashes, they would moan and beat their breasts, whimpering out the sad fact that Up to Three Inches was expected. The next story would inevitably be from some News Bunny doing a remote from the grocery store, pointing dramatically to the empty shelves where the bread and milk had been bought out by panicked and hoarding citizens.

While extended heat makes people in Minnesota little cranky, they turn their frowns upside down when it starts to snow. The same cold fronts that cause whimpers in my hometown make people positively giddy in these parts.  They invariably overpredict snowfall amount, optimistically wishing for even more happy snow time. Every newscaster turns upbeat and uses phrases like “good, old-fashioned snowstorm” to describe impending events.

The citizenry seems convinced of two things. One, snow is a sure sign that we are God’s Chosen Snowpeople; and two, our reaction to the storm will be an excellent chance to Prove our Character. No one here would ever speak (out loud) about the numbskulls in Atlanta or Washington D.C and how they react to snow, but you know those lightweights are crossing the minds of every person shoveling out their driveways today. Scrape, scrape, rueful smile at the thought of how badly others would manage this blessing; scrape, scrape, satisfied sigh at this sign of the Almighty’s Blessings Being Visited Upon Us.

Same weather, different responses. As crazy as the folks here are, I suppose it’s more fun to act as if dollar bills are falling from the sky than to run to the Kroger to buy up all the Wonder Bread.  I’ll choose frolicking over panic today, even if I am renouncing my tribe.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seventy-five Seconds of Fame: Six Thoughts on being in the Newspaper

Everyone knows that Andy Warhol said, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." But he said it back in 1968.  I figure that time has compressed considerably in the intervening 42 years.  Having a story about my family published in the local newspaper has convinced me that 75 seconds seems to be the right fame formula these days.

Here are six thoughts I've had since the article appeared yesterday:
Thought one:  People my age actually USE Facebook?  Based on all the comments from my aged chums via this forum, I suppose so.  And here I thought it was just a way to stalk one’s teenagers.  I resolve to enter the 21st century with all my pals, forthwith.

Thought two: Grainy newsprint does a lot for one’s overall youthful image. In my picture, I look like a dewy 47-year-old. I love that old-timey media. The Internet may be speedy, but it's not wrinkle-reducing.

Thought three: The particular volunteer gig on which the interview focused was, hands-down, the easiest one I’ve ever done. Interview me after a day at the Crisis Nursery, when I’m covered in precious bodily fluids from the tiny tots, and I’ll have a different yarn to spin.

Thought four:  The photographer told the girls to “sit on the kitchen counters; I’m sure you do it all the time anyway.” They were nonplussed. The counters are high, cold, and usually very sticky.  But because he had a press pass and a camera, everyone immediately complied. Later, Mary Katherine quoted from one of her favorite obscure films (Drop Dead Gorgeous), “If he tells you to take your top off, get the money first.” 

Thought five: Yesterday, Emma and her friend Rebecca decided to try sitting on the counter again, just to see if it felt any better.  I blame the pernicious influence of the media.

Thought six: Recycling works.  I sent the reporter a link to blog I’d written about volunteering, and he pretty much quoted it verbatim, as if we’d had a three-hour lunch in the meat-packing district or something. That’s okay. I sound better when I have a chance to edit.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Thanksgiving Under-Reach

I called my best friend on Saturday, just to see how her Thanksgiving had gone. For many years, she used to visit at the holiday, and we’d have days-before cooking marathons. I have such good memories of those years. There was first time we decided to brine the turkey, and left it in a cooler on the back porch overnight.  We were sure we’d die from a turkey-and-plastic bacterial infection, but found that the danger added a roulette-wheel zing to our meal the next day (which could be our last, we thought).

There was the Year of the Fire (and shouldn’t every Thanksgiving story have one?) when a friend turned the marshmallows on top of the sweet potato casserole into a mini-inferno in my blast furnace of an oven. There was a great deal of screaming. Flames shot out. Pictures were taken.  It was twenty times better than anything Norman Rockwell ever dreamed up. There was the Year of the Couch, when we’d gotten a new one delivered and wouldn’t serve anyone so much as a celery stick until they manned up and moved the old sofa to the garage. The party line that year was:  It’ll build up your appetite.

It was a regular little tradition there for a while, Debbie and I and our cooking escapades, and a good one. She’d arrive with clippings and printouts and tips that her close personal friends from the Food Network had shared with her (at least that was the impression I’d get, listening to her talk about Sarah and Ina like they were all sorority sisters). We’d usually strategize at least one folly-ridden new item for the menu -- a dish that used every pot in the kitchen, took hours to make, and ended up tasting like something straight from the can.

Every Thanksgiving has a little twist. Hers, this year, was that she had somehow developed the delusion that she lived in Kansas City, so she invited twelve people over for dinner to her Upper West Side apartment. I don’t know when it hit her that she truly wasn’t in Kansas anymore (I know there’s a dining room around her somewhere! I could just imagine her saying), but it might have been when the squeezed-in guests realized that there was not one single bit of space left to place the finished turkey when it emerged from the oven, nor was there anyone who felt comfortable carving it from the bathroom.

So, she over-reached, which is something we’ve both been known to do. Uncharacteristically, I under-reached this year, and I have to report that it felt good. We found a friend willing to take a party of six at their table (the basic issue family, exchange student from Rome, buddy college student from China), so I puttered around and made my one requested item: fluffy rolls that are the dream food of the inviting friend’s 17-year-old boy. I added a few bottles of sparkling cider for the kids, rustled up a champagne and cranberry cocktail for the grownups, and felt so guilty about my sloth that I threw together some garlic breadsticks on Thanksgiving morning, which the teens ate the moment I put them on the coffee table.

Debbie and I did our Saturday morning analysis and concluded that the only thing we’ve ever loved about this holiday was being together the day before, playing mad scientists in a kitchen. But we’re 1,197 miles away from each other now. She is an about-to-be adoptive mom for her foster son. There are, as they say, obstacles. “Honestly,” she sighed. “I think I’d be happy being a caterer, and just shipping it all off in boxes, because by the time the guests arrived I was sick of them, and they hadn’t even eaten yet.”

“But didn’t everyone like that new roasted banana and sweet potato thingy that Ina told you to make?” I nudged.  “Oh, I guess so,” she mused, and I could tell she'd already moved on.  “But I’m thinking about trying yams and jalepenos next year. Tyler Florent told me all about it.”

Value of 12 people having a Kansas City Thanksgiving in your Manhattan apartment:  $0.  Coming up with something even crazier to serve them 364 days from now: priceless.