Saturday, December 31, 2011
Sunday, December 25, 2011
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 1 day
Some people don't know that there is an introduction to the famous song White Christmas.
Since I moved from Washington State to Southern California, that intro has taken on a whole new meaning for me (not that we ever had snow on Christmas).
The sun is shining.
The grass is green.
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,
And I'm longing to be up north...
Friday, December 23, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 2 days
Knowing her own children, my mother did not put gift tags on presents. She wrote in faint, faint, pencil, very small, with terrible penmanship, on the back of each gift the first initial of the recipient.
Here is how that played out every year on Christmas morning. The kids would get up at about 6 am to see what Santa had left for them, unwrapped, along with their stocking. Whooping and hollering ensued. I'm pretty certain all the candy in the stocking helped that. My dad would get up first (probably because my mother had gone to bed at about 5 am after finishing wrapping everything) he stumbled around as he was waking up, trying to smile at how excited we were by all we had received from Santa, then the inevitable would happen.
That's my candy cane.
"No it's not."
Yes it IS, it came out of MY stocking.
"Well it was on MY side of the table."
That's just because there's too much stuff on the table, give it back!
"I'm not giving you MY candy!"
That's not fair! We all got the same amount and now you're stealing! Dad! Daaaaad!!!!!
That's when my dad would snap, hair sticking up in all directions, "Can't you goddamn kids keep quiet? Why the hell do you have to get up so early every year? Every year the same thing! I'll solve the whole damn problem, I'll take all the candy on this table and I'll give it to the orphans!" Which basically means that it must be 7 am because it happened exactly the same every year. Hearing all this, my mom wanders out all squinty eyed because she doesn't have her contacts in yet, "Ted... ?" Which is the cue for my dad to throw his hands up in the air and go make breakfast as a way to apologize for yelling at us on Christmas morning.
After breakfast (thanks dad!) we settle into our circle around the Christmas tree in the living room. You need to be spaced out a fair bit so you have room to open all your gifts, discard the wrapping paper, then stack your booty next to you. My job was to forage under the tree and pass out the parcels.
Remember, my mom doesn't use any gift tags, just faint pencil first initials, This on has a J, it's mine. This one has a D, Debbie. This one has a... um... I can't read this. And my mom would take the gift and hold it close to her eyes and squint, then turn the package, then move it away from her eyes, then turn the package, and say, "I think it's a G, try Gary." And this would be repeated over and over again until we came down to the last ten gifts.
There were five of us. Each person had a "final gift" the BIG FINISH if you will. It wasn't necessarily the most expensive gift. It could be the most elusive gift, that you were certain no one would find for you. And then there is "the perfect gift", something so unique that you never knew it even existed, so there was no way you could have asked for it (such low expectations here). Perhaps it is the complete opposite of all these things. It is actually exactly the gift you are totally expecting but you have been a pain to shop for. So here it is. Yes, you are getting it. But you still have to wait and wonder if maybe you aren't actually going to get it after all...
But that's five gifts you say. Why are there ten gifts in a holding pattern?
That's because my mother has terrible penmanship, a faint pencil, and her contacts haven't fallen into proper place just yet. There are now 5 "big finish" gifts and 5 "mystery gifts."
My mother looks over the stack of gifts each person has next to him or her, cataloging what she sees and trying to figure out what is missing. Then she looks at the 5 mystery gifts trying to remember which misplaced gift would be wrapped in which way. "Hand me that short flat one," the short flat one is inspected all over the back until at last an initial is spotted, "A-HA! This one is for Gary!" Sometimes, halfway through the wrapping paper reveal, my mom would shout, "Wait! Stop! That wasn't a G! It was a D! That gift is for Debbie!" This is repeated until all the mystery gifts are passed out and then it is Final Gift Round.
My sister gets a hairdryer of her own! My brother gets the stereo from the Tupperware gift catalog! And me... and me... and me?.... (Okay, we all know it's not a puppy, right?) I got an electric railroad set!
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 3 days
Our annual Christmas Poem:
So much happens in a year
Sometimes laughter, sometimes tears
Time is fleeting, get my gist?
Yet still I try to make a list
Twitter, Facebook are we friends?
There’s still my blog, it never ends
One year we travel, the next stay home
We still went places, not far to roam
Vegas for work, and saw Kylie Minogue
To Washington and Canada, family to and fro
To Mammoth for skiing, (well that was just Lyle)
To Palms Springs for sunning, we were there quite a while
We liked it, we loved it, we went quite a lot
We hosted, we boasted, you should give it a shot
The Hollywood Bowl, the dancing, the singing,
Extravagant meals with friends worth repeating,
We’re creating a life that nurtures our spirit
Somehow it takes all our money to do it
Mr Cooper is happy, spoiled in every way
Lyle’s passing out treats like each day’s his Birthday
Our future looks bright, sometimes the views blinding
The new year brings promise of change, so exciting
It’s not all about money, fame or wealth
We’re thankful for humor, each other and health
We cherish the one’s we hold close and dear
Merry Christmas to all, and a happy New Year!
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 4 days
It must suck to have your birthday so close to Christmas. I guess you don't get to choose your birth date so you just make the best of it, but still, you know that most of your presents are going to either come with Christmas wrapping paper or be one of those, "I went over budget so this will be half your birthday gift, and half your Christmas gift" kind of moments.
It's my dad's birthday today! And he is turning.... uh.... "really old."
Dad's are notoriously hard to buy for. If you think it sucks to have your birthday this close to Christmas, try shopping for the most difficult person on your list for TWO gifts in the same week. When I was younger we had three fail safe gifts for dad: Peanut brittle, chocolate peanut clusters and mixed nuts. Since there were three kids we struck an uneasy alliance that each of us would get one of those "easy gifts" for dad for either his birthday or Christmas. After that, you were on your own for the other gift.
What are you getting dad for Christmas?
"Chocolate covered peanut clusters."
What about for his birthday?
"Don't know, I think a flashlight."
What's Debbie getting him for Christmas?
And for his birthday?
"Big bag of mixed nuts."
No way, that's not fair.
"Should have spoken up sooner."
It's not fair, you have to get one thing that's not food. That's the rules.
"There's no RULES."
Yes there IS, MOM! Mooooommmmmm!!!!!!
The beauty of food giving is that it's perishable. He doesn't still have all that food from last year. You can't have bought dad's gift at the beginning of the month. You had to buy it that week. And if you were incredibly generous, dad would have too much. "Jesus, you bought way too many of these chocolate peanut clusters, I can't eat all these by myself! Who's gonna' help me eat all this...?" PICK ME! PICK ME! SUPER SCORE!!!
Then there became some issue with my dad not supposed be eating so much sugar, chocolate or nuts. And suddenly our no fault, never fail, easy gift options were off the table. He doesn't wear ties. He has three tire gauges. Maybe a new high tech ice scraper?
Last year I combined my parents Christmas gift and gave them both a puzzle a month for a year. They like puzzles. They are always doing puzzles. I went through and chose great pictures that went with each month. I don't do puzzles. I didn't look at the number of pieces in each puzzle. As a consequence, last year I managed to give the gift that keeps on giving... frustration. I think they may be on August or September right about now. That means that last year's gift is still going as this year's gift, right? I'm off the hook, right? Because I have to tell you, I still have no idea what to get my dad for Christmas. Or his birthday.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 5 days
Hanukkah starts at sundown tonight. Seems late this year doesn't it?
Maybe you don't keep up with the Jewish holidays where you live, but the neighborhood we live in mostly orthodox Jewish. When we moved into our house in July, as the movers loaded in the 30 totes of Christmas decorations for inside the house and then the greenery, lights and 6 foot fiberglass snowman for the outside of the house, I thought, "WOW. This neighborhood doesn't know what's about to hit it!"
At our previous house, I had placed a 4 foot star lit up with twenty 15 watt light-bulbs (it used to be a window display prop) way up at the top of our chimney. You could see that star from Santa Monica blvd 10 houses away. SERIOUSLY.
At the new house, as Halloween approached, Lyle asked if I was going to decorate for Halloween. "No, I'm not going to tip my hand. Let Christmas come as a complete surprise to them..."
Then on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I got busy.
I placed our interior tree in the front window to show off even more lights. Then I sat back and waited.
I didn't have to wait long. Two nights later, there was a knock on the front window, "Excuse me! Excuse me!" I jumped up and ran to get Lyle (I don't talk to strangers), "Someone is at the front window!" The front door? "No, the WINDOW."
Lyle came up to the window where this strange person was still waving, "Hi, I don't want to bother you, but I have to tell you how much I LOVE YOUR LIGHTS! I was driving by and they are so gorgeous I had to stop and tell you I love them... and I'm JEWISH! But religion doesn't matter, people are people, we should all get along and enjoy the spirit of the season, bring home our troops and find peace for the whole world. Bless you! Thank you! Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!" and then she ran back to her car that was parked half across the neighbors driveway and half across the street and drove away.
Lyle just stood there in disbelief, I grabbed the phone and called my parents. "Guess what!?! I can now officially say that my Christmas lights on my house have officially STOPPED TRAFFIC!"
Monday, December 19, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 6 days
Whatever happened to tinsel?
When I was very little, my grandparents always had tinsel on their tree. Tinsel was a BIG DEAL back then. When I was old enough to talk, I know I started asking for tinsel on the tree. Before I could talk, I'm pretty certain I tried to eat tinsel off the tree. It's so pretty. It's so SHINY!
Once we were old enough to help decorate the tree, we kids always asked if we could tinsel the tree. It was a big request because inevitably the tinsel is going to wind up ALL OVER THE HOUSE. At least that's what my mom would say, "No, I don't want tinsel on the tree this year. Why? Because it winds up ALL OVER THE HOUSE. Are you the one that's going to vacuum? Are you the one that is going to get it out the heat vents? Are you going to clean up the cat vomit after he eats all that tinsel?"
To which we all replied Yes! Yes! Yes! But really meant, "Good luck catching me in 3 days to actually do any of that."
And so after hours of pleading, and waiting for my dad to go to the Elk's club (he was never going to give in), we would get our tinsel wish.
My brother was in charge of the top most part of the tree because he was tallest. My sister got the middle, and I got the bottom.
Each tinsel strand must be picked up singly and draped one by tedious one on each branch to emulate the look of icicles. One, by one. One by one. One by one. One, by one. One by one. One by one. One, by one. One by one. One by one. One, by one. (sigh) One by one. One by one. One, by one. (this is BORING) One by one. One by one. One, by one. One by one. (HEAVY sigh) One by one. One, by one. One by one. Two by two. One, by one. Three by three. One by one....
Decorating the bottom of a tree isn't very glamorous. I wanted to decorate the top and middle where my work would be featured. But i was too short. And I wasn't allowed to get up on the ladder. But you know, there is a way to get your handiwork seen by the big people. Throw your tinsel. Grab a good handful and just chuck it at the top of the tree. If you're on the opposite side of the tree, no one will know, until they come around.
Mom! Jimmy's throwing tinsel!
So are! Look at this branch!
Gary did it.
Stop throwing the tinsel!
Stop telling me what to do!
Okay, I see now why my mom didn't want tinsel on the tree. She would have to come in and mediate the tinsel placement. Again, it's a tedious process and even my mother would start to do the two by three strands after an hour or two. At about 3 hours, the tree is so covered in tinsel you can't see the ornaments and a Charlie Brown Christmas special is on the TV. We all give up and finally sit down.
The tinsel (back in the day) was lead based. It was heavy and would easily break. The lights were most often C7 bulbs that got really hot and the lead based tinsel would melt onto the bulbs giving off a really good hot lead fire smell.
An hour later my dad would come home and say, "You just couldn't stop yourselves, could you? You can't even see the ornaments through all that garbage." Then he'd sit down in the living room, pause, and say, "Sure looks pretty doesn't it though?"
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 7 days
I made cookies yesterday, and today, and tomorrow. Not that I am making scores of cookies for days on end, I am making ONE kind of cookie that takes three days to complete.
When I was a kid there was one cookbook that held my attention over all others, the Betty Crocker Cookie Book. SO popular was this book, that today it shows the wear.
We would pour over this book for months. Make this one! No, this one looks better! Ooooo, look at these pictures! This one has raisins, gross.
This was the book all cookies came from in our house. I am the lucky archivist that stole this away before my siblings could ask for it. Inside, next to the popular recipes, in my mother's scrawling handwriting is her seal of approval "good":
The double measurements, or even the triple measurements are writing in pencil for all eternity.
And then there are two Scottish shortbread recipes and we could never remember which one was the good one and which one was the bad one. After the last time of putting all that energy into making a cookie that was NOT the one we wanted, I took matters into my own hands and wrote my own note for future generations:
It was with great care that I got out the tattered cookie book and rifled my way through to the sugar cookie recipes. I selected "Mary's Sugar Cookies" as they were the only one that didn't require I use shortening. I like my butter.
I mixed up the dough on Saturday and then refrigerated it overnight. The secret of cookie cutter cookies is COLD. You need a cold kitchen, a cold workspace, cold dough and cold utensils. I live in LA. Even when it is "cold" it's warm in my house (I'm wearing flip flops for goodness sake!) The dough was shilled overnight, and I placed my rolling pin and my cookie cutters in the freezer.
I rolled out the dough in small batches as fast as I could. At the end of rolling, I placed my rolling pin back in the freezer. Same with the cutters. Use them, then back in the freezer. Some of the cookie cutters are detailed and hard to get the dough out of. At Lyle's suggestion I lightly sprayed the cookie cutter with some cooking oil. It worked!
From cut out and ready for the oven:
To all baked and cooling:
Tomorrow, the horror.... I'll be icing and decorating them!
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Come closer, Santa wants to tell you a little secret...
Santa’s not wearing any underwear. Merry Christmas
Santa’s not wearing any underwear. Merry Christmas
Countdown to Christmas 8 days
Do you still send Christmas cards? It gets more expensive and more difficult to get these done each year. And let me tell you, I gave up long ago. Lyle does the cards at my house. He's amazing.
I remember as a kid running down to the mailbox after the postman left and pulling out this stack of envelopes. It's probably raining, so you race back the house as fast you can, shielding the mail inside your jacket. Back in the house, you sort through it all, "Bill, bill, card! Card! Card! Catalog, Card! Bill."
Then you go through the cards to see who they are addressed to. Mom & Dad, Mom & Dad, just Mom, "AND FAMILY"! The rule was, if it said your name or "And Family" you were allowed to open it. Then you looked at who the card was from, relative, family friend, someone you've never heard of... Hey, how come this one is just to mom & dad? We know those people, not fair, it should be to "and family," harumph.
My mom had a ledger that kept track of who she sent cards to, who sent cards in, which years they exchanged, which years got missed. I don't know why. She wasn't the score keeping kind. But Christmas cards do make you keep score. Most people I know send out their cards and keep 5 extra on hand in case someone sends them a card they weren't expecting.
Then what do you do with all those cards? Some people place them in a basket, some hang them on a ribbon. I used to have festive clothespins to hang them along on a garland. These days we are able to stand them up along some furniture and view them all season.
Do you include a photo? We stopped doing that. A newsletter? I enjoy those as long as they are not just complete boasting about your children's accomplishments. I write a rhyming poem every year. It gets difficult to rhyme the passing of a grandparent and festive lights. But I preserver.
I used to make greeting cards. I wrote and designed Christmas cards, in July. Tough to get in the spirit then.
If I've already received a card from you, thanks! If you haven't sent me one, don't go to any bother, I only kept 3 cards aside for those unexpected last minute scorekeepers.
Friday, December 16, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 9 days
I'm really busy with work this week and am getting behind. Imagine that, getting behind during Christmas?
So I wanted to repost something I've already shared before, The Drink of My People. I first posted this in December of 2008. Happy Drinking!
When I was a child (and not just childish like I am now) we spent every Christmas Eve at my grandpa Don and Grandma Mable's house. It was a massive undertaking. EVERYONE was there. The main family of my mother's siblings and all their families would all be at Christmas dinner the next day, but Christmas Eve brought out all the aunts, great aunts, uncles, great uncles, great grandparents, cousins, cousins twice removed and everyone else we only saw at potlucks at the lake during the summer. If you're old enough to remember the reference, we looked like the King Family Singers.
It has colored my impression of what a holiday should look like for the rest of my life.
As the family would gather at my grandparents, everyone got a "Snowball". If you were a kid, you could have a snowball without the vodka. My grandpa Don would stand off in the corner of the kitchen with all his supplies ready. Ice. Ice crasher (not a crusher - this was a long handle with a ball bearing at the end surrounded by a rubber ring that he would use to "Whack" the ice cubes into his hand and smash them into smaller pieces). Whipping cream in a carton. 7-Up. Alcohol. Snowball glasses.
I can still picture it exactly in my head. Right over there in the corner by the fridge, in front of the cupboard that held my favorite glasses that had antique cars on them and of course the "farm glass" that had a drawing of barn and barnyard animals that I would "drown" when I filled the glass with grape juice up to the weather vane.
After my grandfather passed away, Christmas Eve moved to my family's house. Less extended family came by and more friends dropped in. My dad took over The Snowball Business.
Can I help? I'd chirp next to his elbow.And then I would take a step back and spy on him anyway. We all did. The Snowball was shrouded in mystery as to how it works. Once we were older and closer to college age we would sneak into The Snowball zone on Christmas Eve while my dad was talking in the living room and try to make them ourselves. My dad would come back and shoo us away, "You don't know what your doing. You're just wasting all the ingredients. Here, I'll make you one. JUST ONE."
"Because I said so."
Why'd you say so?
"Because you don't get to touch booze."
Can I make one without?
But I won't touch the booze.
"You don't know what you're doing."
Can I watch?
"GO HELP YOUR MOTHER!"
And then we got brave enough to try them on our own. I remember it exactly. My brother and sister were going to have a Christmas party that would start at my brother's apartment and finish at my sisters. They lived about two blocks apart and we could all walk between them. My sister would be doing all the food at her house and my brother announced he would be making The Snowball. I think my response was "Can we just do that?"
By this time we had all had a turn making snowballs on Christmas Eve behind my dad's back. When friend's would arrive and we didn't want to drag dad back to the kitchen, or tell him we had friends who drank alcohol.
The snowballs at my brother's house were amazing. They tasted just like the kind dad made at home with a hint of something illicit. We were officially adults now and we were still in our 20's!
I've carried this recipe with me in my head all these years and recently a cousin asked my mother about "the drink of our people" and my mom said "ask Jim." So I tried to write it down as best as I can. I think it's a visual. Impossible to write down. And yet I will try.
Be warned, this is a difficult recipe... Not because of the ingredients, but the technique it seems to require. I have a theory that you you must experience a “master” maker and an “apprentice” maker before you should attempt. For instance, in my group of friends who have learned from me (an apprentice level) they have all seen my dad make them (the master level). And I watched my dad when he was at an apprentice level and learned it all from my grandpa Don who was the master of the recipe (for all I know, he invented it!).
That being said, I am trying to share it anyway! This recipe has never been given away and I may even take it back later. My friend Gina McGowan is the one who coined the term "The drink of your people" in reference to this amazing cocktail and as such I feel very proprietary over it.
Not one ingredient or direction can be altered. (and trust me I have tried and failed)
Start with a tall straight glass glass.
In the bottom of the glass add three or four crushed ice cubes (or buy your ice crushed and add a handful) about three fingers measure from the bottom of the glass when you wrap your hand around the tumbler.
Then you pour one shot of Vodka over the ice.
Then one shot of whipping cream over the ice.
Now the tricky part!
Get a spoon (longer is better) and with one hand you start to jiggle the ice. With the other hand you slowly pour in 7-Up. DO NOT USE SPRITE. DO NOT USE DIET. (I don’t know why, but they don’t work!)
So, as you are pouring, and jiggling, the ice will start to free up from it’s place in the bottom of the glass. Jiggle a little more, then begin swirling the mixture. Still pouring the 7-Up slowly. The mixture will froth and foam... It will expand towards the top of the glass. SLOW DOWN! DON’T POUR TO THE TOP. Pause and give it all a good swirling and wait for the reaction to catch up and see where the foam is headed. If it stops just below the rim of the glass, pour a little hit of 7-Up through the foam to give it a bump up. If it has overflowed (like a root beer float will), wipe down the glass and serve it with a cocktail napkin.
Or perhaps you have stopped just right and... VOILA!
Two perfect Snowballs.
Updated: My brother wrote in to add these fine points on The Snowball.
1. The colder the ice is, the better it works. A little water on the surface of the ice, makes the drink fizz a little less. (so you should always rinse out the glass for a new drink)Updated 2:
2. The key to the drink, is the aroma of the vodka suspended in the foam at the top of the glass, therefore, better top equals better drink.
3. Don't use expensive vodka. It's best if you use whatever Dad brings. It's even better if he wins the bottle at the Elks club.
Use a metal spoon.
The Snowball season is strict. Snowballs may only be consumed from after Thanksgiving dinner through the end of New Year's Day.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
I always measure before we go to the tree lot. I double check to make certain I know how high my ceiling is. The house we are in now, is 10 feet 6 inches from floor to ceiling in the living room. And we went out and found an 11 foot tree, and told them it HAD to be trimmed to fit 10 feet, 6 inches, Including tree stand.
They delivered it two hours later and as they went to stand it up in the living room it was... close... close... maybe not... maybe yes... WHEW! It just made it by 2 inches from the ceiling!
Lyle left just after to go skiing and left me alone to light and decorate the tree. I took that night to light the tree. 3 and half hours to get 3000 twinkle lights on the tree. But I also wanted to add some bubble lights and they take a different kind of light string. So added 4 strings of 25 lights each, C7 bulbs. C7's are the old fashioned indoor lights (C9 are the old fashioned outdoor lights). I stood back and admired the tree... nope. It needed more C7 lights. So Added 4 more strings.
There I was with 3000 twinkle lights, and 200 C7 lights. I was cautious and only plugged 5 strings at time to the twinkle lights. The C7 lights got two strings together then brought back to an extension cord or power strip. I know the fuses in the light strings can blow. I do not want to go in search of those after the tree is decorated!
I utilized extension cords and power strips throughout the tree and brought all the power down to the outlet beneath the tree. This outlet (and one other) had been specially installed in the house on their own circuit just to light the tree. The first year we were in this house, I had to run and extension cord from the garage to light the tree because we couldn't pull that much power from the house AND watch TV.
No more fears, I have my own circuit just for Christmas. After the tree was all set, I plugged the final power strip into the remote clicker switch so I wouldn't have to dive under the tree to turn it on and off. Then I sat back and enjoyed the glow.
Until 2 hours later when the tree turned itself off.
Huh? So I got under the tree, checked the power strip, plugged the lights in direct to the outlet, everything seemed to be working. I put it all back together, extension cords to power strip, power strip to remote clicker, clicker to outlet. All working again... then an hour later, OUT.
I unplugged it all and gave up. Lyle is my electrical guy and he was skiing.
The next day I went out and bought a new remote clicker that had TWO outlets on it and was made for outdoors. I figured that HAD to be okay. And if not, I bought another set of THREE separate clickers as a fall back plan.
I divided the tree electrical into two sets, all the twinkle and all the C7's. I plugged the separate sets one into each of the two new remote clicker outlets. Pretty tree, pretty tree, pretty... tree went out.
I took another break. An hour later I came back to the tree and plugged in all the twinkle into one remote clicker outlet. Then I plugged half the C7's into another remote outlet, and the other half into ANOTHER remote clicker outlet. At last I have the tree lit and able to run without burning out all the remote clickers!
It's impossible to show you the whole tree. My theme this year is "Uptown Country Chic, silver/gold/glitter". The inspiration is that little wreath made of old fashioned looking silver pipe cleaners.As you may be aware, everyone gets a new ornament each year. Mine is the snowy cabin, Lyle's is Mickey on skis.
On the right side, is Mr Cooper's ornament for this year.What's a Christmas tree at my house without an Eiffel Tower ornament?
And if that's not enough, you can try and watch this video I made of the entire tree. It's a little shaky.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 11 days
How old are you? Do you remember snow tires? Do you remember records? Do you know what snow tires and records have in common?
The annual Goodyear Christmas Album!
Goodyear started offering a free record with purchase of snow tires in 1961. 17 albums were released in total. There is a great website that can tell you more about the history of these Christmas records and their tire sponsor (The Great Songs of Christmas).
My dad and my grandfather both worked for an automotive parts store (oddly called "Automotive Parts"). They sold everything even some tires. To this day when I walk into a shop to get my car tires rotated or serviced, I take a deep breath and the smell of oil, grease and tire rubber transports me back to being ten years old sitting at the counter waiting for my dad to get off work and give me ride home from downtown.
But, Automotive Parts did not sell one thing that I needed every year to complete my idea of the perfect Christmas, The Goodyear Tires Christmas record! Luckily, my dad knew people at the Goodyear tire center. He also knew people at the Firestone tire center. We got every tire related Christmas record ever made.
Who would have guessed this crazy future kid who couldn't wait to get the tree decorated each year, was also crazy excited for the snow tires to get put on the car each year.
There were always 3 great songs, 2 sad sappy songs, a couple of duets, some choral numbers and then some orchestra filler that your parents would enjoy but would bore you. For instance, here's the line up for album 7:
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (Tony Bennett) - good song.
Toyland (Sally Ann Howes) - sad sappy
The Christmas I Spend With You (Robert Goulet)
Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly (The Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell Conductor) -orchestra filler
Do You Hear What I Hear (Diahann Carroll)
The Christmas Song (Tony Bennett)
'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Steve Lawrence)
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (The Brothers Four)
The First Noel (John Davidson)
The Lord's Prayer (Barbra Streisand)
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (The Harry Simeone Chorale)
Home for the Holidays (Jerry Vale)
O Little Town of Bethlehem (Sally Ann Howes)
Let Me Be the First (To Wish You Merry Christmas) (Steve Lawrence)
Patapan (The Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell Conductor)
O Come All Ye Faithful (Jerry Vale)
Here We Come A-Caroling (The New Christy Minstrels)
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (John Davidson)
Christmas Is (The Harry Simone Chorale)
Silent Night (The New Christy Minstrels)
You get the idea. We would play these records over and over all Christmas season. Even though a new one came out each year, we still had personal favorites on last year's record, or the year before that. And the records would get taken out of their sleeve, back in their sleeve, needle dropped on too early, too late... These records suffered abuse!
Years later many of the songs were released in new compilations on CD or mp3 and the sound quality was finally clear and amazing. Except it lost a little something for me. My friend Rachel and I were talking one year about how it just didn't feel the same without scratchy sounds in the background. And so as the music played crystal clear from my iPod in the background, we took turns making noise for the other, "pop, scratch, hiss, pop, scratch, hiss...."
Listen carefully to the first video, you can hear the pop, scratch, his ever so faintly in the background. Now that, is the sound of my childhood.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 12 days
What is it about Christmas that requires me to watch the worst sappy sentimental TV shows?
Just last night I watched "12 Dates for Christmas" which was basically "Groundhog Day" set on Christmas Eve. Every show seems to have the same message, try again to get it right. Estranged from your father? It's not too late to drive to Christmastown and learn about Christmas. Hate your job? Do a feature story on some nutjob who thinks he is Santa and learn the true meaning of Christmas after you meet a handsome man while investigating Santa. Are you a criminal? There's still time to find the true spirit of Christmas and make amends.
Aside from the pure sentimental moments that make me weep (sometimes if they are really bad, I just fast forward to the end to get the predictable final scene and sniffle) I also enjoy figuring out where they are filmed, most often Vancouver, BC.
And then there is the entire genre of "A Christmas Carol" movies. Besides the ones that adhere to the original most closely but change out the actors, there are the comedies Scrooged; musicals, A Christmas Carol: The Musical; animated, Mickey's Christmas Carol, Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol and I don't know what category to place this one, A Muppet Christmas Carol)
Then there is a particularly fascinating sub-genre of the gender flip Christmas Carol. Susan Lucci in Ebbie (filmed in Vancouver), Vanessa Williams in A Diva's Christmas Carol (filmed in Montreal), Cicely Tyson in Ms. Scrooge (filmed in Toronto) and Tori Spelling in A Carol Christmas (filmed in Los Angeles).
Traditionally I watch one sappy Christmas movie a night during December, all by myself, after everyone has gone to bed. Be horrified.
A Diva's Christmas Carol preview
Susan Lucci in Ebbie
Tori Spelling in A Carol Christmas
Ms Scrooge starring Cicely Tyson
Susan Lucci in Ebbie
Tori Spelling in A Carol Christmas
Ms Scrooge starring Cicely Tyson
Monday, December 12, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 13 days
When I was a child Christmas was the high point of the year for me. All year long you build up to it, then it happens and.... ppfffffttttttt. It's all downhill until July when you can start building up to it again.
My mom asked each of us kids to make a list of what we wanted for Christmas. I want a new bike, that belt we saw at The Golden Rule that you said looked like a hippie, everything on page 62 of the Sears Christmas catalog, everything on pages 73-82 of the Sears Christmas catalog and a puppy.
See that list? It's a list doomed to failure. You are never going to get EVERYTHING off of a page in the catalog. Note that I didn't ask for "anything off of page 62" I asked for EVERYTHING off of page 62. I already had a bike, I was already told "no" to that belt and we had a cat so the puppy thing was not gonna' happen either.
But I held out hope. Though I knew you couldn't wrap a puppy in a box and put him under the tree a week before Christmas, you could always wrap a gift certificate for a puppy and place it under the tree without any ventilation holes and that box could really be any size, it could totally happen.... doomed.
I always tried to find the gifts that were hidden in the house. My mother knew this. Every year she hid the gifts as she brought them into the house. High up in the closet? Hello stepladder. Hidden in her dedicates drawer? Goodbye privacy. I think one year she hid them in my dad's trunk. But she didn't think about going out to dinner and leaving my dad's car at home with a spare set of keys in the cupboard.
Her next plan of attack was to bring the gift home, wrap them immediately and place them under the tree. Here's a tip, don't do that with anything breakable. We picked up and shook every gift under that tree when no one was home.
The last year I cheated and spoiled the surprise of Christmas morning still lives in my head.
My parents were out at the Elk's club on a Saturday night. Just us kids were home. After great discussion, we decided to peek at the gifts under the tree. My mom had a system of hiding who each gift was for, but we found a couple that looked similar and figured out it was "three gift". a gift that all three kids are getting the same, probably in different colors. My sister and I were all for the peeking. My older brother was against it -ish. As in, he was against peeking, against getting caught, but was staying in the room to see what we found, then going to tell us both that we shouldn't have done that.
Wrapping paper was cheap, tape was extra sticky. There was no way to open this without being betrayed. We carefully sliced the tape along one end where we planned to place an exact same size piece of tape back over it after. Of all the 500 things I had carefully selected to appear on my list, which one would this fantastic present turn out to be....?
That wasn't on my list. And there weren't even pencils that drew in color. They were regular pencils that were painted a swirling faux marble pattern on the outside. So disappointing. My sister and I started to argue about opening more presents, to try and find a really good one. My brother freaked out that we were all going to get caught. The pencils got taped back up and placed exactly back under the tree where they had been.
Two days later I had to give my Oscar winning performance of opening up aforementioned faux marble swirl pencils and acting excited, surprised and not disappointed in the least that it wasn't a gift certificate for a puppy.
By 2 pm I had stormed to my room, thrown all my gifts outside my door, especially those rotten pencils and screamed that CHRISTMAS SUCKS!!! Because I hadn't gotten ANYTHING I had asked for on my list! Not pretty.
But there is hope. In January, my mom and I discussed just exactly what the hell is wrong with me. We figured out that after Christmas there is nothing to look forward to. My birthday is 11 months away, so is Halloween, and no one really gives enough attention or candy on Valentine's Day or any other Spring celebrations. Then we talked about my unrealistic expectations of getting everything on my list. Next year my mom included me in a lot more of her Christmas shopping so I could see what everyone else was getting and adjust my expectations to match. And we planned something fun to happen in January to look forward to.
My mother also explained to me that she spends $50 per child each year. That was her limit. No bike, no carpet, no full catalog pages were ever going to be purchased with a budget of $50. You can probably guess what I said next. You could probably say it with me.
Puppies are free.
"Not after you unwrap them."
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 14 days
In the old days, when you still went to the mall in your covered wagon, I worked in the visual department at Nordstrom. In the old days, when store visuals were deemed important, the Christmas trim was a big deal. In the old days, when there was money in the budget, they really spent it on fluffing the store out to its fullest.
At my first store, after I helped install the Christmas trim, my ongoing job for the rest of the month was to come back and water the poinsettias. Then I moved to Los Angeles, and I started over at the bottom of the display totem pole. After I helped install Christmas, I got to come back and water the poinsettias. In the old covered wagon days of retail, a full size 3 floor Nordstrom would have around 600 poinsettia plants.
They were everywhere. They arrived from the grower on Thanksgiving Eve while the store was in full Christmas change over. 6 plants in a box, 100 boxes, on the receiving dock, in the way. They needed to be moved off the dock, into the store, still out of the way, and then every single one of them opened and placed in the store.
Inside the big cardboard box there are 6 poinsettia plants. Each plant is wrapped in a paper sleeve cone. Fastest way to remove sleeve, hold base of pot with left hand, pull sleeve down onto left arm revealing plant. Full fluffy plants got prominently displayed in single tera cotte pots all over the store. Slightly smaller, broken, or shabby plants (you've got 600, there are bound to be a few) get mixed into planter boxes around the escalators or up high on the cosmetic ledges. It is one person's job for the entire set up night to manage the poinsettia crew.
Poinsettias have a milky white sap that is very sticky and after a few hours quite itchy. At my house we call them "red weeds" (that's the polite term). For ten years I did not allow them in my home. About 2 years ago, I relented.
This is a video of the pants being packed up at the nursery, it made my hands and arms itch.
It is an never ending dance to keep them alive inside a cool at night, warm by day, get no sunshine indoor environment.
Here's my secret: Poinsettias like to be teased.
They don't want too much water. They don't want too little water. Do not water them every day. Do not water them every other day. Water them every 3 days. When you do, don't give them too much water. Give them about 2/3 of what you would give a normal plant.
If you have one by a heat vent, one by the window, one in a dark corner, rotate them once a week with each other. I know your poinsettia came in a pretty foil wrapper that looks oh so festive, but please, put it in a real pot with a saucer. If you can't do that, at least take the price tag off the foil wrapper.
If you follow these simple instructions, you're plant will still be healthy and happy when you take down Christmas in January... and since you've taken down the rest of Christmas, please do me a favor, take your poinsettia outside and THROW IT AWAY.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 15 days
A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965
I have a soft spot for Charlie Brown and Snoopy. One of my favorite Christmas TV specials is A Charlie Brown Christmas. The soundtrack is amazing, it's one of those rare albums you can put on repeat and not be annoyed with in 3 hours. In four hours, yes. But not in three.
Charlie Brown is not who i identify with in this show, I'm so much more a Snoopy. Over decorate, dance like no one is watching, swoop in at the end and sing along. Yeah, that was me as a kid.
I remember when children's Christmas specials were on CBS, you'd see this:
and then you'd shout, "HURRY!!! It's ON!!!" we didn't have Tivo back when I was a kid. You could only watch this special when it was "special". Just watch the first 20 seconds of this clip, and you will be reminded that for many years this special was sponsored by Dolly Madison.
After Charlie Brown came How the Grinch Stole Christmas. You had 2 minutes for everyone in the house to jump up, get more snacks, pee, get a drink, and then get back to your spot on the couch. "Mom! Gary stole my spot! That's my spot! Give me back MY SPOT! The show is starting! Shhhhhhh....."
Friday, December 09, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 16 days
I don't do gifts. Actually I do gifts. I don't do Christmas gifts. I just spent $200 on Christmas gifts last weekend. I don't do Christmas gifts like I used to and I don't put the same expectations on them that I used to. I go to stores and stand there with my hands on things, panic, and run from the store...
Christmas gift giving is a minefield for me.
I have this problem in my brain that I am required to buy you a gift for as close to $20 as possible, that sums up how I feel about you and what you have meant to me over the past year or lifetime. A lifetime of love, caring and sentiment wrapped up for around $20. No, my expectations aren't a little off. They're COMPLETELY WHACKED.
About ten years ago I had done the impossible. I had gone out and found THE PERFECT gift for everyone in my family, brothers, sister, mother, father, wives, husbands, nieces, nephew and grandmother. I had also done the same for my husband's family. EVERYONE on both sides of our families had been purchased the PERFECT gift. The PERFECT gift had then been PERFECTLY wrapped and PERFECTLY packed for shipping to the farthest flung places on the earth from Los Angeles: Seattle and Northern Alberta.
There was on little problem, I hadn't finished this task on December 1st. I had finished it on December 21st.
There was a lesson I had learned years before, there are few problems money can't solve. I drove over to FedEx to get my parcels to their destinations overnight. Problem solved.
On the 22nd, I was waiting to hear that the package had arrived. I checked the tracking system and the packages... were still in LA. My heart began to race. This can't be. This is wrong. I paid to get them there OVERNIGHT. But apparently I had no control over the packages once I let go of them and FedEx explained that they had no control over the Snow storm that had crippled their distribution center in Tennessee.
Breathe I told myself. It's only the 22nd. You've got 2 more days.
The packages moved overnight, Hooray! They moved to San Francisco, Boo!
I monitored the packages all day on the 23rd. San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco... then one package moved... EDMONTON! One package had made it out of the country! And then it was held by customs.
So there I was on the 24th, Christmas Eve. One package was in Edmonton waiting to be released by customs so it could make it's last leg of the trip another 5 hours away by truck. It absolutely, definitely wasn't gong to be there on time.
The other package was still in San Francisco waiting for a group of friends to be released from Tennessee to join it and make it's final trip to Seattle. Apparently it didn't want to travel alone. Tennessee still had snow issues.
I'd had it. I phoned FedEx and began to rip into whoever had the misfortune of answering the phone. I can't write what I said to them, mostly because I don't remember. I know I used my scary low mean voice. I know I was sarcastic. I know I pleaded. And I recall saying this phrase, "You have ruined my Christmas. This is the worst day of my life. I don't care how awful I am to you, my life is over and if I'm going down, I'm taking as many of you people as I can down with me!"
That's when Lyle took the phone away from me by force.
I ran to the bathroom and cried until I threw up. Then I held onto the cold porcelain of the toilet to dry my tears and cool my face. Lyle came in to give me a status update,
The Alberta package has cleared customs. It will be personally walked from FedEx to the last passenger plane leaving for Grande Prairie tonight. My sister Cheryl will meet that plane and those presents will arrive on time.
The Seattle package will arrive on Christmas morning. The distribution center will be open from 8 am to noon. Your brother in law will drive down and pick up the package so that your gifts will be opened on Christmas day.
This is the last year. The last year we are doing this. Get your shopping done by December 1st, or we are doing online gift certificates for everyone.
And then he left me to wash my face off and pull myself together.
When I came out to my beautifully decorated home, there was Christmas music playing, candles lit and a 24 piece chocolate champagne truffle box on the dining room table. Lyle opened a bottle of expensive champagne he had been saving for Christmas day, "I think we need this now," he said. We sat and looked at the tree, the presents under the tree, our dogs and our $200 meal of just champagne and chocolates. "Is this dinner?" I asked. "Costs more than most people are having tonight, so yes. Bon appetite."
That was the last year I did FedEx for Christmas. It's not really fair to the workers of FedEx to put my pressure on them. It was also the last year I bought for everyone. I still buy gifts. I buy things as I see them, I put them in the closet and save them. I give them out whenever I feel like it. My relationship with Christmas gifts is complex, it's not fair, and now that I've confessed my sins here in this public forum, I need a drink and chocolate truffle.
Thursday, December 08, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 17 days
It will come as no surprise that I was in Choir in High School. All four years (okay, all five if you count that last year I had to go back, let's not go there right now). Though there were rules about separation of church and state, our choir director got around all those by claiming significant historical musical traditions and had us sing all sorts of religious music for the "winter concert formerly known as Christmas.
There were two big showstopping numbers the choir performed every year. The Hallelujah Chorus and Silent Night. You know, those songs with significant historical musical traditions and no religious overtones. The finale was always Silent Night performed acapella. Our conductor wore a black suit with a white shirt and stood in front of the choir. As we sang, the lights slowly dimmed and our conductor would adjust his suit jacket to reveal more of his white shirt cuffs so we could see his hands. As the lights dimmed, a large stylized star lit with Christmas lights would slowly lower from the ceiling. (I remember one year the wire broke and it was only held aloft by the extension cord powering the lights. Try to not laugh while you watch the star of Bethlehem jiggle its way into place. But you see, there is no religious overtones there. It was just us, singing a song of significant historical musical traditions, that's all.
My favorite song to sing came before Silent Night. It was the BIG FINALE (Silent Night was apparently the non-religious contemplative song to send you on your way). For the Hallelujah Chorus all the music department came together, Band, Orchestra and Choir. Choir alumni were also encouraged to come onstage and join in.
The song is a KILLER. Every section is stretched to it's limit, the sopranos have to reach the end of their range and so do the tenors. The Altos and basses must get as low as they can. For months we practiced and then THE night arrives. The song takes on a life of its own running wild and fast. With orchestra and band added in its an unwieldy beast of a song. There will be no surprises that I sang tenor. And there are two moments in the middle where we are required to reach the highest note of the year and all you do is pray your voice won't crack. If you ever hear it live, you'll know right where this is, the choir usually gets just little quieter as those who know they won't make it just drop off. It doesn't matter, I still love it.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 18 days
White Christmas, 1954
Well who doesn't love this movie? It would be like saying you don't love It's A Wonderful Life, it would mean you have no heart. The movie is full of classic moments. I love the kitsch of Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen singing "Sisters".
Which is immediately outdone by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye lipsynching the same routine.
Sentimental schlock and missed communication follow. with my favorite tear filled scene coming near the end where all the vets who served under the general converge on his Vermont Lodge for Christmas. (Where did they stay? Who fed them? Where are their families? Did they all get drink and go carousing into town later? Never mind...)
And then the BIG finale where the walls open up to reveal the winter wonderland outside. That would be SO COLD!
Who cares, it's gorgeous, it's on a sound stage, and now all my Christmas moments where I dress in red with white fur trim are going to pale in comparison. At least I can still fit an orchestra in my living room for my Christmas singing. Hey, wait a minute...
Tuesday, December 06, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 19 days
Christmastime is often called a "magical" time. There are millions of images and expectations on how to create the "perfect" holiday. I am here to tell you that perfection comes with a price. There are no magic elves that decorate the house. Someone has to bake all those cookies. Presents don't purchase themselves with money that grows on trees.
As a kid I didn't understand all that yet. Why can't we have more lights on the house? Where are all the cookies that look exactly like in this book? Why can't I have a new bike AND a trip to Disneyland? I believed the hype which made me certain to be disappointed. My parents did their best to give me the wonder of Christmas, then quickly backpedaled when they realized they needed to show me the dirty underbelly of how Christmas works.
I remember being around 14 or so and my mom and I were getting ready to bake cookies. It sounds like one of those magical Hallmark moments that memories are made of. What you need to know is that my mother was one of those people who ran a very tight schedule and this was THE DAY she had put aside FOUR HOURS to get all those cookies DONE. She was (and still is) a firm believer in the adage, "if you're going to make a mess in the kitchen, make it worth your time, make it a BIG mess."
There we were in the middle of the kitchen, four hours on the clock, tensions mounting as ingredients were pulled out and matched up to recipes (oh yes, we'd be making ALL the season's cookies in four hours or less). I don't remember what the topic was (no one ever remembers) but we started to argue. That's too much, that's not enough, you don't have time, I want that one, you can't have it, this sucks, you're not very grateful, fine I don't want to help, fine you get no cookies this year, good because these suck... and then "it" arrived.
On the stereo in the background came on The Skater's Waltz.
I gasped (yes, I know, how dramatic), "I love this song!" and I grabbed my mother's hand and began to "skate" around her in my stocking feet. My mother started to laugh and pull her hand away to get back to her baking, "C'mon mom! Skate with me!" and I pulled her down the hallway. We skated through the house, around into the living room where we spun around in bigger circles, then made our way back to through the dining room and into the kitchen. The song ended, I bowed to my partner, "You're so much fun," said my mother. "Thank you for the skate, kind lady," I replied. Forgetting our conflict of 3 minutes before, we put our aprons on and returned to our cookies.
This song always takes me back to that day. I still skate in my socks.
Monday, December 05, 2011
Countdown to Christmas 20 days
I don't know why, but I love Christmas songs I know by heart in a foreign language.
L'Enfant Au Tambour (The Little Drummer Boy), Noël Blanc (White Christmas), J'ai vu mama (I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus), Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes (Angels We Have Heard on High), Promenade En Traineau (Sleigh Ride), Écoutez la voix des Anges (Hark, The Herald) Sainte Nuit (Silent Night) and in a double whammy, I have a traditional German song sung in French, Mon Beau Sapin (O Tannenbaum).
And then there is the section of what I call "International" songs. Marlene Dietrich singing the Little Drummer Boy in German, Abba singing a Swedish Christmas song, Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano, 白い雪とシャンパンとX'mas by The Brilliant Green, and of course Mele Kalikimaka from Hawaii.
As I travel, I still pop in to a local CD shop and try to grab some Christmas music I will never find at home. You've caught me, I'm a music hoarder.