Merry Kitschmas

When I return from a trip, there are many, sometimes competing, thoughts running through the undoubtedly paisley shaped region of my brain that is dedicated to decorating and landscaping. Like my sometimes outlandish nightly dreams which might star the (unlikely) likes of Raymond Burr hours after my viewing of Rear Window, these thoughts on design are influenced by what I have seen over the course of my day and my travels. I return from Colonial Williamsburg thinking, “I need more candles! Yes, more candles…and wing chairs!” I return from Rehoboth Beach thinking, “Shells! I’ll incorporate shells!” I return from Baltimore at Christmastime thinking, “A hubcap Christmas tree! I’ve got to get me one of those!!”

Well, maybe not the hubcap tree so much, but I am liking bicycle wheel snowmen a lot. They, like the hubcap tree, are a fixture at the kitsch extravaganza that is 34th Street in Baltimore. If you’re not familiar with the area, just take Falls Road south, make a left on 36th, pass the three story pink flamingo strapped to the fire escapes on the left, make a right on Keswick, park in front of the house with the backlit screen on the porch roof showing the Pink Panther’s Pink Christmas show on a Blue Ray loop, make a left, and you’re there. 34th Street is one solid block of skinny little rowhouses decked out from curb to rooftop with lights, candy canes, inflatables, motionette Santas, makeshift trees with beer cans for ornaments, train sets, menorahs, music, and more.

And the good news is that you too can have a crazy Christmas house, because there are two houses for sale on the block! 729 W. 34th is on the market for $245K and 719 is listed for a bargain $234K. Built at the turn of the century (the 20th century), they both give you the chance to trick out your house the way you always wanted, with a guarantee that no humbug neighbor is going to call the cops.

I’m not really in the market, but I am kind of hooked on the snowmen. I’m really digging these ones in this photo link, and I want ’em. I wonder if it would be too forward of me to just mail a postcard to 708 W. 34th and ask (beg) the residents to help hook me up. Stalkerific, I know, but you have to start somewhere. Plus, I figure that if you have 45,000 people parading past your door every year, you’re not so much into privacy, right?

Christmas

This Christmas day, I am deferring to two who are wiser than I. The first is Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who said, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, –apart from the veneration due its sacred origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that, –as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-travellers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it.”

…and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, whose prophecy about his son’s role in the ministry of Jesus Christ is recorded in the Gospel of Luke:

“For our God is merciful and tender; He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us, and shine from heaven on all those who live in the shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace.”

Merry Christmas, everyone!

A quick note: I’ll be travelling until Tuesday, 12/29, and not making drama journal or blog entries, but be sure to catch up with me after that. I’m sure there will be lots to tell!

Death defying snow fun

Jake, Hayley, and friend Megan in their snow cave

Back when I was a teenager, as I had just fallen out of a canoe, without my life jacket, and into a set of rapids on the Delaware River, I remember having this realization: my Dad was so right. I should have had that life jacket on, just like I should have never ridden in the back of a pick-up truck or driven anywhere in the winter without a blanket in the car.

My Dad’s words of safety wisdom were reincarnated in my own parenting this week, when I found myself admiring a five foot deep snow cave that my son and his friend dug while I was inside wrapping Christmas presents. I should know by now that when my son says, “Mom, come out and see this!” that the children have somehow, yet again, escaped certain death.

Despite nightmarish visions of my son, trapped by a cave-in, gasping for the diminishing breathable air, I found myself looking at the snow cave and saying this: “Great job, guys! Quite an architectural achievement! How about I go get the camera and then you guys can go in (feet first!), and we’ll take your picture in the snow cave before it collapses on you and kills you?”

I tried to keep it light, really I did, patting them on the back for a good job and telling them that I was just worried because the temperature would be rising over the next couple of days. Craig, wise man that he is, had the good idea of paying them two bucks to fill in the cave—which they did, happily.

I was a little surprised the next day, though, when Jake told us that he and his friends had dug snow cave number two at a house around the corner. “It’s OK,” he said. “My friend’s parents were right there.”

“Right there to dig you out in the event of collapse?” Craig said.

Jake said, “Yup.”

So nice that the lesson wasn’t lost on him, isn’t it?

BIG SNOW 2009

On Friday afternoon, when the weekend weather predictions were for 10-14 inches of snow, a fourth grader friend gave me the latest conventional wisdom on the “Come on, snow” ritual. To guarantee a snowfall, she said, you should

  1. Flush an ice cube down the toilet
  2. Put a sock on your doorknob
  3. Place a spoon under your pillow
  4. Wear your pajamas inside out

When I told young Abby and Sam Malinky about this on Friday night, they did all four almost immediately…and now, around 20 inches of snow later, I suspect their efforts have paid off.

The snow is at least knee high on me, and the only part of my car that I can see is the side mirror. All weekend events from plays to church to social activities have been cancelled, and all I can say is thank goodness I finished my Christmas cards and Christmas shopping on Friday. School was scheduled to happen on Monday and Tuesday, but if the cleanup doesn’t proceed quickly, then I suspect we’ll be declaring ourselves already on winter break. I am not one to overuse the word ‘awesome,’ but if this is not an occasion for it, I don’t know what is.

I have a feeling that the best part of today will be when I walk outside and smell all those Christmas cookies baking and fireplace fires blazing, then walk inside to smell the roast turkey that’s been in my freezer since before Thanksgiving, when I opted to go untraditional and ate Chinese instead. It’s amazing to me that, in what has been a month of chart topping stress (like any other December), I’ve been blessed with such a welcome and beautiful halt to the normally hairy routine. So, sitting here in the early morning, before anyone else has awakened, I think what I also think on that much-anticipated night when we gain the autumnal daylight savings hour: let’s not squander it.

Guest posting: a funny from my Dad

I spent much of the day yesterday with my nose in a medical dictionary, so when I received this from my Dad, it made me laugh out loud. Dad has graciously given me permission to post it (although I didn’t take out the brand name like he asked–sorry, Dad), and, yes, it is original. Enjoy!

Label: SWAN 70% Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol
RUBEFACIENT, TOPICAL ANTIMICROBIAL

WARNING: FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY.
Will produce serious gastric disturbances if taken internally.

Doctor: “What is wrong with you?”
Patient: “Something has produced serious gastric disturbances.”
Doctor: “Have you been using SWAN 70% Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol internally?!”

One of the guys

I don’t want to be like, a guy here, you know? Like, Stanley is the ‘crossword puzzle guy.’ And Angela has cats. I don’t want to have a thing… here. You know, I don’t want to be the ‘something’ guy.”    
         
-Ryan “the temp” Howard, in The Office episode,
The Fire

I guess you never know when you’re going to become the “something” guy. Back at school, I remember somebody we called the “pirate guy,” and at church for a while we had the “Donny Osmond guy” and the “happy singing guy” (note: not the same person, but oddly in the same vein). If you’re lucky enough to have a specialized profession at which you are successful, then you may become known as “the man,” like our exterminator (aka, Bob the “Bug man”), our tree-trimmer (Kevin, the “Tree man”), or any anonymous driver who rings the bells on his treat truck (Yes, he’s the “ice cream man”). There’s also my compulsive, former neighbor, whom we all avoided…and called “Lawn man.”

In the interest of equal time, on the female side, there are the ladies: the “ticket lady,” the “cleaning lady,” the “crazy cat lady,” the “check-out lady,” the “lady with the big hat,” the “lady who cut me off in the parking lot who keyed my car because she thought it was me who cut her off.”

I don’t know why, but I always pictured my son Jake as the “guy who dances alone at weddings with a foamy drink in his hand,” but I am relieved to see that he’s carved out a place for himself somewhere else in the “guy” landscape: he’s now the homemade, video game character t-shirt guy.

It seems that Jake’s been wearing his own homemade Zelda-themed shirt to theater rehearsals (it’s got a belt drawn in with fabric markers—isn’t that cute?). The teenager who’s playing Father Christmas in the production told Jake that he liked his shirt and asked if Jake could make him one with a Mario Brothers theme. (Jake was tickled over giving Santa Claus a present for a change—oh, the irony.) Anyway, I wasn’t sure if the kid was just being nice or if he really wanted the shirt, but I figured that drawing Mario and mushrooms on a t-shirt would be an enriching Saturday afternoon activity for a Jake, so I picked up one white T and let him have at it.

Turns out that Alex (aka Fr. Xmas) LOVED the shirt, wore it under his Santa suit for the performance, and was still sporting it at the pizza parlor after-party. Also, Jake received orders with detailed specs from three other kids. He’s got himself a little cottage industry going.

Too bad that at $1.50 in profit per shirt (as long as the shirts are on sale), he will have to make about 80,000 shirts to get himself through the college of his choice. Still, I figure, it’s good that he’s starting young.


 

Thankful for long walks…with the kids?!?!

When I enrolled Jake for kindergarten several years ago, the school secretary looked at my address and said, “He’s a walker!” If I’m remembering correctly, I think I said, “What’s a walker?” Back home growing up, none of us walked to school, so it was all news to me. It also sounded crazy, as there are .9 miles and 2 streets with double yellow lines between us and the school, meaning that as long as the children were still in elementary school, I would pretty much never feel comfortable with them walking all the way there themselves.

Walking to school has never been an every day of the week thing for us, but we’d do a morning or an afternoon a couple of times a week if the weather was nice. What I came to realize, though, was that those little treks to school were perfect for kid-initiated conversations about nature, school, friends—whatever.

Neither Jake nor Hayley attend our local elementary school anymore, so we don’t walk to school, but we do use that route for exercise sometimes. Jake jogs, I jog (believe it or not), and Hayley rides her scooter. Yesterday’s walk gave Jake the opportunity to discuss his lunch money bankruptcy issues, his progress report observations, his concerns over possible favoritism in the classroom, and his assessment that his teacher is just plain mean.

At one point, Hayley, who rides up on the sidewalk, asked Jake to jog down on the street. He harshly replied, “Why? I’m behind you” to which she said, “Oh, you’re not in my way. I just want to hear the conversation.”

That just about made me cry.

So today, I’m thankful for long walks with my children, who, with fresh air and a little exercise seem to open up about things they never would otherwise.

And if it’s not already too much, I am thankful for Scott Snyder and Dario Varga, who came to my rescue when my e-mail got glitchy to the point of unusability the other day. My email service is with my alma mater, Lehigh University, and I had no qualms about relinquishing control of my computer to two guys whom I’d never met, but who were sitting out in Bethlehem, PA throwing all they had at my little problem. You guys were great, and the email’s working great! Go Engineers!!

Cookies for a cause

OK, I promise that the 12 Days of Cookies will be over soon, but I just had to share the latest in the Cheryl’s Christmas Cookies saga. First, some background.

My friend Becky is involved with an organization called Prison Fellowship, which is a religious outreach to people in prison. Becky, her husband, and other volunteers in our area have forged relationships with many prisoners, and, for some of them, it’s hope-giving and life-changing to have someone “on the outside” who cares about their well-being.

So what does this have to do with cookies? Well, Becky’s husband, George, has put out a call for 35 dozen cookies for packaging and distribution to the prisoners this Christmas season. As you may expect, this was both hope-giving and life-changing for me!! Now I can bake for people who will (a) appreciate what I’ve done and (b) never have the opportunity to complain to me about the nuts vs. no nuts thing. Who knows, perhaps in prison cookies with nuts are not only tasty, but a rare, tradable commodity, something akin to cigarettes. Perhaps by baking, I’ll be giving some downtrodden, aspiring, incarcerated entrepreneur a leg up. One can only hope.

What I’ve enjoyed perhaps the most about the prison cookie connection is my daughter’s strange thrill about the possible criminal profiles of our anonymous cookie recipients. “Just think, Mom,” she said. “A murderer will be eating these cookies.” Not to burst her bubble, but I did point out that there aren’t just murderers in prison. There are drug dealers and petty thieves there too. Drug dealers and petty thieves who may receive a little baggie of cookies, see my specialty, and break down sobbing and thanking God because Grandma back home used to make those very same cookies, and this must be a sign from God spelling reform and restoration in a life that’s otherwise gone hopelessly wrong.

Then again, maybe cookies in prison are just like cookies at the Christmas table. Maybe in 2009 beggars too can be just as choosy as the rest of us, and they’ll throw the cookies back through the bars and into the distributor’s basket because they’ve got peanut butter or raspberry jelly or (heaven forbid) coconut in them. Still the way I look at it, no matter who you are or what your crime, you just can’t argue with free cookies. You’ll take ’em, you’ll eat ’em, and whether you like ’em or not, you’ll know that someone, somewhere, thought you were worth it.

With that, here’s a link to my recipe for Chocolate Penitentiary Pixies, courtesy of the lovely people at Land O Lakes. Enjoy!

Bake. Eat. Live.


I’m thankful today for my neighbor Judi, who just brought me over a baggie filled with Caramel coconut brittle, which in real life translates to shortbread-like, buttery wonderfulness reminiscent of the marble cookies that I loved as a kid.

Cookies make it aaaaaaalllll better.

Judi’s the longtime food columnist for our local paper, so you, me, and the rest of the Dover reading public will have access to the recipe next Wednesday. In the meantime, here’s my very favorite cookie recipe, from The Silver Palatte Cookbook. It takes a lot of time, a good bit of work, and more butter than I’d like to admit. Believe me, though, it’s worth it!

Shortbread Hearts
Ingredients:
3/4 pound (3 sticks) sweet butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup granulated sugar

Instructions:
1. Cream butter and confectioners’ sugar together until light.

2. Sift flour and salt together and add to creamed mixture. Add vanilla and blend thoroughly.

3. Gather dough into a ball, wrap in wax paper, and chill for 4 to 6 hours.

4. Roll out chilled dough to 5/8-inch thickness [I usually make them about 3/8 inch thick and just cut down on the baking time]. Using a 3-inch-long heart-shaped cookie cutter [I like a star or moon too!], cut out cookies. Sprinkle tops with granulated sugar. Place cut-out cookies on ungreased cookie sheets and refrigerate for 45 minutes before baking.

5. Preheat over to 325°F (160°C).

6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until just starting to color lightly; cookies should not brown at all. Be careful removing from the pan–they are fragile! Cool on a rack.

Yield: 20 cookies

Cookie monster

I used to make cookies for Christmas. Lots of cookies. Pardon me, but lots and lots of cookies. I don’t believe in freezing cookies (don’t ask me why), so I would make these mountains of cookies very close to Christmas. And I don’t believe in storing them together in containers or on trays, so the mountains of cookies were in mountains of separate containers, piled up on the basement workbench—which is where everyone’s cookies belong, right?

I kind of hate giving Christmas gifts—not because I’m stingy, but because over the years I’ve had more and more trouble figuring out what in the world all of us already overstuffed Americans really want, need, can use, or will find under the growing masses of stuff we’ve already got. So for a while I gave cookies. I’d make a list of all the people I give to, then figure out what cookie in my repertoire suited that person the best, and then I’d give each person his or her own bag of a dozen and a half baked-with-love, hand-packed, ribbon-tied treats.

Once I even brought a tray of my cookies to a holiday dinner party. And do you know how many disappeared that magical night? None at all.

For me, this was a most troubling development. I’m the kind of girl who is suspicious of kids who turn down cake and ice cream. I’m also the kind of girl who can barely resist a cookie, even if it tastes bad. So for me, having tray of my homemade cookies sitting on the dessert buffet staring up at me, untouched, made me feel like sweet, normal Marilyn Munster being rejected, evicted, and kicked out on her butt by Aunt Lily and Uncle Herman.

So, needless to say, I stopped making cookies. At least I stopped for a year, then went through a period of withdrawal, to the point that last Christmas I packed all of my cookie ingredients in a travel bag and dragged them to my mother-in-law’s house, where, on the day after Christmas, I baked like 12 dozen cookies, none of which I was planning on eating. Let me tell you, I enjoyed every freaking minute of it.

This year, I find myself at a crossroads. I wonder, shall I bake, or not? If I do, shall I give, or not? On my way to a party shall I bring a savory (a stretch) or a sweet (my specialty)? I don’t know.

What I do know is that Jocelyn, the lovely volunteer director for my daughter’s drama class will be receiving a thank you gift from me tomorrow night, consisting of a Polish pottery platter with a bag of Betty Crocker Gingerbread cookie baking mix lovingly glue dotted to its center. A cookie compromise? Yes. But I figure, she’s a big girl. She can handle it.