A Christmas story

Ah, the holidays … when everybody gathers at Grandma’s house to fight over who sleeps on the good mattress to share good times & festive traditions.

In our home, that means watching “Die Hard” (Alan Rickman, we always will miss your brilliance), downing tequila shots & YET ONCE AGAIN analyzing the emotional trauma scan_20161222inflicted on my now-30-something-year-old daughters random anonymous children forced to sit on Santa Claus’ lap. And smile.

It also means telling incredibly embarrassing stories about each other. Because, I mean, we’re all there, sitting around in relatively relaxed moods, so why not? Therefore, in the spirit of holiday generosity, I’m sharing with you all a little story we like to call “The Day of George Foreman,” or, as John Lewis Pitts some family members refer to it, “The Day Cathy Descended into Criminal Madness.”

Actually, this story does have an interactive element. Each time it’s told, listeners invariably ponder their own actions in the same situation. This leads to insightful discussion on such topics as 1) are sidewalks REALLY public property?; 2) what is the proper cooking time for a grilled cheese sandwich?; and 3) who, in fact, is George Foreman?

So, here’s the story. Decide for yourself.

A few Christmas afternoons ago, Younger Daughter — whom I for no reason whatsoever
will henceforth call, say, “Carolyn,” — and I decided to take a walk. As is usual for a Southern December, it was a mild day, perfect for strolling & chatting. As we neared the end of our route, with our house in sight, we noticed a young woman going in & out of what we assumed was her apartment. Carrying boxes & armloads of household items, she set them down on the sidewalk, near the curb & what we assumed was her car, and went back inside for more. Based on years of watching detective shows on TV on our sharply honed investigative skills, we figured she probably was moving out. We’re smart like that.

Now, here’s where it gets tricky. One of us — we can’t remember wh0 but it was NOT me — suggested casually meandering over since obviously the woman was putting things out on the curb(-ish) in the time-honored manner of offering unwanted items to anyone willing to cart them off. So, let’s review: woman brings boxes & other stuff out of an apartment & leaves(-ish) them unattended(-ish) on the curb(-ish). Clearly it’s a take-my-things-please situation, right?

Because, when we crossed the street & got closer, we saw two — count ’em, TWO — George Foreman grills. Waiting. Longing for a proper home. Wanting to be loved & appreciated instead of heartlessly discarded. (-ish).15124782-new1

Admittedly I never before that moment had ever thought about owning a George Foreman grill. Older Daughter loves hers for cooking the kids’ chicken nuggets, but since our kitchen counter space is taken up with the toaster, coffee grinder and five coffee makers other kitchen essentials, I’d never considered adding one.

That’s why I was as surprised as anyone to discover, a few seconds later, that somehow I had grabbed BOTH of the George Foreman grills from the curb(-ish) & was high-tailing it  back home as Younger Daughter urged us on to a quick exit of the crime scene home.

So, what would you have done? I don’t think I actually stole the George Foreman grills, since they were just sitting there. And clearly the woman was moving out. At least, I didn’t see her car there anymore despite hours spent nervously staking out her apartment whenever I’d casually glance in that direction. So there’s that. But why did I act fast & leave even faster? Obviously I had some doubt about the woman’s intentions. Or was I concerned about my reputation as a fine upstanding citizen? I’d curb-shopped before when we lived in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (see metal filing cabinet & Pier 1 Papasan Chair, although I did ditch the cushion), but maybe the rules were different here in our little Mississippi town? Don’t know.

After I cleaned the grills (“You mean, there are still pieces of food inside?” Older Daughter said in silent condemnation.), I searched online for how to use them since, you know, the previous owner had not thought to include the instructions. One grill is a single & one is a double & I love them & use them frequently, especially when making toasted cheese sandwiches for holiday company. And I feel only a little bit guilty.

So please enjoy your family gatherings this season as you share stories of possible criminal activity. And Alan Rickman.

cwcslant

(Obviously not my actual handwriting since you can, you know, read it.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three tips for holiday success

Yes, that panic you feel actually IS panic this time — pure unadulterated panic, not the kind you’ve been manufacturing because your year-end reports are due & has anybody seen your green sparkly sweater with the reindeer plus global warming, y’all. Nope, this is officially Panic Time because Dec. 25 is a week from today. One week,  people. One. Week.

But there are some things you can do to lessen your panic. Not completely get rid of it, you understand. That’s impossible because you ALWAYS will suddenly wake up at 3:31 a.m. on Dec. 23 with the certainty that although you did mail your sister’s family’s Christmas gifts in time, you definitely forgot to include your brother-in-law’s traditional bottle of Scotch, which your sister will take as subtle criticism & not call you for two weeks. That’s going to happen and you can’t do anything about it.

However, you can be prepared for/aware of other minor crises. Here are some suggestions, based on just a small sampling of my many holiday screw-ups years of expert research:

  • Family gatherings equal Game Nights, correct? Be the cool one with aIMG_2677 game that nobody’s played before. Family-friendly Qwirkle and its grown-up sibling Qwirkle Cubes are sort of dominoes, Scrabble and Hearts all rolled (sorry/not sorry for pun) into one. It truly is a game that’s easy to learn but then the more you play it, the more you realize how complex it can be. And, of course, because you are The Smart One, you downloaded the app on your phone and practiced beforehand so you can wipe up the competition with your brilliant moves share helpful advice & encouragement with those lesser players.
  • Pinterest is your friend during the holidays. Your best friend, IMG_2673actually, and she doesn’t even call you ONCE AGAIN at midnight to go over ONCE AGAIN the reasons she left her job/boyfriend/overflowing grocery cart in the middle of the frozen-food aisle ONCE AGAIN. (But you love her. You know you do.) Just browse through and you’ll find answers to any kind of holiday idea for decorating, gifting, baking, dressing for the office party — anything, really. Such as this wonderful gift idea my co-worker discovered: Add a cut-out handprint to a pair of gloves, embellish with ribbon and tuck a gift card inside one of the gloves. She did this for the student workers in our office and we added gift cards for a local restaurant because students always are 1) hungry and 2) cash-deficient. They loved it.
  • IMG_2671And, finally, as my Christmas gift to you, I’m sharing a tip to use when you’re getting dressed for those elegant and sophisticated cocktail gatherings and dinner parties and formal affairs at the embassy  the preschool Christmas program. And that tip is to pay attention to your earrings. For instance, from the back & from a distance & before you’ve put your contacts in/glasses on, these two earrings look pretty much the same, correct? I mean, they both have little sticky things poking out of the sides. Careful examination, however, reveals that one is a cute festival silver bow and the other is a manically grinning skull & crossbones. Do not wear manically grinning skull-and-crossbones earrings to the preschool Christmas program. You’re welcome.

Holiday decorating: Step no. 1 — find your decorations

OK, let’s talk about decorating for the holidays. I have three questions for the folks who keep turning down those pesky “Garden and Gun” photography requests (you know who you are):

  1. How do y’all do it — make everything look so festive and pretty? More importantly, where do you put everything when you’re done?
  2. What will it take for you to come to my house and make it look like that for me?
  3. Yeah, I understand you’re busy. With the decorating and all. So would you at least help me find the box of tree ornaments? It’s been missing for three years now and I really would like to find it.

I love Christmas, despite Quinn’s assertion on the mid-season “Scandal” finale that “Everybody over the age of 10 hates Christmas.” (And thank goodness Liv finally — FINALLY — got a new couch. Also, did magic elves put up her tree? See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about here. Even Olivia Pope, the nation’s former quasi-First Lady/First Girlfriend whose father pretty much could run the world but then leaves the White House after a huge fight with her boyfriend, has a gorgeously perfect Christmas tree put up WITH NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER. That happened.) Anyway, I love Christmas. I love special times with family and friends. I

Chex mix 006
Husband JP introduced me to Chex Mix with Cheerios & now I wouldn’t have it any other way.

love shopping & wrapping & opening. I love hot chocolate & milk punch & Chex mix & frosted sugar cookies with chocolate chips for the snowpeople’s eyes. I love Christmas carols & “Silver Bells.” I love memories & stories & creating new ones. Those are the things I am good at it. Give me some Santa Claus mugs, “A Christmas Story” & my grandmother’s Chocolate Snowball cookie recipe and I’ll give you a Christmas Eve to remember. That, I can do.

Decorating? Pass.

Some people can create a statement-making mantlepiece, a work-of-art Christmas tree and a stunning tablescape for Christmas breakfast (or pay others to do it) and some people can’t. I’ve known for years I’m solidly in the “can’t” category. And that’s OK. I mean, it’s a victory if I can find the end of the invisible tape. My expectations are low. I know my limits. That’s why I’ve minimalized our holiday decorating to the basics: stockings, exterior bows and wreaths with gold trim (remnants of an overly ambitious Victorian-village phase back when husband John Pitts said things such as “Sure, sweetie, whatever you want. Doesn’t matter how much it costs.” A phase that, sadly, did not last long, at all.) and a

IMG_2629cw
Yay! Christmas mugs still at the same place I left them 11 months ago — on floor of storage closet.

hodgepodge collection of holiday coffee mugs and espresso cups. If I’m feeling especially ambitious, I might scatter a few red candles around — hey, it is Christmas, after all.

I do understand that a huge part of successful decorating is organization. I know that behind the magazine-perfect rooms are rows & rows of carefully labeled plastic boxes full of meticulously wrapped items. I’ve done my part by identifying easy storage sites for my Big Three of Decorations: stockings in my top dresser drawer, where I look at them every day; outside wreaths and bows inside the attic door, where I fall over them every time I go in; and coffee mugs and espresso cups at the top of the dented cardboard box labeled “Xmas” that was filled with holiday stuff about two moves ago and I always think that one year I’ll dig down through it to see what’s there, but, no.

So, the question remains, where is the box of tree ornaments? I had it

trees_4_jh_ftrs
Our cooking club’s tree decorated for a community display several years ago.

three years ago. I know I did. It’s a big box, too. You’d think it’d be difficult to lose. Last year, in desperation, I used ornaments from a culinary tree my cooking club had decorated years ago (THOSE I could find without any problem), but my grandsons weren’t fooled.

“Where’s the Christmas stuff?” the older one asked. “And why do you have measuring cups on your tree? I don’t think that’s right, Kacky.”

This year, decorating is not complete until I find those ornaments. Want to come help? I’ve got Chocolate Snowballs and milk punch.

 

 

New Year’s Resolutions

Almost exactly a month ago, as I collected final exams from college students in the journalism class I teach (adjunct) and cleared off my desk in our university-sponsored non-profit office (media coordinator), I looked forward to a lovely winter break of family, friends, festivities — and checking things off of a lengthening to-do list. There were holiday chores, of course, like making chocolate-peanut butter balls and trying to remember locations of presents I’d bought haphazardly through the year — Attic behind the wedding-dress box? Linen closet on top of the exercise step? But I knew I’d have plenty of time for those other pesky non-holiday to-do’s, too. You know, those things that pile up and you just need a few uninterrupted hours to get them done: organize your closet, completely revamp the class syllabus for spring semester, finish some work projects, start on freelance magazine assignments and tackle the pile of I’d-wear-this-if-it-were-ironed or -fixed or -altered or whatever. After all, I’d be off for weeks. WEEKS! Plenty of time. No need to hurry. Relax and enjoy. And I did. There was Christmas prep, then Christmas itself, then football (We shall not speak of the SEC West’s disastrous bowl games. Shall. Not. Speak.) and then New Year’s. And people got the flu and got sinus infections and went out of town and stopped by to visit. And there were movies and get-togethers and long gossipy phone conversations and cozy afternoons on the couch in front of the fire with a stack of library books and nice beer-and-pizza lunches with husband John Pitts and hours — apparently many, many hours — catching up on TV (“Gracepoint” did end differently from “Broadchurch!” Olivia Pope still drinks wine! Annalise Keating is smarter than everybody else. And a liar!). And now, a month later, we have arrived at the final day of winter break and I have about 12 hours to organize my closet, completely revamp the class syllabus for spring semester, finish some work projects, start on freelance magazine assignments and tackle the pile of I’d-wear-this-if-it-were-ironed or -fixed or -altered or whatever. But I’ve sure had fun. Here’s to 2015 — may we  never run out of things to do. #backtowork #happynewyear

The Coffee with Cathy Guide to Everything — Overcoming Gift-Giving Envy

You know what I mean by “gift-giving envy,” right? It’s that forehead-slapping moment when you unwrap The Perfect Gift Picked Out Just For You and while you’re speechless at the insane appropriateness of it all (how did she know I’d looked at that scarf just yesterday???) you’re also inwardly wondering WHY CAN’T I EVER DO THAT and secretly dreading when it’s the giftor’s turn to unwrap your Wintry Forest-scented candle, limited edition. Or maybe this is just me. Because I have the extreme and completely undeserved good fortune to be surrounded by folks who always get it right. I don’t know how they do it. But there are clues: “I pay attention,” our community-theatre intern shrugged when I asked how she knew I needed the travel mug and Starbucks Via she gave me. “I loved it so I knew you would, too,” a friend said when she gave me the most adorable necklace ever. “I remembered that you really liked the last one,” a sister-in-law said when she gave me a local artist’s tabletop calendar. Hmmm … 

And since I can’t turn around and use these to dazzle folks in 2014, here are some more unexpected and fun ideas to delight YOUR special people in upcoming gift-giving opportunities:

  • DSCN2893Did you know you could buy assorted single earrings? I didn’t, until Younger Daughter gave me this ultra-cute collection. I wear an uneven number of earrings because … well … I’ve forgotten why I decided to do that originally but I’d like to think it’s my one Rebellion Against the Status Quo. Or something. Also, when it’s Grandbaby Time, I switch to studs. One experience of having your gold hoops yanked out of your ears by an adorable yet incredibly strong young child will do that to you. I love that these have various colors and textures. And that Younger Daughter knew I’d love it.
  • coffeebagDid you know there was such a thing as wood-roasted coffee? I never, in all of my coffee-drinking years, had heard of that. And I pretty much consider myself to be up on all things coffee. But Younger Brother knew there was a gap in my coffee knowledge, so he gave me a bag of Matt’s Wood-Roasted Organic Coffee, made in Maine. At Matt’s, organic coffee is small-batch roasted in a vintage Italian roaster fueled by wood from native and nearby forests. And it is sooo good. It’s subtle and rich and layered and smooth, just as the perfect cup of coffee should be. Order some. Now
  • Of course, I can drink my perfect wood-roasted coffee in the most perfect coffee personalized coffee mugmug ever. Older Daughter is one of those folks skilled at using online photo and printing sites to create ooh-and-ahh-worthy gifts everybody looks forward to. Her expertise in designing hard-cover photo scrapbooks is legendary (if only I could convince her that photos of my precious grandbabies PLAYING AND POSING ON RAILROAD TRACKS are unnecessary). And this year she outdid herself by adding a coffee mug. Just for me. It makes me smile every time I drink coffee out of it — and since Husband John Pitts probably is reading this, I won’t reveal how many times that is. But it’s enough to make me feel good all day. Even with the railroad tracks.
  • Our neighbors are awesomely wonderful. We look out for each other and bring in each other’s DSCN2895garbage cans and pick up the trash. And give good gifts. One neighbor gave us a gift card to one of our favorite downtown eating spots, which we used immediately on beer and guacamole. Another neighbor gave us a basket full of goodies, including these book ends. Book ends! I love the idea of book ends — things such as pretty stationery and statement-making key fobs that used to be staples of everyday life but now are special enough to be elevated to why-didn’t-I-think-of-that gifts. Also please note that this is John Pitts’ side of the bookshelves, used for photography purposes because his side is organized and neat while mine is overflowing and messy and so overloaded that the movable shelves actually do move — downwards — every few months or so.

So, here’s to 2014! May the gifts you give always be welcome and never donated to the Salvation Army store. (Please give money, instead. Because if the set of four white-swan plastic napkin rings terrifies you, do you really want to impose it on somebody else?)

The Coffee with Cathy Guide to Everything — Holiday Management

When it comes to navigating the yearly ready-to-trip-you-up-and-drag-you-down maze that is The Holidays, forget everything you’re read advising you to “eat right, sleep well and continue your exercise routine (even a brisk walk outside will help!).” I mean, you read the same article every year and has that advice ever worked? Of course not. And why? Because a) nobody has the time to be all healthy and pro-active, b) nobody has the energy to fix a salad when there are eight dozen Candy Cane White Chocolate Mini Cheesecakes to finish and c) anyway ARE YOU *** KIDDING ME? Look, all of the holiday stress is in your mind. You cannot change the chaos. You cannot change the tightly packed schedules that have you in 14 different spots in a mere 24-hour period. You cannot change the last-minute panic, the all-night wrapping marathons, the tree disasters. Those things are going to happen. Over and over again. So how to deal? Instead of fighting it and complaining and moaning, change your strategy: Instead of letting the holidays be in control of your emotional welfare, woman up and take control yourself. After all, the holidays are fun. Remember fun? For most of us, that’s what this mid-winter break is supposed to be. It’s when we impose expectations and standards and must-do’s and must-haves on our celebrations that we start to feel cranky. So relax. And enjoy. I don’t know about you, but this is about the only time of year people leave presents at our front door, everything smells good, sparkles and sequins are approved daytime wear and you can eat Bourbon Balls with impunity. What’s not to like? And just in case you need some actual helpful advice:

  • Never ever use the word “tacky” in conjunction with Christmas sweaters. For those of us in our 50s who were around for the original Christmas Sweater Boom, it’s much too soon to relegate this trend to the “tacky” category. We probably still have a few stashed away in the back of our closets. You can make fun of our mom jeans, our rhinestoned sweatshirts and our Madonna hair, but step away from the Christmas sweaters.
  • Besides, as soon as you post a photo of your winning entry in the office Tacky Christmas Sweater contest, your best client/customer/patron will walk in with the same sweater on. You have been warned.
  • Whether hours spent with a cozy fireplace and comfy blanket figure large in your holiday plans or you’re going to be grateful for a few squeezed-in minutes of free time, celebrate the season by adding wintry books to your to-read list. Consider “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” by Peter Hoeg; Stieg Larsson‘s “The Girl Who …” books and any of the Inspector Wallender novels, by Henning Mankell. These Nordic mystery writers know how to create tight and compelling stories amid snow, ice and freezing temperatures — and when they’re not solving crimes, our detectives are pouring coffee and eating sandwiches. Doesn’t get much better.
  • In your holiday travels — even if it’s only to the neighbor’s house for a cookie swap — you may be faced with the Problem of Bad Coffee. It happens, even with people who listen to public radio and still have a Dennis Kucinich sticker on their Prius. Don’t compromise — you don’t have to drink Bad Coffee just because it’s the season of good tidings and joy. There is a solution. Eschew — politely, of course — the see-through beverage in the Mr. Coffee carafe. Then discretely remove the flask from your purse that’s full of your best cold brew, pour into one of your host’s coffee cups and proceed with add-in’s as you see fit. If you’re staying with someone (cough-cough my mother cough-cough) who is not a coffee drinker, then arrive prepared. A personal French press-tumbler is a good choice if you’re the only coffee fan, but consider bringing a more group-friendly method if others will be jealous.
  • Best present ever? A hot-lotion dispenser. Trust me.

Christmas Parties & the Coffee with Cathy ‘How To Do Everything’ Guide

 Or, how to be happy in your new house

Susan's coffee table is gorgeously decorated for the holidays. And see those papers? We actually read our assigned books and go over discussion questions and have some lively conversations. Over wine, of course. But still.
Susan’s coffee table is gorgeously decorated for the holidays. And see those papers? We actually read our assigned books and go over discussion questions and have some lively conversations. Over wine, of course. But still.

You know that friend you have who has been through so much yet still is a rock(ette) and everybody relies on her and she is cheerful and giving and loving despite every reason not to be and you want only good things for her always? My friend like that — let’s randomly call her ‘Susan’ for no reason whatsoever — is the DEAREST AND BEST person ever and I am so lucky she lets me be her friend. She recently bought and moved into her own house and because I am a bad friend who doesn’t deserve her, I hadn’t seen the new place until this week when she hosted a Christmas party for our four-woman book club. (We are small but extremely opinionated — or maybe that’s just me. The opinionated part, I mean.) She was beaming as she welcomed us in to her warm and cozy and festive oh-so-her home. Even if I didn’t know she lived there, I would have said she should — it fits her so well. She didn’t have to do a thing to it, paint-wise, and her furniture works perfectly, with plenty of space and traffic flow for family and friends as well as her own woman-cave for relaxing. She has such good taste in decorating — simple yet elegant with a big dash of creativity is the best way to describe her style. For instance, look at her china cabinet (below).

The clear glass centerpiece reflects the candlelight and the silver and white colors add to the festive wintry atmosphere.
The clear glass centerpiece reflects the candlelight and the silver and white colors add to the festive wintry atmosphere.
highboy
Susan adds personal touches to her china cabinet with a unique display of her Gail Pittman collection.

Love, love, love the way she propped up her square Gail Pittman plates in the back to look like inlaid tiles. Clever! (And remind me to tell you about some of our Gail Pittman adventures. You wouldn’t believe what folks will do for a matching dessert plate and espresso cup. And by “folks,” I mean me.) Anyway, for Christmas Susan used silver and pale blue and glittery white to create a magical wintry evening. She fed us yummy food and fun cranberry margaritas and we opened presents and talked about the book and laughed a whole big bunch. Doesn’t get much better than that, especially when you’ve got a hostess who is so happy to share her own home with her friends. Seems like that’s the way to do Christmas parties.