Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Giving Thanks

Here's how our holiday breaks down.

Wednesday Afternoon: we swing by and pick up my gram and head down to my folk's house. The house is already a Thanksgiving disaster - it's the one day of the year my sister bakes pies, and she cuts loose and gets in touch with her inner Martha Stewart. My dad puts the toddler in charge of something fun, like the apple peeler/corer/slicer. We all try not to trip over the myriad of animals dancing around the kitchen. Then, completely whipped from making food, we go out to eat and then collapse in front of the t.v. Gram and Dad will fall asleep sitting up while the rest of us do the preliminary Black Friday battle plan.

Thanksgiving morning: Dad has been up since four. I usually get up between five and six - not quite early enough to figure out the secrets of gizzards, but more than early enough to have the apple juice secret down pat. There may or may not be a toddler helping, and again, assorted dogs just praying to their little doggie God that Dad will drop that bird at any time. (It's never happened, but a dog can dream, right?) Once the bird is in the cooker, I do clean-up/damage control while Dad makes cinnamon rolls. Various family members begin to trickle in and kind of flop around, like sleeping until 8 was just soooo challenging for them. (I kid, but they are pretty useless until they've had their coffee.)

Cooking continues apace. My hubby, God bless him, has stepped in to help out with some of the cooking - he does homemade mashed potatoes (adding both sour cream and cream cheese . . . oh, so good) and keeps an eye on the portobella mushrooms and mac and cheese. I fry apples and try to keep an eye on the rolls, but they will over-brown, every single year. They always do. Finally, as everyone else has gotten cleaned up and is getting hungry, Dad hefts that bird out of the oven and nicks off a piece for Mom to nibble. Mom always gets the first nibble, and promptly pronounces it Dad's best turkey ever. I make gravy while Dad carves, and then it's dinner, buffet style, usually by 2.

Gorging occurs.

A food-induced coma occurs.

By 6, people are beginning to perk back up. The Black Friday battle plan is nailed down, the brave try all five kinds of pies and my homemade maple nut cheesecake, and Dad snores from his recliner.

Friday Morning: we live out in the country, so to be anywhere by 7 a.m. we all have to leave the house by 6. One year we tried to be at an opening at 6, and we just couldn't do it. We're dedicated, but not completely insane. We abandon the toddler to the Gram and Dad and head out. Black Friday is like a date for me and my hubby - we eat meals out, we walk around holding hands, we talk - all without a kid. It is a bit of a damper than my sisters, brother-in-law, and mother are there, but it is close enough to a date for us. We do all our Christmas shopping. (My sisters and I buy each other clothes. We try stuff on, and if one of the sisters likes how that looks on me, she says, "I'll get that for you," and I do the same. It's a little like What Not To Wear, Christmas Edition.)

We all straggle back home at some point between 2 and 5 to find the house a fun-house disaster of toy explosions from Pawpaw/Grandkid fun. We decide we don't care, eat more turkey, and all go to sleep by 8. We get up the next morning, drive to my in-laws' house, and repeat.

Every year, I am thankful for these rituals. I'm thankful that my in-laws let my family have this holiday (they get Easter). I'm thankful that I know the apple juice secret. I'm thankful that my toddler gets to cook with his Pawpaw, and then spend the next day just hanging out with him. I'm thankful Gram makes it to another holiday. I'm thankful that my hubby good-naturedly laughs at all my Dad's jokes, even the ones he's already heard dozens of times. I'm thankful for getting to hang out with my sisters, and I'm thankful that the brothers-in-laws are cool about all our family's quirks. I'm thankful that the day is filled with laughter, food, and love (with the occasional cursing at over-browned rolls).

Even in these difficult times, there is something to be thankful for. I'm so grateful I'm here, and that you, Dear Reader, are here, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dude, Where's My Holiday?

Okay, that was a bad joke. Sorry.

But seriously, where did Thanksgiving go? And is there any way to actually teach my toddler about it in the face of overwhelming marketing?

The hubby has been working rather long, bordering on insane hours recently, giving me plenty of Mother/Son time. And one of my favorite coping mechanisms is to go to our local mall. A year and a half ago, they took out an underused seating area, padded that bad boy, and stuck in some soft climbing structures. Voila, instant play place. I swear, I'd carpet my house in that stuff - so soft and squishy underfoot, and it absorbs a lot of sound. Sometimes there are other kids there, and my kid runs around at top toddler speeds screaming and throwing his little bod around. So much better that all that energy is not contained in my 1892 house. It's especially vital in the winter.

Anyway, I have been at the mall a lot recently. I know the play area was designed to increase the amount of money I spend at the mall, because I'm certainly there a lot, but the mall people never counted on frugal German stock. At most, I window shop J.C. Penny.

Two weeks ago, part of the play area was fenced off, with sparkly Christmas trees behind it, and presents stuck in the philodendrons. Three days later, evergreen boughs (Tangent: I love that word. It's a darned shame it only gets trotted out once a year. Say it out loud about five times. Bough. Great, huh?) were everywhere. They still have the decency not to break out the actual Santa yet, but everything else is a go.

To a three year old, it's Christmas, plain and simple. The only real vestige of Thanksgiving that exists in his world is the pilgrim name tags at daycare and the promise of a trip to Mimi and Pawpaw's to pet kittens. Thanksgiving is a brief interlude between candy and presents.

And, to be honest, I'm not helping. We have a big house and a lot of decorations. Two trees. And did I mention the hubby working insane hours? So the toddler and I are doing the decorating piece meal.

He's hilarious. He's really into hanging ornaments, but they all have to be families. Three candy canes on a branch - the mommy, the daddy, and the baby candy cane. My hubby's Dan Marino ornament has to be next to a baby in a crib - I think a snowman is standing in for Mom there. Everything is grouped.

But with the daily barrage of gift catalogs filled with stuff I'm never going to spend the money on, the toddler wants it all. Flip open a toy page, and he jabs that finger onto every single item, "I want that, and that, and that . . ." ad nauseum. We have a house rule - if you can't tell Mom what it is you want, you can't have it. He said he wanted the Indiana Jones Action Sounds Whip. I said, "Can you tell me what that is?" and he said, "Um, I want that." No Action Sounds Whips. No Light Sabers. No wrestling Action Figures.

Beside, (Mary, did I get it right? No 's'?) the kid is only getting three presents from Santa, plus a stocking, plus maybe another three to five things from us like books. The hubby said Limits, and I said, Sure. Cheaper that way.

This is all well and good, but even in this blog, where did Thanksgiving go? You'd think with all the GPS technology we have today, we could keep better track of it ... but no.

I used to teach English as a Second Language in Chicago. I really liked it, and it was a good outlet for the vast repository of useless knowledge I've accumulated between history teachers for parents and graduate degrees. I taught them about Thanksgiving, and about Black Friday. If you were new to this country, you'd want to know why the evening news showed near riots breaking out at Best Buy over Wiis, right? National Shopping Day was how I described it.

Useless trivia fact: Did you know that FDR tried to move Thanksgiving to the second week in November? He was trying to boost the economy by lengthening the holiday shopping season, and it backfired pretty badly on him. People didn't want him messing with traditions. Back then, in the darkness that was the Great Depression, people were thankful for what they had.

Ironic, then, that today we have so much more to be thankful for. We live longer, have better stuff and far more comfortable lives these days than the huge chunks of the populace that didn't have running water or electricity until the 1940s. (Yes, I know about that, too. Features heavily in Marrying the Emersons. Live with it.)

But with all this modern convenience and wonder, we are less thankful. More spoiled, my Gram would say - after all, she lived through the Depression. Much as FDR tried, now marketing and consumerism has moved the holiday shopping season up to 12:01 a.m. on November 1st. What legislation couldn't do, the American People did themselves.

So, until the official Thanksgiving Blog next week, take a moment to stop and think about what you have to be thankful for while you hang your ornaments or buy your Christmas gifts. I'm not saying don't do those things, but don't forget the fact that you can do those things is, in and of itself, something to appreciate.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

We'll Always Have Paris!

I don't have much today - heck, I even forgot it was Thursday, so sorry this is late getting out, faithful lunch hour reader. I mean, things are happening. I'm mailing Marrying the Emersons out for the Golden Heart contest this afternoon. I'm in the final tweaking stages of the other three, and I'm confident they'll all be out before the deadline on Dec. 2nd. I'm drafting a friendly, "Howdy! Remember Me?" letter to the editor, as it has officially passed six months since I initially mailed the partial. I'm already writing the next book in my head.

And I've got a son whose imagination has caught fire recently. He's discovered the Toy Story movies. The other night, we heard frantic screaming after he went to bed. So I went flying upstairs only to hear him say, "You okay there, buddy?" in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Buzz Lightyear. And then he answered in the voice he uses when he 'talks' for his Pooh Bear, with another frantic sounding scream, followed by another "You okay there, buddy?" And he's discovered his father's 15 inch Star Wars Darth Vadar and Luke Skywalker dolls (ahem, Action Figures). So he's running around with "Dark" Vader and "Skyler" creating scenes that sound like Toy Story 2 again - where Buzz finds out Zurg is his father - even though the kid has NEVER seen Star Wars!

So it's not like there's not stuff going on. But to pull together a cohesive blog out of that? I got nothing. So we're just going to go for a blast from the past today.

I've mentioned my Gram at various times in this blog. She's 93 (and a half) now, older every day. She's an interesting woman, my Gram. Whether it's remembering the noseless cowboy or over sharing about my grandfather (who died when I was two, God bless him), she's always got a story ready to tell. This is one of my favorites.

I was 18, Gram was 82. 82 - an age when a vast part of the population has already died, or faded past fun - but at 82, Gram decided it was time to go on vacation. This is something she's done almost her whole life. She's been a part of every travel revolution, from Route 66 to Howard Johnson to the incarnation of air travel, and 82 was no good reason to give it up. But she's not blind to the hard facts of aging. So, whilst she still could, she decided she wanted to go to Europe, just for one last time.

But she didn't want to go with her friends. They were too old, and wouldn't be able to keep up with her. Mom was busy, and we won't get started on my aunt.

That left me. And I had no money.

This did not deter Gram. She offered to pay my way - everything but the souvenirs, basically, on one condition: I had to carry all the luggage.

Now, that might not sound like a bad deal - and really, it wasn't - but you have to keep in mind that my Gram will pack four good-sized duffles for a two night visit to my mother's house. She had eight bags for ten days in Europe - with a few empty ones tucked in there. I had one bag, and no purse. I actually threw my back out in Rome hefting it all.

Undeterred, she signed us up for a tour group with her college, Hannibal LaGrange - where she'd graduated with her bachelor's degree about the time she turned 70ish (I remember the party, but I was pretty young). Did I mention that Gram is an interesting woman?

So we loaded up and headed out with the group. Her old English professor. The president of the college and his family. A rather large gathering of other retirees. One other mother/daughter pairing. We picked up some more tour members in England, where we started.

Oh, I loved England. I'd committed my soul to Victorian literature before the trip, but this just cemented that decision. And I loved the English tour guide we had - tall, blond, his Master's in History, and spoke six languages - yum. Again, just like with the noseless cowboy three years later, if only I hadn't been on vacation with my grandmother . . . . but that's another story for a novel.

We finished the tour in Italy, which was just an art history minor's dream come true. I actually saw the Pope at an outdoor mass - from half a mile away, but still, I saw him! Gram sat in a cathedral in Florence, reading - I am NOT making this up - a Reader's Digest so she wouldn't 'slow me down' as I ran around at top speed, going 'Oh, MY GOD! I studied THIS!" We saw the Nave in Assisi, later severely damaged by an earthquake. And I highly recommend the Isle of Capri for honeymooners.

But in between, we went to Paris. I had just finished four years of remedial French in high school and college, and I was pumped. I have two things that I remember as clear as day from Paris - the reason I'll always have a fond spot in my heart for the city.

First, we went to a restaurant for dinner, and there were only five water glasses for the six spots. I collared a waiter and said, "Un autra ver, si vous plait," which is, 'another glass, please.' My French teachers would have been so proud, because that waiter snapped to and promptly fetched another glass. The tour group was - and I'm not exaggerating - in awe, and my Gram was so proud she nearly burst. You'd have thought I'd won the presidency or something. But I spoke French, or something close to it.

That evening, we were getting back onto the Metro - the subway - but the train was about 15 minutes off. A grouping of the older ladies decided they would like a restroom break, and Gram decided to go with them. I was good, so I decided to stay and admire our tour guide from a distance some more.

13 minutes later, the group came back - sans Gram. "Where's my grandma?" I asked.

"She's not here? She decided she didn't want to pay for the toilet and headed back!"

Instantaneous panic. The Metro was about six layers deep of platforms, escalators, and French people - none of which Gram was all so equipped to handle on her own. As our train pulled in, I hollered for the tour guide, who spoke flawless French. Quickly, the president of the college took the rest of the group on to the hotel while the guide and I split up. After all, we were the only two who spoke French. Or, in my case, almost French. He went down, and I went up.

So, I'm running around the Paris Metro, accosting strange Parisians going, "Pardonne moi, ave vous voir une petite grand-mere?" Which is roughly, "excuse me, have you seen a little grandmother?" No one had. I went up and down about fifteen escalators when I caught sight of a helmet of little-old-lady hair headed down a different escalator - and the wrong direction from where we needed to be.

"Gram!" I hollered, flying down after her. She was fine, of course, but totally, completely, and thoroughly LOST. I have a much better sense of orientation and quickly got us back to our platform, where the tour guide shortly joined us.

It remains one of the few times in my life where I have ever seen my grandmother deeply, personally embarrassed. Even now, 11+ years later, if she's driving us batty about any number of things (Mulch is a good example. I mulch my flowerbeds with wood chips. She's convinced I might as well open up a termite bed and breakfast, and reminds me of this constantly.), that's when I'll say, "So, Gram, you remember Paris?" and she will blush, which is no mean feat for a woman her age, and start talking about traveling, and the next trip.

There will always be a next trip. That's the way she raised my mother, that's the way I was raised, and that's the way I'm raising my son. It's a huge world, after all. Sometimes, you just have to go out and get lost in it. But it helps to know French when you do.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Drink and Be Merry

Okay, so the polling feature didn't go over too well. Don't have to do that again unless everyone just demands it. For the record, The 24/7 Media Cycle scares the most people, all three of you.

Anyway, moving on! I've been thinking about wine a lot recently. First, Sam's Club opened up in town, and we bought a bottle of Riesling that was so big we had to rearrange our fridge to get it to fit. I think it's three bottles worth, all for $11.82. And what with election coverage and stuff, a glass (or two) of wine at the end of the day has been kind of nice.

Ironically, though, I've been working my way through the final re-writes of The Best They Could, where the hero Bobby is struggling to put his life back together after wallowing in the pits of alcoholism. (He does. Eventually, like in all my stories, everyone gets a happily ever after. Eventually.)

And I've been to two book release parties and one Halloween party in one week alone (usually, that much socializing would last me months), and liquor was prominently featured at all three. But, as you may recall, my hubby is technically blind, so I'm the permanent sober driver of the family. Emphasis on the sober.

We go to this Halloween party every year, but in the past it's been held at the hosts' house, three blocks from where we live. No driving, no sober driver, see? It's really the one party where I get to cut loose and get sloshed. But this year they had it at a hall. (Honestly, can't blame them. I wouldn't want drunken revelers running amok through my house wearing weird outfits either.) So I drank water.

Usually, when I walk to and from this party, I talk to just about everyone, wine glass in hand. And, because the other vampires and pirates have also got wine glasses in their hands, they listen and even laugh at the weirdness I spout. (For those of you who know me, you might realize it only gets weirder when my inhibitions fall to the wayside. I won't take it personally if you shuddered at the thought.) A win win, really, except for the hangovers.

But at the party this year, water in hand, I talked to almost no one but my hubby. We did manage to talk to a few other people, but that was maybe twenty minutes out of two and a half hours.

Last night, we went to the book christening party last night for Saadia Ali Aschermann's new volume of poetry, Words Gone Wild. (Yes, I expect you to read it. The poems are short, easy to understand, and crackle with an erotic edge that you just cannot get from Robert Frost.) But this party only emphasized my social lameness. We were at a wine bar, for goodness' sakes, with other people sitting around drinking, and besides talking to Saadia (who I already know), I managed to compliment a woman on her necklace, and she said "Thanks." Another woman took our picture and showed it to us. "I think it's a nice picture," she gushed. "You two aren't having an affair, are you? This is going up on Saadia's site." She was quite relieved that we were married - to each other - and moved off to take other pictures of other people. That was the extent of my conversations with other people.

So I'm sitting at the bar, wondering how on earth I'm going to ever be able to network and schmooze like Saadia does, and I starting thinking about me and wine. When we'd gone to see my old friend Erik in Minnesota this summer, he'd been shocked - really, truly shocked - when I had three hard lemonades during and after dinner. "I didn't think you drank," he cautiously asked. "Didn't used to," I answered.

And I didn't. I had two, maybe three SIPS of alcohol before I turned twenty one. In college, I was the sober walker (you know, the person who knows which way campus is at all times and makes sure none of the group gets left behind in a gutter) when I went out with my friends (which wasn't often). Part of it was that I didn't like losing the control. When I watched other people drink, they all wound up looking, acting, and sounding like loons. I had no desire to look more like a loon than I already do, and they were plenty entertaining on their own. Part of it was (and is) that I do not like the taste of beer, the college beverage of choice. And part of it is that booze costs a lot of money, and I'm damn cheap (ahem, I meant frugal).

After I did turn 21, I had to rely on friends like Erik to order for me. "What should I drink?" I asked on the occasions when I was going to plunk down the money. "Um . . . . ." and they'd scratch their heads. "Amaretto sour? That's fruity." I swear, I probably only drank amaretto sours for maybe five years, and still probably only had 20 of them. When Erik came back from the Peace Corps (you should ask him about that), he and Joshua and I broke into a 19 year old bottle of whiskey - the really good stuff. I got one sip down, and that gagged me. (True friends, they laughed hysterically.) Seriously, my first hangover was the first one of those Halloween parties. That's right. I didn't have A Hangover until I was 31.

My hubby, in his foodie capacity, has been diligently working on introducing me slowly to wine over the last eight years, and I still can't handle red. But I find that I do drink much more now than I ever have. All those flavanoids, I like to reason. Wine has been scientifically proven to be good for you in small doses (true, red is better, but hey, can't win them all). Riesling, hard ciders and lemonades - maybe its that I've found something that tastes good. Maybe it's being run ragged by a three year old. Maybe it's knowing that my hubby is always near, so if I lose some that control I always hated to let go of, he'll keep me from doing something foolish.

But at least a small part of it is the realization that a glass or two of wine erases the nervous pit from my stomach, eases back the social anxiety that has me fidgeting constantly, and lets me just talk to a stranger. It worked best at the conference I went to in April, where, with one glass of Riesling, I was actually able to strike up a conversation with the editor at the bar and not (I most sincerely hope) stick my foot in my mouth. I was practically paralyzed with the wine - without, I'm sure I couldn't have done it. Sure, maybe I talked a little bit louder or faster than was ideal, but that was one of those times when talking too loud is better than not talking at all.

I hope. After all, it's been six months since I mailed the partial. I hope every day that that conversation at the bar did me some good. I'll let you know when I find out. And then we can celebrate over a glass of wine!