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Thinking of England December 30, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Travel.
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littleengland

I was done writing cloying holiday posts, but then my friend Nora sent me this Christmas ornament. It arrived in a big box delivered on Christmas morning and was handed to me by an exceptionally cheery guy from Fedex, who smelled of pine and overtime.

Alas, I tried to pry the little suitcase open, hoping to find a miniature raincoat and Wellies, but no luck. It did remind me though of what a difference a year makes. Last year at this time we’d just arrived in England so I could finally meet Lesley, the friend I’d met via the internet only months earlier. Yes, it was all crazy, but some things in life are meant to be. I made up a cover story so my parents wouldn’t worry – something about visiting people we’d met in California.

I didn’t even know Lesley’s real name and actual address til the week before we left. At one point I emailed her and asked if she wasn’t concerned that we might be serial killers and she could end up in a shallow grave, what with us being Americans and all. Lesley was nonplussed. She informed me her brother was a police detective in Ipswich, so we’d never get away with it.

When we staggered off the plane at Heathrow, there was Lesley and her husband, Ian, waiting. We fortified ourselves with coffee (Yes!) and then made the two-hour drive back to Framlingham in Suffolk. All bodies were accounted for.

England was a dream. Cold and grey, but after the relentless California sunshine, England seemed so utterly – English! We toured the local castle, queued up for fish and chips in Aldeburgh, and trapsed the cobblestone streets of Cambridge. We spent the most memorable New Year’s Eve ever at a posh hotel outside London as their guests. A piper escorted us into a magical wonderland where we sat at a table awash with glitter and crystal. There was unlimited champagne and the revelers sang every rousing verse of “Rule Brittannia” and “Oh Jerusalem” while balloons whooshed overhead like incoming missles.

I figured this was how the English celebrate, what with the waving of the Union Jack and the English flag of St. George until Lesley disabused me of this notion. She looked almost aghast and confided this was all rather over the top – downright Las Vegas-y. (said with a wrinkle of the nose). Oh. How ironic that the first song everyone danced to was “La Bamba.” Pacoima posh.

But the soundtrack for our visit was Amy Winehouse’s CD, which greeted us each morning after Lesley yelled, “Get up, you lazy bastards!” That’s what you call the Queen’s English, I believe. I was surprised that the grass was green in January and most of the houses had red tile roofs mottled with moss, while others were thatched. Indian restaurants were “curry houses” and  “bits and pieces” is English for what we call leftovers or odds and ends. Following this logic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was made from bits and pieces.

But this is the memory I hold dearest. We’d all agreed to eat a late dinner, so while everyone else took a nap, Lesley and I stole away in the dark. Not only was it cold, it was spitting rain. We followed a winding route along a path marked “Lover’s Lane,” which led over a hill. I lost my sense of direction and imagined being adrift out on the moors, even though there were no moors, and we could see the lights of nearby houses. We were taking the back way to Lesley’s favorite pub, The Station, once actually the village train station.

Never could I have imagined how welcoming a English pub could be on a cold winter’s night. A three-foot wide cloud of mistletoe floated in front of the bar. (The bartender, Gareth, is also an arborist.) It was still early and not yet crowded. Lesley asked if we could sit in the “snug,” a small room behind the main pub and off the kitchen. A party had reserved the room, but they weren’t due for an hour so we got the okay.

The snug was aptly named. There was a crackling fire and it was just big enough for two long farmhouse tables which had been set for dinner. It looked like a medieval feast was in the offing. Lesley and I sat at one end of the table and she ordered a bottle of red wine. You could hear the clanking of pots in the kitchen and the pop of the fire. Aside from a plastic child’s highchair folded up in the corner, it probably looked the same as it did a hundred some years ago. (Okay, white Christmas lights outlined the windows.)  As we sat there sharing a bottle of wine by candlelight, this is what went through my mind: I can’t believe I’m sitting here in this magical place with this amazing person I met on the internet! I must take in every detail and commit it to memory because this is the one of the most amazing nights of my life!

We talked and drank, and talked some more. When we’d finished the bottle, we bid farewell to Gareth, and walked back home to join the others. It is this memory that warms my heart when I’m thinking of England.

Pardon My Pig – Part 2 December 28, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Pets.
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3 comments

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Feel free to make a pig of yourself and read “Pardon My Pig – Part 1″ and “Halloween for Queen Porcine” first.  You’ll find these in Tags under Pets and Pigs.    

What’s that you say?  Keep in mind that’s my daughter you’re talking about. Okay, I admit that in “Pardon My Pig – Part 1,”  I used a picture of an adorable piglet, who Maisie once bore (boar?) a passing resemblance to.  But as you can see, she’s one big-boned gal.   

I tried to walk Maisie around the block once, but she doesn’t really walk – she ambles.  I took my eye off her for just a second and when I looked back, she had uprooted a neighbor’s mid-sized shrub and was carrying it her mouth.  First walk – last walk.

Maisie has since been confined to the backyard where she’s happy to lounge under the fig tree (waiting for a ripe fig to drop into her mouth, especially after she gives the tree a good nudge).  On a summer day you’ll find her lying out on the patio basking in the sun.  Sometimes my neighbor Stella, who’s originally from Greece, leaves a bag of fruit hanging over the fence for “the pork,” as she refers to Maisie.  I’m sure it’s just a language thing, but I did keep a watchful eye on “the pork” when I saw the Greeks had rented a large electric spit last Easter.  

Maisie escaped once.  I’d gone out for lunch with my friend Eunice and as we walked home we saw a small crowd gathered next to the power company’s right-of-way.  And what were they looking at?  My pig of course, who was nibbling tall grass and acting oh so nonchalant.  Eunice and I spent the next half hour “herding” Maisie down the alley with a big stick. Where’s a coolie hat when you need one?

When Maisie hit 100 pounds, the local vet would no longer see her (weight discrimination!) so we called Chris, the Mobile Vet, who’s way cool and makes house calls.  I know when he’s arrived because I can hear the whooshing sound of money flying out of our bank account.  The first time Chris came for a visit, he actually looked at us straight-faced and asked what kind of toys we had to keep Maisie intellectually stimulated.  I half expected him to tell us we needed to buy her a chess set.  I took notes. Chris suggested we plant strawberries so she could graze on them.  But after having seen the way she took that shrub out, roots and all, I opted to plant them above her grazing level.  

Chris also noted that Maisie’s hooves turned inward due to a genetic deformity, and said she could benefit from wearing some sort of orthopedic shoes.  And where would we buy orthopedic pig shoes?  Chris suggested that I could design them! I bought  a pair of  toddler’s sandals at Target and tried my best – really!   I’m afraid I’m no cobbler, so Maisie’s destined to be a hobbler. 

The visits from Chris to trim Maisie’s hooves (her “pig pedicure”) every six months were pricey.   Really, how hard could it be?  We’re real do-it-yourselfers, so I purchased some harrier clippers. (Think hedge clippers for horses.)  Now, to cut a pig’s hooves, you’ve got to first take them by surprise, then grab them by the back legs and flip them over on their back. One person holds them steady while they scream and moan, while the other does the clipping.  (You should know they’ve measured the decibel level of a pig squealing, and it’s right up there with the sound of a jet engine at take-off.) Chris and his assistant had made it look so easy.  Oh, the money we’d save!

We’d procrastinated long enough. We had to do IT.  Richard and I sat on the den floor with Maisie, who was already suspicious about our newfound interest in sitting on the floor beside her.   Every time Richard casually made a move to grab her, Maisie sprinted out of reach.  

Exasperated, I finally said, “Let’s just DO this!” at which point Richard lunged across the room and grabbed hold of Maisie’s hind legs.  How can I begin to describe what happened next?  For two minutes, Maisie ran figure eights around the den dragging Richard behind her as though he were some rodeo clown.  Richard finally let go and Maisie made a quick exit.  Richard was dazed and had a nasty rug burn on his face, but he couldn’t feel a thing cause we were both laughing so hard.  After that, we couldn’t call Chris fast enough.  Sometimes us do-it-yourselfers need to learn to delegate so we can focus on the really important stuff – like the strawberries.

Santa Sees Red December 23, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays.
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commie5

I should have known that my “I, Santa Claus” post, in which I revealed how I’d told my son the TRUTH about Santa, would meet with disbelief. Yesterday, Santa himself responded with a letter to my now 22-year-old son, Ian.  The envelope was red; the writing in silver script.  It’s not every day you receive a letter with The North Pole as the return address.  

I couldn’t help but notice that Santa’s letter had been postmarked in Chicago.   I always figured Santa for a Midwesterner, what with his weight issues and all.  But our friend Nora also lives in Chicago, and I know she divides her time between acting and elving.  Coincidence?

I delivered the envelope to Ian, who was lying in bed, waylaid by the flu. When he ripped it open, silver snowflakes cascaded onto his bed.  He said something Santa wouldn’t approve of.

“What does it say?” I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer.   Ian read aloud, “Ian, Your parents are commies – I have ALWAYS existed!”  (Oh, SO Nora!)

Ian opened the card.   Both Santa and Nora had signed it, along with the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.

Ian looked confused.  “I don’t get it.  What are commies?”  he asked earnestly.  I thought about giving him one of my “teacher” explanations, but decided to go easy on him.  It got me to thinking though.  If I hadn’t told my son the TRUTH, he might still be a believer.

Killer Christmas Cookies December 23, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Food, Holidays.
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cookies3

In the beginning there was butter, sugar, and an egg.  And these simple ingredients begat Christmas Cookies.   Or to put an evolutionary twist on it, while YOUR ancestors began life in a primordial chemical soup, MINE did their oozing in primordial cookie dough.  And as soon as my people (as in, I’ll have my people call your people) were able to crawl onto land and stand upright, they began making Christmas cookies. The End (or almost).

I thought I’d post one of my recipes for Christmas cookies.  The cookies in the photo were baked by a student’s mother.  They were too beautiful to eat, but I ate them anyway. I took a picture of them first though, because just like Dexter, I like to keep a trophy of my “kills.”

My all-time favorite recipe for the holidays are the Pecan Puffs from Joy of Cooking.  My cookbook automatically falls open to this grease-stained page. The cookies are billed as “rich and devastating.”  Say no more.

Pecan Puffs

This recipe makes about forty 1  1/2 inch balls, but since I’m one of those people who loves to eat cookie dough, I’ve taken to always making a double recipe.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Beat until soft:                      1/2  c. butter

Add and blend until creamy:                          2 T. of sugar +  1 t. vanilla

Blend in the food processor, but not TOO much                 1 cup pecans                                               

Add                                                                           1 cup of Cake Flour    

Note:  I’m usually too lazy to go out and buy Cake Flour so measure 1 cup regular flour less 2 T. (per the Joy of Cooking Substitutions page)  

Stir the pecans and the flour into the butter mixture.  Roll the dough into small balls.  Place the balls on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes.  (Don’t expect them to look brown) While they are still hot, roll them in confectioners’ sugar.  Lick your fingers and you’re done!                                         

California Christmas December 14, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Travel.
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christmasca

I couldn’t imagine a Christmas without snow. So for the first two years I lived in California, I dutifully flew home to spend the holidays with my family in Nebraska. This was a spiritual pilgrimage as well, as I did learn there really is such a thing as Purgatory – it’s being stranded indefinitely at the Denver Airport waiting for the weather “to clear.”

My husband, Richard, is from Idaho so even after we got married we alternated flying back and forth between these two exotic snow-covered destinations at Christmas. But at some point, traveling with two small children over the holidays got to be too much. It was time to establish our own holiday traditions – but a Christmas without snow?

Can you say Feliz Navidad? While everyone was talking North Pole, I found my answer to a Christmas without snow South of the Border. When we lived in New York, one year we flew to Mexico the day after Christmas. We stayed in Zihuantanejo, a small fishing village on the Pacific Coast.  This is what I remember. As we rode in a taxi with no seat belts to our hotel, a huge pig sauntered across the road. I turned to my husband and said, “This isn’t a developing country – this is the Third World!) When we arrived at our hotel shortly after 8 a.m., the manager, Pepe, had two icy Coronas in our hands before our luggage hit the ground.

Not only was Mexico warm and sunny, but it was (dare I say it?) so Christmasy! There were Christmas trees at all the hotels and restaurants decorated with tin and straw ornaments and elaborate nativity scenes nestled in piles of Spanish moss. It was gorgeous, colorful, and the atmosphere was festive. Think about it. Margaritas are green and hot sauce is red. My sons got to break open a red and white star pinata and the kids were excited to get a piece of candy and an orange!

When we moved back to California it was a done deal. Adapt or perish. Tradition is tradition, but we chose to embrace new traditions. Last week we put up the tree. It’s a real one as I love that fresh pine smell (not the pine scent you spray around the house). Our tree is festooned with Mexican tin ornaments and colorful woven spirals and straw angels. (Which also makes it earthquake friendly!) There’s only one ornament on the tree that’s breakable. It’s a clay angel bell we bought the first year we were married at the gift shop outside Mijares, a local Mexican restaurant that’s still in business. The angel dangles from the top branch of the tree as a reminder of just how fragile life can be.

The stockings are hung from the chimney. And yes, when the temperature dips to 45 degrees in Los Angeles, it really feels like it’s freezing. (Who forgot to add insulation to the houses here?) Our pig, Maisie, loves to lay in front of the fireplace so I guess we really have gone Third World.

So if you drop by our house on Christmas Eve, prepare to enjoy tamales and Mexican hot chocolate.  With Global Warming, I just wanted to give everyone a heads up as to what could be in store. In the meantime, Feliz Navidad!

I, Santa Claus December 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays, Parenting.
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6 comments

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My son, Ian, was in the third grade when I, Santa Claus, was exposed.  Only weeks after Christmas, Ian approached me with a bewildered expression on his face, clutching a piece of paper. “Why do you have all my letters to Santa Claus?” he asked point blank.  Oh s**t!  He’d found our cache of letters the boys had written to the big jolly man.  

The frozen look on my face said it all. “You’re Santa Claus?” Ian asked incredulously.  (Yeah, like I couldn’t eat a plate full of cookies).   “I…I…I am,” I stammered, and my son burst into tears. Before I could begin to explain how this ruse worked, I saw my confession’s stunning ripple effect.  Still wailing, Ian choked out, “And the Easter Bunny?”  I nodded.  More tears. “And what about the Tooth Fairy?”  At this point I was so busted that I merely hung my head.   Ian locked himself in his room and a tsunami of tears followed.   What my son didn’t see were my tears. 

You have to understand.  As a child I loved Santa Claus.  Just at that age (third grade), when everyone else was muttering something about Santa being your parents, I received a pair of roller skates from Santa that were the wrong size.  This was proof that Santa WAS real.  My parents would have known what size to buy me.  But with so many children in the world, I could forgive Santa for not knowing my exact size.  This mistake bought me (and my parents) another year of me being a “believer.”  To be honest, I don’t even remember when I finally figured out Santa was my parents, or if we even talked about it. Maybe it was so traumatic, I’ve supressed the memory. But I tend to think I finally realized that it was a bit of a stretch that some jolly fat guy could deliver gifts all around the world without routing them all through Memphis.  

When our first son, Taylor, was born, we were eager go play Santa.  It’s the role of a lifetime and we played it to the max.  We were living in New York City and the city is magical at Christmas.  One year friends invited us to their block association’s “Visit from Santa” event at a small park in Chelsea.  It was freezing and we huddled together stomping our feet to try and stay warm while awaiting Santa’s arrival.  

All of a sudden we heard a jolly, “Ho ho ho!”  We looked up and there on the rooftop of a three-story brownstone, illuminated against a starry sky, stood Santa waving!   I got goosebumps.  I was five years old again.  I was a Believer!   Moments later, Santa emerged from the front door of the brownstone with his bag slung over his shoulder.  He passed out advent calendars filled with chocolates before disappearing into a waiting Cadillac. It was only later, I found out that Santa was actually a Jewish guy named Morty. Morty was so overjoyed that he’d married off his last daughter, he asked if he could play Santa that year.  That’s what I love about New York.  

When Ian was born the next year, his big brother Taylor was only too happy to fill him in on Santa’s penchant for cookies and his elusive nature.  

On Christmas Eve, the boys would write their letters to Santa.  When they finally drifted off to sleep, we went to work.  I snarfed the cookies then wrote a letter from Santa on parchment paper with a calligraphy pen.  I even burned the edges so it looked like something out of a storybook.  Before Richard and I went to bed, we pulled out the fireplace screen just a tad and made big sooty footprints over to where the cookies had been.  It was a crime scene worthy of CSI.  

One year the stockings looked so adorable hanging above the fireplace that Richard took a Polaroid.  The mirror hanging over the fireplace reflected the flash and the image blurred.  It actually looked like a being of light was moving toward the fireplace.  In the morning we excitedly told the boys how we’d heard a noise and rushed out to the living room just in time to snap a picture of Santa.  Taylor was determined to contact the National Enquirer because he knew they’d pay lots of money for a “real” picture of Santa. “Finally,” he announced.  “We have proof!”

Taylor figured out the Santa thing by the fourth grade.  We were living outside Seattle by then and he seemed nonplussed.  He said it explained why Santa always gave gifts out of the Hearthsong catalog.  That year Taylor helped set up the stocking for Ian and enjoyed watching his little brother delight in seeing what Santa had brought on Christmas morning. After we moved back to LA, Taylor continued to play along.  Wink, wink. 

So Ian’s heartfelt tears were like a knife to my heart.  This wasn’t how I’d imagined it.  But how much of life isn’t?   So what did we do to help our traumatized son deal with the TRUTH. Taylor finally lured Ian out of his room and we all went to see a movie – A violent movie.  All I remember is it was rated R and there was lots of shooting, which as we all know, Santa wouldn’t approve of.  Ian walked out of the theater and the storm had passed.  

Ian is now 22 and loves to retell the story about finding Santa’s letters.  The funny thing is his favorite thing about Christmas is still coming out to see what Santa has left in his stocking. (We tried to phase the stocking out when he was 17, but he wouldn’t hear of it).  So I told Ian if I, Santa, still have to fill a stocking then he has to write “Santa” a letter.  So Ian writes a letter giving me (I mean Santa) an update on his college grades, and I, Santa write a letter back, but don’t bother to burn the edges.  And I still get to eat the cookies!

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