Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the year 2008

It seems that our time together this 12 Days of Christmas is drawing to a close. I hope you have enjoyed my holiday blogs as much as I have enjoyed writing them.

For me, Christmas is about the memories you're making now for yourself, your family, and your friends. And it is about reliving the memories of your past. It's happy and it's sad, all rolled up into one evergreen scented bundle.

It's about spending time with those you love, and missing the ones who are gone from this year's celebration.

It's about Christmas pageants, and Christmas sweaters, and Christmas music, and Christmas candy.

It's about wish lists and special gifts.

It's about helping when you can and accepting help when you must.

It's about Christmas trees and decorations and cards and carols.

It's about holiday commercials and the never ending hymn of "mommy, I want _____."

For many of us, it is about remembering and celebrating the reason for Christmas.

For unto us today a child is born.

Whether you celebrate at home with your immediate family, or whether you do the marathon Christmas traveling celebration, I hope your Christmas brings you all you ever wished for.

Until next year, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Monday, December 22, 2008

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, the year 2008

When Christmas rolls around, one way I celebrate is by wearing Christmas sweaters. Reindeers and Santa and Christmas trees, oh my! Yeah, I'm that girl.

This all started when I was in college and getting dressed was so much easier. Back in the day, you woke up whenever, then took a shower, or didn't, and put on whatever was handy. Since half the kids on campus lived in dorms with teeny tiny closets, no one questioned if you wore the same college sweatshirt more than one day a week. I don't know what came over me in college, but I decided I would wear red and green every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had a collection of sweats, because that's what good co-eds wore in the 80s, and I would toss on a red t-shirt with green sweats, or a green sweatshirt with red sweats. The point was that I wore a different combination of red and green every day.

And so it began.

Over the years, I have collected quite a grouping of sweater vests, embroidered sweatshirts, and dressy Christmas sweaters. I've also made cheesy sweatshirts with Christmas motifs with my mom, sister in law, sister, or BFF. Most of them are not stylish, and several of them are downright silly, like the one with the entire alphabet in shiny green and red letters. Well, most of the alphabet. There's no L on the shirt.

Get it? No-el?

The ones I made may be ugly or silly, but I love them because they are sentimental. They may not be artwork, but they are indelibly linked in my mind to the good times I spent making them. And for that, I love them.

My collection is large enough that I have enough Christmas garb to wear a different outfit to work every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas, without repeating. I took me a lot of time and a lot of money to collect that many pieces. And it takes a lot to maintain them. They are in a great big storage bag that takes up entirely too much space in my closet, but I keep them anyway because they make me happy. In the grand scheme of things, it seems like a silly waste to have a shirt or vest you only wear once a year, but it's my damn closet, so who cares?

Anyway, the hoo hahs at our office have decided that they want us in business casual clothes all the time. That means no jeans (even on Fridays!), and no sweatshirts. For the first time in years, I've actually repeated outfits this holiday season. Funny thing is that no one here seemed to notice.

It makes me a little sad to think of those well loved items sitting untouched in their storage bag, just wondering when they'll get out for a day. Oh well, maybe next year things will be more relaxed around here.

I didn't realize until this year how much psychic energy the whole Christmas outfit thing requires. Unload them all, choose a shirt, wear it once, launder or dry clean it, and put it back to sit for a whole year. No more, my friends, no more. It has been so much simpler to bring a few pieces into the rotation and deal with just that group. I have even ventured out and worn just a red sweater or a beautiful new red jacket a time or two - no jingle bells or Santas in sight, I fear.

Truly, Christmas is not about what you're wearing on the outside, it's about how you feel on the inside. I guess I have the hoo hahs to thank for that perspective.

I only have a few more days of Christmas outfits, and then it will be back to my regular winter clothing. It is always a little bittersweet to put away the Christmas garb, because like taking down the tree and putting away the Christmas ornaments, this act as much as any signals the end of the holiday season for me. On the upside, we'll get to start the whole thing over in just 11 more months!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On the Tenth Day of Christmas, the year 2008

The pure sheer joy of a gift laden Christmas tree is almost more than some children can bear. Regretfully, I am one of those children.

If there is a gift wrapped under the tree, I cannot resist the urge to pick it up and try to decipher the contents simply by sight, touch, and sound. Is it solid? Is it soft? Does the weight shift within the package? Does it rattle when you shake it?

Doesn't really matter if the gift is addressed to me. If it's got shiny colored paper on the outside, I am dying to know what's on the inside.

And Santa Claus gifts, which in my family were left unwrapped? FUHGETTABOUTIT! As a kid, I snooped in closets and corners, under the beds, in the trunks of cars. Any place dark and removed could hold holiday treasures, and I was all about seeking them out.

Sometimes I crept down the hall as my parents slept on Christmas morning so I could check out the gifts unnoticed before the big reveal. That happened one year when I was about 7 or 8, and unfortunately, my greed got the best of me. Santa Claus had brought my little sister a record player, and I decided it should be mine. Instead of just switching the tag from one of my gifts with the tag from her gift, effectively "trading" gifts with her, I attempted to write, in cursive as Santa had that year, a new tag with my name on it. You can guess the outcome of that one. My sister still got the record player, and I got in trouble.

It seems like the following year was the year that my parents decided to close the hallway door into the den and hang a big string of jingle bells from the door. That year, those damn bells fell and alerted the whole family that I was on the prowl yet again. And yes, I think I got in trouble.

When we outgrew Santa Claus, my parents had to get creative when they wrapped and placed our gifts under the tree. If there was a gift with my name on it, I had no qualms about trying to read through the paper, lifting up a corner of the paper and peeking, or worst of all, the total unwrap/rewrap, all before Christmas Day. I wasn't so anxious about knowing the contents of the other gifts, but if they were clearly labeled for me, I had an odd obsession about knowing what they were before Christmas morning. My parents eventually learned that if there were to be gifts under the tree for me, that they better be disguised somehow.

One year my father devised a brilliant plan for labeling the gifts in code. He and my mom wrapped the gifts and put codes on the gift tags, rather than our names. The codes were all numbers and seemed to having nothing in common. Some were short, some were long, some even, some odd, starting and ending with every digit equally. Based on this evil system, we had no idea which gifts belonged together, and which kid would eventually receive them. I thought Christmas morning would never arrive that month!! Finally, the morning came, and my dad explained the formula, which involved something ridiculous like dropping the first digit, adding the next ones together, dividing by two and then multiplying by three. Whatever sequence of math tricks we went through eventually pointed to one kid or another, and that one was the winner of the gift. All these years later, I remember the frustration of lining those gifts up, side by side, to compare the tags to try to decipher the code.

Then there was the year they tried not labeling the gifts. As each package came out from under the tree, a parent would examine the gift and send it on to the appropriate recipient. That worked pretty well until we got to a flat box containing a teal colored button down shirt. Someone handed me the gift, I opened it and fell in love with it on sight. Unfortunately, that gift should have been my brother's. This was the 80s people. Don't judge us. Sadly, my brother lost a shirt that year, and I wore it for years and loved it every time I put it on.

Regretfully, my dear family filled MrG in on my Christmas escapades very early in our relationship, and he began to torture me about the contents of gifts under our own little tree. As he wrapped his gifts for me, he was all about adding items to the package to throw me off. A handful of dried beans add an excellent rattle to an otherwise silent offering. Bars of soap or cans of green beans totally skew the weight of a gift. And he firmly believes that little gifts do not have to be wrapped in little packages. I have no doubt that he will pass this wisdom on to LittleG, and a whole generation of children to come will be affected by my inability to keep my paws off the presents.

Several groups at work this week had gift exchanges, and I must admit that every time I passed someone in the hall with a gift in her hands that I had the unbearable urge to distract her, grab the gift, and steal down the hall to try to figure out what was inside. My mother's firstborn is naughty indeed.

I might just be feeling nostalgic because this year there are no gifts under the tree for me. MrG and I are doing an "us" gift this year, and I'm a little sad that there won't be anything for me to unwrap Christmas morning. At least there better not be, because we are spending a chunk of cash on a new camera. For what it's worth, I'm also a little sad not to be buying and wrapping a gift for him this year. So, it's not ALL about me. Really.

Besides that, we have two Christmas celebrations this year, as we always do. First, at my inlaws house, far, far away. Then, we will celebrate with my family in my brother's brand new house. It's always fun to spend time with our families of origin, but best of all, there will be gifts. And some of them will have my name on them! Just don't leave your tree unattended, family.....

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On the Ninth Day of Christmas, the year 2008

People are so nice to each other this time of year. I love that. I would like to think that we are all good people who intend to do nice things year round. I think the reality of it is that we want to be generous with our time and money. Instead, real life intervenes, and we don't do our good works like we should, saving them, perhaps, for a better time. Then, in early December it hits us that we need to spend those good works, like our tax free healthcare accounts, by the end of the month or we'll lose them forever.

And so it begins. It's easy to drop a few bucks in the Salvation Army bucket at the Walmart. It's easier this year than ever since they are now taking credit cards. Or I guess it would be if people had room on their credit cards. LittleG and I do not walk past a Salvation Army bucket without throwing in at least some loose change. When she asks why those people are standing there collecting money, I tell her that folks who can help others should, and that we are blessed to have enough to share with people who need help right now. It's a valuable lesson, and one I hope she learns well.

My company held a food drive last week to benefit a local food bank. It got off to a really slow start, which is no surprise since most of us sell things to companies who rely on the health of the homebuilding industry to survive. Times are tough for our salespeople this year. Many are not getting the commission payments they count on to make ends meet. Some are single parents and are struggling to keep their own families fed. And yet, when the end of the food drive came, we had an entire conference room filled with canned goods and baby food. Did our folks have piles of money laying around to share with others? Absolutely not. But we gave what we could, and because of that, children will be fed, and their parents' souls nourished.

The radio and television stations are fabulous during the holidays. My favorite news team collects toys every year for needy children, and it just wouldn't be Christmas for me if the weather guys were not beamed into my TV a few nights a week, standing in a parking lot taking toys from generous viewers. A local radio station has such poignant stories this time of year that I can't even listen to them in the morning because I'll cry all the way to work. They must work year round to fill the station's coffers so they can exceed the Christmas wishes of the kids they help.

I don't know what it is that drives people at Christmas time to share. Is it just that we do it because we've always done it? It is the spirit of the season that moves us to give to others, sometimes to the detriment of our own wants and needs? Or do we give to bribe the universe to look away from our own good fortune by giving to those whose lives are not as blessed?

Whatever the reason, I'm glad that it happens. Whether it's change in a bucket or canned goods for a food bank, those of us who can help should. God bless us, every one!

Friday, December 19, 2008

On the Eighth Day of Christmas, the year 2008

Please take a moment to remember the service men and women who are away from their families this holiday season. Whether you agree with the war in Iraq or not, I think it's worth recognizing that thousands of families are not together this season because our military has been asked to serve in a land far away.

A Different Christmas Poem

The embers glowed softly, and in their dim light,
I gazed round the room and I cherished the sight.
My wife was asleep, her head on my chest,
My daughter beside me, angelic in rest.
Outside the snow fell, a blanket of white,
Transforming the yard to a winter delight.

The sparkling lights in the tree I believe,
Completed the magic that was Christmas Eve.
My eyelids were heavy, my breathing was deep,
Secure and surrounded by love I would sleep.
In perfect contentment, or so it would seem,
So I slumbered, perhaps I started to dream.

The sound wasn't loud, and it wasn't too near,
But I opened my eyes when it tickled my ear.
Perhaps just a cough, I didn't quite know,
Then the sure sound of footsteps outside in the snow.
My soul gave a tremble, I struggled to hear,
And I crept to the door just to see who was near.

Standing out in the cold and the dark of the night,
A lone figure stood, his face weary and tight.
A soldier, I puzzled, some twenty years old,
Perhaps a Marine, huddled here in the cold.
Alone in the dark, he looked up and smiled,
Standing watch over me, and my wife and my child.

'What are you doing?' I asked without fear,
'Come in this moment, it's freezing out here!
Put down your pack, brush the snow from your sleeve,
You should be at home on a cold Christmas Eve!'
For barely a moment I saw his eyes shift,
Away from the cold and the snow blown in drifts..

To the window that danced with a warm fire's light
Then he sighed and he said 'Its really all right,
I'm out here by choice. I'm here every night.'
'It's my duty to stand at the front of the line,
That separates you from the darkest of times.

No one had to ask or beg or implore me,
I'm proud to stand here like my fathers before me.
My Gramps died at ' Pearl on a day in December,'
Then he sighed, 'That's a Christmas 'Gram always remembers.'
My dad stood his watch in the jungles of ' Nam ',
And now it is my turn and so, here I am.

I've not seen my own son in more than a while,
But my wife sends me pictures, he's sure got her smile.
Then he bent and he carefully pulled from his bag,
The red, white, and blue... an American flag.
I can live through the cold and the being alone,
Away from my family, my house and my home.

I can stand at my post through the rain and the sleet,
I can sleep in a foxhole with little to eat.
I can carry the weight of killing another,
Or lay down my life with my sister and brother..
Who stand at the front against any and all,
To ensure for all time that this flag will not fall.'

' So go back inside,' he said, 'harbor no fright,
Your family is waiting and I'll be all right.'
'But isn't there something I can do, at the least,
'Give you money,' I asked, 'or prepare you a feast?
It seems all too little for all that you've done,
For being away from your wife and your son.'

Then his eye welled a tear that held no regret,
'Just tell us you love us, and never forget.
To fight for our rights back at home while we're gone,
To stand your own watch, no matter how long.
For when we come home, either standing or dead,
To know you remember we fought and we bled.
Is payment enough, and with that we will trust,
That we mattered to you as you mattered to us.'

Reprinted with permission of the original author, Michael Marks.
You can see more of his work here: www.michaelmarks.com

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On the Seventh Day of Christmas, the year 2008

I am a big Christmas baker. Or maybe candy maker is more like it. Either way, I love the flavors of the holiday, and I love bringing oodles of goodies to my friends and family. So hate me. I bake. And I do it well.

My friends at work refer to me as the "Cake Lady" because I bake and decorate cakes. Once a year, though, I put on my Candy Lady hat and bring a spread to the office. And today was the day!! Luckily, the cube next to me at work is empty, so this is what it looked like today:

You can double click the images in this post to get a better view. MrG is promising me a better camera for Christmas this year!

My mom and my BFF and my sister-in-law have gotten together over the years to spend a day in the kitchen making Christmas goodies. I cherish that time together, now more than ever. I regret that I have been so overscheduled this year that my candy making time has been limited to spurts here and there over the past two weeks. I have made my treats this year, and I know the people I share them with will appreciate them. But I feel like I got hosed this year because I didn't have time to make them WITH the people I love, just FOR the people I love.

Mo's Peanut Butter Bon-bons (center) - My maternal grandmother's recipe, and my sentimental favorite. Basically, just peanut butter and rice krispies, held together with magic and dunked in chocolate.

Fudge - Irish cream and white chocolate cherry almond. The cherry is on the lower right, the Irish cream on the lower left.

Mint Oreo Truffles (upper right) - mint oreos, pulverized and mixed with cream cheese, then dunked in white chocolate and sprinkled with green sugar. Looks like I spent all day in the kitchen, but these are simple to make!

Rolo pretzels (middle right) - sweet, salty, crunchy, soft goodness, all piled up together. Partially melt a rolo candy on top of a mini pretzel, then smoosh a pecan half down on top of it all.

Oreo Truffles (lower left) - Oreo cookies mixed with cream cheese, covered in melted chocolate. A drizzle of white chocolate dresses this candy up. People think I'm a genius when I show up with these. MrG took them to his Christmas cookie exchange this year, and we won the People's Choice award! By "we" I mean I made them and he transported them, so I guess it's a group effort.

Peanut Brittle (upper left) - a go-to favorite that's a lot harder to make than it should be. Trust me when I say you do NOT want to try to get burnt peanut smell out of your house. So, kids, watch that candy thermometer carefully when trying this dish. When you get it right, it is crunchy and divine.

Caramel Popcorn - the real kind that you make on the stove, then bake in the oven, low and slow. MrG loves the stuff, and it's almost idiot proof. I figure I have to feed him something yummy for allowing me to spend my time and our money to feed everyone else!

Cinnamon Almonds (center) - almonds, tossed in a sauce with brown sugar and cinnamon, roasted till they are golden brown and delicious.

Fudge - orange cream on the lower right, chocolate raspberry right next to it in the lower center.

Bourbon Balls (lower left) - not my personal favorite, but the folks at work seemed to love them last year! And they are pretty. They balance out the other flavors and textures well, so they make the cut. And the lady who handles my travel for me at work loves them. It pays to keep the person making your travel arrangements happy.

Peppermint Bark (upper left) - Vanilla flavored candy, melted and swirled together with red and green peppermint chunks. By far, this was the crowd favorite last year, and the easiest candy in my holiday arsenal!

Peppermint patties (upper right) - a new addition this year - creamy peppermint fondant dipped in dark chocolate. Yummy!

I realize now that I committed a cardinal sin by placing two fudges next to one another, and two peppermints next to one another. Oh well. Perfection can wait until next year, I guess. Martha would be so proud. In all fairness, it's hard to arrange the candy appropriately when your coworkers are giddily rallying around you as you unpack the good stuff.....

Ginger Snaps - good from the grocery store, but they can't be beat when they are homemade. This was the crowd favorite this year. It's a simple Betty Crocker recipe from a book I've had since 1987. A real book, with paper pages, a ring binder and a hard back cover. Go figure.

Kahlua Praline - what is not to love about chocolate, heavy cream, kahlua, and pecans?

There's a whole art to the balance of the candies - you want different shapes, different textures, different base flavors. A candy buffet with just round candies or just chocolate flavors is BORING. So I do what I can to throw in a wide range of flavors. Get some chewy stuff and some crunchy stuff and some melt-in-your-mouth creamy stuff. Be sure you have round things and square things and oddly sized things. In retrospect,
I probably really needed something tangy and fruit flavored like lemon bars or apricot balls to achieve true balance. But really - who wants to eat that stuff?

Those of you who know me won't find it odd that I had a spreadsheet this year to be sure I had all my bases covered. And those of you who don't know me have a lot to learn.

And yes, I really do get all Martha Stewart with the matching plates and napkins. (Well, as Martha Stewart as one can be when serving baked goods on throwaway plates). Even the email I sent to the office had a snowman background. And a poem, but that's for another time and place.

Making Christmas candy makes me happy, and feeding the homemade goodies to someone other than my immediate family (whose health and welfare I am responsible for!) makes me even happier.

Whatever your Christmas candy preference, I hope you or someone who loves you treats you this holiday season!

On the Sixth Day of Christmas, the year 2008

I love Christmas carols. To me, they are just like old friends you only get to see once a year.

Usually about two weeks before Thanksgiving, I get Carol of the Bells stuck in my head and I whistle it incessantly, without even knowing that I'm doing it. I whistle well, by the way. Anyway, MrG usually chastises me and makes me whistle on the inside until after the first of December.

At that point, it's not unusual at all to find Christmas CDs playing in the crimson steed. For a treat this year, I am loading a seasonal playlist on to my iPhone and I plan to play it in the elevator to torture those idiots in my building who ride up one floor rather than taking the stairs. Oh yeah, and to fill those around with me with the songs of the season.

Here's what's on my playlist:
  • Carol of the Bells
  • We Wish You A Merry Christmas
  • The Holly and the Ivy
  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
  • Silent Night
  • O Come O Come Emmanuel
  • Angels We Have Heard on High
  • O Come All Ye Faithful
  • Joy To the World
  • I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem
  • Jingle Bells
  • Frosty The Snowman
  • Jingle Bell Rock
  • Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer
  • Santa Claus is Coming To Town

Just like long visits from old friends, I'm often glad when it's time for the carols to return to where ever they belong when it's not Christmas time. Pack it up and go, folks. We'll see you this time next year.

Pah rum pum pum pum!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On the Fifth Day of Christmas, the year 2008

In case you're feeling like this blog is all about butterflies and bluebirds, don't. I know you are coming to expect warm fuzzy glowing stories that make you feel good to be alive. But sometimes life sucks.

And even Christmas memories can't all be happy ones. In fact, Christmas can be about as bittersweet as it gets. Case in point, Christmas, 2005.

That Christmas season was just horrid. Our sweet Daisy dog had been diagnosed with cancer over Thanksgiving that year. She had been with us for nearly ten years at that point, and she was MrG's first real dog. He had dogs a few times growing up, but they were always outside pets. Not our Daisy - she slept inside, with us, and had been our constant companion. We adopted her together and raised her, our first experiment as "parents."

Our vet sent us home after Thanksgiving with her and told us to take her home and love her. So the joy I would have felt the week after Thanksgiving was totally obliterated by the horrible news of our sweet dog. And the days that followed were truly brutal. We lost her four days before Christmas.

To add insult to injury, my dad was really sick, too. Also with cancer. We knew it was bad, and we knew it wasn't going to get any better. My dad LOVED Christmas, and it was awful to watch him feeling so bad, devoid of the joy the holiday usually brought to him. You have no way of knowing, of course, that this is your last Christmas together, but I think we all suspected it. And it sucked.

We did our best that year. My family celebrated with its usual traditions and gifts. We visited the in-laws. Somehow I managed to get our tree put up, and Santa brought gifts for LittleG. I look back now and wonder how we got through it at all.

I think sometimes you have to feel really bad in order to appreciate how good the good times are. 2005 was bad. Really bad. But you know what? 2006 was better. And 2007 was better yet. I'm chalking 2005 up as a learning experience, and I pray that I learned what I needed to that year.

Monday, December 15, 2008

On the Fourth Day of Christmas, the year 2008

I mentioned before that I have very happy memories of Christmas as a child, and I hope you enjoy hearing about them as much as I enjoyed living them.

Christmas decorations at my childhood home were very serious business. My folks kept them stored in old army trunks from my dad's service days, and I can remember the excitement as they drug them down out of the attic. We would open them up and be greeted with the musty sweet smell of old memories and treasures near forgotten.

We had a beautiful nativity scene - porcelain figurines complete with a manger scene, baby Jesus, and the animals. For a lot of years, my mom set up a Christmas "willage" as we called it, with snowcapped houses and frosty windows. We had Christmas candles in the bathrooms, hand towels with Christmas motifs, and even Christmas toilet paper on the 25th of December. We had peppermint advent calendars, and each day we got to take a single peppermint candy cane off our calendars.

One of my first years in college, my dad bought me packages of gift certificates from McDonalds. With every pack you bought, they gave you a little stuffed reindeer. My dad loaded me up that year and stubbornly demanded his free reindeer toys. My mom found a sleigh with Santa in it, and attached each reindeer to the sleigh with black string. Those reindeer pulled Santa across the mantle of the fireplace in their home for years and years and years. I still get a chuckle when I think of my dad throwing down with the Mickey D's manager over eight tiny reindeer.

We had a mobile with angels suspended on elastic type string, and every year my brother and sister and I would do crazy things with them. Sometimes we hung them from their heavenly ceiling, heads down, like bats. One time, we made little tiny nooses and hung them. Well, by "we" I mean my little brother. My mother was rarely amused by our angel antics. Whoever got stuck sitting under the angels in the bay window at the breakfast table fought the damn things for an entire month. We loved them and hated them, all at the same time.

We had songs of the season, piped in all day on Christmas. And that one day a year, my mom drove us all crazy by answering the phone, "Merry Christmas" instead of "hello." I didn't get it then, but I totally get it now.

Christmas gifts at our house were insane. Santa left unwrapped gifts on Christmas morning, and my folks always made sure we had wrapped gifts under the tree, too. My dad went nuts every year buying gifts, and I didn't realize then how much we had, and how much my folks sacrificed to fill their den with mountains of beautifully wrapped gifts and treasures.

There were three of us kids, and one of us in particular had a very hard time maintaining her composure once the gifts were under the tree. That one of us shall remain unnamed at this point. Suffice it to say that my mother's firstborn was a very naughty girl. Her ridiculous ongoing lack of control when it comes to Christmas gifts warrants its very own Day of Christmas blog, I'm afraid. More on this one later.

Christmas goodies were such a treat for us. For years, my mom has made "Texas Trash" which all of you outside of the Lone Star State refer to as Chex mix. We hillbillies have our own special name for it. During my youth, I burned countless hours by sifting through the bowls of salty goodness to get to my favorite parts of the concoction. Generally that was the chinese noodles and the rice chex.

My mother's family celebrated every year with a family gathering, and there was no shortage of Christmas goodness when she, her sisters, and their sister-in-law got together with my grandmother and great grandmother. It is amazing that someone didn't have the forethought to bring a round of insulin for the house. We really needed it to offset the peanut butter bon bons, apricot balls, divinity, and fudge that filled the candy dishes.

One very poignant memory for me is that of my Nana's house at Christmas. Nana was my great grandmother, and she lived for more than a century. I cannot see Christmas candy peppermint taffy without getting nostalgic for the old girl. And for years after her death, I got sniffly every time I bought a box of chocolate covered cherries. Some things just remind you of the people you have loved and lost, and for me, it's peppermint taffy and chocolate covered cherries. The same can be said for my Mo's peanut butter bon bons. And for some reason, Grandmother Erma's scrambled eggs. Go figure.

My father had his Christmas favorites, too, and my mom went above and beyond to make sure he enjoyed his special treasures. He had a stuffed animal from Australia that he wanted perched "just so" inside a huge wreath that hung in the den. Called the silly thing Super Mouse. He had a funny choo choo train ornament that plugged into the Christmas lights and chugged along. There was a mailbox that someone had made for him. My mom never decorated a tree without hanging the ornaments so they were visible to my dad from his big recliner. I haven't seen the train this year, but when we were at Mom's house last weekend, she pointed out the mailbox on her tree, still facing where his chair sat for so many years. We will never know what happy memories these treasures stirred up for my dad, but I know that those things made him happy, and that he held on to them and relived them year after year.

Anyway, Christmas for me was a magical time, filled with nice music and nice decorations and great food and presents. The threat of Santa Claus coming for a late night visit was enough to keep me in line for months. Ok, weeks. And the promise of Santa coming was enough to keep me wide awake on more than one Christmas Eve night. I never saw the big guy personally, but I believe to this day that his spirit is out there and alive and well.

That spirit lives now and moves me to shuffle furniture and to carve out a few hours to set up our tree and to trim it. To stand in the front yard in the cold, battling with stubborn lights that won't work and tangles of wire. To spend countless hours making Christmas candy and wrapping gifts and reading The Night Before Christmas.

That spirit moves me now, just as it moved my parents a lifetime ago. I am creating happy memories for my child, and hopefully for her children someday.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On the Third Day of Christmas, the year 2008

When I was growing up, my folks went nuts at Christmas. My dad had his favorite ornaments and decorations, and they had to be set so he could see them from his big chair. My mom pulled out all the stops during the holidays. We had the Christmas hand towels in the bathroom. And the nativity scene in the den. And angels on high in the kitchen. And the tree, oh, the tree!

Those memories are happy ones for me, and I would like to think I can bring the same sort of traditions to our family so that one day thirty five years from now LittleG will have the same kinds of memories.

Regretfully, we have much less space in our crowded little starter home for spreading out big nativity scenes, Christmas Villages, and towering Christmas trees. We do the best that we can by carving out a few square feet for our tree, and this year, MrG and I decorated the front of the house with sparkly icicle lights, five little yard size Christmas trees, and net lights in our front shrubs. Oh, and I spend the next three weeks with various and sundry Christmas candy and cookie ingredients spread out across the kitchen. Don't judge me, people.

I have started a Christmas tradition for me and LittleG that centers on the tree trimming. We play Christmas videos, make hot chocolate, and pop the cheesy Christmas themed Pillsbury sugar cookies into the oven to bake while we decorate the tree. Once the tree is up, I let her watch Christmas videos whenever she wants to (within reason, of course), and we read The Night Before Christmas.

This year, I bribed her during a trip to Steinmart by telling her if she would just behave a few more minutes that she could pick out any ornament in the store, and that would be the very first one we put on our tree. Worked like a charm, and thank heavens my beautiful, brilliant child chose a little clear acrylic angel instead of a big gaudy awful shiny thing she could have chosen.

So here is our little tree, decorated with love, for all of us to enjoy this holiday season.

Oh, Tannenbaum!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

On the Second Day of Christmas, the year 2008

LittleG is going to have an interesting Christmas season. She's getting dunked in the deep end of the pool this year, because she's finally old enough to enjoy some of the seasonal festivities.

She has already been to see the Christmas pageant at Nana's church. Last week, Santa Claus and Dasher the Reindeer came to school and the kids got to hang out with them and get their picutres taken.

One Sunday we are going to see Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer at a community theater in our area. And next Sunday, we are going to see the Nutcracker Ballet - the professional one - with my mom and sister-in-law and her kids.

Then begins the hysteria that is the Christmas gift giving season. We will do Christmas in Pecos with the in-laws, Christmas at our house after Santa Claus comes, and Christmas with my family the weekend after.

January will be a rude awakening for her when we get back to real life. In the meantime, she is happy to skip down the hall singing, "We wish you a very Christmas, we wish you a very Christmas, we wish you a very Christmas, and a Happy New Year!"

Very Christmas to you, and to all a good night!

Friday, December 12, 2008

On the First Day of Christmas, the year 2008

This is one of my very favorite Christmas stories, one I witnessed myself. I want to start my Christmas celebration this year with this in mind.

Shortly after we were married, MrG and I went out for lunch in early December. It was a Saturday, early afternoon. As we sat at our table together, we noticed a curious thing. A young girl, maybe three or four years old, toddled by with her mommy on the way to the bathroom. As she neared our table, she looked away from us towards an oldish man and his wife in the booth across the aisle from us.

And she stopped dead in her tracks. Her eyes widened as she took it all in. Here sat a nice white haired gentleman, with a beard as white as snow. A bit on the chubby side, he had nice round cheeks and I kid you not, a twinkle in his eye.

Her mom tried to drag her along to their destination, but this kid wasn't moving. Instead, she crept towards him, a bit timid at first. And then, she crawled right up in the booth next to him and begin to speak.

God bless this man - looking exactly like Santa, a few weeks from Christmas, just sitting at Chili's enjoying lemonade with his wife, when an unknown little tot pegged him for the jolly man!

He took a few minutes, spoke gently to the girl, then patted her on her head and scooted her away. Off she went, happy as a clam. She came back by on the way to her table, smiled the kind of smile only an angel can muster, and waved heartily as she passed by. I'm not sure who was happier - the little girl, or the grown ups who were watching the scene unfold!

Every one of us who witnessed this knew that this little girl, beyond a shadow of a doubt, believed that she had just met Santa Claus. You could see it on her face, and feel it radiate in her smile.

As fate would have it, we were leaving the restaurant at the same time as the man and his wife, and I commented on how sweet his exchange with his new friend had been. His face softened, and his eyes kind of glistened, and he told me that this had been happening for years. He said he always took time when the children sought him out, because it was a special memory for the children.

Truth be told, that little girl probably has no recollection at all of her encounter at the Chili's. But I do, and MrG does, and that nice little man and his wife do. And when we think about it, our hearts warm up just a smidgen.

The kindness of a stranger made a little girl very happy that day, and this memory gives me a lump in my throat every time I think about it. That child knew without question that she was in the presence of a great man. Her error was thinking it was Santa Claus, and not just some mere mortal who took time out of his day to share a few sweet moments with a little one, who would all too soon not believe in the magic of Santa.

I believe without fail that what goes around comes around, and I hope to the center of my soul that this nice little man reaps tenfold the joy he's brought to little kids and their grownups.

Merry Christmas, indeed, my friends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Big 3 Bailout

Clearly this is not my own work, but it's worth sharing nonetheless. Be sure to doubleclick the image so you can read the fine print.

I'm feeling better every day about having driven only Mazda and Honda vehicles since 1989. Funny, they've not been overcharging consumers for years for substandard vehicles. And now, they aren't standing in line holding their hands out for your tax dollars and mine.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hump day adventures

My day got off to a rough start. I was up WAY too late last night working on a project, so I was grumpy and out of sorts when my alarm clock went off. Our morning schedule was rushed because I had to get LittleG ready to go with her dad, and I headed off to a dentist appointment.

Dentist appointments to me are just about equal in "ick factor" to going to the gynecologist. I hate going to the dentist, but I'm religious about it because I am about one handful of granola away from needing a mouthful of crowns.

Anyway, I can't stand it because you have to sit in this really horrible chair that's not comfortable, no matter how they have you reclined. There are x-rays, and plaque, and nasty gritty tooth polish. You have to hold your mouth open for freaking eternity while three different people poke and scrape an pick and chisel at God only knows what kind of ickiness. I should mention that I think the hygienist hates me and sometimes she picks at imaginary stuff just to make me squirm. By the time I get out of there, my hair is all smooshed up, whatever makeup I managed to apply before the appointment is long gone, my gums are puffy and sore, and my jaw hurts like hell from propping open the old choppers for more than an hour. And I haven't had my coffee yet. And did I mention I woke up grumpy? Clearly things have not improved my overall disposition.

I'm on the other side of town from my regular Starbucks, so I go down the road to the place I call The Arrogant Starbucks. I call them this because this particular location is always very busy. No one there is very nice, and I'm pretty sure that the peple who work there get together every morning and remind themselves how important they are to the well being of the neighborhood and that they don't really need to be nice to us, the customers. Ok, already. I get it. We are standing 10 deep in line today to give you our money for a $5 latte. You alone are the keeper of the key to the magic medicine cabinet where the cheap legal addictive stimulants are kept. And yes, today it is 28 degrees in the hood, so your lines are extra long. You are the king of all that is good in the world. Please, though I am not worthy, share your caffeine with me.

So, I am having the equivalent of the pissy-mood trifecta today: grumpy, dentist appointment, and now, The Arrogant Starbucks.

I am standing there in line when the kind of guy I really can't stand comes up behind me. He looks like a frat boy who skated through college on daddy's money and has somehow managed to land himself an overpaid job. He's dressed in a crisp white dress shirt, untucked, over jeans, and the most ridiculous square-toed shoes I think I've ever seen. He's got his fancy bluetooth headset on and he gets a call that goes like this:

"Yo, dude. Just rolled up for my nine with Bento. Can I hit you back in a few?" You cannot make this stuff up.

Can someone, anyone, please, for the love of all that is holy tell me what the hell that means?

Before I can kick him in the shin, luckily, my turn comes to pay, and I move along to the second line to wait for my coffee. Headset dude saunters by and heads to the little boy's room. When he returns, his shirt is nicely tucked in and he looks ready for his nine with Bento, whatever that means.

The bitchy barrista is finishing up with my order, which today is much larger than usual because I treated myself to a nice hot chocolate, hoping that would soothe my tattered soul after the beating I took at the dentist.

Headset dude, clearly impatient to get on with Bento, steps in front of me and says to the bitchy barrista, "Is that my iced sugar free green tea with extra water?" She glares at him and says, "Might be. I'll check when I'm finished with her order." I'm pretty sure she winked at me when she said it. Well played, my friend, well played.

I'm certain that getting called out by the not so bitchy after all barrista deflated Headset dude's ego just a smidgen. In the blink of an eye, he morphed from ultra-cool boy to a chided child, embarrassed in front of all his homies at the Starbucks.

And that makes The Arrogant Starbucks not so bad a place after all. Happy Humpday, all.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A brave new world

I have a friend that I worked with at my previous job for just over 6 years. We didn't start out as friends, but I'm glad that we ended up that way. I thought when I left my job that I had been there a long time. But when you compare my tenure there with hers, it's hardly comparable.

You see, my friend has worked in the same job for more than 25 years. If I'm doing the math right (and there's a chance I'm not since I do sales, not math), my friend has logged nearly 6,000 days on the clock. FOR. THE. SAME. DAMN. COMPANY.

That in itself is brave enough. Imagine dragging your carcass out of bed 50 weeks out of the year to drive to the office, to see the same faces, to shuffle the same papers, to address the same needs of the same customers. Day after day. Year after year. Boss after boss.

She saw new people hired, and she watched as people departed, one after another through all 6,000 days in the office. Some she loved, and others, not so much. She rode the waves when things were going well, and paddled like hell to keep her head above water when they weren't.

During my entire tenure, my friend talked about and threatened to go out and get herself a new job. I think she spent a fair amount of time kicking tires, looking at possible jobs, but I'm not sure how far she got in her job search. Since I worked for her during some of my time there, I was never really sure about how serious she was about making a change. It's hard to know when you're the flunky what your boss is really thinking.

Eventually, I moved in another direction at the company and transitioned on to the sales team, which allowed me to develop a nice friendship with my former boss. Even then, I never really knew how invested she was in the company or the idea of change.

I knew when I changed jobs more than two years ago that my friend wasn't particularly happy at her job. I'm not sure what adjective to assign to her outlook on her job - Apathy? Complacency? Boredom? Disgust? I know what it wasn't, and that was Happy.

Imagine my surprise when I got a call a couple weeks ago from another co-worker that my friend had finally taken the plunge. Turns out she put her resume together, sent it out, and landed herself a brand new job. Just like that. New job, new title, new coworkers, big fat raise. All in one fell swoop.

The end of an era has come for our former company. And now my friend has set off into this brave new world. She took a giant leap of faith and stepped off the cliff into the unknown abyss that comes with a new job. She is absolutely qualified for it. But is she up to the challenge of it?

I look at her starting her new job as if she were a student starting at a new school. She's got to find her locker and the restrooms and the coke machines. She's got to figure out which teachers are mean and which ones will cut her some slack. She's got to identify the mean girls and find the cute football players who like to party.

Talk about a brave new world. My friend left a job willingly. One she knew more about than quite possibly anyone else in the company. She moved away from the only industry she has ever known and jumped head first into the deep end. Now she's learning a new industry, making new friends, and finding her "new normal."

I know I speak for my former coworkers when I say ever so eloquently, WTF? Has it really happened? And how in the world, after 25 years, do you find the internal fortitude to make a change like this? How deep do you have to dig to head out, away from what you know, towards the great unknown?

I had an email from my friend last night, her first to me since she left her job. And I swear I could feel the excitement bubbling up between the words of her message. She loves her new job, is happy, happy, happy, and can't wait to fill us in on all the changes. I cannot wait to have lunch with her and hear all about her new job.

With all the doom and gloom of the economy, my friend's new job is a beacon of light, shining through the darkness. The promise of a new job and a new life. A brave new world, indeed.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Happy Holidays!

If this doesn't get you excited about the holidays, perhaps you should help yourself to a nice stout Eggnog and some peppermint sticks!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Happy Birthday, BFF

I was nearly a full week late with my Thanksgiving post. And now, my BFF's birthday has come and gone. I am a lousy friend.

But my message is heartfelt, and I know she'll read it. And it won't matter to her that it's a day late or a week late or a month late, because she'll know that the words I write today are the same ones I felt about her yesterday, when her real birthday happened.

I think everyone ought to have a very best friend. Not your average run-of-the-mill best friend, but a VERY best friend. The kind of friend you can call in the middle of the night when you've been out and have had too much to drink. Or the kind of friend you can call in the middle of the day when you need to go out and get too much to drink.

I have that friend, and her birthday was yesterday. So, today, I will honor my friend Jimz. Not her real name of course, but it is her real nickname, one of many we have accumulated for her throughout our friendship.

Jimz and I found each other in 1991 after I graduated from college and moved home. We were in a group that purported to be a leadership training organization for young people. I realize now, in hindsight, that it was just a bunch of twenty and thirty somethings who liked to get together and par-tay like a rock star. But that's how we became friends.

I have to give my friend credit for the biggest things in my life. Not once, but twice, she somehow managed to land me a job where she was working. The first time it happened, I met MrG. The second time it happened, I found a job that truly makes me happy. I would hazard a guess that my life would have taken a profoundly different turn without her presence in my life.

In all of these years, we've squabbled occasionally, but we've never drifted apart. We only argued once over a boy in all of this time, and he turned out to have been a lousy choice for both of us anyway.

She has been there for me through thick and thin, and I would like to think I've been as present for her as she has been for me. We have cried together over loans we couldn't qualify for, and celebrated when we finally got our mortgages. We've been there for each other when our parents have been sick, and through the heartbreaking loss of pets we loved so dearly.

She knew before probably anyone that I would marry MrG. And she stood with me when it happened. She cheered me on when we tried so hard to get pregnant, and she was with me the day LittleG joined us.

We have been together through lousy jobs and horrible bosses and broken relationships and hard times. And we have been together through the celebrations of life - marriage, babies, degrees, career changes, and finally the peace that being forty something and reasonably established brings.

Kahlil Gibran said, "a friend is your needs answered" and that is certainly the case for me. Jimz is the Yin to my Yang, the Introvert to my Extrovert. She seems to know just what I need, whether it's just to sit and listen to me, or to reduce me to giggles like a schoolgirl over something stupid. She's talked me down off the ledge a time or two, and she's called me on the carpet when it's in my best interest. She is gentle with me when I'm not gentle with myself, and she's strong when she needs to be strong.

I could get all Jerry Maguire on you and say that she completes me, and it wouldn't be far from the truth. I'm like a crayon box, and she's like a purple crayon. All my pieces just don't fit together right unless the purple one is there to fill up the box.

So for my VERY best friend who helped me find my place in this world, and who has made that place a happy one, Happy Birthday, Jimz.

And many more.....

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Thankfulness Song

The Veggie Tales sing this happy little song about being thankful. The chorus of the song goes like this, "A thankful heart is a happy heart. I'm glad for what I have, it's an easy way to start." I think that's a good thing to focus on this time of year.

The holidays are, for me, a time of the highest peaks and the lowest valleys. Holidays are BUSY times, expensive times, stressful times. They are also wonderous and magical and timeless. How odd that they can be both joyful and hard all at the same time. So that is where I'll start with my Thanksgiving tale this year.

Thanksgiving is a beating for me. No two ways about it. We see my inlaws only three or four times a year, and Thanksgiving is always one of those times. I miss my time with my mom, and I hate for her that she misses her time with us. But, in all fairness, we're in the same city with her nine nights out of ten, so I don't begrudge my husband his special time at home with his family, and I certainly don't begrudge their time with us. Our commute alone takes nearly a full day of daylight, so our time with them is limited to nice long holiday weekends. That nothwithstanding, it is still a TOTAL. BEAT. DOWN.

My in-laws are 420 miles from us, straight west. With a five year old in tow, and Thanksgiving traffic, you damn near cannot make the drive in less than six and a half hours. And that's if the planets align and God smiles down upon you. And everyone goes to the bathroom, and gets enough to eat before we take off. One little hiccup, one person off the family "potty time" schedule, and suddenly, we're stopping four times in one trip. You do the math, at 15 minutes per stop, we're stopping for more than an hour each way.

That's if we can get off the highway, away from the bumper to bumper traffic. You know the kind - one moron going under the speed limit driving in the left hand lane can back traffic up for miles. Everyone around him jockeys for position, trying to pass on the right without getting caught behind even slower drivers. And when you finally break free of him, suddenly you find yourself in an 85 mph race, back and forth with your fellow drivers, everyone jockeying for the pole position.

But I digress. The point is, the commute is a bitch. We drive for hours and are road weary when we get there. We don't have our bed, our pillows, our dogs. We eat food we're not used to, although it's delicious, and we're totally off our schedule so we either sleep too much or not enough. We're tired and out of our comfort zone.

Oddly enough, it's not just getting there that's stressful, but also staying there. There's really nothing to do in the city. There's NO place to shop, and I mean NO place. Well, there is a Walmart, and a Bealls. But really, NOTHING else. New this year, their little town had a place called the Amazing Store. Not so much, it turns out, because what it had was a bunch of cheap import crap that's overpriced and ugly.

And still, it is a great weekend. I'm thankful for our time with his family. He has two sisters, one is single and one is married with a small daughter of her own. Both of his parents are still living. And we all come together for a few precious hours in November and just spend time together as a family.

And for that, I am thankful. Because his folks aren't always going to be here for us, and because someday, his sisters may be spread to the farthest reaches of the world, and time together might not be feasible.

I'm thankful my mother-in-law makes a lovely Thanksgiving meal. My brother-in-law fried a turkey this year, and believe me when I say I'm thankful we can't have it every day. Hot and fresh, it was remarkable. I could have eaten my weight in turkey, so thank the good Lord above it's not available to me year round! And I'm thankful for the delicious turkey enchiladas with red sauce that my mother-in-law makes special, just for me, every year.

So what else has my heart feeling grateful right now? Well, several things, in random order.

I am thankful for my wonderful friend at work who holds the most amazing Thanksgiving potluck at her house every year. She and a roommate started the tradition eleven years ago, and it's grown from a group of college friends to include work friends and their families. There were 71 people there this year. I'm so glad to have been invited, to meet again some really terrific friends of my friend, and to enjoy seeing again friends I met last year.

I'm thankful that my mom held her own Thanksgiving a few days early this year so that her kids could all be together. Well, all except MrG, who was frankly being a big jerk that day and stayed home to watch football. It was nice to eat on the fancy china and have our family Thanksgiving favorites after many years away from my mother's table. Thanksgiving with friends is one thing, but Thanksgiving with your mom and your kid brother can't be beat.

I'm thankful for the potluck we had at work. Mostly, I'm thankful to have a job. And I'm thankful to have a job in a company where they allow us to do things like throw a big lunch where everyone brings a dish and eats too much. The company buys the turkey, and we bring everything else. And it's all delicious, and we get to enjoy the people we work with for a few minutes in suspended reality.

And today, after four Thanksgiving meals in one week, I'm thankful to high heavens that I'm not eating turkey.

I'm thankful for the regular stuff - we have a house, when others around us are losing theirs. We have our marriage, a nearly ten year union that's not perfect, but is happier much more often than not. We have our health, and when that fails us, we have insurance to help us find it again. We have families we love, who love us in return. We have friends we cherish, hobbies we enjoy, and the financial wherewithal to pretty much do what we want when we want.

We are so very blessed to have what we have when so many go without. In these times of economic uncertainty, it's comforting to have "the stuff" we have. But more important to me than "stuff" is what you cannot put a price tag on.

Several years ago, I tore a page out of a page-a-day calendar. I've held on to it for all this time because it spoke to me. The message on it said, "He who is not happy with what he has is not likely to be happy with what he would like to have."

And so, I am content with our 840-mile round trip for a visit to his parents a few times a year. And I'm content with my family and my friends and my stuff. I'm happy with what I have, and for that I am exceedingly grateful.

Happy Holidays to you and yours, and stay tuned for the Twelve Days of Christmas, Lady Steele style.