Archive for December, 2007

Slowing Down the Christmas Rush

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

If I was the only one in the house who had any interest in decorating the tree, baking the cookies, and wrapping the presents, I would power through those pre-Christmas tasks with such determination and efficiency that the gingerbread men would be saluting me by the time I set them out on Christmas day. That kind of attitude is great when I’m cleaning a bathroom and my objective is to get it done as quickly as possible; lingering over the over the toilet bowl doesn’t really enhance the experience.

But getting ready for Christmas? That should be more meaningful than checking chores off of a list. After all, these are special activities that we only do once a year. We’re building on traditions and celebrating a sacred holiday so there should be room for a little joy in the process”¦something I can quickly forget when I get fixated on achieving a goal.

That’s why I am so thankful that Valerie and Jennifer participate in all of the preparations for Christmas. They get pleasure out of everything they do because unlike me, their objective isn’t to get it done as quickly as possible. Whether it’s putting gumdrops on the gingerbread house or piping frosting onto cookies, they don’t want to rush through it. To them, it’s an opportunity to experiment and use their creativity ““ and to savor the enjoyment they get from doing it.

So when the three of us are working together, it forces me to slow down. I stop focusing on “getting it done” and instead participate in the “doing,” and I make a shocking discovery”¦whatever the project, it stops being work and starts being fun.

Let me give you an example. One of the traditions in our house is to bake and decorate Christmas cookies. When I’m the one doing the rolling and cutting out, I roll out a hunk of dough and cut out as many tree shapes as I can fit on that particular circle of dough, then I re-roll it and then cut out as many bells as I can fit, and then the next time it’s snowmen, and on and on. Very efficient, right?

But that’s not how my daughters approach it. First, they look through my assortment of cookie cutters. They’re not just interested in only using the ones that are the typical Christmas shapes. Someplace along the way, I acquired a camel, bird, and moon cookie cutters, and those, in addition to the usual gingerbread man, tree, and bell are the ones that see as having potential for some really cool decorating options.

Then as they start rolling out the dough and cutting out the cookies, they start playing around with the shapes. After cutting out a few, Valerie notices that the shape that’s left in the scraps of dough resembles a Celtic cross and she adds that to the cookie sheet. Then as Jennifer is lifting one of the gingerbread men off of the cutting board he sticks a little, so she exaggerates the curve of his arms and legs and turns him into the AOL running man icon. Then one of the cookies arms accidentally gets folded, so Jennifer folds the other one so he becomes a praying gingerbread man.

And when it comes to decorating the cookies, if I were doing it, it would turn into an assembly line: trees all get green frosting, red for the bells, snowmen of course are white. Very literal and boring. But Valerie and Jennifer use their imaginations; each cookie becomes a little work of art. I just stand back and enjoy watching what they come up with. We mix up a little black frosting, and Valerie stripes a camel with green and black and then drags a toothpick through it to create a herringbone pattern. Then Jennifer picks up on the idea and starts making a snowflake out of blue and white icing on a circle cookie. A snowman doesn’t just get sprinkles dumped on it, Jennifer gets the tweezers so she put sprinkles on one at a time to make a silly angry snowman face.

Their creativity sparks ideas in me and before long I’m caught up in the fun of decorating and experimenting. But every so often, I can’t help myself. I interject, “You know you could do that a lot faster if you”¦” and then I have a variety of suggestions for systematizing the process. Valerie teases me that I’m being a Christmas Nazi again. We laugh and then I go back to seeing what a moon frosted in blue and green looks like.

Did decorating cookies with the girls take longer than if I had done it by myself? Absolutely and I’m so thankful that it did.

Ego Food

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007

A few days ago, we received an emailed invitation to join a few other families from our church for a casual holiday get-together and “Please bring finger food to share.”

That sounds like it should be simple enough; all that’s required is to show up at the designated time and place with a tray of Bagel Bites. Or if I want to contribute snacks that are less white-bread, I can go to Trader Joe’s and choose from Spanakopita, or Spring Rolls, or meatballs, and on and on.

But instead, I started listening to a little voice inside of me that says, “Grabbing a box off the shelf is a much too easy. Everybody does that. You should make something to show off your cooking skills. Think how great you’ll feel when you whip off the foil and hear the compliments for your delectable and beautiful hors d’oeuvres.”

Now I have got my teeth and my ego into my finger food offering. I’m determined that I’m not going to take the easy way out and show up with a hunk of cheese and a box of Triscuits. “That’s for wimps!”

Over the course of a day, I have become totally invested in the process; I’m not just looking for a recipe, I’m on a quest for the perfect balance between taste, appearance, preparation, and oh yes, price”¦so forget the platters of shrimp. It starts consuming me. When I’m nestled all snug in my bed, it’s visions of finger food that dance through my head. And during the day, Steve notices a distracted expression on my face and comments, “You’re thinking about crudités again aren’t you?”

I start scouring the internet for appetizer recipes. This assignment calls for backup so I enlisted the help of my daughters and we scroll through pages of recipes on the Food Network and Epicurious websites. We are struck by the strange combinations of expensive ingredients, the fussiness of the preparation, and how unappetizing most of the appetizer recipes sounded. The staples in this category are goat cheese, dates, and figs, and as Jennifer points out, it’s always wrapped in proscuitto. Or in Paula Deen’s more down-home (dare I say redneck?) version; it’s lunchmeat wrapped around cream cheese and pickles. We let out a unanimous “Yuck.”

After searching through a few pages of “Quince Paste Napoleons,” “Carrot-Beef Sushi,” “Foie Gras with Date Puree,” “Proscuitto-Wrapped Figs with Goat Cheese,” and “Duck Pastrami,” the three of us started coming up with our own ridiculous appetizer combinations of cheese, balls, dates, nuts and proscuitto”¦and we couldn’t stop laughing.

It must have been the serotonin that was released in my brain by spending the half hour laughing with my daughters because by the next day, my compulsion to find the perfect finger food was gone. I guess you could say I got my perspective back because whatever I decided to take to the party just didn’t seem very important anymore. After all, it’s just snacks”¦and not a test of character and proof of who I am as a person.

So I opened the freezer and was delighted to find that I had almost a full bag of potstickers from Costco. I boiled and browned them and lined them up a platter with the dipping sauce in the middle, and it looked darn nice. I had to smile when I brought back home the empty plate. For a while there, I had worked myself up about bringing something that would impress everyone; but the ironic part is, that at the party no one knew who brought which tray of finger food. Thank goodness I didn’t spend hours making “Crostini with Beef Tartare and White Truffle Oil.”

A Gift from School

Monday, December 17th, 2007

When I offered to help out for a few hours at the “Holiday Gift Sale” at Jennifer’s elementary school last Thursday, I didn’t have any expectations that it would be anything special. I figured it would be like other times when I’ve volunteered in the classroom: an opportunity to help out her teacher and get a better understanding of the classroom dynamics. But that day, I got a lot more than I gave; when I left the school, I was filled with the Christmas spirit.

Let me back up a little and explain how the “Holiday Gift Sale” works. It is a fundraising project for the sixth grade’s week-long stay at an outdoor school. For several weeks, notes are sent home with students asking for donations of new or almost new items that can be regifted. The items that are brought in are priced in the twenty-five cent to two dollar range and laid out on tables in the multi-use room. On the day of the sale, each class has a designated time to shop at the sale. Every student can buy as many as five items for family and friends; they are told not to buy anything for themselves.

When I got to school on Thursday, Jennifer’s teacher and classmates had already worked hard setting out all the donated items and organizing them by price. There were eight 12-foot long tables crammed with the kind of stuff that collects in the backs of cabinets and the bottoms of toy bins. Bric-a-brac, knickknacks, candles, coasters, big stuffed animals, Beanie Babies, games, puzzles, Barbies and Hot Wheels, hamster mazes, dish towel sets, jewelry, scarves, perfume and books.

Students in the sixth grade class who had turned in all their homework earned the privilege of working a shift at the sale as “shopping assistants” ““ who would accompany younger students and keep track of their purchases ““ or as gift wrappers or as cashier.

I’ve thought a lot about what made this day different than just a rummage sale to raise a few dollars for a field trip. Why was it such a fulfilling and rejuvenating experience? I think it’s because the whole day was about kids’ giving and serving.

Usually at school, all the giving is done by the teachers. When a child arrives in the morning they sit at their desks waiting to be fed information or instructions. As the day progresses, they depend on the teacher to resolve problems, or answer questions, or just give them some attention. It’s amazing to me that teachers have the energy to walk to their cars after attending to a classroom of 30 needy students.

But when the students walked into the multi-use room, they weren’t thinking about what they needed to get for themselves, they were focused on what they could buy with their quarters for their mom or dad, or siblings, or grandparents. It warmed my heart when one of the boys hid a stuffed dinosaur under his arm so it could be wrapped quickly before his friend whom he was buying it for, saw it. And many of the kids picked out a gift for their teacher and then came up to the front to ask how to spell the teacher’s name for the gift tag.

And the sixth grade students who were working at the sale got tremendous joy out of the jobs they were doing. Jennifer’s classmate, who was totaling up the sales and making change, would stop every so often and look over at me with a huge grin on her face and say, “Isn’t this fun?!” Her joy was contagious.

And the girls at the wrapping table loved figuring how to cover a 12 inch vase in tissue and yarn and then help the younger students add tags and spell names. It made them feel great to be of real service. One girl was so cute ““ she stopped after about an hour of wrapping literally hundreds of gifts and practically shouted, “This is awesome!”

Our school has a large percentage of economically disadvantaged kids, so I was especially touched by the teachers who brought their own money so no student was left out of the shopping experience and all were able to buy something for their mom and dad for Christmas.

And how often does a kid get to go shopping by themselves? It doesn’t matter to them if the merchandise isn’t brand new. They loved making their own decisions about what to buy Aunt Rachel or their baby sister.

Since I have been the recipient of some great gifts purchased by my kids at the Holiday Gift Sale ““ such as some very cute Christmas earrings and candles, I know how excited the kids are on Christmas morning to be able to surprise someone in their family with a gift that they picked out. I can’t wait to see what I get this year.

If it was a choice between working at the holiday sale or shopping at Nordstrom’s? I’ll take a day spent in the grubby multi-use room any time. What I got there truly can’t be bought.

An Evergreen Christmas

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

It would be so easy to take the “Christmas tree in a box” approach. Like performing a rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick, all I would need to do is open the carton, reach in, pull out a pre-lit fully decorated tree with color-coordinated faux satin skirt”¦and voila! Instant Christmas atmosphere”¦and I could move onto the next chore of the season.

On the days when the list of Christmas tasks that needs to get done ““ on top of the usual list of to-dos ““ seems insurmountable, I linger a little longer in front of the “Blue Grand Pine 7.5 ft Pre-lit Christmas Tree” at Costco. “Could I do it? Or would the kids disown me for selling out and not getting a real tree?”

Staring at the display model, I noticed that the appearance of artificial trees has really improved. The needles and branches look much more realistic and less like a sculpture made out of wire coat hangers and Astroturf. And evenly spaced lights that are guaranteed to burn for 1200 hours? That would be great; there’s not much that makes me crankier than plugging in the extension cord once the tree is fully festooned with ornaments and garlands only to have half the tree stay completely dark. Which one of the15 strands is the bad one?!!

This makes the option of buying a plastic tree that much more tempting. “But what about the great smell that the Christmas tree gives the house? I know, I’ll just add a few of those dangling pine-scented car air fresheners as ornaments and it will be just like the real thing.”

But my daughters tell me that there is no way a fake tree will ever be like a real tree and unless I want to speed up their plans to move out of the house I had better bring home a tree that drops needles and oozes sap.

So I disengaged from the row of chemically created trees (“Caution: this product contains lead. Wash your hands after handling.”) to the green (in all senses of the word) trees in the nursery section of the store. Since I’m going to be wrangling the tree into the back of the car by myself, I plan to take it home still wrapped in twine. It’s pretty much impossible to tell the shape of the tree when it’s compressed into a one foot in diameter bundle, so I walked along the row of identical trees looking for volunteers. As soon as I spotted one with a straight top and not too stubby trunk that seemed to be looking for a good home, I flopped it on the cart and was on my way.

When I pulled into the driveway, my 19 year old son, Ethan, was the only one home so he grudgingly agreed to help me. “Mom, I have to go to work.” “Yes,” I replied, “In five hours from now. So give me a hand for a few minutes to get the tree into the house and put it into the stand.”

While we were setting it up, we reminisced and laughed about the year we had a fresh-cut long-needled Monterey Pine for our Christmas tree and one of our cats persisted in eating the needles and then redepositing them back on the carpet for me to clean up”¦practically hourly. Then Ethan snipped the twine and we watched the branches spring out and about a pound of needles drop to the floor. I didn’t mind; I had gotten a tree with a beautiful shape. At that point, he took over and started directing me about what direction to rotate it so its best side showed to the room. Those 20 minutes of mother-son bonding”¦priceless.

The next day, my daughters and I launched into getting out the decorations for the house, and the lights and ornaments for the tree. In the course of unpacking the pinwheel (one of those wooden pyramid-shaped decorations that when the candles on the bottom burn the windmill at the top spins), Jennifer started unwrapping a bundle of brown paper that was in the box. “Don’t bother unwrapping that, it’s just packing material,” I said.

By the time I finished saying it, she had the layer of brown paper peeled off and discovered that it was covering several sections of a Chinese newspaper. So much for my pinwheel’s authentic German pedigree. The only writing we could decipher was “1988” at the top of every page. That was year that I had purchased it from some long-since forgotten catalogue.

Jennifer and Valerie felt like they had been on an archeological dig uncovering an artifact from a different era and culture. They spent the next 15 minutes pouring over the pages to see if there was anything else they could recognize and then divided the pages of the newspaper between themselves to add to their stash of treasures in their rooms. We had fun thinking about making our own little time capsule by adding a page from our newspaper each year when we wrap up the pinwheel for storage.

We haven’t even gotten the ornaments on it and already the tree has been a source of joy for the season. And if a strand of lights goes out”¦it will still be a beautiful tree.