Saturday, December 27, 2008
My mom asked if she could take Katie, then about William's age, parasailing for her birthday. I agreed. I wasn't planning to go, myself - I just went along for the boat ride, and to take pictures. But as you can see from the center top photo, it didn't take much to twist my arm...
Friday, December 26, 2008
Carolyn Howard-Johnson of How to Do It Frugally has created a monster. I vaguely remember having some panicked conversations with her, months ago, when I realized that writing the book was easy - and so was totally ignoring the fact that the flip side of "getting published" meant "getting out there" and indulging in shameless self-promotion. Carolyn's mentoring is something akin to guerilla warfare training wrapped in a warm velvet blankie. You're contentedly sucking your thumb, trying to ignore things like "sales" and "marketing" and "promotional" whatever - and you don't know what hit you, until you find yourself eyeing the Amazon sales rankings and comparing Twitter stats with the likes of Problogger.
Carolyn thanked me for featuring her site in my blogroll, but subtly pointed out that a change of URL was in order. She might've said, "Dummy, I sent you an email weeks ago informing you of the name change and the new URL, now get off your tush and update that puppy!" but no, Carolyn writes:
"I love that you are promoting to help me help your fellow writers, Holly, but I keep getting alerts that you're using [the old site name and domain] and and that entity no longer exists, though certainly many of the benefits do (like the LA Times Fair and the newsletter and the blog). The blog is now called www.sizzlingbookfairbooths.blogspot.com. So, if you know where [that old, obsolete stuff] is on your gorgeous black blog and can substitute my www.howtodoitfrugally.com site for the link, I would appreciate it. Also, I don't want you to have dead links on my account."
See what a class act she is?
The conversation shifted to how Google Alerts sometimes appear to recycle old material, as if to say, "Hey, look! Your blog was mentioned in 1996! Blast from the past! Cool, huh?" Carolyn observed that those random, untimely alerts could be a bit annoying and time-consuming, when you're trying to keep up with visiting and thanking bloggers for mentioning you. (I wish I were so popular!)
At some point, I realized that the only time I see Carolyn on my blog is when I mention her. ("Carolyn, Carolyn, Carolyn!") Ironically, this is how we met: I mentioned sending my spies to check up on her and make sure she was really promoting Trockle at the L.A. Times Book Festival like she'd said she would. I mean, I didn't know her from Adam, and she had my "baby" halfway across the country. I wanted to make sure my little monster was in good hands.
As it turned out, he couldn't have been in better hands. My "spies" (family and friends in L.A.) liked Carolyn and sent back wonderful pictures of themselves - with Carolyn and Trockle. Of course, she dropped by my blog and thanked me. I emailed and thanked her, and we got to talking. And somewhere between helping to promote my little monster and helping me figure out how to do some of that for myself, she created a little monster of her own.
We had a chat about how I liked her new domain better than her old domain, because it offered so many possibilities for spin-offs, and because, you know, "How to Do It Frugally" really resonates with all of us as we move into a fiscally abysmal and uncertain future in which books might be bought as fuel before they'll be bought as reading material. I have to admit, "How to Do It Frugally" doesn't automatically make my brain leap to book promotions. I think of things like "Finding the Best Bargains in Whipped Cream" and "Plucking Your Own Feathers," and "Make Sure You Pull the Bees Out of that Home-Grown Honey Before You Spread It on Your Hoo-Ha" and I remarked, "Have you noticed my brain is being sucked out with a bendy straw by the Dark Side - Marketing? Disturbing. Terribly...disturbing."
And totally dodging the obvious (which is that she's largely to blame for this alarming state of affairs), she replied, "No, I try not to notice those things because my brain is always like that. I need to cut a break for others!"
I remarked, "Y'know, if you ever come to my blog (and I know you don't), don't do it out of a sense of obligation, even if I mention you. Because I have this fantasy, wherein I have thousands of loyal readers who are all there simply because they can't leave - they're so mesmerized by my writing - and they're all compelled to comment just because they want to join in the conversation. Don't shatter my illusions. ;)
Yes, the reality is that out of ~30 new, unique visitors per day, I get FIVE who come back on a semi-regular basis. It's okay, because I've found my niche - I'm the anti-Martha. And it's a fun creative outlet. I'd hate to bog it down with an excess of commercialism, unless the spirit truly moves me and there's a certain amusing passion in it. The folks with the bendy straws? They apparently live in Malaysia, Indonesia, Romania, and the Ukraine. Save me, Carolyn, save me! I keep finding little cans of Spam on my doorstep. I think they know where I live..."
I was (mostly) joking. But she responded with, "You really need to publish this ON your blog. Include my name so I can come leave a comment and piss you off. (-: "
Yeah? Bring it, Carolyn Howard-Johnson. And make sure "it" brings friends. Because I could really use a few more readers who will comment, even if it's just to piss me off. Y'know, commenting costs nothing, after all - how much more frugal can you get? I think Carolyn should mention me in her next book...
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Mmmm. Yummy. Dinner looks good, too! After days of "baking therapy," it's good to get out of the kitchen and let someone else do the cooking. And what a talented chef my husband is - lamb chops marinated in yogurt, saffron, and onions, grilled with fresh tomatoes; green beans; mashed potatoes; and a fresh, crisp tossed salad. Perfect! (Yes, dinner turned out pretty good, too.) He served it with a nice red wine on a festive table decorated by Katie:
I'm one of the few women who could - technically - get by with using the Lenox Holiday pattern year round. I call it my "signature china."
Aren't I lucky? It has been a lovely Christmas. I'm thankful for my family; they are my greatest gift.
Merry Christmas to you all.
Happy holidays! Here's how we spent our Christmas morning:
Last night, William suggested we leave beer for Santa instead of milk. His theory: Santa would have to wait an hour to drive the sleigh, and he might just enjoy the beer so much he'd forget what he was doing and leave a few extra presents under the tree. We laughed and said, "No, no, that wouldn't be right." When William went to bed, he stuck a Granny Smith apple on the big plate of cookies, but refused to pour a glass of milk.
So Santa helped himself to some, and left a thank-you note on a napkin.
Someone (Dad) decided maybe Santa would like a Shiner Bock for breakfast. The fact that it was unopened and still cold wasn't terribly convincing, but it did get a chuckle out of William.
The laptop "regifted." In fact, it was our gift to Katie two years ago. But she sold it to me for $50 when she moved back home, and that's what she asked for as a Christmas present. I get my desk back as part of the deal, since she's been using a very old tower PC that can now be recycled. (She did get a few other presents, too.)
I wonder how long it's going to take William to put that Lego Star Wars ship together? At least he can't claim to be bored for a few days, at least!
After all the "baking therapy," I get to relax while J.J. cooks Christmas dinner. We're having lamb. Is that...wrong?
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I think the last time my mother made these, I was younger than William. The dough was so soft she couldn't roll the cookies out to cut them, despite hours in the refrigerator. As I recall, we were decorating cookies at 2:00 AM, hoping Santa wouldn't catch us awake.
I decided to try what I'd intended to try on the windows of the ill-fated gingerbread house: stained glass.
I used food coloring markers to add ornaments and evergreen branches. The center is a pineapple flavored Lifesaver candy.
This one's a bit more traditional, with candy sprinkles for ornaments. The greenish stain is a sprinkling of crushed Lifesaver candy (watermelon, I think) and the center is a cherry-flavored Lifesaver candy. You don't have to crush the candy before filling the hole, but it does help ensure even coverage. (I think the bell had a sour Skittle perched in the hole at the center of the Lifesaver, too, but as you can see here, everything in the centers melted nicely into a glass-like surface.)
More experimentation to come, later tonight. The dough, by the way, is a traditional rolled dough from the Joy of Cooking, made without any modifications. It should be chilled for three to four hours for easier rolling and handling, but if you use parchment paper - my new favorite baking tool - you shouldn't have too much trouble and won't need to add much flour.
M&Ms crack at 375 degrees F. They're still tasty. Red hots melt - sometimes. Colored sugars and sprinkles made for baking hold up predictably well. And crushed peppermints and Lifesavers make interesting, tasty, "stained glass" windows in the centers of cookies. Be careful not to use more than one candy each, or they may overflow and make a horrible mess, as Katie learned. A horrible, but TASTY mess...
And be careful handling melted candy; it cools quickly, but can burn you badly if you try to touch it while it's molten.
William thinks they look cool, but says they're a little "dehydrating" (he won't eat them with milk, like a normal person) and the "stained glass" panes are "too hard." He prefers the more traditionally decorated sugar cookies, and probably would prefer the kind that came premade from the grocery store. But that's okay - his sister and I had fun making them.
I want to thank Jonathan Bailey for helping to salvage my mood today by introducing me to the Arrogant Worms. He and William and I are apparently kindred spirits, and there are far too few of our kind, so we must treasure them when we find them. Enjoy!
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
I went to Kroger's to pick up the traditional holiday stocking stuffers: mixed nuts no one but my father-in-law will crack open and eat; candy canes; chocolate treats; and some silly little gifts. I also had pecans, almonds, and vanilla wafers on my list. The cashier spoke so little English I might've been better off in the do-it-yourself line. I'm horribly bad at checking out my own groceries, but I had no perishables and I was in the kind of passive-aggressive mood that might've made the excruciating and embarrassingly slow routine kind of amusing.
I only asked for an envelope. "Yes," she said.
"Can I have one?"
"Yes. Sign this please."
I signed the credit card receipt and waited. She stared back at me. I gave the sacker one of those, "Help me?" looks. She looked at the cashier and said, "She wants an envelope for the gift card. You know, the kind you put the gift card in?"
"Yes, just a minute. Twenty-five dollars." The cashier handed me a gift receipt.
"You don't have a freaking clue what 'envelope' means, do you?"
She smiled at me. "Can I do anything else for you?"
The sacker was game to try again, but I'd had enough. "Have a Merry Christmas," I muttered, to no one in particular. As I walked to my car, the perimenopausal pseudo-Alzheimer's fog lifted. Damn, damn, and double-damn - I'd forgotten nuts, vanilla wafers, and probably half a dozen other things that were starting to come to mind like pop-ups on a porn site. I threw my little bags in the trunk, sighed, steeled my nerves, and headed back into the store.
I stopped to let a car pass. The car stopped to let me cross. I started to cross; the car started to roll forward. I stopped; the car stopped. I finally forged on ahead, trying not to look at the driver. It was one of those looks my mother used to tell me to go wash off my face. Oh, yeah, I thought, and mentally added body wash to the shopping list. Just as I crossed in front of the car, the driver honked. Loudly. Insistently. As if I had done something wrong. I just kept walking...
"What, you think I'm gonna run you over?" a belligerent voice yelled out the open window.
I whirled, the word "Bitch!" on my lips, and saw my hairdresser sitting there laughing at me. Apparently, I hadn't wiped the look off my face fast enough. Cross facial astringent OFF the list...
"Hey there. I'm just, um, indulging in a little baking therapy," I said. "I'm making rum balls when I get home."
I got the non-alcoholic sparkling cider for my son to drink on New Year's Eve. I got nuts - nuts to bake with, and nuts to stock the stockings with. I got vanilla wafers. I got tangerines. I got half a dozen things I didn't need. And I got through the Express Lane just under the fifteen-item limit.
I barely put the stuff up - it was time to make the Blotto Balls. See, I start with the recipe from Joy of Cooking, then make a few little modifications:
- 2 T cocoa
- 1 c. powdered sugar
Combine and stir in:
- 1/4 c. whiskey (only here's where it gets funky, because the way I measure it, this is not enough booze to get this stuff to stick together in nice little balls, so I prefer to add about 1/2 c. Bacardi 151 and light rum, about 50/50). Depending on how your seasonal shopping is going, you may need more or less - so feel free to experiment until you get it JUST RIGHT. If you keep going until it's soupy, just serve it over vanilla ice cream and pretend you did it on purpose. *hic*
- 2 1/2 c. crushed vanilla wafers
- 1 c. broken pecans
Then they say to dredge the balls in powdered sugar, but I like to roll them in cocoa. It's up to you. But here's the easy way to "combine" all this crap and get on with the eating of it:
Throw it all in the Cuisinart with the chopping blade and turn that puppy on ("pulse" it if you must, but I like it all finely ground and well blended). Pinch off a heaping teaspoonful or so, squish it between your fingers, roll it in the palms of your hands (make a ball out of it, for cripe's sake) and then roll it around in cocoa or powdered sugar or - hell, be decadent, mix some cocoa and powdered sugar together and roll 'em in that.
Here's the hard part: Eat a couple, but put the rest in a container - separate them from each other (they won't procreate even if you let them touch, more's the pity) and separate layers with sheets of waxed paper, so they don't stick. Chill them for an hour or more. Chilling really brings out the flavor.
Monday, December 22, 2008
I like to look at my blog stats and try to figure out what the hell people were thinking when they stumbled onto my blog. I'm still not convinced that the day I blogged unflattering things about Sarah Palin, I just happened to get my one and only visitor from Wasilla - looking for whether or not to spell out numbers under twelve. The fact that my son is twelve gives this "coincidence" particularly disturbing overtones. But never mind...
There's one, today, who wants to know "how to spell out the sound a kiss makes." I thought I would turn this over to my readers - how WOULD you spell out the sound a kiss makes? What a fun exercise in onomatopoeia!
I think a chaste kiss on the cheek - the papery cheek of an elderly, spinster aunt - would sound quite different from a lustful French kiss in the back of an elevator that's hovering precariously between floors. A kiss underwater would sound different from a breathless kiss a champion swimmer might give her lover as she touches the wall, springs up for air, and sets a new world record for breath-holding and speed. How about baby kisses, with and without soggy cookie crumbs? Or the kiss of a mother's lips on a child's forehead as she not only comforts the child, but tests his skin temperature for signs of a fever.
Pick your kiss (or kisses). In the comments below, describe the type of kiss, and spell out the sound you think it would make. Inquiring readers want to know!
Please don't laugh.
Okay, fine, laugh. This is my first attempt at making gingerbread - and a gingerbread house - from scratch.
Everything was going along just fine through the mixing, cutting, and baking of the pieces. Except that I forgot doors and windows. Fortunately, I remembered while the baked gingerbread was still semi-warm and soft from the oven, and I began to cut. Then realized I'd given the house skylights; I'd cut windows in my roof pieces.
Okay, fine. Skylights are good. Unfortunately, they weakened the roof. One half caved in...in the, um, blizzard. I was wishing I'd gone with William's idea, which was to leave a hole in the roof and put a little gingerbread woman in a little gingerbread bathroom, screaming up at us monsters who ate a hole in her roof.
The icing's just nasty, too. (You're not supposed to eat it - technically. It contains raw eggs. I think I should've just made it with water.) Anyway, a freezer bag works well in place of a frosting bag, but don't get stingy here - the seams on a cheap freezer bag burst too easily, and you do not want a handful of royal icing that is starting to resemble Super-Glue.
I miss my helper. I would have waited until William recovered from the flu to try this, but then I thought maybe it would help to cheer him up. He showed more interest in that than in anything else, after this morning's appointment with the doctor. She agrees he has the flu. Poor kid. Poor me, if I catch it from him. We've promised to get our flu shots next year; he's going to hold my hand and help me be brave. He got one this morning; our doctor and both nurses swear it helps people get over the flu faster - better than Tamiflu or Flumadine or any of those other medications. We'll see. Meanwhile, Advil is our friend - Advil and water.
William dragged himself from his sickbed long enough to take a couple of pictures of me putting the thing together before the roof fell in:
Didn't I make a lovely platform? This is where my bag developed two holes and started to get messy.
And finally, if you put a wreath, several pine cones, and a couple of candles in front of it, it sort of passes for a gingerbread house:
I am going back to the idea of making my famous Chocolate Blotto Balls. Chocolate, finely chopped nuts, and lots of booze...
Enough of those, and I won't care that my gingerbread house makes me look like the slumlord of Christmas town.
I said I would have been intimidated about approaching you had I known more about you. Knowing you, I'm not intimidated at all. Intrigued and amused, but not intimidated. You're the kind of woman one might expect to find perched on a branch situated well down the rabbit hole. And that's just the way I like you. Fresh air is for mere mortals.
"Do you really think I deserve three of these Honest Scrap Awards, Crystalee?" I asked, accusing Crystalee Calderwood of being part of a conspiracy to drag my deepest, darkest secrets - the ones I keep tellin' y'all I don't have - to light. "I'm not that interesting." But in a moment of inspiration (thank you, Heather!) I figured I could honestly inflict some of my more eclectic tastes in music on you, and you'd either run screaming down the proverbial rabbit hole like a Mad Hatter, or you'd come join me on my branch and sing a few verses with me. Off key.
I honestly like these:
IF you've gotten this far, consider yourself tagged.
But to make it official and all, here are seven fitting culprits exemplifying scrappy honesty (I think - either that, or they're really convincing liars):
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Times are tough. And yet many of us have much to be thankful for: a roof over our heads, plenty of good food to fill our bellies, meaningful work and decent wages, along with good health, supportive families, and a right to pursue happiness.
It's only fitting that we "pay it forward" in some way, shape, or form. Bombarded by stories of hardship and despair, confronted at every turn by pleas for donations for this cause or that, approached at every intersection by panhandlers and every mall by bell ringers, it's easy to shut down and tune out the need. Because where do you draw the line? How much can you give, before you're the one asking for help? If you give to this family, how can you say no to that one? And how can you see such need and feel any joy or holiday spirit?
I don't know of an agency or a cause that wouldn't gladly take cash, checks, or credit card donations. Money makes the world go round. But for that to be truly meaningful (as opposed to a way to quiet the unquiet conscience, to still the small voice that's akin to survivor guilt), it helps to see where the money goes. It helps to get in the trenches for a few short hours, at least, and connect with people.
Yesterday, my son and I spent the morning packaging, sorting, and distributing canned goods, frozen chickens, toys and stuffed animals at the Mission of Yahweh's Christmas Give-Away. There were smiles all around, and I began to feel a little of the holiday spirit that's been missing until now. Because it's not about the "stuff." We watch TV, listen to the ads, hear the news, gossip at the water cooler, try to fathom what the economic crisis really means, and convince ourselves it's all about the "stuff." It should be about nourishment: a chicken to make chicken soup for the family; a touch and a smile from a stranger, affirming that you are worthy to be touched and acknowledged; the blessing wished with each "Merry Christmas" spoken, and a little help to make ends meet through hard financial times.
The few "bad eggs" who work the system ought to be made to work and give back to the community. Folks who take day old sandwiches, donated to feed them, and try to sell them back to the store that donated them as "past their expiration date" for a cash refund to buy beer make life that much harder for those whose need is genuine. It happens, but not often enough to justify withholding help from those whose need is real. New food pantry rules, new government hoops to jump through, and new liability insurance requirements make life that much harder for everyone. To all the selfish people and petty bureaucrats and litigious lizards out there: "Stop. Behave like decent human beings. If you know how to scam them, then you know how to be one. Just stop making everything harder than it has to be."
To the bell ringers, I'm sorry for looking the other way and hustling into the door as fast as I can. I'm just tired and overwhelmed; in the realization that I can't help everyone, I make myself small and avoid helping anyone, some days. There isn't enough to go around - at least not in my pocket. But I realize that doesn't matter. If everyone gave just $1, how powerful would that be? I have some friends who were bell ringers this year, and I felt shame that I might have walked by with my eyes averted, never seeing them at all.
Check this out:
I wish I could remember who said they were giving their kids three gifts each, this Christmas, and anyone who thought they deserved more than the baby Jesus could just take it up with God.
Last night, my son woke up with a high fever and a raging headache. I thought back: was it something he ate? What did he do, where did we go? My heart sank. What might he have picked up at the Mission? The flu? Something worse? I could only say a prayer - let him be healthy, let him outlive me. I was raised a Christian, and though I question 90% of the doctrine, the overarching principles and concepts are not lost on me. My heart is not closed off, but I don't love my fellow man enough to give my son to them. I know that if that's required in my lifetime in order to earn my place in heaven, then I'm going straight to hell. But I also suspect that it's much like the lesson learned the day I held my daughter, my eldest, in my arms. The love our creator, and our parents, feel for us is something we will never feel for them - it's just too great and we have no hope of matching it. It's not a competition; they're not keeping score. That love is freely given, but there is a debt and it is marked "payable to others." And so I try to be a little more compassionate, a little more energetic and involved in my community, and I try to set a better example to my kids than I did the day before, knowing that I will never be as giving as God.
And this morning, William's not 100%, but he's feeling better and the fever seems to be gone. For that, I am grateful. No, it's not about the "stuff."
My little monster buddy, Trockle, had a few too many palm kernel oil blobs last night, and that had him positively bouncing off the walls. He dragged my daughter's laptop under the bed, at one point; I heard gleeful giggles and lots of jumping up and down (I tell my kids not to jump on the bed, but I never thought about the havoc one little monster could wreak, jumping up and down under the bed). "What are you up to, Trockle?" I yelled. "It's waaaaaaaaay past your bedtime!"
Before long, I got the little "new mail" notification, and found out what Trockle-Pie was up to. Kimberly had given him an award. I'd say "she created a monster," but technically, I did. She just encouraged him. And he passed the award along to me. I told him maybe he ought to pass it along to some kids, or some little monsters, but I suppose he's too sincere and innocent to be accused of "kissing up" and he passed it along to some of his creators and some of his very first Internet friends. And found some little monsters to award it to, just in case I wouldn't accept it after all.
Oh, how can I resist?
But here's the rub: I'm supposed to list five addictions and pass the award along to five other bloggers. Addictions? Damn, I gave up smoking two years ago. Exercise hasn't yet become the addiction it oughta be. Palm kernel oil blobs, maybe. For sure, they've risen to the level of an addiction this past week.
- Palm kernel oil blobs
- The Internet (I'm convinced, now, that blog comments, Twitter Grader points, and StatCounter hits all produce inordinate amounts of dopamine in my brain)
- Jalapeno peppers (oddly enough, it turns out that these are in the Nightshade family - along with tobacco - so perhaps there's a reason I've substituted a craving for hot and spicy things for my nicotine addiction, and a reason why I haven't had much difficulty giving up the smokes)
- Acquiring organizational, technological, and camping gadgetry I probably have no real use for (I do use most of it, at least once, but often find out something low-tech and cheap would've done as well, without the "wow" factor that draws me to it like a magpie)
- Sleep and technicolor dreams (sleep without vivid dreams is just necessary to sustain life - it's really the dreams I crave; if someone could record them while I sleep, I could make billions in Hollywood, but they're too vague and I'm too lazy to write them in any marketable form upon waking)
That was strangely hard. Having given up smoking, I don't think I have much that really rises to the level of an "addiction." Finding five bloggers to pass this on to ought to be easy, though - limiting it to only five, and choosing blogs that have not already been given the honor, is the hard part!