Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

We didn’t shoot our eyes out, but…

As an antidote to a macabre few days that claimed George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in rapid succession, I figured I’d write a wrap-up of the Yank Christmas.

Before I do that, though, I understand why lots of people are shaking their fists at 2016 and yelling, “ENOUGH!” It’s been a Sith Lord of a year for many people in many respects. Losing in a twelve-month period those three luminaries, as well as the likes of Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and John Glenn — people who dreamed and dared, who lived with sometimes painful authenticity, whose music, characters and sheer bravery inspired many of us during adolescence and upon whom we were counting to keep us company at least through middle age — has felt for some like insults heaped atop injury. I get it. If you ask me, the most constructive thing we can do is treat 2016 as a cast-iron-skillet-to-forehead reminder not to be complacent, not to take who and what we have for granted, and to be humble. (That last one could be very important for the President-Elect, not that anything can penetrate that forcefield of hair.)

Where was I? Oh right, the holiday wrap-up.

We who celebrated Christmas have had six days to tunnel our way out of the discarded wrapping paper avalanche, which means many of us are now in the process of completing the Retail Circle of Life by exchanging the “thoughtful” gifts we got for stuff we actually wanted.

I got to skip that process, because my Christmas featured everything I wanted: family, friends, love and laughter.

It began at my sister Lynne’s house. I spent the night there on Christmas Eve because, as one of the Roommates pointed out, I’ve done that since 2011 –when I was living in their basement because I was getting divorced –and it is now tradition. Those two sure know how to make lemonade from lemons. At 12 and 14, the kids don’t believe in Santa Claus but nevertheless get excited about Christmas because they know they still have a shot at getting something other than clothes. Even Buddy, the family dog, seemed excited. (Then again, Buddy views projectile vomiting as a festive occasion, so his excitement bar is set low.)

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Before (and tell me this isn’t a thing of beauty).

My parents live fifteen miles away from Lynne and always come on Christmas morning to join in the festivities. In years past, they arrived at Lynne’s house by 6 a.m. so as not to miss a minute of gift-opening action. The Roommates felt magnanimous this year and agreed to move the start time all the way back to 7. Mom and Dad showed up right on time and, like the Three Wise Men, came bearing gifts. Because not all hosts enjoy frankincense and myrrh, Mom instead brought three homemade pies: pumpkin, chocolate, and apple. All three could have done duty as Gourmet cover models, but Mom’s apple pie – a cinnamon-spiced, double-crusted, exquisite creature with lumps in just the right places- won the pageant. Mom put the beauty queen on the sideboard in my sister’s dining room, a suitably dignified place for it to bide its time until dinner that night.

They came into the family room and the gift-opening frenzy got underway. We were maybe thirty minutes into the festivities when we heard a loud thump from another room.

“Buddy!” Lynne shouted.

I made a beeline for the kitchen. Buddy tends to hang out where the food lives, so I figured that’s where he’d gone. Nothing.

The other half of the search party, my brother-in-law Paul, had headed for the dining room. There, he caught Buddy paying homage to A Christmas Story and doing his best imitation of the Bumpus Hounds on my mother’s beautiful apple pie.

For a tense moment, no one knew what to do. But then we all got dressed, hopped in the car and headed to a Chinese restaurant. Just kidding. We all looked at Mom, and she shrugged it off because her grandchildren, even the furry ones, get a pass for pretty much everything.

Buddy calls this "a good start."

After, or as Buddy calls it, “a good start.”

After we’d all committed to eat around the Buddy spots, the gift melee resumed and I opened a bag that held an R2D2 apron – a wink to my recent road trip – that I wore for the rest of the day.

I kept it on when I paid a visit to a dear friend whose mom passed away right after Thanksgiving. To maximize the effect, I had also conscripted my parents and made them hold up a “These are not the droids you’re looking for” sign. Our cheer bomb also came loaded with a plate of Mom’s incomparable Christmas cookies, and for at least a few minutes, my friend smiled. 15747358_10211426162756066_4574908933500634748_n

From there, the three of us went to see my friends Dave and Donna. I’ve known them since the fall of 1998, when Dave and I were first year law students at George Mason University. Circumstance drew us together – he’s wheelchair-bound and I was assigned to be his notetaker – and it’s been my enduring good fortune to count the two of them and their three kids among my closest friends ever since. Somewhere along the way, I became a part of their Christmas tradition. I show up, have a beverage, play a few Christmas carols on their piano, and then go on my merry way. I don’t remember how or why it started, but I’m glad it did. I’m also a little surprised, considering some of the things that have gone spectacularly awry when I’ve visited. Their three kids, who were wearing footie pajamas when I first met them back in 1998, are now all grown and launched, and all three were in residence when my parents and I knocked on the door last Sunday. Dave was in particularly high spirits because, in a nod to his Swedish heritage, Dave’s son had made a gigantic batch of a wine-based beverage called Glögg, a compound word formed by the union of “glue” and “slog.” Actually, I rather liked the stuff. And truth be told, even though it seemed to make my fingers stick to the ivories when the time came for the annual mini-concert, it’s really more like paint thinner than glue.

From there our fearsome threesome went back to Lynne’s house for Christmas dinner with the Roommates, my brother-in-law, and two people who long ago transcended the “friend” category and are full-on family. The nine of us spent the next five hours telling stories, laughing ’til our sides hurt, and assaulting the eardrums of innocent bystanders with a sing-along that featured Christmas carols and such old standards as “You Light Up My Life” and Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” It was enough to make you beg for Glögg.

I hope your holiday was, if not as loud, at least as merry. And may the Force be with you as you head into 2017.

 

 

Sometimes going on your own merry way is the only way to go

Just as I predicted, the nasty aftermath of the 2016 presidential election left me with a hangover. Not the garden variety, one-day affliction either, but a long-acting, and singularly joy-resistant strain. It didn’t care that the holidays were approaching, thus I didn’t care, either.

That wasn’t like me at all; I love the holidays. They’re just an excuse to do fun stuff with my family, like hunt for Christmas trees, hang up pretty lights, and make architecturally unsound gingerbread houses. But the thought of those things didn’t put a dent in my hangover.

The Yank tree hunt went forward the first weekend in December as usual and we had fun – Dad and I took turns using the saw to cut down my tree and then celebrated the early Christmas miracle of retaining all of our limbs – but the idea of decorating my tree sparked no enthusiasm. It did, however, spark enthusiasm from my neighbors. On seeing my car pull into the driveway with a tree atop its roof, they immediately mobilized to lend a hand. I politely declined, not because I didn’t appreciate their offer but because the presence of competent help would have minimized the chances that something would go comically awry, thereby reducing the chances that I could get a blog post out of the whole thing. Sadly, I got the tree upright and reasonably straight in the stand on the first try.

Two days later it remained vertical, so I decided to decorate it, solo.  I couldn’t summon up the usual urge to invite friends over for an evening of snacks and ornament origin stories (a Spam ball warrants an explanation), which made me realize I had to snap myself out of it. But how?

During a text exchange with my brother the following weekend, the answer came to me: force. Not a force, but The Force.

L.J. and I had been texting about travel when the topic of Star Wars arose, as it does, and he wrote:

Btw, are you flying down next weekend so we can see Rogue One?

He and I had grown up on the Star Wars franchise and went to see The Force Awakens with my niece and nephews when it came out last year. His  question about the latest movie, opening on December 16, was as natural as it was tongue-in-cheek. My response was, too:

We both know I’ve gone further for less.

It’s true — I’ve gone to Pennsylvania for bacon shirts and Seattle for Barry Manilow — and the Star Wars flicks are not my sister-in-law, Leslie’s, cup of tea, but there was no way I could pull off a flight to Atlanta on less than a week’s notice during a peak travel period. Yet I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. What if I could find a way not only to get there but to surprise my brother? I tested it with Leslie, and she loved it. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got, until doing it became not an “if” but a “must,” and for almost entirely selfish reasons.

I cashed in some miles and booked a flight that would put me on the ground in Atlanta at 9:30 p.m. on Friday the 16th. With just a little travel luck – something I can’t always count on – both the plane and my spirits would achieve liftoff. I could hardly wait to give Leslie the news, and I could hardly wait to get there. That feeling of buzzy and nearly unbearable anticipation — a purely kid-at-Christmastime sensation — grew as I counted down the three days to my trip. By Friday afternoon I was ready to jump out of my skin.

I’d requested an Uber to take me to National Airport so I wouldn’t lose time parking. The driver pulled up right on time and got out of the car…dressed in full cowboy regalia. The only person on Earth who’d have appreciated that sight more than I did is my brother, which I took as an omen that everything was going to work out perfectly.

The driver tipped his hat and said, “Howdy, ma’am. Where y’all headed to?”

“The set of Tombstone or a Village People casting call, whichever is closer,” I wanted to say. But I just asked him to take me to National Airport instead. A missed opportunity, I know, but I had places to go.

As we got underway, he said, “I’m not from Texas,” simultaneously reading my mind and eliminating the only plausible explanation for his attire. He’s from Florida and has a passion for horses, so I guess he just wants to be ready in case a steeplechase breaks out on the Beltway. Outfit notwithstanding, the rest of the ride was uneventful, as was my flight to Atlanta for a change.

The minute we touched down, I sent Leslie an email to tell her I’d made it. I hopped in an Uber – this one driven by a person dressed for suburban Atlanta rather than the OK Corral – and in 30 minutes was standing in my brother’s driveway. I dialed his number. I rarely call him, especially after 10 p.m., so I wasn’t surprised when he answered on the second ring and asked what was up. Our dialogue went like this:

Me: Um, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m going to see the Star Wars movie soon, and I thought you should know.

Him (sounding a bit disappointed or envious, I couldn’t quite tell which): Aw, that’s okay, Wheat. Are you going tonight?

Me: Uh, well, really soon.

I put the phone on mute so I could knock on the front door.

Him: Are you going alone?

Me (still knocking, loudly): Haha, no…

Him: Who are you going with?

Me (still knocking): Um, this guy…

Him: Who is this guy, making you pick him up, and so late? And is he ever going to answer the door?

Me (still knocking): I don’t know, are you?

Him: Wait, are you downstairs?

Right then my sister-in-law cued up the Rogue One trailer, the Star Wars theme song began to play in the background, and I burst out laughing. Leslie and I had pulled off the perfect surprise.

Over the course of the next 40 hours, we not only saw the movie (which L.J. and I loved) but pimg_2126acked in a visit to the aquarium with my adorable little nephews, a delicious dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant, and a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us so the little guys could pick out a Christmas present from their aunt. My time in Atlanta flew faster than reindeer on Christmas Eve and my spirits were soaring just as high.

When my brother dropped me off at the airport on Sunday afternoon, I felt a bit sad on the one hand, yet on the other, I was looking forward to getting back home for Christmas with the rest of the family. Getting into the holiday spirit this year was as easy as going Rogue.

Hope all of you find your holiday spirit, too. See you back here soon!

 

The right way to talk turkey on Thanksgiving

Commentators discussing the 2016 presidential election have said things like, “The people spoke.”

Really? That strikes me as an overly euphemistic turn of phrase. From where I sit, we didn’t so much speak as let loose a big, ugly, collective hurl, one whose nasty contents spilled far beyond our polling places.

Frankly, we should’ve seen it coming. For more than a year our information diet consisted of gut-roiling junk, much of it doled out 140 characters at a time or in Facebook posts, because we didn’t demand anything of substance. After eating all that garbage, of course we got sick.

It’s going to take a long time to clean up this toxic mess, of course, but we shouldn’t let it touch Thanksgiving (or “Yanksgiving,” as I like to call it). This holiday should be about community, kindness, gratitude, and charity, and a meal that celebrates those things. My family will be celebrating the fact that I’m not cooking the turkey this year, for example. But I digress.

Right now a lot of people are asking how, if they’re surrounded by turkeys, they can make sure the only turkey that gets the stage on Thanksgiving is the bird on the table?

I offer two pieces of advice, the first of which was given to me by a dear friend: “When you least feel like giving is when you most need to give.” The friend in question said this when we were in the middle of an argument and the only thing I felt like giving him was a knuckle sandwich, but you know what? He was right then, and he’s still right. I forced myself to give, he forced himself to give, and slowly but surely, the giving created a positive loop and things began to get better.

What did we give each other?

  • The benefit of the doubt
  • Our full attention
  • Smiles
  • Gratitude
  • Calm
  • Kindness

We checked our snark at the door, ate humble pie, and generally acted like the adults in the room. And that’s what you should do, too.

HAHAHAHAHA! I’m sorry, I just cracked myself up, there, with that whole “adults in the room” thing. Who am I kidding? The only room we’re in right now is Romper Room, and the lone adult, Miss Sally, has gone on the lam.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice: get ready to channel your inner Mad Libber. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, someone might bring up one of those other turkeys, and when they do, you’ll need a diversionary tactic. You can’t just get up from the table – what if the pie hasn’t been served yet? – but you can change the subject, and this construction works well:

“LOOK, a [absurd noun]!”madlibs

For example, “LOOK, a UFO!” (I have another friend to thank for that one – it was his default response to any declaration of love.)

Speaking of alien life forms, “LOOK, Kanye West!” would probably work too. The more absurd, the better.

If you really want to sell it, as you’re mad-libbing, be sure to gesticulate wildly in the direction of the nearest door or window. And then steal the last bit of stuffing while no one’s looking. Go ahead, you earned it.

So you’ll survive Thanksgiving just fine. But unless you’re aiming for a career in politics, you can’t hide behind Mad Libs and diversionary tactics forever.

If you want to feel better in the longer-term, try that first piece of advice, and also consider cleaning up your information diet. Go out and get quality content yourself; don’t rely on others or social media to feed it to you. Find out where your information is coming from before you consume it. Check not only your source but your source’s sources. Not all purveyors of information are purveyors of fact, and even reliable sources get it wrong sometimes. Make your diet balanced, eat slowly, and take time to digest. And for Pete’s sake, if someone hands you a Twinkie, don’t let ’em tell you it’s kale.

The Force Awakened, and it also tested our mettle

My brother, L.J., and his family came up from Atlanta for Christmas this year. Their holiday visits tend to be chaotic, and this one promised to be particularly so since my dad was still navigating some health issues. (He’s doing much, much better, and thanks to all the kind souls who asked.)

Always a realist, my brother scaled back his expectations and said, “I just want to do one thing while I’m up here: see the Star Wars movie.”

He had one other condition: he wanted to go with me and Mom, the two people he’d seen the original movie with in 1977. Star Wars made a huge impression on me and my brother, and nowhere was that impression more evident than in L.J.’s Christmas list, which included requests for the Death Star, the Millennium Falcon, an X-wing fighter, and enough action figures to man the whole enterprise. (I was glad he asked for those things, because it freed up space on my list.) Over the next several years, he and I spent hours and hours re-enacting battles we’d seen and fighting new ones.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, Mom made sure L.J. and I were among the first in line for tickets at the Springfield Mall, which I believe required her to take us out of school a few hours early. Mom wasn’t the type to let me and my siblings miss school even if we handed her a burst appendix, so this was an event of epic proportions. We treated Return of the Jedi with similar reverence, and The Force continued to strengthen in us.

L.J. and I, along with millions of other Star Wars fans, spent the next 16 years waiting patiently for the prequels. Though my brother lived in Atlanta by then, we managed to see one of those movies together, both of us likely operating under the mistaken belief that the company would somehow improve the experience.

High expectations for those movies, we had. Test our faith in the franchise, they did.

Yet because The Force remained strong in us, we kept our hopes alive for the latest installment and snagged tickets for a daytime showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on December 23. To ensure the Jedi tradition would be passed down to the next generation, we brought my niece and four nephews with us. (We weren’t able to pull Mom away from her post at home, alas.) For old times’ sake, I sat next to my brother.

As the introductory text began its trademark scroll up the screen and off into space, accompanied by an unmistakably John Williams score, L.J. leaned over and whispered, “I’ve got chills.”

To my astonishment, I did too. And that’s when I realized I had more than mere hopes riding on this movie, I had pinned actual needs to it. I needed to feel like a little kid again, to have this space opera engross me so thoroughly that, for at least two hours, I could forget some of the realities of life in middle age. Not that middle age is bad, mind you, because it isn’t at all. But if I had to express a complaint on behalf of forty-somethings, it’s that people both way older and way younger than us seem to expect us to be utterly dependable and responsible, whereas we’re not supposed to need anybody. Never mind that being responsible and dependable to these people, whom we love dearly, is the very least we can do and a privilege. Sometimes even the most responsible among us gets a little petulant and longs for the days when bad stuff was mainly imaginary and could be vaporized with the swing of a light saber.

I was feeling that longing just as The Force Awakens came out. I needed to go hurtling back to a time long, long ago and a galaxy far, far away, a place where good guys are too busy battling the Dark Side to worry about things like gum grafts.

I won’t give away any details about the movie in case you haven’t seen it, but it’s enough to say that it gave me what I needed and then some. It was a two-hour nostalgia trip at light speed that left me and my brother elated as we walked out of the theater. The Force Awakens rekindled our love for the franchise, solidified our bond to the past, and gave us plenty of hope for the future.

My brother summed it up perfectly when he compared it to the best kind of old friendships: “We picked up right where we left off.”

 

I think I'll hang on to this one.

I think I’ll hang on to this one.

 

Taking “winging it” to a whole new level

Several readers commented on my post about volunteering to cook the turkey for this year’s Yanksgiving at my parents’ house. Though my stint in the kitchen was not a planned happening so much as the result of a change in Mom and Dad’s travel plans, I nevertheless viewed this as a passing of the torch. Those readers seemed to view it the same way and, mindful that my track record with fire isn’t all that great, chimed in with all sorts of suggestions. They agreed wholeheartedly with my brining. They also told me to remember to bring a meat thermometer and butter, but if I happened to remember only one of those two things, make it the butter.

My friends Marvin and Gil expressed their concern by inviting me to their home Wednesday night so we could talk turkey in person. They’ve put on a big Thanksgiving spread for as long as I can remember, so I headed over there. I felt certain they’d offer me quality pointers, or at the very least a glass of wine. I sat on their sofa, a full glass of white in hand, and leaned forward in anticipation of receiving the insights only a seasoned turkey pro could offer.

“Remember to turn on the oven,” Gil said. And because Marvin and Gil are the kind of people who stop at nothing to help a friend in need, they topped off my wine.

On Thursday at noon, I showed up at my parents’ house with the star attraction –my 15.8 lb brined bird, escorted by a bottle of bubbly –as well as potatoes and asparagus, which to me are sort of like backup dancers. By 12:15, I had the bird stuffed full of apples and spices and ready for its champagne bath.

Before...

Before…

Thank goodness I stole a last peek at the recipe, otherwise I would’ve doused the turkey with an entire bottle of champagne rather than the mere 2/3 it called for. It’s one thing to ruin a turkey and another altogether to waste a perfectly good glass of champagne.

Disaster averted, I somehow managed to get the bird into the oven bag. As soon as I tied off the bag, I had my mother snap a photo of me downing the remnants of the champagne.

I texted Marvin and Gil, “Chef and turkey are both in the bag.”

They wrote back, “Keep him in plastic and you in paper. Gotta breathe.” I have such supportive friends.

I plopped the bagged bird into the roasting pan my mother’s been using ever since I can remember. It’s black with white speckles that are either decorative or a function of the fact that the pan has spent a lot of its life in my parents’ basement near paint cans. I’m sure there are better and fancier pans out there, but that flecked pan is the only one that holds our family traditions, so when the time came, I didn’t consider using anything else.

After loading up the pan, I stuck it in the oven and had Mom set the timer to go off every hour, expecting the turkey to take at least three hours to cook. Heavenly smells began to waft through the kitchen after an hour. I fully intended to give the meat thermometer a go at the two-hour mark but got sidetracked by an opportunity to try out some new tunes on the piano while my sister Suzi sang along. (We crushed “Piano Man,” in case you’re wondering.) I wasn’t worried, thinking there was no way a nearly 16-lb bird would finish cooking in under three hours anyway.

When the timer sounded at the third hour, I pulled out the turkey and popped in the thermometer. Turns out my gold-plated, free-ranging bird was advanced in every respect, including done-ness. While I suppose it’s better to cook a turkey to within an inch of its life instead of your family’s, I worried that it might be too done. We raced to get the backup dancers caught up with the star, and by 4:45, the stage was fully set. We took our places and gave the usual thanks for family, friends, and freedom from salmonella.

If I were rating my first effort on a 100-point scale, broken down into three categories –texture, taste, and artistic impression –here’s how I would grade myself:

...after!

…after!

  • Texture (possible 30 points): 23. The dark meat had perfect texture. The white meat? While no one would have bitten into it and mistaken it for a Topsider, it didn’t exactly melt in your mouth.
  • Taste (possible 40 points): 40. Maybe the brining had something to do with it, but I choose to give full credit to the champagne, mainly because doing so gives me license to douse all future uncooked poultry with a bottle of bubbly. And the gravy? So otherworldly good it has visited me in my dreams.
  • Aesthetic appeal (possible 30 points): 22. It came out all in one piece and would generally be recognized by the sighted world as a cooked turkey, so that’s a plus; however, as I removed it from the bag, some of the skin ripped off, making it look like the bird had been tossed out of a speeding car and skidded along the pavement before coming to rest on the platter. So maybe my turkey won’t be asked to pose for the cover of Bon Apetit any time soon, but it’s not a Pinterest fail, either.

I give myself an 85 overall, which is a solid B effort. Not altogether bad for winging it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving traditions: the Mayflower, pilgrims and…Dave & Busters?!

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, I looked forward to the food, especially the side dishes and my mother’s gorgeous, homemade apple and pumpkin pies. (I still view turkey as nothing more than a platform for gravy and an excuse to heap piles of Mom’s signature mashed potatoes and stuffing onto my plate.)

The older I got, the less I cared about traditional trappings of the holiday and the more I appreciated the way it brought together people I love. As my siblings married and had kids, our annual numbers waxed and waned such that one year, my parents and I were the lone Yanks celebrating together. We decided to abandon tradition altogether and opted to have dinner out at Corduroy, a terrific restaurant in D.C. It felt a little strange at first, but it didn’t take us long to warm up to the idea of spending no time in the kitchen whatsoever. And it wasn’t too hard to sacrifice a week’s worth of leftovers in exchange for not having to wash a single dish. We enjoyed ourselves so much we did it again the next year.

Then there was the year my parents, my brother and I boarded a plane for Egypt on Thanksgiving. We didn’t care that our holiday meal consisted of chicken fried rice at the Wok ‘n’ Roll (JFK Airport branch), because we had good company.

This year the Thanksgiving holiday finds me in Richmond, celebrating with my sister Suzi and her family, along with my parents and one of Suzi’s neighbors. I arrived around lunchtime this afternoon to find Mom in Suzi’s kitchen, extracting one of her perfect apple pies from the oven. It turned out that Mom and Dad had picked up my other sister’s kids and brought them to Richmond, too, so that was an especially welcome surprise.

I was excited, expecting to wrap up my workday and then suit up to help with the prep. I did not, however, expect the kids to burst into the room where I was working and ask when I was taking them to Dave & Buster’s. This is what happens when you’re the childless aunt: they don’t ask you to make the stuffing; they give you the “other duties as assigned.” They don’t care if those other duties require you to go to the kind of place you normally wouldn’t leave your zip code for, much less make the destination of a pilgrimage.

Yet there I was at 5 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving, loading up my niece and nephews with spending money that they would either lose altogether or, in an even worse-case scenario, convert to tickets that they would later redeem for prizes. I don’t know about you, but I would rather set fire to a stack of $20 bills than wind up with a bucket full of tickets. Yet there I was, at 6:30 p.m., holding five buckets full of tickets.

Showing the kind of resilience that would have made the pilgrims proud, I took the tickets, dumped them on my brother-in-law, and got the heck out of there, claiming dinner responsibilities. I feel certain the pilgrims also would have approved of my decision to outsource dinner in its entirety to a popular Chinese joint near my sister’s place.

I returned to the house with armloads of Chinese fare, expecting to receive a warm welcome and instead getting shot at by my niece and nephews, who were wielding marshmallow guns they’d bought with their tickets. A fool and her money, quickly parted and then rapidly reunited in the form of Stay-Puft Saturday night specials: a proper turkey shoot if ever I saw one.

daveandbusters

If you can’t beat ’em, don’t join ’em. Go out for Chinese food.

 

 

 

 

 

Wrapped Up In Tradition

Christmas tradition doesn’t exactly enslave the Yanks, but there are a bunch of things we do as a tribe every holiday season.  It would take me weeks to report on how all of our traditions fared this year so I’ll just give you a rundown of the top three:

1. Christmas tree cutting: Big thumbs-up.  My family goes on a Christmas tree hunt out in the Virginia countryside every year.  We’d been going to the same farm in Round Hill for the past five or six seasons, but last year we began to see signs that perhaps we ought to make a change.  First, the farm must have embarked on an ad campaign, because the parking lot the weekend after Thanksgiving had as high a car count as your average Wal-Mart.  On top of that, the tree farmers seemed to have reached a tipping point in their efforts to diversify their portfolio.  They started out innocuously years ago by selling hot cider in addition to trees.  Soon, they expanded to selling cookies and pies.  By this time last year, they’d added an organic butcher, three vintners and a nine-piece band. It felt as rustic as Costco.  And then there was the matter of transporting our freshly cut trees from field to car, a distance of half a mile or so.  If you’re not familiar with the experience, carrying an eight foot felled pine is like handling a ninety pound cactus.  You’d think the farm would help with this part of the process but you’d be wrong. For $100 per tree, they want to make sure you don’t miss out on a chance to do some alfresco weightlifting and get organic acupuncture.

I was discussing this with a friend, who said, “Home Depot sells cut trees for $25 and they put it on top of your car, you know.”

While those economics are hard to beat, my family wasn’t ready to give up our tradition for a trip to the wilderness of Home Depot.

At 8 a.m. on December 9 –late in the cut-your-own tree season– we set out for a new farm a few miles from the old one.  Only three cars had arrived ahead of us, which either meant that we’d found a hidden gem or that acres of Charlie Brown trees awaited.  As we strolled we found row after row of robust, well-shaped trees.  They’d been grown a bit too close together but it hadn’t hampered their health or shapeliness as far as we could see.  It didn’t take us long to find our trees or farmhands to load them up onto an ATV for easy transport back to the farmhouse.   We pronounced the trip a huge success, even after we got home and discovered that, as a result of growing up so close together that inadequate space remained for pruning, each of our trees leans like a pine-scented Tower of Pisa.

2.   Christmas Eve Mass: Too close to call.  The Northern Virginia locals (my parents, Lynne and her family, and I) go to Christmas Eve Mass at Nativity Parish in Burke, every year.  I never miss this ritual even though my being agnostic makes it a somewhat dicey proposition.  I generally play it safe by staying silent during prayer recitations—I learned this the hard way when some enterprising Church bigwig got it in his head recently to change up the words of prayers Catholics had been saying for 35 years –by avoiding communion, and by following everyone else’s lead.

This strategy was serving me well this year until we got to the “Sign of Peace,” where you shake hands with all the people around you.  As the ritual Spreading of the Bacteria was coming to a close, I reached across my niece and nephew to shake hands with my brother-in-law.

Unfortunately, my foot encountered the unexpected resistance of the kneeler and I lost my balance.  Instead of placing my hand in my brother-in-law’s, I came perilously close to reaching second base with my sister.  I may have to re-think this tradition for next year (as should the thousands of other lapsed Catholics who attended the service and committed so many pre-Mass sins in the parking lot that the Church should have set up a pop-up confessional).

3.  Christmas Eve with the Roommates: Jazz Hands.  In 2011, I lived with my sister, her husband and their two kids (aka “The Roommates”) for nine months, which meant that I was in the house when the kids woke up on Christmas morning that year.  They saw this development as only slightly less miraculous than Santa’s annual loot-drop, and they’ve asked me to spend the night at their house every Christmas Eve since.  I’m grateful they still think their aunt is cool, so I’m always very happy to oblige.  This year, I arrived at my sister’s house after Mass on Christmas Eve and found the roommates in their pajamas, teeth brushed.  By 9 p.m. they were tucked in, which meant that Santa could get to work.  He set up shop in the dining room, a rather bold move since both it and the living room (the place where the presents land) flank the stairs and are the first areas the kids would see if they made an unexpected appearance. I expressed this concern to my brother-in-law but he felt certain the Roommates were down for the count.  Half an hour into our work, which consisted mainly of doing wrapping paper algebra and trying to piece together last year’s scraps to achieve maximum box coverage (not because my sister is a sustainable wrapper but because she forgot to replenish her stock), I heard footsteps on the stairs and then saw my nine year-old nephew on the landing.

“What are you doing?” he said.

Luckily, eleven years of practicing law had prepared me for just such a moment.  Without hesitation I concocted a story that was 75 parts fact and 25 parts fiction (an unusually high truth ratio as alibis go) involving my inadvertently leaving the front door unlocked after making a trip out to my car for a bottle of champagne to share with the roommates’ parents, and then the three of us failing to hear Santa’s entrance because we were busy boozing it up in the kitchen.  I told this story from the middle of the full-size bed in my nephew’s room, where I lay sandwiched between the Roommates.

When I finished, my niece said, “Will you stay with us, Wheatie Bo? I’m a little freaked out right now.”

Since I was partly to blame for this Santa credibility crisis, I couldn’t refuse.  And that’s how a 42 year-old woman who’s great without child ends up spending Christmas Eve with two kids.

And in case you’ve ever wondered about the head-to-toe sleeping configuration? It only works in cartoons.

Santa left loot and a letter! But not a sunrise. We had to wait at least another half hour for that to happen.

This Round’s On Me

My parents have lived in the D.C. area for over forty years, so they’ve gone to most of the local institutions many times.  Just before Christmas last year I learned that they’d missed one: the Round Robin bar at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel downtown.  My sister, Lynne, and I decided to remedy that by inviting them to join us there for a post-Christmas cocktail on the 26th.

The Willard sits mere steps from the White House and, according to its website, has been known as the “Crown Jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue.” Aside from its elegant yet understated architecture, the hotel’s site recounts quite an impressive history as well:

A most celebrated historic Washington DC hotel, the Willard InterContinental Washington, has been the focal point for elegant dinners, meetings, and gala social events for more than 150 years. An institution, this grand Washington DC historic hotel has hosted almost every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce in 1853. On August 28, 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King finished his famous “I Have A Dream” speech while a guest at the Willard. Other notable guests have included Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, David Lloyd George, P.T. Barnum, Lord and Lady Napper, and countless others. Walt Whitman mentioned the hotel in his works; and Mark Twain penned two books here in the early 1900s. Throughout the ages, no phrase has raised eyebrows like “I’m staying at the Willard.”

The last sentence really nails it: If any member of the Yank tribe mentioned in casual conversation that we were staying there, it would raise eyebrows at the very least.  It’s fairly well-known that we are not, how shall I say, Willard People.  But I figured we could fake it long enough to get through a round of drinks.

Lynne and I met our parents in the lobby and the four of us made our way to the fabled lounge, a smallish room with curved, green walls and a round bar at the center.  It’s the perfect geometric complement to the Oval Office a few doors down.

We settled in to one of the black leather booths that rim the room and took in our surroundings.  Mom loved the clubby, old school feel of the space and the portraits of politicians that line its walls.

“Can you imagine the wheeling and dealing that’s gone on in here?” she said, glancing around appreciatively.

The Round Robin: Where Willard People go to quench their thirst.

We stopped gawking and started to peruse the drink menu.  The stratospheric prices were about what I expected but they caught my father off-guard.

“I’ve never paid $7 for a Budweiser,” he said, raising one eyebrow and fixing me with a look my siblings and I know well.  It always conveys the same unspoken message: “You kids don’t appreciate the value of money.”

I flashed him the smile of a Willard Person, which said, “Eighteen dollars for a drink is nothing. I’ve paid more for a six ounce bottle of non-artisan spring water.”

When the waiter arrived moments later I proceeded to order one of the more expensive mixed drinks on the menu.  Lynne and Mom wasted no time following suit, so Dad went ahead and ordered a vastly marked-up Bud.

When the waiter came back with our drinks, he dropped off a cone of potato chips to help keep our thirst whetted.  The chips didn’t tempt me much.  They looked like standard fare, plus my teeth prefer sweet over savory every time.  My father, on the other hand, loves salty snacks and reached right in.  We could tell from his expression that these chips had spoken to him in a way that garden-variety Lays never had.

“What do they put on these things? I can’t stop eating ’em even though I feel like a bloated toad,” Dad said, marking perhaps the first time that expression was heard at the Round Robin.

When the waiter came back over my sister asked, “What kind of chips are those?  Our dad really liked them, in case you couldn’t tell.” She pointed to the now-empty cone.

He smiled and shrugged — Willard People probably don’t inquire about potato chip heritage all that often– and said, “I don’t know but I’ll find out.”

“We’ll have another round while you’re at it,” Dad said.  Apparently the chips elevated his drink to the point where he was no longer fazed by the prospect of forking over seven more bucks for a mass-produced domestic beer.

The waiter returned with a tray that held our drinks. As he set them down, he gave me a conspiratorial nod in the direction of his tray.

I didn’t understand at first and then I noticed that his right hand held something else beneath the tray: a bag of Route 11 potato chips. He inched his hand ever so slightly my way so I could grab the bag on the sly. I immediately stuffed it into my purse, as any Willard Person would do.

The next time the waiter came by to check on us we asked for the check.

“It would be my pleasure,” he said with a gracious smile.

As he turned to walk away, I grabbed his elbow and whispered a request to bring the bill to me.  Lynne and I wanted to treat our parents, a feat that’s about as easy to pull off as levitation.  We’ve succeeded only a handful of times, and only then through the kind of covert operations that would qualify us for employment at the CIA.

From the corner of my eye I saw the waiter approaching.  While the rest of the table kept talking, I extended a hand behind me like a relay runner preparing for a baton exchange.  The waiter slipped our check into my hand without a word.  Our stealth handoff had escaped my parents’ attention, if not my sister’s.

I held the folio under the table in one hand and pulled my purse onto my lap with the other so Dad wouldn’t notice me reaching for my wallet.  Though I couldn’t see the contents of my wallet, I really didn’t need to.  The Visa I used for everything always occupied the first spot in the sleeve of credit cards.  I slid out the top card, tucked it into the folio on my lap and slipped it into the waiter’s hand.

To create an additional diversion, my sister asked him to take a group photo, as you do when you’re a Willard Person.  He smiled, obliged her, and then headed off in the direction of the bar.

As we waited for him to come back with the rest of the paperwork, my father said, “Well, I thought you kids had lost your minds, wanting to take us somewhere like this. But it’s a pretty neat place so I’d say this was one of your better ideas.”  Lynne and I beamed.  Parental approval feels good no matter how old you are.

Moments later the waiter returned.  I was still smiling as he handed me the folio that held the bill and said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, we can’t accept payment with a Safeway card.”

My parents’ and sister’s smiles turned into full-blown laughter.

“Let me get this straight,” my father said, pausing to wipe the tears he’d laughed right out of his eyeballs, “you tried to pay for drinks at the Willard with a grocery card?”  That sent them all into another fit of ab-crunching laughter.  While they cackled I produced a viable credit card and handed it to the waiter.

Once the transaction was complete, I rounded up my dignity and the Route 11 chips—both typical Willard Person trappings—and left with my sister and parents in tow.  We return to the scene of the crime at 7 p.m. tonight and you’d better believe my Harris Teeter card is at the ready.

Those Three Little Words

Since I’m currently hosting a slumber party for three kids under the age of 10 I’ll keep this short.

For those of you who were waiting with bated breath to find out about the holiday missive from FBM, your suspense ends tonight.

But before I tell you what arrived in the mail, I must talk about the emotions it evoked.  As these holiday transmittals are wont to do, it brought tears to my eyes. I’m just glad to have opened it in the presence of my entire family (14 people, as we were shy one nephew who’s spending the holidays in Ohio with his mom and her family). Their love, warmth and support at poignant moments like this means so much, as you can well imagine.

The bright, red envelope was a standard size, though it felt like it might hold something slightly heavier than your average greeting card. Small wonder FBM had to spend $.80 to send it from Santa Barbara to Virginia. FBM turns out to be the kind of careful sender who probably insured it, too.

My mom had already opened the envelope so I could see that it did, in fact, contain a greeting card with all kinds of people in suspended motion on the cover, as if Hallmark had vogued. And that’s pretty much where the similarities between this card and your average Hallmark ended.

Most cards convey their message through unspoken words. This one sent it with digestive noises.

That’s right: my greeting card farted.

“FBM” didn’t stand for the name of a former suitor–the senders are very dear, and hilarious, friends– but rather a groundbreaking (and possibly pants-rending) company called “Farts By Mail.”  I’m sure they do a booming business (har!) at Christmas but they must really clean up on Boss’s Day.

When you least expect it…

I can’t reveal the identity of the givers–all great donors appreciate a little anonymity lest they get bombarded with requests for similarly grand philanthropic gestures –but I will say they read this blog and must’ve split a side or two before they busted my family’s collective gut tonight.  (And my mother, by the way, knew what it was the whole time, proving that the “never lie to your mother” maxim does not have a converse.)

What they pulled off was nothing short of brilliant, and they certainly showed me how much they cared this holiday season with those three little words that go by the initials: “F.B.M.”

(Oh, and since I whiffed on the Splat of the Week yesterday for lack of time rather than material, I think this post can do double-duty.)

A turn for the unknown

The holidays cause a lot of people to take stock and reflect on their lives.  Such reviews, whether of a month, year or decade, often stir up all kinds of feelings in the reviewer.  Popular psychology might suggest that we “just be” with these feelings, but in reality, they can make for pretty tedious company after a few days in residence.

Some people kick them to the curb without ceremony, while others try to politely pawn them off on someone else.  I seem to know a lot of people in the second camp because every year at about this time, I get correspondence from someone in my past who needs to unload an emotional boarder.

My favorite came in 2005 from my ex-fiance’s mother.  “Greg” and I had gotten engaged in the summer of 1995 and I dis-engaged in early 1996. Due in part to my epic mishandling of the situation, Greg and I split on less than ideal terms; his mother and I, however, stayed in touch and remained friends.  She and her husband even sent me a beautiful gift when I bought my first house in 2002. Her annual Christmas card, like all her correspondence, was something I looked forward to.

When the 2005 card arrived, I opened it with no trepidation whatsoever, so I was completely unprepared when a photo of Greg’s apparently recent wedding fell out.  According to the message she wrote inside the card, his mom had debated whether and how to address the topic of the nuptials and found no satisfactory guidance in the etiquette manuals she consulted.  For reasons that remain unclear to me, she decided to err on the side of disclosure via helpful visual aids.

No emotional baggage came in the mail last year.   Since I was up to my eyeballs in divorce, I imagine people thought I had enough already or they simply couldn’t find me.  (Having moved three times in eighteen months, I’d achieved something close to “fugitive” status.)

A few days ago, during a garden-variety check-in call to my parents, my mom informed me that a letter for me had arrived at their house from someone in Santa Barbara whose initials were “FBM.”  FBM capitalized on the fact that my penchant for going on the lam isn’t genetic: My parents have lived at the same address for forty years.

“Who’s it from, Mom?”

“I don’t know, but they spent $.80 to mail it,” she said.  She sounded impressed by the level of commitment implied by the hefty fare and the fact that the sender might have made a trip to an actual post office to bid it farewell.

I couldn’t think of any old flames, or even old smolders, who lived in California and/or went by “FBM” so I judged it a low-risk piece of correspondence.

“If you don’t mind, go ahead and open it,” I said. I listened as she tore open the envelope and pulled out the enclosure.

“Oh…I don’t think I should’ve opened this.”

“Why not? What is it, Mom?”

“I can’t say.”

“Why not? Can you at least tell me who sent it?”

“No, I can’t.”

“Mom, now that you’ve told me you can’t tell me, you have to tell me.  You don’t have to read it, but can you just skip to the end and see who signed it? I promise I don’t mind.” I thought phrasing it this way lent my request more maturity than outright begging.

“Oh no, I can’t do that,” she said, her voice firm.  I hit the “mute” button on my phone so she wouldn’t hear the cartoon scream I emitted.   Mom had put up a stone wall, and I knew better than to keep trying to jump over it.

Running around it, on the other hand, still seemed like a viable option.  I called my sister, Lynne.

Since Lynne is basically the hub of the information wheel in our family, I figured Mom, like the rest of us spokes, would have mentioned this type of thing to her. Lynne confirmed my hunch when I asked but she offered no details.  She claimed not to know what the envelope contained or who it was from. I still wasn’t ready to give up. What follows is an exact replica of our conversation, if you can call it that.

 

Some wheels go ’round and ’round but never forward…

 

“Come on,” I said, “Can you at least tell me if it’s good or bad?”

“If it’s what I think it is, which I never even knew what it was, it will not upset you.”  She really said this. Three times, in fact, because I had to ask her to repeat it twice more before I could even begin to understand it.  I tried again, asking the question a slightly different way, just like they taught us in law school when a typically cooperative witness fails to give a useful answer.

“What did you think it was?”

“I don’t know,” she said,  “because I never knew what it was.”

“But you must’ve thought it was something?”

“I thought it was something, yes, but I don’t know what it is.”

“But what did you think it was?”

“I don’t know what it was.”

“I know you don’t know what it was, but you thought it was something, so what did you think it was?”

“I can’t say because I don’t know what it is.”

After a few more rounds like this I felt satisfied that we had done both Abbott and Costello proud.  I hung up, my heart warmed as ever by the familiar sound of the information wheel hitting the skids.