Friday, December 26, 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Snow, snow and more snowThe news coverage of the snow piling up in places from one coast to the other makes me glad I live where blizzards are few and far between. But all those news photos of snow drifts (like the one from Spokane, Washington, left) and people bundled up until they look as puffy as the Michelan Man also remind me of the winter of 1977-78. I was in first grade that year, and school was canceled for almost the entire month of January. I think we only came back for one or two days after Christmas break, and then the snow began. It snowed, and snowed, and then snowed some more. And it was hideously cold, too cold to go outside to sled or build snowmen for more than a few minutes at a time.
We lived in the country, in a little valley between two big hills (which, coincidentally, looked WAY bigger when I was seven years old than they do now) which we in Kentucky called a "holler." :) It snowed so much that my dad couldn't even get the truck up either of the hills. So he'd bundle up and walk half a mile to the highway, then if he was lucky he'd be able to hitch a ride into town to stock up on groceries for a few days. It was after one of these forays into town that he returned with more than groceries. Sticking out of the big green canvas bag on his back was a new Monopoly game. Thus began the Winter of Monopoly.
There is only so much one can watch on TV when you only receive three channels through an antenna and in the days when TV actually signed off at night, as in they stopped broadcasting. I can still remember how they'd play the national anthem and then the screen would just go blank or to "snow." We'd set up the card table next to the fire and play Monopoly. Well, I and my parents would play. My younger sister, who was all of three at the time, would just play with the Monopoly money. We played so much Monopoly that once the snow receded and I went back to school, I didn't want to see that game board for a good long time. In fact, it's only been in recent years that I've played again. I bought my very own game, National Parks Monopoly, and every once in awhile I can coerce my hubby into playing.
How about you? Do you remember playing board games during bad weather? What did you play? Do you remember when TV signed off at night?
If you're in one of the areas being hit with the bad weather or if you're traveling this holiday season, stay safe.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Lucifer Saves ChristmasI don't have any pictures of Christmas Past to show you- I can't even find the one of the dog stealing popcorn from the Christmas tree.
The best I can do is this year's Christmas tree, complete with my thirty-year collection of Mt. St. Helens glass and other fancy ornaments. And two two of Jinx at the window, one from New Years Day, 2002, and the other from last Sunday, staring at the horrible white world below. And that was before it got deep.
But this story is about a different black cat from my childhood, Lucifer, a kitten my younger brother, John, brought home. And it's about John, and about unusual sources of inspiration. Lucifer was a cat with an attitude. John was a kid with an attitude.
John was an unusual kid. He was exceptionally brilliant and had a way of delving deeply into subjects that interested him. He had built an elaborate HO gauge train village in the basement. He also had a color film developing lab, in the days when it couldn't be done at home. He was meticulous about everything. He is to this day still heavily involved in photography. He builds and flies magnificent kites and takes in-depth courses in Photoshop that leave my head spinning. But he didn't like school and didn't do well. The teachers thought he was dumb, and he had no intention of pleasing them.
This was the year pink suddenly came in as The Color for Christmas. For the first time, pink lights were available, and suddenly pink everything else was there too. John decided he wanted a pink Christmas tree. No, it couldn't be green with pink ornaments. It had to be done right. So it was all pink lights, new pink ornaments of those fragile glass type- no popcorn strings or handmade ornaments on John's tree, thank you. This was going to be a classy tree. He wanted pink tinsel, but we couldn't find any, but we did find flocking in cans in pink. So the tree had pink snow on it. This didn't bode well for the angel hair I wanted, but this year, it was John's tree.
I'd had my doubts, and at the wise old age of 16, I obviously knew what really should be on a tree, but Mom told me if I wanted to do the tree next year I could. And I had to admit, when it was finished, it really was magnificent, where it rested in the curve of the baby grand piano. John even arranged one of those revolving spot lights, and the brand new ornaments sparkled alternately pink and white.
The tree was lit and sparkling in a slightly darkened room when I sat down to play the piano. I think probably rehearsing for a solo at church, or something like that. I didn't need to read the music, so it must have been something I knew, and I liked the darkened, quiet mood. I remember I was also thinking about what in the world I was going to write for my English assignment, which had to be a short story. And I'd never written one before in my life.
I was concentrating hard enough that I paid little attention when Lucifer, who was still in his kitten stage, jumped onto the bench, and from there to the top of the piano beside me. In typical kitten crouch, he crept across the closed piano lid, but I didn't think anything about it. Not until I saw the streak of black cat did it dawn on me. Lucifer leapt right into the middle of the tree, and the tree went down with a crash. A normal cat would have been freaked at the fall, but Lucifer strutted like he was proud of his kill.
Only Mom and I were home. The tree was wrecked. The pretty pink ornaments were mostly smashed, flocking knocked off branches, bulbs burned out. So we did a quick shopping trip. But as I said, pink was in that year, and there wasn't very much left to buy. We did our best, but it was pretty pathetic. When John got home, he simply looked at it and announced we'd have a blue tree. And we did. We started from scratch because the old tree was just plain ruined, and the pink flocking wouldn't all come off it anyway. John did a completely different tree. And clearly, Lucifer didn't see any threat in it at all because he couldn't be bothered to launch an attack against it.
But I had my story. Lucifer was the lead character, and I used his viewpoint. I decided I had to think like a cat. Why would a cat attack something so much larger than himself? We know a predator always looks for smaller weaker prey, so Lucifer was not intending to kill and eat. That had to mean he had loftier motives. Save his family. Save his family from the Pink Tree Monster. Save Christmas!
The story, short and naive though it was, got me an A+, and the teacher raved about it and read it to the entire class, and all her other English classes. That got me a few glares and sneers, some puzzled stares, and lots of compliments, depending on the depth of imagination of my classmates.
I wasn't horribly concerned about that then, but I did catch on to the notion that I had the Power of Creativity. It's addicting. I haven't shaken it yet.
I do wish we'd taken pictures of the trees, but the pink tree is embedded in my mind to this day, so I suppose that's good enough. And I still love to have a beautiful Christmas tree.
Monday, December 22, 2008
When Snoopy Knocked Down the Christmas Tree by Diane GastonAbout now I'm willing to bet most of us are worried about our gift selections for Christmas. Did we buy enough? Did we spend too much or too little? Can we afford those last minute gifts we still have to buy? Will our Christmas be as fine as the last few years when we had so much more money to spend?
These are all questions I'm asking myself this year. I want to make this Christmas memorable for my family, as memorable as other Christmases.
But then I remember the year Snoopy knocked down the Christmas tree.
It wasn't Christmas exactly, but New Year's eve and my parents were getting ready to go to the neighbor's for their annual New Year's eve party. It meant my older sisters and I would have the house to ourselves and could stay up as long as we liked. We had a plate of shrimp and cocktail sauce just like my parents took to the party as well as Coca Cola and other snacks. Just as they were ready to leave there was a crash. Our cat Snoopy, who liked to drink from the tree water, put his paws on the reservoir and knocked the whole tree over. There were glass ornaments to clean up and a traumatized kitty to be comforted (my job).
Eventually the tree was righted, the reservoir refilled and the tiny glass chards and the tinsel and pine needles all vacuumed up. My parents left for the party and my sisters and I watched Zero Mostel in The Boys From Syracuse and later The Best of Ernie Kovacs and we had the very best of Christmas seasons.
And then there was the Christmas Eve when my Aunt Loraine and I took the bus to downtown Washington DC. It was snowing, unusual for DC. I was home from college, my dad was stationed in Korea and the rest of the family were all living in an apt in DC. It should have been a forgettable Christmas, but my aunt and I decided to buy my sisters, my mother and each other extra gifts costing no more than $5.00 each. That was the most fun Christmas shopping I ever had in my life.
Later that night we walked down 16th Street NW in DC with the street hushed with snow to attend Midnight Mass at the church a couple of blocks away. I still remember that walk.
In more recent years, I remember the Christmas my husband and son refurbished two old bicycles to give to a poor family. They were those old banana bikes, but they made them new again. To a kid with no hope for a new bicycle, they were a dream come true.
So what does this have to do with this year's worry about buying presents and trying to economize and worrying if Christmas will be nice enough?
None of these treasured memories has anything to do with specific gifts given or received. So don't worry! Pay attention to the little things that really make Christmas time memorable.
Like when Snoopy knocked down the Christmas tree.
Come visit me at Risky Regencies today and share my Regency Christmas!
Sunday, December 21, 2008
This Week on the Wet Noodle Posse
Tuesday, December 23rd: Delle Jacobs Lucifer Saves Christmas
Wednesday, December 24th: Trish Milburn Christmas Memories
Thursday, December 25th: Holiday Card from the WNP
Friday, December 26th: WNP Is On Vacation
Friday, December 19, 2008
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Christmas Morning Wake Up CallChristmas is my favorite holiday. The music, the baking, giving and receiving presents, parties and good food, getting together with family and friends. My family and I (okay, mostly “I”) have several traditions we’ve kept since my girls were little. Some might say I’m a little anal. I shudder at “controlling”. I like to think of it as making the most of every moment. Of finding comfort in routine and remembering times past, where we were when we did the same thing ten years ago, five years ago. Enjoying every single moment with my family.
Each year we make gingerbread houses from scratch. Sometimes we make gingerbread neighborhoods, complete with a frozen pond in the center, with each of us creating our own home. One year we had a gingerbread small town downtown with a dance studio, beauty salon and city hall. It’s a lot of work, but we enjoy spending the time together, not to mention the sweets we snack on while we’re baking and building.
Christmas Eve we attend mass together, then afterwards we take a leisurely drive through area neighborhoods singing carols in the car and admiring the lights and decorations. My girls are always chomping at the bit to open a present before bed. Me, I’m all for anticipation, the buildup to the big day, the excitement of finding out what’s under the tree on Christmas morning. But, being a softie, I gave in years ago and we open one present Christmas Eve. For years everyone selected their present. Now we’ve started another tradition- Christmas pajamas. We all still unwrap a gift on Christmas Eve, but my girls expect it to be their Christmas pjs. No surprises, but we know we’ll be comfy while we sleep and wait for Santa.
Before bed we read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Christmas Story. We’ll sing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” while one of the girls places baby Jesus in the manger. It’s been empty all season while we awaited His arrival. Tonight’s His big night. Thanks to Him and Santa, tomorrow will be a marvelous day.
Christmas morning turns into a free-for-all, but we start off in an orderly fashion. When my girls were younger, they came to wake my husband and me up as soon as their eyes popped open. We’d run to get the cameras, holler when we were ready, and then, as then raced into the living room, we’d start snapping away in an attempt to capture their joy on film. As my girls grew older, we’d all decide on a time to wake up. The older one wanted to sleep in, the younger one couldn’t wait to see what Santa had snuck under the tree. We’d compromise on a wakeup time, after much haggling, then hit the sack.
It was during one of these “wake up time haggling” years that we experienced one of our sweetest holiday moments. We’d traveled to Key West to spend the holidays with my parents and younger brother. He’d given up his room for my family—all 5 of in one double bed and an air mattress. Before bed we had settled on an 8 am rally the troops timeframe.
Of course, one of the girls woke up before the sun rose to ask the time. This woke up another, followed by the third. My husband mumbled that it wasn’t quite 5 am. The girls groaned, but quieted, sharing the occasional whisper for several minutes.
Just as they settled down, we heard movement in the kitchen. A cabinet door opened, dishes rattled, the oven beeped, the faucet splashed water. Gasps of shock reverberated through our room. Tension and suspense blanketed us.
I froze, waiting, hoping the girls would go back to sleep and ignore the noise. I knew it was mom putting the Puerto Rican pork in the oven, and I had three hours of sleep ahead of me. Not to mention I’d been up late finalizing the Santa preparations. Those three hours were sounding pretty good right about then.
A hush settled around us. My eyes drifted closed. Sweet slumber gently beckoned.
Suddenly my four- year old’s whisper broke the silence. “Oh my gosh, Santa’s washing the dishes for us.”
A beat of hushed awe replied before the rest of us broke into guffaws of laughter. I can’t even tell you if we woke up for good, or if we settled back down for a little more shut eye. I’m sure my girls remember. As I’ve aged my memory has become selective. I like to think it doesn’t matter whether we went to sleep or hung out in our room until everyone else was awake.
What I do remember is laughing with my girls and my husband in the dark, surrounded by love, joy and the anticipation of good things to come.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Where's the Cranberry Sauce?When I was a kid, that canned jellied cranberry sauce (you know the one) was a staple on our holiday table. My mom would bring it home from the store and put it directly into the refrigerator so that it would be chilled on the big day. Usually an hour or so before we sat down to eat she’d open the can on both ends and let the sauce shimmy out, cutting it into slices as it slipped onto the serving dish. Then she would put it back into fridge until dinner time.
When the turkey was ready and the potatoes fluffed, and the shoepeg corn heated and the rolls perfection we’d all sit at the table, say the prayer and dig in. About half way through the meal my mother would look around the table, surveying the devastation, and ask, “Where’s the cranberry sauce?”
Someone would say, “Oops,” and jump up, run into the kitchen and retrieve the sauce and bring it into the dining room. We’d all take a slice and our meal would be complete. Until the next time, and we’d forget all over again.
Then Cranberry Jello Salad came into our lives. My sister gave my mom the recipe and she passed it along to my sister-in-law and my sister-in-law gave it to her sister. Now the only question we ask is, “Who’s bringing the Cranberry Jello this year?”
Cranberry Jello Salad
1 20oz. can crushed pineapple
2 3oz. packages of cherry jello
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups hot water
1/2 cup cold water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 cups raw cranberries, ground
1 cup diced celery
1 cup chopped walnuts
Drain pineapple and save the juice. Combine the gelatin and sugar Dissolve in hot water Add the cold water, lemon juice, and pineapple juice. Chill until partially set. Add the cranberries, celery, pineapple and nuts. Chill until firm.
Try this once and you’ll never leave the canned jellied cranberry sauce (you know the one) languishing in the fridge again.
Is there a holiday dish that’s always on your table, whether you like it or not?
P.S. Happy holidays to you all!
P.P. S. Thanks to my sister-in-law Debbie who supplied this recipe when I couldn't find my copy!!!
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Have Cookies--Will Travel
I don’t recall why I shirked my responsibility to the cookies I’d spent a day baking and another whole day icing and decorating in festive sugars. Maybe I was making sure our daughter was bringing some toys to play with or that she was wearing some form of leg covering for warmth. She went through a phase where she refused to wear socks or tights because the seams bothered her.
As my husband took a right onto the road in our subdivision leading to the entrance, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something red flying close to the car. I commented that I’d never seen a cardinal get that close to a moving vehicle. Before the station wagon made it to the next cross street, a burst of yellow flashed by the window in much the same way the cardinal had only seconds before. I asked my husband what sort of yellow birds nest in Georgia in the winter. The car slowed. Wes’s eyes widened. His lips parted like he was going to answer my question, but no words emerged from his throat.
That’s when a third “bird”—this time a green one moving much more slowly than the previous two—slid past my window. Yes, the birds were in fact my sugar cookies. I voiced what my husband could not-- and perhaps in a more shrill than festive manner—something about whether or not he’d put the cookies on the roof of the car. That’s about the time he slammed on the brakes. A gentle stop might have been a better choice. The platters and what was left of the cookies kept going, proving some law of motion I don’t recall from high school science class.
The glass platter? Shattered into many tiny pieces. My old-fashioned painted tin plate, empty of cookies, rolled down the dip in the road like a penny on its side. The cookies I’d spent so many hours baking and decorating? A few found a soft landing on some neighbor’s brown Bermuda lawn. Most others were in various states of decomposition in a sad little trail that meandered along the asphalt road behind the station wagon.
My daughter sniffled loudly that the only dessert at Aunt Bonnie’s would be cake and pie. Yes, shocking but true, when my daughter was little she didn’t like cake or pie. My husband sent a sheepish expression my way, the one that usually vaporizes my anger. He apologized, too. I said nothing. I got out of the car and walked down the hill, past crumbs of buttery sweetness that the birds would hopefully enjoy and picked up my scratched and dented tin platter from the spot where it stop careening. What little sun was left in the sky dwindled. Neighbors, oblivious to the disaster beyond their doors, turned on their Christmas lights, and I decided I wouldn’t be angry. It was Christmas, a time of joy. I walked back to the station wagon, got in, clicked my seatbelt into position and said something cheesy like “I guess that’s how the cookie crumbles.”
Every Christmas since, Wes, Cynthia and I check to make sure the cookies are in the van rather than on top of it preparing to take a ride to certain crumbdom.
Have any holiday disasters you'd like to share? Oh, and the secret to my wonderful sugar cookies is Pillsbury dough!
Monday, December 15, 2008
Let's Make Some Cookies!It’s never too late to start a new Christmas tradition! Three years ago, one of my sisters asked me if I wanted to go to Mom’s and bake Christmas cookies. The three of us baked and sipped wine from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. At the end of the evening, we divided the cookies up and filled up tins to give to the neighbors and friends. Getting together to bake cookies is now a Christmas tradition shared by all of my sisters and Mom. Everyone brings two or three of their favorite recipes, the ingredients needed to make three dozen cookies, and some cookie sheets. Here are a couple of my favorite cookie recipes:
DEATH BY CHOCOLATE COOKIES
2 pkg. (16 squares) semisweet baking chocolate divided
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp. baking powder
2 cups chopped nuts (optional)
Heat oven to 350°F
Coarsely chop 8 squares of chocolate, set aside.
Microwave remaining 8 squares of chocolate in large bowl on high 1-2 minutes, stir until chocolate is melted and smooth.
Stir in sugar, butter, eggs, and vanilla.
Stir in flour and baking powder.
Stir in reserved chopped chocolate and nuts.
Drop by 1/4 cupfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake 12-13 minutes or until cookies are puffed and feel set to the touch.
Cool on cookie sheet 1 minute then transfer to wire rack.
Makes about 1 1/2 dozen cookies
GINGERBREAD MEN COOKIES2 ¾ c. flour
½ tsp. soda
1 tsp. ginger
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
½ c. shortening
¼ c. brown sugar
¾ c. molasses
1 beaten egg
1 tsp. hot water
1 tsp. vinegar
Mix all ingredients. Roll onto well floured surface. Cut into gingerbread men. Place on greased cookie sheets dusted with flour. Bake at 350 degrees until brown. About 8 to 10 minutes. Decorate as desired!
Do you have a favorite cookie recipe or Christmas tradition to share?
Sunday, December 14, 2008
This Week on the Wet Noodle Posse
Friday, December 12, 2008
Labels: gift-giving ideas for under $50
Thursday, December 11, 2008
A Family Heirloomby Lee McKenzie
How is it even possible that a gift I received as a child has already become a family heirloom? After all, I’m not that old! But I think some things have all the hallmarks of an heirloom, even when they’re brand new, and the rocking horse I received for Christmas in the mid 1950s is one of those things.
It was going to be a lean holiday that year. My father had been laid off from his job so to make enough money to buy my Christmas present—a rocking horse—he chopped firewood for a neighbor.
Yes, that's me in the photo!
I still love this horse. His name is Old Paint, after Tonto’s horse, Paint, from The Lone Ranger. Anyone remember that show? The Lone Ranger himself was very heroic, but I adored Tonto. I’m not sure why I added Old to my horse’s name. Maybe Tonto sometimes called his horse old Paint?
I had plenty of adventures on Old Paint as we galloped through my imagination. As you can see, I’m not the only child who had fun with him. This photograph of him being ridden by my daughter was taken about thirty years later.
I can still make out the name of the manufacturer and model on the back of the rocker. It’s called a Foxhunter, made by Tri-Ang, a British toy company. The body and rocker are painted metal, the reins and stirrup straps are leather, and the mane and saddle are rubber and still in great shape, although the tail is now gone.
While Old Paint waits for another generation of riders, he enjoys a place of honor in our holiday decor.
Doesn’t he make you think of an old-fashioned Christmas?
Guests of all ages fall in love with him!
Speaking of guests, I like to have lots of snacks on hand when people drop by, and I like things to be simple so I’m not tied to the kitchen and missing out on all the fun. Here are a couple of recipes easy-to-make tasty holiday treats that can be made a day or two before a party and set out just before guests arrive.
Spicy Almonds and PecansPreheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toss all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until the nuts are coated with seasonings. Spread the mixture in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the baking sheet, let the nuts cool, and store in a tightly sealed jar for up to a week.
1 cups whole almonds
1 cup pecans
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
Curried CashewsPreheat the oven to 300 degrees. Toss all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until the nuts are coated with seasonings. Spread the mixture in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the baking sheet, let the nuts cool, and store in a tightly sealed jar for up to a week.
3 cups roasted cashews, unsalted
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons coarse salt
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest
The preparation instructions are pretty much the same, but please note the different roasting temperatures and times.
Thank you for joining me at this busy time of year.
Wishing you a happy holiday,
~ ~ ~
Lee McKenzie writes for Harlequin American Romance. WITH THIS RING (December ‘07), her Christmas-in-July story, is still available as an ebook from eHarlequin.com and Amazon.com (Kindle edition). For more holiday fun and good cheer, please visit Lee at The Writer Side of Life.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Christmas Tree MemoriesThis year I'm not putting up a Christmas tree. In fact, I'm barely decorating for Christmas. Everyone who knows me is astonished. After all, they know me as the woman who has a closet dedicated just to Christmas decoration. I have an attic full of Christmas decorations, and there are two other closets that have Christmas decorations on the shelves. So have I become a scrooge? No, I'm not putting up a tree or decorating because we're going to Chicago for Christmas to be with our daughter who is about to give birth to our first grandchild. I'm going to live this Christmas on memories of the Christmas trees we've had over the years. Here are a few highlight or maybe lowlights about Christmas trees I've known. I can just smell the scent of a fresh evergreen tree.
I don't remember too many trees from my childhood, except the shiny silver one with the multicolored light that made it change colors. Somehow that same kind of tree resurrected itself and wound up in my apartment when I was a poor single school teacher. That was about the only tree I could afford. The first Christmas after my husband and I got married, we bought a Scotch pine and decorated it. It was quite lovely until it was time to take off the decorations. That tree was really prickly, and I decided that Scotch pines might be pretty but not practical.
The first Christmas in our very own home in Ohio, we decided to cut our own tree. So we went in search of a tree farm. On the way we saw a guy selling trees for $5. So we bought one. Well, as you can imagine, it looked like a $5 tree, but we decorated it and gave a toast to Charlie Brown. We've had a few other Charlie Brown trees as well.
A few years later we lived in the Atlanta area. One of our neighbors had a brother who owned a tree farm in North Carolina. So every year in November we would put in our order for a tree, and our neighbors would bring them back after their trip to see family in North Carolina during Thanksgiving. After they got back, we would go over to their house and pick up our tree without ever cutting the plastic netting. We never had to check them for shape or size. They were always nine feet of Fraser fir perfection. We were spoiled during those years, as we never had to go to a lot to pick out a tree.
When we moved to the Boston area, we had to get used to the cold again and going to a lot to find a tree. The Massachusetts balsam firs we found came from a nearby tree farm, so they were always extremely fresh. The ceilings in our house were only 7 1/2 feet, so we always had to make sure we didn't get a tree that was too tall.
We only lived in Massachusetts for a little over two years before we moved to Dallas. We spent the first five months in an apartment and moved into our brand new home a week before Christmas--not a good time to move. Two days before Christmas, after we had unpacked the Christmas decorations, I insisted that we have a Christmas tree. So we trekked to a nearby lot and found the bargain of all bargains--a $150 tree for $35. It was a gorgeous ten foot Fraser fir. We put it in the corner of our living room which had a tall vaulted ceiling. The following year, I tried to duplicate that tree without spending a fortune and came away with a candidate for a Charlie Brown award. That was the year I decided that I needed a nine foot slim line artificial tree to go in that corner of my living room and that we would put a smaller live tree in our family room. Ever since then we have been a two-tree family. I decorate the live tree with all the ornaments that I've collected through the years--the ornaments that our kids made when they were little and the ornaments I've bought from places we've traveled. And every year I add an ornament with the year on it. I have ornaments from 1976-2008. Yes, even though I didn't put up a tree this year, I did buy a 2008 ornament. We finally replaced our artificial tree two years ago after ten years and two moves--Dallas to Chicago, then Chicago to Florida.
Here are a couple of pictures--one of the live tree I put out in our screened pool area and the artificial one I usually put in our living room. This year I'll just look at the pictures and maybe light a balsam scented candle while I listen to Christmas music.
Do you have any special memories of Christmas trees?
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
What's In Your Stocking?It's a rough year for Christmas. Everywhere. Money is tight, and belts tighter. We writers are all watching the market and wondering how our publishers will fare, and not hearing very good news. So it may seem odd that I'd want to talk about expensive gifts for writers, when we're feeling lucky to buy a pencil.
But writers are dreaming people, and we're very good at imagining the future. And we're always trying to find ways to make writing fit better into the rest of our lives. So I thought it might be fun to show you some great things to help you write that are on the market now, or coming up. Some of them aren't expensive, but are interesting. Most of these are aimed at helping you make your writing more portable.
And after you read, how about telling us what's on your list for this or future Christmases?
I always write with a laptop, and use in much like a desktop, except that I can move it around. But it's heavy. A year ago I replaced my older Dell for a bigger Dell because I needed a bigger and better screen, but I missed the portability of the lightweight earlier model. I had hoped to get one of the new mini-notebooks before going on my last trip, but the one I wanted wasn't available in the model I wanted. By the time we had returned, I made up my mind I was never traveling with a big clunker again, and I bought the bitty laptop I had been wanting. I am NOT sorry.
I chose the MSI Wind. It's slightly larger, 10.1 inch screen to the 8.9 inch of others, and it has a larger keyboard. The Wind also has an anti-glare screen, which is really important to me since it reduces eye strain. It's about a third smaller than my regular laptop in all dimensions, and weighs 2.3 pounds. It has a huge 120 gigabyte hard drive and 1 gb memory, but I keep a minimum of stuff on it so I'll be less tempted to fool around when I'm away from home. But like all minis it does have internet capability. Prices usually range from around $450 at Buy.com up through $700 for fancy models, but I don't understand the point of fancy for this use. I got a great deal at $400, and no shipping. I take the little critter everywhere. Small keyboard takes a little practice but works well. The touchpad is strange, but just takes a little adapting. I love the bright, crisp screen, and could even do my artwork on it if I wanted. I wanted the long life battery, but it wasn't available for this model yet. So that will be next year's Christmas present.
My friend Lexie bought a different brand, the new Dell mini. At 8.9 inches, it's even smaller. My long fingers stretched out can almost span its width! It weighs about the same, a little over 2 pounds, and has a more stable solid state hard drive, which is much smaller capacity, but jump drives can provide extra space and the point is to keep the device minimal for travel. Extra longlife batteries are not available yet, but knowing Dell, they will be soon. And the price is really nice, at $349 and up.
You can find models by Asus for as little as $300, and they are top notch. Acer also makes great inexpensive models. Fujitsu owners rave about theirs, and I hear Sony's model is great, if a little expensive. Dell is now making a bigger model more the size of the one I bought, at about the same price.
Don't want the smaller keyboard, but like the portability? Check out Dell's new line of full-size lightweights. They're currently offering savings of about $300 or more, bringing the price as low as $724.
Don't want to carry a laptop? Here's a digital pen that will actually capture the page on which you make notes and pictures. The Livescribe can even convert your hand-written notes into digital text (you'll have to remove the first space in the link immediately following http because I'm having trouble with embedded links):
It apparently requires special paper, but you can find this little critter at Costco and Target. Currently it's running in the $199-299 cost range, but this is the kind of gadget that's likely do go down in cost, and I'm pretty sure it has competition out there already.
Just want something to record audio? Here's a pen that will go with you and record up to 7 hours of workshops or other stuff. It's a YouTube video but again, remove the space after http to see it. I'm having trouble with embedded links.
I don't know if this pen would record good enough quality to work with Dragon Naturally Speaking. But that's another way to write faster. I recently bought the newest version, Dragon Naturally Speaking Preferred 10, and got a great deal. Here's a link that can get you to some great prices, as low as $53 for the Standard version.
I'm finding Dragon a little challenging to work in audio instead of by typing, but as I'm learning, I find I really prefer it. It's definitely a lot faster to speak a story than to type it. The new version does far better than older ones and recognizes almost all my speech from the beginning. There are some words not in its "vocabulary", but they're easy to add. I dislike the headset, which pinches my head, but I just use a different one.
There are lots of other great gifts for much less money. Laptop users will appreciate a portable light that operates from the USB port. I have a snake cable type which I think it the simplest and lightest weight. Another useful gadget is the Kensington power adapter to convert DC into AC, and compact and simple if you like to run your laptop in the car. You just plug it into the cigarette lighter, then plug the laptop cord into it. No extra cords.
So what goodies would you like to see in your stocking this year-- or next?
Monday, December 08, 2008
Candy Cane BarkIn today’s busy world, finding a simple, quick recipe is a treat. When that recipe involves chocolate, it’s even better!
Below are several variations of one of my favorite holiday recipes. They are all easy to make and are great for impromptu get-togethers, for coffee/hot chocolate breaks with friends, or as after-dinner mints for your guests.
If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself enjoying them for a sweet snack when I’m racing out the door or wrapping gifts.
The first recipe can be found at http://www.recipezaar.com/Candy-Cane-Bark-14388
The rest are located at http://www.cooks.com/rec/search/0,1-0,cane_bark,FF.html
I hope you enjoy, and if you have another variation you’d like to share, please do!
Candy Cane Bark
1 (170 g) package white chocolate baking squares
2 red-and-white candy canes
Break candy canes into 2 or 3 pieces and place in a plastic bag and close top; smash with kitchen mallet to take out your frustrations and pulverize the candy.
In a small bowl, melt chocolate in microwave oven with Medium-Low power, checking every 30 seconds or so; white chocolate burns easily even in the microwave so better safe than sorry.
Cover a cookie sheet with wax paper.
Stir candy cane crumbs into melted white chocolate and stir well to combine.
Pour chocolate mixture onto wax paper, spreading thin with a spatula.
Stash cookie sheet in fridge about an hour or until it hardens.
Hold wax paper by one corner and start peeling it back, breaking off pieces of the bark; store pieces in airtight container in fridge.
HOLIDAY MARBLE BARK
One 1 lb. bag (16 oz.) chocolate chips
One 1 lb. bag (16 oz.) white chocolate chips
2 candy canes or about 20 starlite candies
Unwrap and crush the candy canes or starlite minds into very small pieces and set aside; place the bag of chocolate chips in one microwavable bowl, and the white chips in a separate bowl. Microwave each for about 2 ½ - 3 minutes, stopping and stirring every 30 seconds, until melted.
Immediately after melting chocolate, remove from microwave and add half of the crushed candies into each bowl of melted chocolate.
Spoon melted mixture onto wax paper, dropping spoonfuls of white and chocolate next to each other and then swirling to create a marbled effect. When all done dropping and swirling, place in fridge or freezer to harden.
In fridge give it a couple hours or one hour in the freezer, but watch it so it doesn't harden completely.
Break into pieces.
Alternate ideas: you could use toffee candies instead of peppermint, or chocolate-mint flavored chips - the possiblities of combinations are many!
2 (4 oz.) candy cane sticks
1 pkg. white almond bark (white chocolate)
Place candy cane sticks in a zip-lock baggy. Crush both candy cane sticks completely, getting them into as small of chunks as possible.
Melt almond bark in the microwave in 30 second increments, stirring occasionally until smooth (do not overheat).
Combine candy and chocolate and drop onto wax paper by spoonfuls.
Makes wonderful mints for the holidays. Very easy to make!
1 bag hard candy or peppermint canes, crushed
1 lb. white chocolate or almond bark
Melt almond bark or chocolate and stir in crushed candy until covered. Let set, break into pieces and chill.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
This Week on the Wet Noodle Posse
Thursday, December 11th: Lee McKenzie “A Family Heirloom and Recipe for Spicy Nuts”
Friday, December 12th: Q&A Topic: Great Gift Suggestions for Under $50
Friday, December 05, 2008
Labels: book clubs
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Sabotaging Christmasby Terry McLaughlin
Some families share holiday traditions that foster warm and wonderful memories. My four siblings and I shared some rather eccentric approaches to the season, with spying and sneaking near the top of the list.
Each year, our efforts to spoil our own Christmas-morning surprises escalated. On the rare occasions our mother left us unsupervised at home, we'd climb on chairs or shelving to search every corner of every storage area in the house, trying to find a gift cache. No matter how clever our parents were, we'd usually find something--with the exception of the one year our father kept our presents in the locked truck of his car. And no matter how we threatened each other to keep our discoveries secret, our mother usually found out we'd sneaked a peek--and then the presents would disappear, making us fear that Christmas as we'd known it might disappear, too.
My mother couldn't stand secrets or surprises any more than the rest of us, so she spared us the agony of waiting until Christmas morning to unwrap gifts from distant relatives. Anything that came in the mail got opened the day it arrived.
On Christmas Eve, we children would make a pact to wake in the middle of the night for a flashlight preview of coming attractions. One of us would rouse the others, and we'd all tiptoe toward the tree, terrified of being discovered out of bed, to investigate the goodies beneath the branches. Of course, by Christmas morning we were usually too tired to enjoy all the things we'd already figured out we were receiving.
I sometimes miss the old pre-Christmas spy games. They added an element of suspense to the season.
Here's a recipe for a delicious treat I discovered at tea in Australia last year. Mmmmmm--enjoy!
CHOCOLATE CARAMEL SLICE
1/2 Cup firmly packed brown sugar
2/3 Cup dried coconut
2/3 Cup self-rising flour
6 Tablespoons butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8" square cake pan. Stir sugar, coconut, and flour together; add butter and mix. Press mixture into prepared pan using back of a spoon. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned and slightly risen. Set base aside to cool for about 10-20 minutes (while making caramel). Leave oven on.
2 Tablespooons butter
2 Tablespoons corn syrup
14 oz (1 can) sweetened condensed milk
Place butter and corn syrup in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. When butter has melted, add condensed milk. Stir constantly over medium heat for about 9-12 minutes, until caramel thickens. Gently spread caramel over base. Return to oven for a further 10-12 minutes (a bit of lightly browned caramel should form around the edges). Allow slice to cool to room temperature.
5 ½ oz milk or dark chocolate, melted
Melt the chocolate in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring occasionally (or melt the chocolate in the microwave). Spread melted chocolate over caramel.
Refrigerate until chocolate is set, about 20-30 minutes. Remove slice from pan and cut into pieces, using a hot, dry knife (fill a tall glass with hot water, dip knife in water for a few seconds, wipe dry with a clean towel). Store slice in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
DEALING WITH STRESS, ESPECIALLY AROUND THE HOLIDAYS
At this time of year, magazines start running articles on dealing with holiday stress--a very worthwhile topic. These articles discuss simplifying the holidays and doing as much planning and work in advance--both useful for managing holiday stress. But my article is not going to be like the traditional ones you read in December.
I had an experience a few years that prompted me to write this blog, using my own situation as a teaching tool for stress management, both during the holiday time, and throughout the rest of the year.
On my way to a meeting in Hollywood, I received a call asking me why I wasn’t at the seminar I thought I was going to be teaching NEXT week. Fifty people had been waiting for me for 20 minutes, and the manager was IRATE!
Guess what my topic was? Stress Management.
I was horrified! I couldn’t believe I’d mixed up the date. I was also ashamed. It’s not like me to make mistakes like this. And, I hadn’t even studied the material I’d be presenting for four hours. Shaken, on the verge of tears, I called in to cancel my appearance at the meeting. Luckily there were others there who could take my place. I turned around and headed home to pick up the powerpoint program and the training and student manuals.
I called the irate manager (who by then had calmed down a bit) and profusely apologized. I told him I’d be there in about 45 minutes. I was a little relieved to learn they could move a part of their program that was supposed to come after my talk into the morning time, so they weren’t sitting around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for me.
I was also upset because this was only the second job I’d done for this consulting company, and I figured I’d just blown the opportunity for future work.
On the race back to my house, and then to the site, I knew I’d have to apply all the stress reduction techniques I was scheduled to teach my students, or I’d arrive at the hotel a frazzled mess, and have lost any credibility I had left. Plus, I knew I’d potentially alienated everyone who’d be listening to me, and I knew I’d have a lot of ground to regain--not something I’d be able to do if I was stressed and anxious.
Here’s what I did to decrease my stress level:
1. I began to take deep centering breaths. Centering breaths are when you breathe to the bottom of your lungs, pushing your belly out when you inhale, and pulling your belly in when you inhale.
2. I prayed. I knew I needed all the help I could get, so I asked for Divine guidance for the situation to turn out in a positive manner.
3. I began to list what I had control over and what I didn’t have control of.
* Have control over going back in time and fixing my mistake.
* Have control over the traffic.
* Have control over what was happening at the hotel, and what the people involved currently were feeling or thinking about me.
* Have control over the fact that I hadn’t even glanced at the materials.
* Have control over my attitude--negative or positive thoughts.
* Have control over my body--taking deep breaths.
* Have control over remaining panicked or preparing myself to teach a class by deciding what to do, and how I could use what I already knew about the topic, along with what was in the actual program from my consulting company.
4. I focused on letting go of the circumstances I didn’t have control over, and concentrated on what I did have control over.
Letting go meant not dwelling on them, and especially not magnifying the negative situation by building up more fearful fantasies in my mind.
By doing these four steps, I became more (although not completely) relaxed, and my mind started working on creative solutions. I was able to gear up my energy, knowing I had to go in and give the best teaching performance of my life. So when I arrived at the hotel, an hour and 15 minutes after I was supposed to have started my presentation, I was ready to hit my mark.
And I did.
What followed was an amazing experience, one that taught me more than I taught my class. I walked in, apologized publicly to the audience, and used my own example--what happened, all my reactions, and how I handled them--as the opening to the class. They were laughing and relating, and in five minutes, I knew I had them hooked. Even the manager (who’d greeted me politely, but had silently made it clear that he was mad) relaxed his stiff body language and joined in the laughter.
So I relaxed, too. I put the negative experience behind me, and rode the wave of laughter into a positive, energy-filled presentation. I was able to navigate through the material, maybe not the way I would have if I’d been prepared, but in a way that still worked. And we ended up having fun. They were a close-knit group with a sarcastic sense of humor, and that helped. We laughed a lot.
At the end, when we were discussing how to learn from our mistakes, I again used myself as an example. “One,” I said, “was that I’d learned to triple check future speaking engagement dates. But two, was that I have learned I can make a spectacular mistake, be VERY upset about it, yet meet the challenge and turn it around. How valuable is that to know about myself?” As I was speaking I could feel the positive boost I’d given to my self-esteem. I laughed and told the class, “I’ll have to fill out an evaluation form for myself.”
The class evaluations came back very positive, and my consulting company was very pleased.
What a lesson. (One I’d prefer not to have to learn again.) I’d stepped up to a challenge and mastered it. If I’d given up and avoided the situation, this experience would be forever branded in my consciousness as a shameful failure. But instead, I have a positive experience that I can always use to motivate myself when I’m confronted with a new challenge.
Since that time, I’ve given many trainings for that company and continue to have a positive (and lucrative) relationship with them.
So, as the holidays approach and you’re dealing with challenging situations, remember to take deep breaths, pray, decided what you have control over and what you don’t. Then release the anxiety about what you have no control over. Focus on the positive--especially love and gratitude for all the wonderful people and things you have in your life.
I hope your holidays are relaxed, filled with special family and friends, laughter, love, and joy.
Labels: holiday stress
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Post on any blog between Dec 1-15th to be eligible to win a copy of Diane Gaston's holiday story A Twelfth Night Tale in the Regency Anthology MISTLETOE KISSES (Nov 2006)!
One of the greatest gifts I ever received in December came from last place expected.
Have you ever worked around someone that everyone told you was a grouch, or always cranky, and warned you to avoid this person when you could? I’m going to tell you why you might miss out on something wonderful if you let others form your opinions.
Before I became an author I used to climb over a hundred feet in the air to paint huge portraits, murals, whatever an outdoor advertising company needed. This was before the advent of computer printing on vinyl material that is now used. Master artists were a necessity for producing the outdoor paintings and wall murals. Some companies built large warehouses where they could bring the sign panels inside to be painted since weather affected production schedules.
During the fall one year, I met Charles when I accepted contracts for one company east of Atlanta. l estimated his height at three or four inches over six feet, almost a foot taller than me. He wore short-sleeved button down shirts and slacks on his slender build, soft gray hair cut short, intelligent eyes that had seen over six decades of this world and a stern mouth indicating he was all business. No joking around. I knew the man who owned the company and his staff well since I’d painted for him for many years, but I’d never met Charles until I came inside to knock out an armload of work they needed produced.
I give everyone a chance to be my friend unless they at some point convince me I’m making an unwise investment of energy and time. Upon arriving every morning at the shop, I’d greet the ladies in the office with a “good morning” then do the same with Charles who at first barely nodded and grunted something that could be misconstrued as “morning.” On my way to get lunch, I always asked the ladies and Charles if I could bring them anything back. The girls would take me up on it, but Charles usually had a curt, “no thanks.”
I figured a two word answer was progress, since I’d made up my mind to see if the person behind the stern face was really a sourpuss or not. I’d catch him watching me paint from across the room, but I wouldn’t let on that I saw him. What I came to realize later was that as much as he respected my ability to paint anything any size, he respected my work ethics of arriving by 6am when I lived 60 miles away and painting sometimes three days straight without stopping to hit a deadline the company needed.
I left later than usual for lunch one day and he was the only one in the office. I invited him to have lunch with me. His forehead wrinkled in question as he considered my offer then he shook his head, saying, “I’ve got soup I have to eat.” I had the distinct impression he didn’t particularly want the soup, even though it was probably wonderful since his wife Sue is a terrific cook. I told him, “The heck with soup, let’s go to Ryan’s and eat some real food.” His eyes flared with surprise at insisting then crinkled with humor. I almost had that smile I’d been trying for. He agreed and we road in my pickup truck to lunch that I tried to buy, but Charles was a Southern gentleman who wouldn’t stand for it.
Over the next couple months, I came to know the Charles behind the stern face, the man who had charmed his wife and raised two daughters he taught to be independent women. I found out he and the owner of the company had been close friends for many years and that even though Charles was retired and financially independent, he came in early each morning to work long days to help his friend who needed someone to oversee the paint shop and trucking business since we were located so far from the main office. Charles did not have to work. His was a labor of love. The more I got to know him, the more I admired the man.
We spent a lot of lunches talking about things we enjoyed, like our passion for bass fishing. We talked tackle and good fishing holes. We shared stories of our lives and families. When the holidays rolled around, we hit on the topic of favorite foods. When I told him I loved sweet potatoes, he got excited, telling me he was bringing me a surprise. Right before the Thanksgiving break, he brought me a square aluminum pan filled with what he called the best sweet potato soufflé. He told me it was made by a woman who was more family than housekeeper and had been with his family for many decades.
I took the dish home, baked it as instructed and was convinced on the first bite that I had never tasted a sweet potato casserole-type dish as good. When I saw Charles the following Monday and asked for the recipe he said, “There isn’t one. Our housekeeper just makes it and she doesn’t know how to write it down.” He went on to explain she was very old and grew up during a different era – she never wanted to learn how to read and write. I assure you Charles would have provided a tutor and anything she needed as he felt it was important for women to be self sufficient and educated, no matter if they were his children or not. So I told Charles to go sit down with his housekeeper and write down what she did. He laughed, since no one ever told Charles what to do…but he came back in a week with that recipe.
During that December my husband and I joined Charles and Sue for a meal with their family where Charles got to show off his trophy bass on the wall. Over the months leading up to December as Charles and I went to lunch, I had started including other painters and office staff on some lunches so they would get to know this terrific guy. I count myself fortunate to have gotten to know the real Charles who was so generous of spirit.
He gave me one of my greatest December gifts by becoming my friend.
In the spirit of sharing as he did with me, I give you the famous sweet potato recipe that has been passed down for generations and was never written down until Charles spent a Saturday deciphering the recipe.
1 cup sugar
4 oz. Butter (1 stick)
½ cup whipping cream
1 t. vanilla
Juice from 1 orange squeezed
1 bag large marshmallows (Note – I had a UK friend who hated marshmallows so you can put pecans on top if you want)
*Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Boil potatoes until a fork goes through center easily then drain and mash. Add all ingredients to the potatoes except marshmallows. Whip with electric mixer until smooth. Pour into a large casserole dish. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes then spread marshmallows across the top. Bake until marshmallows are toasty brown. (Can make this in advance and freeze then cook the day it’s needed.)
Today is a special day for Dianna as she has a new book out. Dianna normally writes romantic thrillers, but this is something a bit different. MIDNIGHT KISS GOODBYE is an urban fantasy that is part of the Dead After Dark anthology (St. Martin’s Press/Dec 2, 2008), which includes stories by #1 NYT best seller Sherrilyn Kenyon and NYT best sellers J.R.Ward and Susan Squires.
For an excerpt on any of her stories and more on NYT best seller Dianna Love visit www.AuthorDiannaLove.com
Share your story with us today.
Stop in tomorrow to find out how to DEAL WITH HOLIDAY STRESS by our own Dr. Deb.
Monday, December 01, 2008
- Dr. Deb who shared tons of great advice on our WNP ezine is here to tell you how to enjoy the holidays with less stress.
- For you readers out there – our talented Noodlers will share a short story or two with you this month. After all, this is a blog created by a group of writers who came together in 2003 when they all finaled in the most prestigious unpublished contest known as the Golden Heart. Since then, this group has published over 150 books so you don’t want to miss a free story by a Noodler.
- Great stories about kids and animals during the holidays
Please share your stories, too. We love to hear from visitors and reward posting by giving away prizes. This month kicks off a new program by the Noodlers for 2009 as well so while you’re here in December feel free to tell us what you think of the new format and share ideas you’d like to see blogged about.
Monday – Did YOU Shop on Black Friday? Tell us about it.
Tuesday - Dianna Love – The Grouch Who Made Christmas Special and a recipe passed down through five generations without being in print…but it is now.
Wednesday – Dr. Deb tells you “How To Deal With Holiday Stress”
Thursday – Terry McLaughlin shares a heartwarming story and a recipe
Friday - New Releases and We want Book Groups to tell us how you celebrate the end of a year of sharing your love of reading with good friends. All reader questions and comments are welcome.
By NYT Best Seller Dianna Love
Yes, I’ve never shopped the Friday after Thanksgiving. Mainly because I’m not much of a shopper to begin with and we normally fish on that Friday. When my husband and I traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi this year we found out everyone was shopping on Black Friday. Women struck out for the mall and men headed to the home improvement stores.
First I had to find out how it came to be known as Black Friday. One of my nieces, Ashley, explained that it was the day retailers went from being in the “red” (accounting term for being in negative income) to being in the “black” (making a profit). My sister-in-law Teri is amazing when it comes to finding deals and having coupons for even better deals. My other niece Tiffany scouted ahead for the next spot in to hit in the mall and kept the group together since we tended to wander a lot. The check out lines rivaled those at rock concerts. The stores were full of staff happy to help you find anything you needed. We were given free tree ornaments and more coupons. Some had been shopping since midnight, but we started at 3:00 am so by late morning we were hungry and tired. My nieces were probably even more tired than I was since both had been up late the night before. But they were troopers to the end. We ate breakfast and headed home for a short nap then Teri and I went to see "Australia" at the movies. GREAT MOVIE.
All in all, a great day to spend with the women in my family and wonderful Thanksgiving weekend.
So did YOU shop on Black Friday? Get any great deal? See a good movie this weekend? Kick off the month of December with us by sharing your stories, because we’re going to share ours.