Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas Means Chick-a-wow-wow

I just came back from almost 2 weeks in Texas, also known as the Land of Nephews. They are all adorable and precocious and endlessly fascinating. Despite certain play-time crowd scenes and noise levels that could lead one to suspect a much higher number, I have 3 nephews.

In case you were wondering, that is the EXACT SAME NUMBER as the number of chipmunks in the Chipmunk Movie seen constantly on television commercials (and presumably movie screens) everywhere these days.

Okay, here's where we venture into the interactive form of blogging. Please, follow these instructions: Stand up. Now put both hands up on your head, with your elbows out. Bend your knees just a little. Starting with your hips, do a little crazy side-to-side shimmy, letting your ribs, knees and elbows get into the act. Add just a little up and down motion with your torso and purr, “Chick-a-wow-wow, Chick-a-wow-wow.” Grin mischievously and let your eyes sparkle.

You have just re-enacted one of my 3-year-old nephew's favorite moves, one that totally dominated this holiday season's family-time. He chick-a-wow-wowed through play time, nap time, dinner time, bath time and car time. The first time he did it he caught us all by surprise. We roared laughing and of course that first big response landed us in a cycle of never-ending chick-a-wow-wows. And it's catching – my mom, sister and I have all been known to chick-a-wow-wow. As far as I can tell, no one is immune. Eventually, you just have to try it yourself.

Go on. I know you want to.

Chick-a-wow-wow. It means, 'happy holidays!'

Friday, December 14, 2007

Shhhh, It Can Hear You

So in a big ol’ case of Don’t-Think-I’m-Not-Listening, Winter went a little haywire here yesterday. It wasn’t the biggest or worst winter storm we’ve ever had – in fact, we only got about 8 inches of snow in Boston – but it hit at just the right time to create the worst traffic jam Boston has ever seen. It was gridlock in the purest sense of the word ‘lock’. Thousands of cars just sat on main roads without moving. For hours. If I hadn’t seen it myself I’m not sure I’d have believed it.

The facts were these: (for those Pushing Daisies fans out there)

Every year our Exhibits & Collections department has its own little mini-holiday-celebration lunch. We are the only department in the museum with staff that is permanently located in another building, several miles away from the main museum. So for the holiday luncheon those of us who do work in the main museum carpool over to the Design & Production building, several miles away, in an industrial corner of Boston, nestled between Roxbury and Dorchester. According to tradition it is always a very nice lunch.

We had all heard that the storm was coming, and were beginning to feel our usual meteorological skepticism loosen just a little. “Maybe it really will snow here,” we thought. (Bostonians have learned to let the hype about winter storms fall past us like a misthrown snowball – it’s so often wrong.) But the first flakes started to fall just as we pulled into the D&P parking lot. Apparently this storm was going to happen just as predicted. How unusual. We hustled all the food upstairs and commenced stuffing our faces in a friendly collegial way. Elvis hooted through ‘Blue Christmas’ in the background and we chowed through an impressive amount of chicken parmigiana, salad, chocolate trifle and cupcakes.

By 2 pm we were all getting antsy. Although the snow had only begun to fall about an hour before, there was already an inch on the roads. We all set out for home. (For the record, we all made it home. Eventually.) I rode with my boss. She and I were heading north of the river – she would drop me off in my neighborhood as she drove on to hers. At least, that was the plan. It should have taken us 30 minutes at most.

It took us 5 hours. FIVE HOURS. That’s longer than it takes to get to New York from here. We left at 2. I got to my apartment at 7 pm. It literally took us 3 hours to travel 3 miles. Four hours just to get across the river. We began to pick up speed a little when we finally got into Cambridge and the cars around us peeled off into various side roads, finding their way home. By the time I got home, the storm was almost over, and we had received about 8-10 inches of snow.

For the record, here are some of the many things my boss and I discussed for the 5 hours we were in snowbound traffic together: Project Runway, whether that guy really thought he was going to turn left or not, American’s Next Top Model, the importance of cultural competency in museums for welcoming new immigrant visitors, books by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, backpacking, engagement rings, Christmas shopping, car accidents, pregnancy, kitchen timers, which lane appeared to be moving a few feet further ahead than the other, emergency rooms, how mothers can’t break down while comforting their children but are free to do so afterwards, how glad we were not to be the policemen conducting traffic through the intersections in the storm, how fast the snow was falling, bus rides, how eating sushi on bus rides is a bad idea, the posing and basic uselessness of modern presidential debates, which side roads we felt brave enough to try, and who was going to get out next to scrape the snow and ice off of the windshield wipers.

We get along well.

On the 11 o’clock news last night many of the stories were about the storm and about the legendary traffic jams created by it. People STILL WEREN’T HOME even then. Some public school kids didn’t get on busses until 9 pm because the busses couldn’t get to the schools any faster than that. (Can you imagine the plight of those poor bus drivers taking busses full of caged adolescents home at 11 pm last night, after the world’s longest snowbound school day? To extremely worried parents? Those people deserve mercy, medals and maybe tropical vacations.)

This morning the sun was out and most roads had been plowed clear. Except for the snowdrifts, the crazy puzzle of cars from last night’s muffled and motionless city might never have been.

One other winter beef: sidewalks. By morning most people had shoveled, sanded and/or salted, although the few who hadn’t certainly earned abundant and totally appropriate ill will from passing pedestrians (including me). Legally homeowners have 6 hours after the storm ends to clear the paths in front of their houses. Nothing makes me itch to be a snitch more than having to risk life and limb on someone else’s icy-slippery walk because while they’ve clearly used it to exit the building, they haven’t bothered to clear it for anyone else who may need to walk past. Grrr. Steam rises gently from my ears…

Anyway. I must thank Geekwif for pointing out that cute winter coats are rarely warm winter coats. Since I am far more wedded to the idea of being warm than being fashionable, I will adjust my standards for outdoor gear accordingly. Such a relief.

Hope you’re all warm and well and mobile – and appreciating those states for the joys they are.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Mysteries of Winter

I’ve lived in Boston for almost 5 years now. Originally from Texas, in the past having made myself at home in Australia and England and New York, it has still taken almost this entire time to make me feel relatively at home up here. There are many things about Boston that I love and will miss when I eventually leave. (Oh, I’ll be leaving, that’s for certain. I can’t believe I’ve stayed here this long. My traveling feet need to move on. To some place warmer and sunnier.)

What it comes down to is that I’ll always be a canker in the oyster that is Boston, and it would take many more decades to make me a local pearl than I’m willing to give to this place. My accent is different. I don’t like sugar in my cornbread. I think oysters are gross. But really, the biggest reason for my incurable foreign-ness can be summed up in one word: winter.

Winter usually seems to me to be almost offensively overdone up here. Like a thirteen-year-old who just doesn’t know when to stop. It just goes on and on and on and on… Really? We’re going to top out at a whopping 8 degrees today? You don’t think you made that point last week when we didn’t get above 15 degrees? Really? We need another 2 feet of snow? Are you sure those last 3 blizzards didn’t really convey the basic message???? Oh, here we go. A giant coating of ice. Like we didn’t all see the news this week. You did this in Oklahoma already!! Sigh. Eye roll. Geez.

Winter and I get along like a cat in a bath. Picture me: screeching, lost to reason, claws out, ears back, shoulders up, occasionally swearing, swiping at anything within reach, hissing and wailing like a banshee. That’s my inner self every single day that is below 40 degrees. I just don’t like being cold. And although it is irrational to feel this way, I take it personally. I resent being cold. Winters in Boston seem to go on for merciless ever. They start in November or sometimes a little earlier and don’t end until May. When the rest of the world is counting how many daffodils burst into bloom each sunny spring day, we’re still bound by cold grey skies, waiting for the day when our long-johns can be retired for a whole 3 months.

Long-johns. Sigh. Even the concept can make me weary. But if I didn’t wear long-johns all winter long I’d be a freeze-dried little mackerel, believe me. And it doesn’t matter that I’ve found the super thin kind, made of 100% silk. There is simply no way to feel even one speck of glamour while wearing long-johns. You may be walking along in your fab new boots, feeling all stride-y and America’s Next Top Model fierce, but you can’t walk fast enough to get away from that mentally-flannel layer you’re wearing next to your skin. They may not be bulky in actual fact, but in my mind I’ve just wrapped myself in a red flannel Union suit like you see in certain cartoons, then pulled jeans on over it. No one else may be aware of it, but I know, I know with a clarity greater than that of the Hubble telescope: because of long-johns, I waddle all winter long. There I go. Insulated and waddly, like a lost Antarctic penguin poking around the North Pole.

Okay, without being too Pollyanna about it, I will name two things I do like about winter: 1) The gorgeous white hush of a brand new snowfall. It’s breathtaking. If only the snow fairies would come out at night and scrape all the sidewalks clear. Then it would be perfect. 2) Soups and stews. I do love a good warm bowl of winter-defying yumminess. The contrast between the warm comfort of what I’m eating, and the iciness outside adds a delicious piquancy to the meal. Mmmm.

Despite my years of winter experience, however, there are still a few mysteries I have yet to solve. If you know the answer, please let me know. These questions pop up in November every year and I can only scratch my head and wonder. I’ve never yet figured them out.

1) Coats. Where on earth do the women of Boston find their coats? They’re so cute. And fashionable and flattering. My coats are huge, ugly, unflattering, usually the color and shape of a potato, and very, very warm. Every time I go coat shopping with the intention of finally buying a chic Boston coat I am hobbled by three things. First, I never trust that the coat I’m trying on in a warm store will actually keep me safe from frostbite once I step outdoors. I am deeply distrustful of all coats until I’ve tried them in actual winter conditions. Unfortunately, most stores are not keen on my inspired notion of rent-to-own winter coats. Second, coats cost like $385. I can’t help but laugh loud and long every time I see a tag like that on a coat. As if. Psha. And third, every time I go shopping I see the same three coats. The square black or grey wool number. Very basic. No personality. The puffy coat that looks like a ski jacket and has a fake fur collar. Always in some weird color like putty or puce. And the 80s throwback, with oddly short sleeves, quilted in a pattern that for some reason reminds me vividly of the 5th grade and usually comes in some shade of lavender. Where are the gorgeous little belted orange or green coats I see on the streets? I think there must be a secret coat depot somewhere. As a canker rather than a native, I may never know…

2) Noses. Apparently my little Texas nose reacts just as hysterically to winter conditions as does the rest of me. When I step outside on a cold day my nose instantly fires up the old boiler and shoots hot water up to the surface. Ten steps from my front door and I’ve got the sniffles. Twenty steps and I’m sorely in need of a Kleenex. Every. Single. Time. And as soon as I step inside some place warm, I need to blow my nose again. I know this is some sort of defense mechanism. But I do have to wonder, why doesn’t anyone else have this problem? I swear to you, in all the years I’ve been taking the T to work, I am the ONLY PERSON I ever see using a Kleenex. People don’t sniff or snort or blow their noses. Like, ever. I am utterly mystified. And convinced I have the world’s most active human nose.

3) Personal thermostats. Speaking of mystified. When I go outside on any day that is colder than 35 degrees, I spend a certain amount of time right before my grand exit going through a series of motions I call ‘rugging up.’ I put on my big coat. I put on my hat. I put on my gloves, making sure to tuck the sleeves of what I’m wearing inside the cuffs of the gloves, and the cuffs of the gloves inside the sleeves of my coat. Then I wrap a scarf around the place where my neck can usually be found, in case I need to hunker down like a turtle to protect my face from the wind. THEN I’m ready to head out. THEN is also usually when I remember something important like an address I need to write down or something I need to put away before I go. Then I get all hot and sweaty inside my coat because what I’m wearing is definitely over-the-top for indoor temperatures. Once I get to my destination (usually the subway station) I take it all off. Hat, scarf and gloves go in my bag. Coat gets unbuttoned. When I get on the train I take my coat off and hold it. Here’s the mystery: I AM THE ONLY PERSON WHO DOES THIS. Every single other person on my crowded train car every single morning – we’re talking several hundred people – keeps it all on. Oh, they may swipe off their hats and gloves, but they leave scarves around their necks, and rarely bother to unbutton their coats. I am bewildered. Aren’t they turning into disgusting sweat pigs in there? I would be. Maybe locals have fabulously fine-tuned personal thermostats that allow them to wear 4 inches of protective outerwear while inside and not get overheated. It sounds so improbable, doesn’t it?

Anyway. We are expecting winter to arrive on the express about midday today, the same howler that bowled through the middle of the country a few days ago, only slightly less fearsome. Gotta go get out my big ugly coat and a pocketful of Kleenex. I’m already wearing my long-johns.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why Strawberry Shortcake Does Not Go with Roasted Chestnuts

A friend of mine has granted me permission to tell one of the saddest Christmas tales I have ever heard. Hilarious. But tragic.

It goes like this.

Once upon a time in western Massachusetts there lived a family consisting of Mom, Dad and two little girls. My friend was the younger of the two daughters. Let’s call her… Kate.

This little family was part of a MUCH LARGER family and this Large Family was in the habit of having Large Family Gatherings for the holidays. Very Large Family Festivities which were often very festive but occasionally somewhat tiring, if you can picture it.

So one year when Kate was about 7 or 8 her Mom and Dad decided they wanted to have a Simple Family Christmas, just themselves and their girls, at home. Not only would they have a small and simple Christmas, but they would have an Old-Fashioned one, with all sorts of cooking experiments involving open fires and heavy iron pans. Kate gives the impression it looked like a lot of work and she didn’t really understand why it was so important. She wasn’t all that into the cooking anyway. What she wanted most in the world for Christmas that year was a Strawberry Shortcake Doll. Shiny red hair, freckles, giant head, red dress, striped green legs, pink hat, strawberry perfume – she was at the top of Kate’s wish list.

You can imagine how thrilled Kate was to receive a Strawberry Shortcake Doll on Christmas morning. All through the weird traditional meal (which I’ve always imagined was oddly scorched and raw by turns, although that’s probably just my imagination) she kept her new doll near her and after the meal, with the family all crowded around the fire roaring in the fireplace, she held her Strawberry Shortcake in her arms and was content.

Until her parents decided to add one more tradition to the day: roasting chestnuts on an open fire. Mom and Dad threw some chestnuts in a pan and stuck them in the fire, preparing to enjoy this picturesque treat in true Old-Fashioned style. No one had mentioned to them that if you don’t score the chestnuts, steam builds up inside them. Since their chestnuts were unscored, steam built up, and the next thing Kate knew, roasted chestnuts were zinging all around the living room like little comets. Zing! Pop! They flew past, knocking into hard things, and the smell of singed material began to fill the room. Her mom and dad and sister started yelling and scrambling, ducking to avoid the flying hot chestnuts and to prevent scorch marks.

Suddenly Kate smelled melted plastic and hot strawberries. She looked down and realized she was looking through the top of Strawberry Shortcake’s head, right down into the hollow plastic mystery of it. A flying chestnut had landed on the doll’s head and melted a hole right through it. Like a comet landing in a snowbank.

Here comes the saddest part – it always makes my sister very sad to hear this part.

NO ONE REPLACED HER DOLL. Kate kept that hole-in-the-head Strawberry Shortcake for some time after that day, and in fact well remembers the rattling sound of that chestnut rolling around inside.

So. Roasting chestnuts on an open fire isn’t nearly the dreamy peaceful activity it’s always made out to be.

And somebody needs to get Kate a new Strawberry Shortcake doll!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Secretly I am 8

I love this. Beyond all reason. It just makes me happy.

Here’s why:

- Three words: Doo. Wop. Christmas.

- None of them have eyes.

- When the solo reindeer hits a high note, his tail wags.

- Santa has absurdly small feet.

- Santa has a tired old swinger’s panache when it comes to tossing microphones. He probably founded the Rat Pack.

- They all – Santa, solo reindeer, back-up reindeer – maintain a level of Elvis-would-envy-it cool that I have decided (after much study) comes from their totally nonchalant approach to caroling.

- Santa permits himself a toothy grin toward the end, when they all start to bring it on home.

- The understated finale.

I’m telling you. Totally irresistible. On some level I have never progressed beyond the age of 8. My Inner 8 Year Old never tires of this.

Acting this out with a few friends in the privacy of my own office every holiday season is one of my favorite festive traditions. We take turns being Santa or the solo reindeer. Fair’s fair.

Sisters, Pantsuits and Poodles

In just over a week I’ll be heading to Texas to spend the holidays with family. Perhaps because I’ll get to see her in just a few days I’ve been thinking of my sister quite a lot. We can get pretty silly when we get together. Let me tell you a story…

One day my sister and I went shopping. Not to the Mother Ship, which is our usual favorite shopping destination (Dillard’s to those who aren’t familiar with the lingo), but to a second-hand shop in the town where my sister lives. This self-styled ‘boutique’ – sadly, it is past its heyday, but let me tell you, its heyday was GOOD – was run by a roster of very energetic elderly women and was the sort of place where you could shop for hours, try on 87 different things and walk out with 2 or 43 things. All for about $23. It just depended on the day, and how the grass was growing.

Two hilarious things happened that day. This often happens when the two of us go out together. Cosmic forces unite for comedy’s sake.

First hilarious thing: we found the most hideously fantastic, perfectly awful two-piece pantsuit in the history of pantsuits. Which I have to imagine is saying a great deal although until this moment I’ve never given much thought to the history of pantsuits. It was hot pink, shiny, marbleized fake snakeskin looking, possibly made of vinyl. It had a halter top with a flared waist, almost a peplum. And pants. Hot pink shiny pants. It was an outfit Miss Piggy would have “Hi-YAH!”-ed to get for her very own. Naturally we went into spasms of pig-snorting giggles* as soon as we saw it, with lots of frantic whispers, points, and making the big eyes. We didn’t want the old ladies to know we were making fun of their merchandise. That would be rude. So instead we popped it into the dressing room we shared, tried it on and took cell phone pictures of the hot pink vinyl glory. I’m afraid the pig-snorting giggles got a little louder because an old lady voice asked, from the other side of the dressing room curtain, “Is everything all right in there?” You’ve no idea the effort of will it took to say “Yes” as normally as possible. We had to stop looking at each other, our reflections in the mirror, the pantsuit and just about anything else in order to get the giggles back under control.

(In the interest of full disclosure, we did not buy the pantsuit. That day. After I returned to Boston and told this story to my friend MKA she was horrified to know we hadn’t bought it and insisted that we do so, pronto. Kelsey went back, bought it and sent it to me so it is now my very own perfect shiny pink vinyl pantsuit. MKA wore it for Halloween this year. I say with perfect sincerity and a little awe, she was truly the embodiment of Tacky. K, whenever you want to borrow it, it’s all yours!)

Second hilarious thing. Later that day – it may have been another visit to the same store, but I think it was the same day – I was checking out. Ahead of me in line was a little old lady who was bopping around to the music the store was playing to encourage the spending of money. You know, the lively melodies of Lionel Ritchie or Juice Newton. Something like that. She just couldn’t sit still and I couldn’t help smiling a little watching her bop around, waiting to pay for her collection of teal and purple clothing. She looked very happy. The lady behind the desk was caught up in some baffling technical detail concerning the last sale. She turned to the Bopping Lady and said, “I’m sorry, it’ll just be a minute.” The Bopping Lady smiled and bopped and said, “Oh that’s all right, hon. I’m not goin’ anywhere till my poodle’s done, so you just take your time.”

It took me a minute to figure out that there was one of those dog beauty parlors just a few doors down from the second-hand shop and that ‘till my poodle’s done’ was not a new Southern unit of time or random figure of speech. She meant it literally.

Although Kelsey and I (and MKA) have been known to use ‘till my poodle’s done’ as a unit of time since then. It’s vague and distracting and a great way to buy time if you need it.

* For a full description of the PSL - that's pig-snorting laughter - phenomenon, please visit Kelsey's explanation of it here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Almost a Recipe

“You’re once, twice, three times a LAY-DEE.”

I have no idea why that was in my head.


My sister has referred to my Pita Bread Pizza recipe on her blog. To be precise, I don’t exactly have a recipe. But in the interest of satisfying a curious public, I’ll describe my pita bread pizza building process and you can do with it what you will.

Pita Bread Pizzas

These pizzas are infinitely customizable. At my sister’s house we make one for each person according to their tastes. (Depending on the size of your pita bread that may be too much, too little or just right. Consult the Three Bears for possible solutions.)

I start with pita bread. Usually the whole wheat kind, but whatever works for you. Put the pita bread on a cookie sheet and start building up.

I’m a traditionalist so I start by putting something red on it. Tomatoes in some form – canned, diced, spaghetti sauce, fresh, chopped, sautéed, plain, spiced. Whatever. I start with red. If I’m feeling fancy I might add oregano, basil or garlic, but this is not usually a fancy meal. My favorite tomato base is Hunt’s chopped tomatoes with balsamic vinegar.

Next comes cheese. I like to combine cheeses and I often have a good selection in my cheese drawer. Grated cheddar and mozzarella are good for a base.

Vegetables. While I’ve been known to put chicken or salami on my pizza, my favorite combination is mushrooms, peppers and black olives. Chopped fresh and thrown on top to whatever density looks appetizing that day.

More cheese. Usually shredded parmesan but if I have any, I’ll sometimes dot chevre or bocconcini on as well.

Then I pop it in the oven at 375 until the cheese melts and begins to brown (usually 15 minutes, but it bears watching). I like it DONE.

I’m a little embarrassed. This doesn’t look like a recipe to me. Oh well. It does make a good dinner so enjoy. Bon appetit!