Friday, December 31, 2010

Another New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve rang in this morning with news that a lifelong friend had died, and with it, came a day devoted to writing a Memorial for him. Because of the holidays, and his pre-expressed wishes for an absolutely private service, almost no one has heard the news, and for a while, it will be able to stay that way. Not long. He was beloved by many, known by very, very few. 

He lived a tremendous life. I have spent the day calling a few people, and putting off most others. It would be nice for them to welcome the new year without knowing something so unbearably sad.

I also know that unless they were on the call list, he wouldn't much care if they ever find out. The time for them to think of him -- to go see him and call him and invite him to dinner -- was long before his last few days. I am happy for the holidays and special occasions he was able to celebrate at my house this past year.

Because his death was so unexpected (no long vigil at a hospital bed), I found myself thinking all day: what would he want? what would he do? I believe he would want very little time wasted on grief or ceremony, and a lot of time spent celebrating his life by trying to do more of what he did -- which was walkin' his talk. If somebody was hungry, he fed them. If they were homeless, he took them in. He never screened a call. If he was alive, he picked up and asked what you needed. If someone was cold, he gave them the coat off his back. That's not an expression. He really did that. I saw him do it.

I went through the entire holiday season without experiencing one moment of faith, but I find myself clinging to one now, in my hope and belief that he is in a better world, because he was sure too damn good for this one.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Up on the Rooftop....

At one celebration last week, the Chef whipped up a batch of "fennel cakes" as a special Christmas treat for me. He could've made funnelcakes, but knows I won't eat them out of season, so, much as the title suggests, these represented a savory (and genius) take. I couldn't begin to tell you how to make them, but they were fennel-infused and lightly dusted with parmesan. For dipping sauces, we had an onion chutney/type/jam; sundried tomato pesto; and an herbed goat cheese spread.

They seemed like a truly extravagant amount of trouble, but God knows, I certainly hope they become an annual holiday tradition like Harriette's cheese straws.

I credit the richness of the holiday fare with the completely insane cartoon dreams I had all night, from which, I awakened at 4 am to a persistent scritch, scritch, scritch on the rooftop, just over my head.

I opened one eye.

The TV was off. The stereo was off. I had left the blackberry downstairs on the charger on my way to bed. The iPod battery had died and I had clawed my way out of the ear buds in my sleep. The only light in the room came from the dim glow of the on-switch for the electric bedwarmer (which I have named Steve, after my three alltime favorite boyfriends). The usual street sounds were completely deadened by snow. It was as quiet a moment as has ever existed in this house, until, there it was again. Scritch, scritch, scritch.

At this point, I sat bolt upright in bed, rubbed my bleary eyes with the backs of both hands, and said, out loud, with some fog-induced expectation of a clear answer: "Santaaaaaaa?"

It wasn't him. As far as I know, anyway.

After further listening, it sounded just like the raccoon/cougar/hobo/possum that got caught in the attic this summer. I'm not sure what the critter turned out to be, because he (or she) never took the bait that the critter-catcher set for him. Eventually, the scritching stopped, so I figured s/he died, or moved to a nice farm in the country.

Of course it might not be the same animal. It could be a cousin. It could be anything. I considered calling Trapper John, who interrupted a wedding to come check my traps last summer (and that's not a euphemism). But I quickly thought better of it.

They might be willing to come set traps on Christmas Eve, but certainly no one would come monitor them on Christmas weekend, and the whole point of a humane trap is to catch and release. If you don't release fairly quickly, it isn't very humane at all.

I already hate the holidays.  I don't think I could take the prospect of euthanizing a damn reindeer in my attic.


Trapper John and Wild Kingdom
Down the Rabbit Hole
If We Can Make It Thru December

Friday, December 24, 2010

Spoke Too Soon

"Remember, you can't spell Families without Lies." 
--Robert Duvall, Four Christmases

a stocking stuffer from my Mom, 2010
 I don't mean to be smug about the Holidays, but I am far from the last-minute shopper type.

Sometime around Halloween, I procure everything I could possibly need from the suburbs for the next six months (dog food, 50 gallon drums of Palmolive... the usual). Then a week or two before Thanksgiving I issue a travel advisory, reminding everyone I know to stock up, as if preparing for the apocalypse. "I'm out of Eukanuba," they might idly observe. "GO!! GO NOW!!" I say. "You won't be able to get within a million miles of PetSmart til January," I insist. "Do you have shampoo?" I'll fret out loud. "You might need it."

Holiday traffic, like ballgame traffic, rarely "happens" to me. I plan ahead. I re-route. (I said I don't mean to be smug; I didn't say I'm successful.)

So it should be some indication of the love that I have for my mother that we ended up at Bed, Bath and Beyond two days before Christmas.

It's a mother-daughter tradition that we grab a movie and a meal sometime Christmas week. I remember the first ones were Terms of Endearment and Working Girl circa 1980s. One year was Brokeback Mountain. A couple years ago it was Four Christmases (Dwight Yoakam plays a pastor!) This week, it was Little Fockers. The movie isn't important (obviously). It's just a couple quiet hours away from the usual holiday chaos. Then we usually hit the January sales, a few weeks later.

This week, as I scoured Fandango for any movie playing as far from any shopping corridors as possible, she lobbed in a bombshell. "Would that leave us time to run in Bed, Bath & Beyond so I can use my gift card?" 

I think my response was along the lines of "WHAT??!! Bath and WHAT?!! NO. That would take FOUR HOURS." I wasn't even being hyperbolic -- for once -- I'd heard tales all week of people spending an entire day trying to turn left out of the Target parking lot. (And I chuckled a little under my breath when I heard these tales. "Amateurs," I thought to myself, a little self-righteously.)

"Bullshit," she observed matter-of-factly. "I went to Hobby Lobby yesterday and it was fine. I was in and out in no time."  It's "practically Christmas already," she added, along with some rationalization about how everyone had already finished shopping by now. (Seriously?)

I offered a few token protests. We were already going to have to re-route around ballgame traffic downtown. There might not be time to eat. We were all gonna die. That kinda thing.

This was met with an incredibly intricate array of shopping necessities revolving around two gift cards that were about to expire, a one-day discount that was maybe 150 percent off, and some sort of elaborate point system that I believe involved her becoming CEO of the company if she spent a certain amount before midnight. 

At which point, I shut my mouth. This was obviously important to her. And when we got there, I realized why. There were all sorts of restrictions that involved one special-per-shopper and one-offer-per-transaction and spend-this to get-that. I think at one point we schlepped one load out to the car, donned disguises outta the trunk, and went back for another round. I can't be sure. I know I lost her in the crowds more than once and nearly went to the register to have her name announced to come get her abandoned child. Then I would catch sight of her little red knit pom-pom Santa on the top of her Christmas cap bobbing along just under the rack of 2-for-1 balsam candles. 

As family jobs go though, there are worse gigs than Christmas Mule.

Bed, Bath, and Beyond the Circle
If We Can Make It Thru December
Jesus Saves; Bourbon Balls; and Happy Endings
Secret Santa

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

If We Can Make It Thru December

"The office Christmas party. A time when they all think they pre-­ordered the beef wellington. Then, when you bring out the starters, they have remembered otherwise. But by now the entire group have swapped seats or are sitting on each other's laps and there are bodies on the kitchen floor."

Today is the shortest day of the year. From about Halloween on, I white-knuckle it til today. Tomorrow, the days will begin to get longer. Tomorrow, I'll begin to count the days til Spring. With all due respect to Hag, who might not "mean to hate December" ("it's meant to be the happy time of year"), I loathe it with everything I've got. I start with the weather and the miserably short days and work my way through to every single thing I hate about Christmas and the fact that I can't go to a bookstore any time from Thanksgiving til January 2 without a helicopter. This is the first winter in a decade I've lived without a garage (like an animal), so throw a perpetually iced-over SUV into the mix, along with a few impotent cans of Prestone, which precipitated something like a rage stroke when my windows perma-froze into the OPEN position last week.

From the moment that first "oh-oh-oh" commercial rings in the season, I want to "oh-oh-oh open a vein." 

My pal Pete asked me a couple weeks ago just what it is I hate about the holidays and I had to admit I wasn't sure. After some thought -- besides the music and the decorations and most of the food (flaccid broccoli anyone?)--  I believe it's the disruption to routine that completely discombobulates my Rainman. I like order and I hate chaos and I don't like having things out of place. As long as I can run along on my little inner hamster wheel, I get along ok. Disturb my carefully controlled environment and schedule, and I'll either die, or I'll accidentally stress-eat all the other little hamsters. I am nothing if not a fear biter.

I do like presents. I like to give them and I like to get them. I celebrated with Electronics Santa last weekend and a new Blu Ray (for me, not him; he got a book; it is a very good book). It was supposed to come with ElectronicsSanta's flatscreen TV two Christmases ago, but I could only take so much change at once. I insisted on waiting two years to see if Blu Ray is really the last word on the agenda for awhile (having gotten screwed in the early years of 8 track tapes, although it is the best way to listen to my Jim Croce Greatest Hits collection), so now that I have one, expect something truly digitally extravagant to be invented later this week. I certainly don't require anything as grand as electronics to be happy though. One year, all my friends gave me batteries and light bulbs, because I constantly complain there's nothing worse than running out of either one. That was a great year.

The only other thing I like about the Holidays -- and they're soft of a present -- is Harriette's Cheese Straws. They are the stuff dreams are made of. In fact, I wrote a little song. It goes like this... Well, I can't write music, but if I could, I would endlessly compose odes to Harriette's cheese straws. They somehow manage to be simultaneously light and fluffy, yet delicately crispy. They're wafer-thin. The flavor is indescribably tangy and tart, with just a hint of bite. It would not be an exaggeration to say I think about them all year long. It is the only reason I am ever nice, because in the back of my mind, I am thinking that if I am good, I might earn some of them at Christmas. It's the only time she makes them. She's given me the recipe, but I've never attempted them. It wouldn't be the same. 

So it was a source of no small distress at my cousins' going-away dinner last night when we were head-counting for Christmas Eve reservations and it came up that Harriette will be out of town for this year's festivities.

What? Out of town? Where was she going? What would she be doing? Who would she be with? And then.... eventually.... Inevitably..."Well.... What about the cheese straws?"

What about em?

"Did she... you know... leave me some cheese straws or something? I mean... she wouldn't just leave town without... making provisions...?" Would she?  Surely not. This is the woman who, confronted with a mudslide on her road on the way to Easter brunch, somehow hiked down a mountain and handed her homemade country ham biscuits off to a fellow guest so that her offering to the gathering wouldn't even be late. In my mind, I think she handed them over a raging river and that river was filled with alligators. The road washed away... but by God, we all had country ham biscuits. The food gays have pointed out on more than one occasion that all of our menus suffer a bit from Gone With the Wind syndrome ("as God is my witness....")

This.... this is the woman who made dog biscuits from scratch last year for the neighbor basset (dog biscuits that Ian ate... Ian! the neighbor husband, not the neighbor hound).

At some point at last night's dinner, it was implied (if not stated outright) that maybe I was being a little... selfish. I think the question was along the lines of, "you mean with everything she has to do to get ready for her trip, you expect her to stop and worry about getting you cheese straws?" 


Would that be wrong? 

Jesus Saves; Bourbon Balls; and Happy Endings
Secret Santa
Harriette's Kitchen
Last Day of Summer 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sit, Jack. Stay.

"We ate, my father remarked, 'as if there were no God.'"
--Katherine Anne Porter

Jack camps out in The Cave
This is the week that my gay husband, finally undone by the kitchen renovation at his house, temporarily moved in. Even Jack  packed his little doggie bags and came along. The poor husband-in-law was left behind to manage the chaos and construction dust.

It has been the idyllic living situation. He likes to shop and decorate, and I like to cook. By the time I got home from work, he'd fixed the stereo and had Iris DeMent playing and had somehow found a roaring fireplace on HD TV. A warm cashmere sweater was waiting for me with my pajamas, and the Cave was softly lit and scented by a delightful series of what I imagine to be $432,000 candles.

The first night, we made my grandmother's macaroni and cheese. I had no idea I even knew how to make it. I tested a trial run, with coaching from my fellow southern pal Rache, the week before on my BFF. We agreed it was good, but I had made too many substitutions. Penne pasta. Fancy cheeses. A pecan crust. Not what I had in mind.

So once he arrived, we walked to DiscoKroger in The Driving (if hyperbolic) Snow for a box of honest-to-God elbow macaroni. I had never bought it. Never made it. You would be surprised how far a box of that stuff goes, as we ended up with 42 gallons of mac and cheese. (We're down to two or so now.)

The next morning before work, I somehow whipped up biscuits and sausage gravy for breakfast (again, I had no idea I knew how to make sausage gravy, but it turns out, I do).

By this point, it's fair to say that the kitchen was coated, floor to ceiling in a fine film of butter and flour. There was butter in crevices I didn't even know existed. (But by the time I got home from work, order had miraculously been restored.)

Last night, to celebrate his birthday, he treated everyone to a big night of Theater, and then we happened upon the one place in town that had Lamb Chops as the Special. After which, we concluded that we now completely believe in The Secret and the Law of Attraction and maybe even Oprah, because -- since we had had at least roughly 37 conversations about lamb chops this week (in connection with planning the Christmas dinner menu) -- we are completely convinced we conjured them onto this Menu (where we'd never seen them before). So while we ate these lamb chops, he was scrolling catering menus on his iPhone, figuring out where we could score more lamb chops in time for Christmas.

By the time the cheesecake arrived for dessert, that reminded us of the grilled cheese sandwiches he'd made last week and how good they were, but what we really needed was a good homemade tomato soup to go with them. Bisque. We needed to make bisque. Barely pausing long enough for them to wrap up our doggie bags, we marched straight to the DiscoKroger for the celery and onions we'd need for the mire poix. Then we stood there a little stunned in the glare of the fluorescent lights realizing there were no cashiers, and they had abandoned us to the U-Scans.  As far as I was concerned, at that point, we had two options. We could abandon this store in favor of one that was staffed, orrrrrrrrrr, one of us would just have to create a distraction while the other bolted out the door and ran for the getaway car. I was already busy creating just such a plan in my head when he mysteriously started punching buttons on The Machine. He eventually fed it some money; it burped up some change; and our incipient life of crime was momentarily delayed.

Within an hour, the soup was on, garlic was roasting in the oven, and we'd each staked out our respective positions in the cave, found a great movie (which neither of us remember), and were nodding off over our reading material (out of the 173 new releases on my bookshelf, he'd somehow unearthed my freshman year annotated copy of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness... I had the new Vanity Fair).

The night before, I'd fallen asleep in front of Restrepo, which I'd been looking forward to for months. It's an incredibly loud movie, and he made merciless fun of me for snoozing through it, while I insisted I was just resting my eyes (much like my grandmother and his Aunt Mae). Not surprisingly, I fight sleep violently, so he gets a big laugh watching the process. He says, "it's like Sunset. You know it comes every day, but you hardly ever catch it when it happens."

Last night, we fought the good fight til about 4. I heard him snoring and went over to tuck a blanket under his feet, at which point, he sat bolt upright and said, "Vigilance!"

Startled, I said, "What? Bilbo Baggins?"

"No. Vigilance," he said, and went right back to sleep.

Then I wandered upstairs to bed, and the only sounds heard around here the rest of the night was the occasional opening of the refrigerator door, followed by the unmistakable whisssssh of aerosol made by the spray-whipped-cream can from the Snooty Falooty Store. I don't even know if that was him or me.

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