Chop Phooey

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‘All I got for Christmas was egg foo young’

We were in a cab the afternoon of Christmas Eve when we saw Santa driving home from a hard day of ho-ho-ho-ing. We’d just seen Free Solo, which is an absolutely amazing movie about this guy Alex Honnold who climbed 3200 feet up the sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park using just his hands and feet — no ropes! no nothing! — but even after that it was still pretty exciting to see the Jolly Old Elf himself in all his red-suited, white-bearded glory at the wheel of his Chrysler mini-van.

Another Santa we saw this season. This Santa was spotted in his driveway, having just ridden in on the back of a Corvette convertible

No doubt Santa was thinking about the nice home-cooked dinner he was going to have that night in his North-Pole-like outpost in Queens (he was in the traffic lane for the Bridge) before heading out in his sleigh.

We Whitmores were also looking forward to home and our traditional pot roast, a small version of which we three (yes, The Child was home this yearwere planning to polish off before opening presents and hanging out by the fire. (Being of the Swedish persuasion, I’ve Swedishly persuaded The Dude that Christmas Eve gift opening is more fun than the Christmas Morning version.)

The traditional pot roast, as it was consumed in Days of Yore. Meaning when we had Other People over to help eat it

The Dude, who doesn’t have a Swedish bone in his body, goes along with this, I’m thinking, because it’s more fun to open presents with wine than with coffee. Though my Personal Sister, also married to a non-Swede, fuels her Christmas Mornings with what she calls “happy coffee”, which she swears by as a gift-opening lubricant.

The Whitmores’ unwrapping lubricant of choice

So. Everything thing went swimmingly on Christmas Eve, with our tummy-satisfying dinner of beef, and our bubbly-infused soul-satisfying exchange of gifts.

Wombat guarding the Stocking after Santa has arrived from Queens (er, the North Pole), but before The Child has

Christmas Morning was pretty sweet too, since we have not relinquished the custom of the Christmas Stocking — even though now The Child is practically large enough to actually wear said Stocking.

Stockings and Starbucks: our new Christmas Morning tradition. That’s a pomegranate she found stuffed into said Stocking’s toe. Very Dickensian

We loafed around in our jammies pretty much all day, admiring each other’s taste in gifts, until we started to get, well, peckish. There were certainly enough Christmas treats around — caramel corn, toffee, a giant tin of cookies, and Godiva galore — but it was getting on towards dinnertime and we wanted something, well, more substantial.

We’d demolished that pot roast on Christmas Eve (there weren’t even any leftovers), and, silly me (the One Who Cooks), had in the back of her lazy-butt holiday mind that on Christmas Itself I could take it easy and we could just “grab some sushi”.

Hah! (Or should I say “Ho-Ho-Hah!“)

“What? I’m not worried about dinner. Dinner’s in a bowl. On the kitchen floor. Like always.”

As Christmas Day started turning into Christmas Night, I got to thinking of a piece I had read in the New York Times that very morning about how eating in Chinese restaurants got to be a Jewish tradition in New York since they were the only places open on Christmas Day. (When I mentioned this to The Child, she said “Oh, Mom, that’s such a cliche.”) Well, Nervous Me, I got to thinking we should call the sushi place, you know, just to make sure they were open.

The Child shows off a Polaroid shot with a Christmas gift (A Polaroid-like camera) of us hanging around and dandling the cat

Riiiing, riiing, riiinnnng. Nothing doing. I then consulted Open Table. Equally nada. The Child, Millennial that she is, started consulting her apps. Uber Eats had a Thai place that would send takeout. Did we like Thai food? Sure! we said, then proceeded to waste half an hour arguing over the menu. (“Do you like curry?” “Sure, I like curry. But all these have coconut milk. Ick!” “Mom, all Thai curries have coconut milk.”) By the time we agreed on what to order, the place was closed. It was 5 o’clock.

Next she found a taqueria. (“Tacos? Sure, we like tacos. Sort of.”) Closed. Then a poke place. “Poke! What on earth’s poke?” Ditto. Closed tighter than a Hawaiian drum. At around 5:30, we realized we were all out of options. So Chinese it had to be.

And the Chinese food delivered, literally and figuratively. Though we were on hold longer than it took the food to get to us, we enjoyed every MSG-infused morsel. (As you can see in the photo at the top of this post.) The only thing disappointing were the fortune cookies, which weren’t, in my opinion, fortune cookies. They were more like saying cookies, since they said things like “Laugh and the world laughs with you”. And “Hard work is its own reward”. A fortune is something like “You will meet a tall handsome stranger”.

Or, in our case, “You will eat Chinese food on Christmas Day.”

Or maybe: “You will eventually change out of your Christmas jammies.”

New York City. January 2019

A very Marilyn Christmas

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‘A Holiday Tribute to an Aunt I bet Yule wish was yours’

I was feeling a touch of the Christmas Blues the other day. Remembering The Old Days and how we kids used to peer out the car windows at the Christmas trees lighting up the picture windows of the houses in the small towns along Route 50 on the way up to Gramma’s house. And how, once we got there, we’d run as fast as we could to the Tree to see just how big it was and to shake the wrapped presents to guess what was in them.

I think I liked pressing my face against windows. Here I am smudging things up at Gramma’s

When Christmas Blue, what do you do? Well, I called my Mom. (Thank goodness I still have one.) She knew exactly what I was talking about, and exactly what I was missing: The Marilyn Christmas.

Oldest Younger Brother Scott and I caught red-handed checking out the Tree (and the presents)

See, my Mom, like me, was the older of two sisters. (She also had three brothers, but this story isn’t about them. Sorry, Uncles Ronald, Mark, and Carl.) This story is about Aunt Marilyn. And about how gosh-darned terrific was the way she would “do” Christmas.

That’s my Mom, upper right. Aunt Marilyn is the cute little girl in front. Even though it’s summer in this photo, I bet visions of sugarplums are dancing in her head

After the seven of us Henrys — all crammed into a car without seat belts — made that long drive from Southern Illinois, we’d get to Gramma’s house where Aunt Marilyn would greet us wearing little Christmas-ornament earrings. Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis would be playing on the stereo and the whole house would be decorated and smell like Christmas Heaven.

Another tradition: The Christmas Cousin Lineup.

Aunt Marilyn would have decorated my Gramma’s house — including putting out a little gumdrop tree — and helped her make a humongous Christmas Dinner — which was always on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, which was the Swedish Way. We’d have korv (yum) and lutfisk (urk) and a big ole turkey and later on — after one of my Uncles would mysteriously disappear right before Santa’s arrival — my Dad would make his famous Oyster Stew and my Aunt Marilyn and Aunt Shirley and Gramma and Mom and I would eat fruitcake and play Scrabble.

After the turkey and lutfisk, but before the fruitcake and Scrabble

Somewhere along in here Uncle Carl, who lived in Colorado (which my Aunt pronounced “color” -ado) would call — Aunt Marilyn would answer the phone “Merry Christmas!” — and everyone would pass the phone around to tell him about everything he was missing, including The Game.

The Game was, basically, the centerpiece of a Marilyn Christmas. Every year, Marilyn would think one up that we would play while “Santa” was handing out the presents. This was invariably a word game, usually involving puns — the sillier and groanier the better. Sample: “Who has his own state university?” “Wayne (!)” I know, I know. But, trust me, this was fun. A lot of fun.

Mom takes a turn on “Santa’s” lap. Gee, I wonder where Dave went?

That last Game question was from the Very Last Marilyn Christmas. Which was lo these thirty-odd years ago. (I found a video my Filmmaker Younger Brother Roger made of it. If you have a very large coffee mug you might want to tune in. I don’t think Aunt Marilyn would mind.)

Speaking of Aunt Marilyn, she’s been dreadfully ill these past few years. But I bet she still wears little Christmas ornament earrings — or even little Santas. And I bet she still answers the phone “Merry Christmas”. I’m going to test that theory tonight.

Meanwhile, here’s wishing you all the merriest of Christmases — even if you don’t have a Marilyn in your life.

New York City. December 2018

“Life is short. Eat dessert first.”

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‘Words of Wisdom from One Who Is Older Than Dirt’

Yesterday I was with some super-swell women friends at a really nice Christmas lunch — the kind of Christmas lunch where your plate has a festive little foil-wrapped treat placed right there next to your fork by your thoughtful holiday hostess.

Well. The oh-so-elegant and beautifully-dressed woman seated next to me reached right for her shiny red-and-green-befoiled peppermint bark, unwrapped it, and ate it — not only before eating her lunch, but before she’d even ordered.

I must say that I was very impressed.

See, I’m the kind of person who promised myself when I was young that when I finally grew up I would eat dessert first and have sex every chance I got.

Needless to say, I haven’t kept either promise. Not very well, anyway.

The not-eating-dessert-first part had to do with wanting to maintain a svelte silhouette, something that mattered to me more as a matter of economics than vanity. I reasoned that, if I didn’t change size, then I wouldn’t have to go shopping. (I hate to shop, not having inherited the Shopping Gene from my loves-to-shop mother.) This worked pretty well for years and years. It got so that people recognized me from party to party not because they remembered my name or even my face — but because they remembered my dress.

Yes, I still have that dress. It has somehow escaped the fate of some of my other kept-forever items. It seems that, like many Women My Age, my weight has, well, redistributed itself. I have had to part with many choice items because either I can’t zip them or can’t breathe once zipped. The Child has become the beneficiary of this cruel twist of fate. Recently she scored a pair of black lace trousers.

Next up for grabs: the red satin sheath that’s under this apron. (The apron doesn’t zip, so I’m keeping it)

As for the having-sex-every-chance-I-got promise, well. I will kindly spare you any details. But you readers who, like me, have been married for a longer age than the age you were when you got married will totally get what I’m talking about.

I will tell you that I had rather a late start, sex wise. In fact, I didn’t even know about sex until very late in the game. I was so remarkably naive that I distinctly remember convincing my Younger Cousin Marcia that she couldn’t possibly be right about the carnal act she had just breathlessly described to me.

That’s me, left, leading the Christmas lineup of Peterson Cousins. Marcia-Who-Knew-About-Sex is third in line, right after my Oldest Younger Brother Scott

“Seriously, Marcia. You think your mom and dad would do that?!? Take it from me, someone has given you some very bad information.”

I think I was in high school at the time. Or at least junior high.

Me in college. Yup. I’m thinking I knew by this point

So. Where am I going with all this? Let’s start with the part about Life being Short. I won’t belabor this, but trust me when I say that it feels like it took about ten minutes to go from Actual Child to Current Edition.

Life feels so darned short to me now that I’ve started saying things like: “No, we don’t really need the new deck that lasts thirty years. The ten-year version will work just fine.” And The Dude is even worse than I am. When asked why we go on those tropical birding adventures to crazy places like the Upper Reaches of the Amazon or the Marshes of Uganda, he answers, “We need to go while we still can.”

Me, riding in a boat in Uganda — because I still can

Anyway. Take it from me, One Who Is Older Than Dirt, go ahead and reach for that dessert or that mate or whatever it is that floats your perhaps-Amazonian boat. You still have plenty of time.

What I’ll be grabbing instead of dessert

New York City. December 2018

“They’re just blankety-blank-blank so good!”

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‘Some Christmas Movies you might not know about’

Well. Another Thanksgiving’s been added to the Memory Bank. The leftovers are long gone, and Mr. Turkey himself has been stripped down to his carcass, the broth boiled from his very bones.

Remains of the Pie. This was a couple of years ago. As you can see, I had not yet perfected my crust

And, as much as I adore my Absolute Favorite Holiday, I honestly can’t look another sweet potato or cranberry in the eye. I don’t even want more pie.

But am I ready to move on to Christmas? Starbucks certainly seems to think so. (Half an hour ago, there was Judy Garland on the speakers warbling “I’ll be home for Christmas” as Miss Barista handed me my carefully non-religious “Holiday”-themed vente latte.)

In spite of an email inbox crammed with cyber deals, I’m so not ready to shop for Christmas. And even though my building lobby is tinseled and lit, I’m not ready to decorate for Christmas either. And thank goodness I know no small children, because I am certainly not ready to bake for Christmas. (Nor will I ever be, unless and until some small children reappear in my life.)

But I am ready to dig into my stash of Christmas movies. I’m the kind of person who really gets into Christmas Movies, even though, as I’ve made perfectly clear by now, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I’d probably like Thanksgiving Movies even more — but, as far as I know, there aren’t any. Well, except for “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles”. And, sorry. As much as I adore Steve Martin (I even had a date with him once, honest) it just doesn’t crack me up as much as, say, “Home Alone”.

“Home Alone” — hilarious. “Love Actually” — hilarious, raunchy, and schmaltzy too

And of course there’s “Love Actually”, which I love, actually. I have whole sections of that one memorized. True, there are some unforgivably schmaltzy parts (that cringeworthy wedding subplot featuring a mouth-breathing Keira Knightly), but I never tire of Colin, God of Sex, telling the caterer that the teensy carrot hors d’oeuvres look like dead baby’s fingers. My kind of humor, that.

Der Bingle, Der Kringle, and that’s Charlie Brown up there in the corner

Now, I’m not going to waste your time extolling the virtues of “White Christmas” or “Miracle on 34th Street” or even “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. (Notice that I do not mention “It’s a Wonderful Life”; I honestly do not think it’s a wonderful movie. Waaaay too sappy for me.)

The Child’s “Miracle Moment”. No, I did not take this photo myself. In fact, I did not even take her to see Santa myself

Rather, I’d like to call your attention to some Christmas Movies you just might not know about. Like “The Apartment”. This one has an utterly marvelous and adorable very young Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon wearing a funny bowler hat to look older and Fred McMurray as the villain, for Pete’s sakes. I dare you to watch it and not cry at the end when Miss Kubelic tells C. C. Baxter to “shut up and deal”.

And how about “Die Hard”? It’s totally a Christmas Movie. With not one drippy drop of schmaltz. And if you’re not a Bruce Willis Fan (which how could you not be?) there’s Alan Rickman. I rest my case.

Christmas sans schmatlz

Last, and certainly not least, there’s the Christmas Movie from which my title takes its quote. Or something like that. And this is “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol”.

A Christmas Carol sampler of sorts. That’s Mr. Magoo front and center

Now “A Christmas Carol” has been done, and done to death. There are at least two “serious” versions, the only one of which I can abide is the Alistair Sim One, shown above. But if I have to watch Tiny Tim, watching him as a Muppet is much less cringe-inducing. And he most certainly is in “The Muppet Christmas Carol”. In fact, the only human in this one is a very uncomfortable-looking Michael Caine. (He must have had a car payment to make.) But it’s worth watching him woodenly interact with puppets to see the Muppet Mice sing “Heatwave”.

But back to Mr. Magoo and his Carol. This was — and still is, I’m thinking — my mother’s Favorite Christmas Movie. Back in the Olden Days we could only watch it when it came on TV. We would scour the TV Guide for its seasonal appearances, and lie on our stomachs on the wall-to-wall carpeting, devouring washtubs of home-popped popcorn (courtesy Youngest Younger Brother Doug, who could barely reach the stove but was still the best corn popper in the family) and/or giant cereal bowls of ice cream, and watch Mr. Magoo do his Scrooge Thing.

What we used to do when we weren’t watching Christmas Movies on TV. That’s popcorn-making Doug on the right

But then a few years ago my Middle Younger Brother Roger performed a Christmas Miracle and found my Mom a copy of the movie on videotape. Which meant that she could watch it any time she wanted. Score, Roger! Best gift ever. And this is the scene she loved best. Which, of course, this being the Age of the Internet, took me just a few clicks on YouTube to find for your viewing pleasure:

Well. That certainly got me in the Christmas Mood. Maybe I’ll get my decorations out. Or not.

Christmas decor, chez nous. The seasonal Switching of the Cocktail Napkins

New York City. November 2018

Out with the old year, but not out with the old stuff. Yet.

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‘I’m so not ready for Swedish “death cleaning”, thank you very much’

As if The Holidays weren’t bittersweet enough. (You know what I mean: You’re happy because it’s Christmastime, but then Christmas is over and you’re smack-dab in the middle of that weird Week-Before-New-Year’s and everyone is telling you they’ll “see you next year” and you’re deciding whether to put away the decorations now or wait and be confronted with them when you walk back into the apartment after your trip to Panama.) Or wherever. You get my drift.

And as if all this Seasonal Sturm und Drang weren’t bad enough, the other day I innocently opened the Times to find a review of this new book called, I kid you not, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Continue reading

“I’ll be (at Somebody’s Else’s) Home for Christmas”

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‘”You can count on me (not to give you a hard time about it)”‘

Or not too much of a hard time, anyway. I mean, what did I expect? The Child is a Certified Grownup now, and not even a freshly-minted one. (She is not only ‘over 21’, she is ‘over 25′.)

Hmmm. It’s a wonder she didn’t spend Christmas Away even earlier

Even when she was a wee Santa-Believing Child I knew that, at some point in the Foggy Festive Future, there would come a Christmas that she would want to spend Elsewhere. And, even though we’ve been guilty of ‘downsizing’ our Christmas festivities as the years have whizzed by — going from super-sized Trees complete with all the Tree Trimmings (including a big ole pot-roast-fueled Tree Trim Party) to ever-smaller sort-of-decorated Trees In Pots to No (gasp) Tree At All — I still took it for granted that she would be with us at Christmas.

After all, she made it home for Christmas all through college. Why, even the year she spent studying in Cambridge (the England Cambridge, not the Massachusetts Cambridge), she managed to get herself Home in time for December 25. (Gosh, I hope I fed her some pot roast.) Continue reading

Is that stocking half full, or half empty?

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‘The Philosophy of Gift-giving. It’s all how you look at it.’

One of the few times I saw my mother weep was one Christmas when she opened a gaily-wrapped package only to discover that my well-meaning father had given her an electric toothbrush. “It’s the latest thing,” he protested as he tried to comfort her. It didn’t help when he pointed out that it came with different heads, one for each member of our family.

Poor Dad. He was one of those well-meaning people who give gifts that they really want. He loved gadgets; ergo, Mom got gadgets. I think it was the next Christmas that he gave her the electric knife.

My Mom later told us about a Christmas when she was very little — a Christmas when she really really wanted roller skates. There was a largish, heavyish roller-skate-appropriate box under the tree that looked promising. But her Uncle Warren Who Liked To Tease (didn’t everyone have one of these?) kept telling her it was a hair ribbon. Poor Mom.

I’m not sure if this was the Christmas Of The Electric Knife. Or the Christmas Of The Electric Toothbrush

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Deck the halls with bough of holly

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‘A Grinch Guide to Holiday decor’

Well, maybe not ‘Grinch’. Make that more of a ‘minimalist’. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Christmas (well, not as much as I enjoy Thanksgiving; everybody who knows me knows that.) And it’s not that I don’t appreciate a nice Christmas Tree. In fact, I remember gazing out of the car window as we worked our way through small town after small town on those long pre-interstate drives up to my Gramma’s in Northern Illinois, admiring the Trees that were strategically placed in front-room picture windows for maximum drive-by impact.

But I’ve never been one of those people who fusses with the ornaments on her own Christmas Tree, arranging and rearranging them every time she walks by, striving for Holiday Perfection. In fact, I do everything I can to avoid having my own Christmas Tree.

Oh, there for a few years, when The Child was an Actual Child, I condescended to allowing a Tree on the premises. But I got The Dude and The Child to go get the tree. (I made this sound like a fun Daddy-and-Daughter outing, while I cleverly stayed home and sipped champagne.) And I threw a Tree Trim Party to get other people to actually do the decorating of said tree. I made this sound fun, too, by luring friends over with the promise of more champagne — and my Famous Pot Roast — in return for their bringing over an ornament (and this is the important part) hanging it on the Tree. (I’ve told the story of my Tom Sawyerish get-someone-else-to-do-the-work Tree Trickery in a previous hilarious/nostalgic post called ‘(N)o Tannenbaum’, which I invite you to read when you’re done chuckling over this one.)

I decorate myself in preparation for bribing friends with pot roast in return for decorating that bare tree, stage left

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“Come as you are.” Or, um, maybe not

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‘Decoding the dress code on party invitations’

Who doesn’t love getting invited to parties? Well, maybe The Dude, actually. He’d much rather relax in his jammies in the comfort of his own home than head out to a party after a long work week. But the last two Fridays in a row have found us helping two Birthday Boys celebrate very Big Birthdays at a couple of very Big (and very nice) Parties.

One of the nice things (aside from the free-flowing champagne and hors d’oeuvres) that we appreciated about these two parties in particular was that there was no dress code. At least, not a dress code that was spelled out on the invitation. I guess the hosts (or hostesses, in these cases) figured that guests old enough to go to a birthday party without holding someone’s hand would be able to figure out how to dress.

Now, me, I love parties. And I look forward to getting party invitations of almost any kind. Including the ones with the little notes on the bottom of the invitation that tell you what to wear.

Should I wrap myself in cellophane like a bouquet from the corner deli?

Or should I make like a rosebush?

Being a dyed-in-the-wool-New-Yorker-of-40-years-and-counting, I’ll probably just don my wear-to-pretty-much-every-party basic black. Maybe I’ll carry a nosegay. Or wear rose-colored lipstick. Continue reading

Many happy returns

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‘Observing Boxing Day, the American Way’

Yes, yes, I know. ‘Many happy returns’ is something you say on someone’s birthday, not Christmas. But yesterday was ‘Boxing Day’ (and, incidentally, Monday, which is when I start pondering what the heck I’m going to write about on Tuesday).

I sort of knew that December 26 was a British Holiday that originally had to do with boxing up Christmas goodies for the servants. Who had to work (duh) on Christmas Day (see Holiday episodes of ‘Downton Abbey’ for colorful detail) so they did their celebrating the day after, with the help of said donated largesse from The Master.

But — voila! — when I looked up ‘Boxing Day’ on good ole Wikipedia, there was this secondary explanation:

In modern times, it has taken on the meaning of boxing up unwanted Christmas gifts and returning them to the shop.

Yesterday I also happened upon an article in the Wall Street Journal about stores gearing up for our kind of Boxing Day. Apparently, about 10% of all gifts bought in stores are returned, and 30% of gifts bought online are. But guess how most are returned? In stores. So the smarty-pants stores stock up on stuff that you might really like in exchange for That Thing Uncle Joe Got You. Continue reading