hyn.jpgFlipping the calendar over to a new year causes us to review the past and consider the future. Do we want to keep things the same or do we want a radical change? I have a modest list that I hope won’t be too hard to achieve, but hidden in each are lots of little behaviors I’ll have to change.

Lose weight.
This really means reducing my portion size for each meal (even if it’s delicious and I want seconds), drinking lots of water everyday, and putting down that bowl of chocolate candy while I watch TV.

Have firm upper arms to look great in that special sleeveless dress.
Even though I’m barely awake most mornings at the gym, I need to do lots more lifts and curls and dips. My pushup form needs improvement, and I really have to learn how to do an unassisted pull-up.

Reduce the clutter in the house.
My normal strategy of straightening up and putting things away is only dealing with the symptom. Reducing clutter really means having less, purging and not replacing. Reconsidering things I have but don’t actually use (am I really going to wear that blazer again?). Our collection of empty boxes arises from my instinct to save things I think have a future use. Sure, I’ve found a way to fashion them into drawer organizers that is quite effective, but, I think it’s really a mania.

Try new recipes.
If I’m honest, there are probably only ten meals that I make, over and over. They’re yummy, family favorites, and most times, not too heavy. I can make them quickly without a recipe, and usually have the ingredients on hand. New recipes require time to study the instructions and buy special ingredients. The outcome isn’t assured, but I should stretch myself. There may be a new family favorite in those cookbooks.

Consume varied sources of news.
I think this may be the hardest. I currently depend on a group of podcasts, the Chicago Tribune, and news I’ve selected on a phone app. I’m aware that when we can pick our news we are likely to select points of view like our own. It’s comforting to think that other people agree with my world view, but I know I should seek out opposing thoughts. What good are my opinions if they can’t sustain a challenge? And there’s surely something there I can learn.

A theme in my resolutions is trying to change small things within my control. In a crazy, scary world, it’s a good start.


Dickens of a Cake

IMG_2630We’re putting together a fun menu for Christmas, each of us contributing ideas and labor. The finale is planned to be a plum pudding, straight out of A Christmas Carol. As the Cratchit’s observed, the pudding would be “like a speckled cannon-ball…blazing in …ignited brandy…with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” Sounds easy enough. Little did we know how confusing this would be.

Researching recipes for plum pudding, we found that the primary divider is whether you want to make it with or without suet. Yuck, suet? No thank you. The next thing we discovered is that some recipes start by saying how much better the plum pudding will be if you make it ahead – like a year ahead. During which time, I think one is to pour brandy over it repeatedly. It’s starting to sound a lot like fruitcake if you ask me. Some of the recipes didn’t even call for plums. Just all those dried fruits in fruitcake. Finally we found recipes asking for either fresh plums or canned plums. This seemed like the right direction to go in.

The produce departments of five grocery stores served up disappointment. Even though we can buy every fruit you can think of, there were no plums anywhere. Apricots? Yes. Nectarines? Yes. Dragonfruit, kiwis, and blueberries? Yes. But no plums. We looked for frozen plums. We found peaches, avocado, and mango, but no plums. The baking aisle finally offered something we thought would work. Not canned plums, but canned sweetened reconstituted prunes. Close, but if this didn’t pass muster, maybe we could make prune Danish instead.

I haven’t opened the cans yet. I figure it can be a Christmas morning surprise, and we’ll make the best cake we can. Besides, any cake you can light on fire will make for a thrilling finale to a good day.

Till then, I’ll sleep with visions of …well, you know.

Christmas Story

Tall ChristmasFor some reason, I’ve never taken much to the Christmas Story movie with the BB gun, tongue stuck to a pole, and the outrageous leg-lamp. Instead, I watched the stop-action Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with the elf whose wish was to become a dentist, and A Charlie Brown Christmas with the poor sad tree and the fabulous jazzy dancing. But just as fundamental to the season as these shows was The Tall Book of Christmas, a collection of stories that appeared to be set in Germany or Switzerland or Russia where all of the characters were blond with pink cheeks.

I pored over this book every year, loving the unusual tales and the colorful illustrations. There was the mean giant who was placated when given limburger cheese; the granny who used candies in a pinch to dye all her white yarn, rendering the mittens she knitted deliciously edible; the tale of the mysterious babushka who wandered from house to house in the snow looking for a family to let her in; and the kind man who spent Christmas in jail and carved wooden figures small enough to push out of a knothole in his cell wall for the kind children who brought him food. There were also Christmas stories like Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, but these unusual stories stuck with me, probably because I’d never heard them anywhere else.

Eventually the book fell apart from use and disappeared. When I would remember it, I’d ask friends if they knew about the book, but was usually met with blank stares. Sometime after college, I was touring Victorian homes in Old Louisville that were decorated for the holidays. In the living room of one home, along with the Christmas tree, wreaths, and candles, I saw The Tall Book of Christmas displayed on a table. And they had copies for sale.

When our kids were small, I started bringing this book out for the holidays. As the name implies, it has a distinctive shape – only 5 inches wide, but 14 inches tall. It’s slim enough to read all in one sitting, but each story could be dwelt over as we examined the illustrations and talked about the characters. They’d giggle at the same things I had, and ask for multiple readings. Now, even as adults, they’ll surreptitiously pluck the book off the coffee table to look through the pages.

Of course the holidays have many stories, and books have a lot of competition. Kids’ programs (Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol), feature films (Love Actually), made-for-TV movies (Hallmark and, seemingly every cable channel). We will partake of all of them, dabbing our weepy eyes, happy to be home and warm. Then I’ll be on the watch for lemon-flavored mittens, and small packets of limburger.


IMG_2604Boxes have been hauled out of storage, a tree purchased and bolted into the new tree stand. We eye the tree to determine whether it’s straight, and rotate it so the fullest side faces front. The ornaments seem to be an impossible quantity for the size of the tree, and a jumble of styles. Some people have themed trees, a limited color palette and ornaments selected for an overall look. Not us. Our tree will look like a kid’s toy box, with a collection of everything gathered over the last 30+ years.

With the ornaments strewn over the dining table, it’s easy to see that they fall into a few categories:

  • homemade: flour dough cut outs of our children’s hands, paper ornaments made at school with their pictures
  • fabric: mittens, a quilted stocking, a felt skater
  • college: proudly acquired when our kids were still in school
  • museum gift shop finds: plums, miniature windmills and angels
  • flea market treasures (trying to evoke the ornaments from my youth)
  • recent acquisitions: a pickle, a rabbit, a hedgehog, a set of Christmas Carol characters
  • wooden: reindeer, Santas, houses
  • glass: balls in all sizes
  • funky items we added to our tree in jest, but now they’ve become traditional:  Yoda, a plastic toilet key chain, a bride and groom from a cake top

Among all these ornaments is a small tissue-filled box cradling the remnants of a delicate glass house. This is an ornament from my childhood tree, one of a few that I think were also on my dad’s childhood tree. I don’t remember exactly when I got to keep it, but I’ve always placed this little house up high where I could admire it. A few years ago, our tree fell over – twice – onto our hard wood floor. Among the casualties was the little glass house. It was such a thin bubble of glass, I’m surprised it didn’t turn to dust. Instead, the back was crushed. I can’t hang it anymore, but it still looks pretty propped up in the tissue paper on the mantle.

There’s a lovely frosted glass ballerina, a gift for our daughter when she danced. She takes charge of it each year to ensure it’s hung in a prominent place and mounted in front of a light so it glows. Our son likes a glass Buddha and a beautiful painted Earth globe. For our kids, the jumble of crazy ornaments have become their childhood memories. Somewhere on this tree is the one thing that will mean “Christmas” to them, maybe the precious item they’ll take to decorate their own tree one day. The purple plum? The glass pear? Harry Potter on a broomstick? It’ll probably be the plastic Yoda.

Is it Winter?

The first snowfall, the morning there is frost on the window, when you decide to pull out your down coat. These are all indications of winter, but the universal signal in Chicago is when the heat lamps begin working at the L stop. There may be a cold snap in October and you can press the button all you want, but nothing will happen because it’s not really cold enough until November 1.

Usually train riders spread out across the platform according to the laws of normal distribution – gravitating to where the middle train cars will stop. However, once the temperature drops, people cluster around the heat lamps, in one small area of the platform. We look like a penguin colony. Bundled in coats and hats, I wonder if the heat even penetrates, or if it’s just a shared delusion, a distracting game we play when it’s 17 degrees below zero with windchill and there’s no train in sight.

A few of the busiest L stops in the Loop have large areas of the platform devoted to heat lamps. Though meant for big rush hour crowds, in winter, people have competition from pigeons for the prime heated spots. Approaching the pool of warm golden light, I see a dozen fat, puffed out birds, holding their ground. As people edge in around them, there’s a bit of cooing and shuffling, but the pigeons aren’t leaving. They know with the next train, we’ll be gone and they can resume their spa-like experience.

Of course, in Chicago, seasons are rarely just one thing. Temperatures spike and plunge year round – thank you, global climate change. This winter we’re having 50 degree days paired with 30 degree nights. But with a weather system from Canada, we could go back into the deep freeze. Mother Nature may not cooperate, but after March 31, the CTA says it’s spring. That’s when the heat lamps are switched off and the pigeons have to find a new way to survive.