Monday, December 28, 2009

Oldie but Goodie #6 (holiday edition)

This essay from December 95 was years in the brewing. As a cautionary observation, it covers all holidays for which gifts are appropriate.

On Giving Gifts

Our discussion today, class, centers on the theory and practice of gift giving.

First, it’s important to recognize why you are giving a gift. Some gifts are given because the giver knows the recipient will allow the giver to use it - sweater, XBox, motorcycle. It’s multi-purpose, and therefore a great bargain. Giving something because you want your recipient to be delightfully surprised is another theory, but sometimes that can backfire on you, as was the case when my friend’s husband bought her a new house she neither needed nor wanted.

Yet another possible reason for gift giving is merely so the giver does not arrive empty-handed. That seems a harsh assessment perhaps, but I speak as a person who once received for my birthday, from a husband who shall remain nameless, two nail clippers, one for fingers, one for toes. It took my breath away. For some reason, Robert Burns’ observation from his poem To A Louse crossed my mind:
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us…

Later I marveled that it must have taken seconds of careful deliberation to make this decision, considering that one finds nail clippers displayed next to the checkout stand, along with flashlight batteries, tire gauges, breath mints, and Super Glue. With that in mind, I counted myself blessed, but you’ll understand why eight months later he received from me for his birthday a padded toilet seat – symbolic as well as useful. I also began to understand why the first Christmas gift he ever gave me was an apron. It was terry cloth, and domestic, which I was not, at the time, perceived as being. A new theory now emerges: gifts are sometimes hints, however broad or subtle the giver may want to be. It should be noted here, in the name of historical accuracy, that we were married a year later, five days after Christmas. Though I am now quite domestic, I still have the apron, but it’s rarely used.

Still another theory of gift giving, one I tend to embrace in most situations, is that the perfect gift is something the person needs and can or will use, but something they wouldn’t necessarily buy for themselves for whatever rational or irrational reason. I remember going Christmas shopping as a little girl with my grandmother, a skilled homemaker, to find something just right for my mother, a woman who didn’t have expensive possessions but appreciated beautiful things. With my limited spending potential, I looked for something pretty as well as useful. I found a miniature ceramic vase with purple pansies painted on the side. It cost 50 cents, right in my price range. Mother loved it for all the reasons I knew she would, and it fit nicely on the knickknack shelf in the kitchen where I often dusted it. It broke eventually, and we were both sad.

Years later, remembering that little purple pansy vase, I bought another vase for my mother, this time without pansies, but purple, and very tall, which I thought would be perfect for displaying a sample of the irises she grew in her yard. More years later, as she was cleaning the house in some hopeless attempt to sift out her packrat excess, she found the purple vase in the back of a cupboard, and since she hadn’t used it for a while, she gave it back to me. A big purple vase in my bland beige family room was hard to explain, but I didn’t really try. It was just there, and it made me smile. Corollary One of this theory now emerges: What goes around comes around, but the value increases with the miles and the years.

We’ve never had extravagant Christmases, either as children or in our marriage. In my husband’s family disappointment became an issue because expectations were too high, resulting in a knee-jerk bah-humbug attitude when the children became adults, at least the one I married. Maybe that’s because they always gave their gifts in the shopping bag in which they had carried them home from the store, perhaps the easier to return them should the need arise. This super-practical Scandanavian thrift, modest though it is intended to be, can admittedly take the starch out of special occasions.

In my family, Christmas was for surprises, thrills and heart-fluttering delights. Deep down I knew the chances were slim that I’d get anything from the list I made after hours spent poring over the Montgomery Ward Wishbook that arrived in October, full of tantalizing possibilities. I desperately wanted that bride doll, but other traditions usually took precedence, and my attention was diverted. Mother was busy making pfeffernusse and Mexican Orange Candy, and meticulously planning the Christmas dinner menu to include something we would all love, like raspberry punch. For our part, my sister and I usually made and decorated dozens of sugar cookies in endlessly dazzling ways. Our four younger brothers would hang around the kitchen door, saying they wanted to help, but we knew they really just wanted to snitch a cookie when we weren’t looking. We also tried to wrap gifts creatively and attractively, even the candy bars we put in our brothers’ stockings.

Dad would take us out to choose the Christmas tree on the afternoon of the 23rd or 24th, and Mother would decorate it after all the children went to bed so the first time we saw it was on Christmas morning. It was the kind of thrill so many of today’s jaded children have never known.

All that was in stark contrast to what many other families did. I’ll never forget, as a teen in the 1950’s, the day my mother came home from church shaking her head in disbelief at one of her friends bemoaning the fact that her husband’s business hadn’t done very well that year, and he was only giving her $5,000 to spend for Christmas on their four children. We rolled our eyes and wondered if we should notify the Salvation Army of this needy family.

Speaking as a person who does most gift shopping online from catalogs, or with gift cards, I sometimes think those wise men weren’t very wise to bring such expensive gifts; but on the other hand, we aren’t very smart when we don’t recognize the tradition as a symbolic gesture with deeper meaning. Too often we choose instead to race in a panic through a mall and land on whatever can be packaged suitably and will qualify as a gift – something, anything, even toenail clippers.

Happy gift giving this year. Keep it in perspective. Remember the padded toilet seat.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Hearty Laugh

This morning I went for an EKG to see if the heart murmur my doctor heard is indicative of anything more serious. Roger did some errands, and when he picked me up, the conversation went like this:

ME: Well, the technician says I have the heart of an 18-year-old.

ROGER: Is that good or bad?

ME: I think it's good.

Roger: As long as it doesn't mean you're fickle...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Two Favorite New Recipes

Just in time for the holidays. Both are great with turkey.

In lge kettle bring to boil stirring constantly 16 oz. cranberries, 3/4 C packed bn sugar, 3/4 C raisins, 1/2 C chopped celery, 1 C chopped apple, 3/4 C water or OJ, 1/4 C coarse-chop walnuts, 2 T lemon juice, 1 T grated orange peel, 1/4 t cloves, 1/4 t cinnamon, 1/4 t allspice, 1/4 t ginger. Simmer uncovered 15 min, stirring occasionally. Store in fridge. Keeps several weeks.

Combine 12-oz pkg cranberries, 1-1/3 C sugar in saucepan, stir over med heat till sugar dissolves. Cook, stir till cranberries pop, about 5 min. Cool completely. Stir in 4-1/2 T Dijon mustard, 2-1/2 T whole-grain Dijon mustard, pinch of salt. Can make up to a week ahead. Cover and chill.

Friday, December 18, 2009

And now for a long winter's nap...

(Dec. 8) We are finished trippin'! It was fun while it lasted, but we're home and burrowed in while the snow piles up in the yard. It was so nice to get home in one hour instead of the usual three it takes to drive to Richfield. All the boxes were waiting for us, as promised, so we have tackled a few today. New furniture comes Thursday and Friday.

Our luggage got through seven trips to six airports in a month, but didn't get off the plane with us in Salt Lake. We reported it
missing and they tracked it down in Portland. I guess it just got used to going there. But Southwest rerouted it and delivered it
this afternoon. Oh, great. Now I've got something else to unpack. Actually, I might just toss it out. It's fairly traveled this year
and might like to be released with a vote of thanks.

It was a month full of activity. We saw hilly Morgantown, West Virginia (six miles from the Pennsylvania border - Roger's
brother lives there; there's one mile of road that's straight)... ate lunch at an Amish restaurant in Maryland near a stone bridge
built in the 1700's as part of the first national highway (discovered in the restaurant gift shop an Amish romance novel and
couldn't resist buying one)… flew out of Pittsburgh on a commuter plane, climbing up five steps from the tarmac to get in,
sitting on row seven of nine rows… interesting (bumpy) experience… waited in Cleveland longer than we were in the air both
legs of the trip, took another plane (a little larger) to Rochester, where Jen met us… went to the Sacred Grove, the Smith
family home, saw the Palmyra Temple, drove to the (almost) top of the Hill Cumorah, had lunch at a local restaurant next to
the Erie Canal, and then visited the EB Grandin building in Palmyra – completely fascinating…in Jen's ward, introduced
ourselves for the first time as being from Provo – it's beginning to sink in… went to the George Eastman house to see a display
of gingerbread creations… fabulous place… went to Wegman's, a huge grocery store where the deli has about 100 kinds of
cheeses… saw Lake Ontario, Seneca Lake, the Elizabeth Cady Stanton home in Seneca Falls where the women's movement
began (Bedford Falls, the town in "It's a Wonderful Life," is said to be patterned after Seneca Falls – totally charming)…went to the Whitmer farm in Fayette...shopped at an Amish store, ate dinner at an Amish restaurant… fed ducks on the Erie Canal and found a pizza joint loaded with local color and great food… drove to Buffalo in torrential rain… sat in the airport an extra 45 minutes due to the computer glitch in Salt Lake that messed up the whole flight schedule across the country… met Randy and Elin in the Chicago airport; they went to school board meetings while we drove their car back to Decatur, stopping along the way to meet Roger's brother Loren and his wife for lunch… did what I have not done since 1961 - got up for early morning Seminary; I drove Kayla there and waited for her, then took her to school while Roger got Courtney up and out the door for the school bus… I drove to Bloomington to pick up Randy and Elin at the train, which was an hour late because it hit some debris on the tracks and couldn't go fast… got a perm… helped Elin get ready for Thanksgiving… Jen and Kevin and kids arrived Wednesday… Jen and Elin went to O'Hare to pick up Jordan and Heather on Thursday while the rest of us (well, some) fixed dinner… had a fabulous meal… laughed ourselves silly… the kids all got along well… had "Christmas" on Saturday, which means listening to Christmas music while decorating the house, then eating Danish rice pudding and opening the resulting pudding prizes… Jen and Kevin left Sunday morning… wandered through furniture stores in a little Amish town about 40 miles from Decatur, marveling at the craftsmanship, bought some pumpkin bars and cheese at a local bakery and cheese shop, found the sequel to the Amish romance novel, went to the Amish bulk foods store where Elin gets so many of our unusual Christmas presents – ever had peach flavor Danish Dessert, or apricot or blackberry Jello?…got up early to go with Elin to take Jordan and Heather back to Chicago, dropping them off at the el station in the heart of the South Side, a pretty scary place, but they were together, and it was daylight, and it was quicker than fighting traffic to drive all the way to O'Hare on the north side… bought a new coat… attended the Millikin College Christmas Vespers on Sunday night… got out of Midway Airport ahead of the blizzard, but got into some serious weather at the Denver stopover… de-iced, got to Salt Lake an hour late, got the shuttle and were delivered on our doorstep (covered with 5 or 6 inches of snow) at 9 too keyed up to sleep.

We didn't get to do everything we wanted to do – Jen planned to take us to Niagara Falls but the kids were sick so we changed
the itinerary – but now we have an agenda for our next visit. I love upstate New York so I expect to be going back a lot. Jen is
in the Palmyra Stake and lives 40 minutes from the Cumorah Pageant locale. We want to go back in good weather, but we
would also like to do a fall color tour in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Falling Water, the famous home designed by
Frank Lloyd Wright, is in the Pennsylvania hills a couple of hours from Morgantown. It was Monday when we visited, and the
place is closed on Mondays. Next time for sure.

Christmas Lights Extraordinaire

Only in Utah Valley... A house on a street near us had a row of blue lights around the eaves, and in the window... wait for it... a white block letter Y. Don't know if these people are in our ward, but they are not ashamed of partisanship. Hey, they could leave them up all year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Oldie but Goodie #5 (holiday edition)

We have moved into music heaven. Not only do we have a huge ward choir, but the stake also has a spectacular choir, as evidenced by the marvelous Christmas fireside last night which featured stellar performances and excellent selections. It renewed my faith. In fact, I was needed in the choir in our Richfield ward, but here I may be substandard. I'm a wobbly, insecure alto at best, with a vibrato that grows wider every day. We went to choir practice Sunday and the performance is next Sunday, with a practice/social event (i.e. breakfast) Saturday morning. If I stand next to somebody good, I can manage, but I'm still not sure about standing there with so many who are really good at it. I feel like a fraud. Roger, of course, is a marvelous singer and will enjoy making his considerable contributions. I'm thrilled about that.

In the spirit of Christmas music commentary, here is a rerun of my slightly revised essay from last year which contains large quantities of exaggeration and irony, and which goes down easier if taken with a grain of salt:


My husband and I were on a phone call recently that required us to wait on hold for about half of the total one-hour time it took to complete the transaction. While we were on hold, we were subjected to the torturous sounds of New Age ‘music,’ put there by some well-meaning person convinced we needed to be entertained while we were waiting. Running barefoot on broken glass would have been infinitely more satisfying. I am convinced that New Age ‘music’ diminishing brain cells and breaks down resistance to truth, logic and common sense, leaving people believing that evil is good and good is evil. It dissolves any conscience a person may have hitherto possessed. Suddenly everything is hunky-dory for these people and they think all the problems of the world will go away if we all just sit around listening to and grooving on this foulest form of air pollution. New Age ‘music’ is the sorry consequence of bra burning, free love, and Woodstock.

That’s one way of saying I’m picky about music, especially now that it's Christmas time and there's more questionable music in the air. My eclectic musical tastes were formed in a radio-oriented home where we listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday mornings, and ended the day with both the steel guitars, sweet harmonies and ukuleles on Hawaii Calls, and the authentic Western sounds of Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch. It was pure and never Osmondized.

Because music has such power, my deeply personal celebration of Christmas very often centers on great music inspired from a heavenly source, and its effect on me is profound. Most especially, probably because I pay close attention to the precise meanings of words, my soul yearns to hear or sing appropriate lyrics from significant texts, paired with satisfying and spiritually rewarding melodies expressing the deepest meaning of Christmas. Let me worship through reverent music in the most sublime, eloquent way, as the Savior of the world deserves. My heart is touched by so many inspired works – Handel’s Messiah, O Come O Come Emmanuel, O Holy Night, Lo How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming, Mary Did You Know, O Come All Ye Faithful, Angels We Have Heard on High, Once in Royal David’s City, much authentic folk music and many heartfelt spirituals.

However, there is some Christmas music so patently offensive that I want to wipe out all memories of ever having heard or sung it. I want to slink, Grinch-like, into all the music stores, radio stations, private collections and sheet music publishers and obliterate some sounds I hear over public address systems in stores during the holidays. You don’t have a choice when you hear this drivel in a shopping mall. They mean well, but it doesn’t entertain. It inspires my inner Scrooge, making me want to buy less so I can leave the premises as quickly as possible and try once again to obliterate from my memory Elvis Presley's version of White Christmas. That’s how I first heard the number one selection on my Top Twenty List of Christmas Songs I Never Want To Hear Again. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the complete and generous list of losers with the heartfelt scorn and derision each so richly deserves:

20. It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas – …to which I want to respond, “Well, duh! What was your first clue – sundown on Halloween?” It sounds like the guy who says during a heat wave, “Hot enough for ya?” This is something clueless Goofy would have said to patient Mickey, who is far more tolerant of stupid remarks than I.

19. (tie) Winter Wonderland/Marshmallow World – Ain’t no time nowhere winter is a wonderland for me; I cannot celebrate the charm I do not find. Winter is a slip-on-the-ice, sprain-your-ankle, freeze-your-tushie-off, endlessly boring season broken only by the sweetness of celebrating a sacred holiday. Don’t let’s confuse the two.

18. I’ll be Home for Christmas – Total schmaltz when you first hear it, mind-numbingly dull after that. So you’re not going to be there except in your dreams – boohoo. Get over it. I spent a lot of unconventional Christmases out of the country and I've found my own way past the sentimentality.

17. Let it Snow – This is nothing but a seductive (you’ll excuse the expression) invitation to use bad weather as an excuse for someone to stay over at his sweetie’s house, a one-of-a-kind gift that can only be given once. It's deceptively cute, but if you listen to the lyrics, it makes no sense.

16. Have A Holly Jolly Christmas – Actually, this sounds like the worst kind of Christmas to have, completely unrelated to the real meaning of the holiday. This song hits another set of cliches the others have missed.

15. Jingle Bell Rock – Social events at holiday time are nice, but this lyric is unencumbered by logic or a description of an appropriate observance of a sacred day, and it's musically boring.

14. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – See #15 and #16.

13. Frosty the Snowman – Christmas is not mentioned in this ludicrous winter legend and after you’ve heard it once, subsequent hearings are migraine-inducing torture.

12. The Christmas Song (you know… chestnuts roasting… yada, yada, yada) – Nothing is more offensive than clichés, and this one is loaded with them. In fact, Santa has loaded his sleigh with toys and goodies. Isn’t that what’s wrong with Christmas in the first place? We don’t need more things.

11. White Christmas – Another string of clichés. What’s the big deal about snow? What about Christmas in Australia that takes place in the summer? Huh? Did you ever think of that?

10. Silver Bells – Not much wrong with this one if you like a boring melody and totally mindless lyrics. Can you say platitude?

9. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Really? You love spending too much money, eating too much rich food, going to parties you don’t want to go to with people you don’t really like? What’s wonderful about that?

8. Twelve Days of Christmas – Repetition is the last refuge of the unimaginative. Again, we’re stuck on using things to express love, a pitiful substitute for the genuine article.

7. Deck the Halls – Nonsense lyrics are Exhibit A in the case against this song. I don’t drink, but I should think that drunk would be the best way to find meaning in it. Far more appealing, rewarding and cogent was the Mad Magazine version of this I read in my youth, which began, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla Wash and Kalamazoo…”

6. (all songs referring to reindeer with or without red noses) – completely idiotic, without redeeming value or even a modicum of charm. Lord of the Flies teaches kids to play nice together, too.

5. (all songs referring to Santa Claus) – He sees you when you’re sleeping? Really? He knows when you’re awake? Really? Isn’t that what God does, and didn’t He do it first? How can kids NOT get confused!

4. Jingle Bells – Here’s another mediocre winter tale with no connection to the holiday. Translation: people with the IQ of pinecones ride around in the snow apparently unwilling to take refuge from the weather and protect themselves against frostbite.

3. We Wish You a Merry Christmas – Nobody even knows what figgy pudding is anyway, and simply repeating the sentiment ad infinitum doesn’t make it more intelligible.

2. Feliz Navidad – If a guy sang this to me, I’d poison his eggnog. I do not want this derivative, dreary rubbish stuck in my head for the month of December.

1. Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time – No, we’re not. We’re paralyzed by the tedium of this inferior music and pointless lyric written by Paul McCartney in a fit of acute uninspired tastelessness. The last chorus repeats ad nauseum until you think you’ve entered a new rung of Purgatory Dante must have created just for shoppers, as if another were necessary. If Christmas shopping doesn’t trigger insanity, you haven’t spent enough time in the Walmart listening to this on the PA system.

And while I’m on a roll, here’s a bonus: I never want to hear another roomful of third graders shouting I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ for Christmas, or Up On the Housetop, or I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, or All I Want For Christmas is my Two Front Teeth. It’s only cute once.

It’s true of music no matter what time of year it is, but especially at Christmas you’ll have a deeper, richer spiritual experience when you’re more careful with what you choose to think and sing about during the holidays. When your spirit is fed with spiritually nourishing music, you grow closer to the reason for the season.

And by the way, Merry Christmas. Celebrate it with GOOD music that lifts and inspires