Thursday, December 27, 2012

Field Trip!

At holiday time, my meal planning shifts into overdrive. I shop for meals, second-guess my menus and recipes, prepare them anyway, clean up afterwards, and repeat the process. So what did I do the day after Christmas? I visited the first Houston location of Trader Joe's, the California-based specialty-grocery chain. 

This post isn't a plug for Trader Joe's, although I enjoyed my field trip and plan to make another, chiefly because TJ's doesn't pretend to offer everything a household needs, so a visit doesn't require a super-long list and two carts. More importantly, at a time of year when food-prep burnout looms with every invitation that requests my company PLUS a dish to share, I need a creativity jumpstart.  

Spent so much time in the kitchen you've got a cooking hang-over? Take a hair-of-the dog approach and visit a farmer's market, food bazaar, or new grocery store for ideas. While there, snap up an already-prepared shortcut. 

Trader Joe's olive tapenade will appear at  my house on New Year's Day. Later that week, I may mix it with cheese and butter, slather it on French bread, and tote it to a party. 

The strategy that eases kitchen burn-out works, with tweaks, in other areas. Exhausted by writing, teaching, working retail? Take a flyer on something related but different. 

If you write fiction, give blogging a shot. If you write science fiction, try your hand at contemporary suspense. 

Do you know any teacher who isn't bone-tired come holiday time? When exhaustion hits, it's tempting to eat, drink, and sleep away the school break, but those strategies are less effective than a classroom-role switcheroo.  If you teach, use the break to take a dance class, conversational Spanish, or learn basic auto repairs. 

Nothing kills holiday spirit like working retail. You're knee-deep in returns now, I know, but on your half-day off, deliver yourself to a restaurant, barber shop, or nail salon with a reputation for good service, and let someone wait on you/anticipate your needs for an hour. 

A new approach can be more invigorating than a nap and better for us than another cup of eggnog or a second cupcake. 

Olive tapenade, anyone?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Actually

To celebrate the holidays this year I'm pulling out one of my all time favorite Christmas movies, Love ActuallyFor the uninitiated, Love Actually is a charming 2003 British film with an impressive cast of heavyweight actorsLiam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Keira Knightly, Martin Freeman and Colin Firth, just to name a few. There are too many story lines to mention--some romantic, some some touching, others a little sad--but they all come together at the end on Christmas. 

I won't ruin the film by leaking spoilers here, although I'll say that there's a great scene with Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister meeting with Billy Bob Thornton as the President of the United States.The storyline of the shy couple (Martin Freeman aka Bilbo Baggins and Joanna Page) who meet while working as body doubles for an adult film is cute, although probably not a good idea for family entertainment. Okay, the brief scenes with Rodrigo Santoro (see his Chanel No. 5 advert here.) may be reason enough to watch the movie and, aside from a couple misses, the soundtrack is great. If you've never seen it, Redbox just put it in their mix although apparently the on-demands like Netflix and Amazon don't have it for streaming. I sure hope I can find my DVD copy!

So to get you in the spirit, here's a video of short clips to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!!!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bitter Lessons

A cup of fresh-squeezed lemon juice sits in my refrigerator, and I've decided to freeze it. Usually, I'm a make-lemonade-from-lemons person, but not this day, week, month.

As I finish my holiday preparations, I think of the twenty children from Sandy Hook who won't enjoy the gifts their parents bought/made for them. You know as well as I do that presents for them were squirreled away in attics, basements, and guest-room closets. Will their grieving parents leave the gifts where they're hidden? I wouldn't be able to look at them. Not this year.

Some bereft parents will provide a semblance of Christmas for their other children. Others will take refuge with friends or family or snatch up their kids and flee Newtown for a few days away from reminders of their loss. December will never again be for them a month of quiet anticipation and unfettered joy.

My children are grown, but I remember how exciting first-grade was for them and how eager they were to share stories of what happened in school.

This past weekend, a thoughtful man sat at my dining-room table and explained how and why he learned to shoot. He hunted for food as a child and continues that pattern as an adult. He does not, however, own a semi-automatic weapon.

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle printed a letter from Joe Hickman, who wrote: "As an avid hunter, I enjoy my hunting guns, but I cannot fathom any reason for any non-law enforcement individual to need a very high-capacity clip for a rifle or pistol.

"The federal government regulates the number of shotgun shells--three--in our guns while duck hunting. We get three tries at a duck but 15 to 30 at humans?"

The dead in Sandy Hook will spur changes in this country's gun laws and make it easier for the mentally ill to access treatment. Eventually, I'll view those advances as lemonade wrung from the bitterest of lemons.

Right now, though, I hurt for the parents who have lost a child and for whom the holiday season will forevermore be tinged with sorrow.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Over cocktails.....

Swarovski Crystal Tree at Galleries Lafayette, Paris 
Year end is a great time for pop culture nerds--those of us who wish we were much cooler and plugged in than we are. There are all kinds of lists telling us which books, movies, trends are the most intellectual, hip, cutting edge and that intel is great material for holiday cocktail parties and family gatherings. Throw out a little knowledge of Golden Globe nominations and you're in for at least five minutes of awesome conversation.

Let's face it, our culture is fascinated by the rich and famous (or infamous) and we're drawn to stories about William and Kate, Brad and Angelina, and even Kim and Kanye. We don't have to admire them or even  like them to be sucked into the hype of their latest outfits, outings or personal disasters. Outrageous and shallow require no commitment and are amusing. These people are rich, famous, have lots of freedom and often make REALLY bad choices. Who can resist a smug moment of WTF over a silly photo of Madonna and her latest 22 year old boy-toy making out in a New York nightclub. On that note, I've considered topics I do and don't want to discuss over eggnog. Indulge me while I share.

Let's not talk about:

Who is going to be cast as Christian Grey? I don't care unless Chris Hemsworth takes the role. That would be a travesty of epic proportions almost as disgusting as.....

Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. This is just wrong. Cruise is rich and creepy and 5'7". Reacher is cool and hot and 6'5". Do the math. This casting just wrong on every level.

Anything Kardashian. Do we really need another magazine cover with Kim overflowing a lycra ensemble? Do we care what Kris Jenner wore for Halloween?

Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson or him taking her back. They aren't really Bella and Edward, girls. Really.

Count me in:

New movies. This is the time of year we actually go to the theatre to see new releases. I want to see LES MISERABLES (LOVED the book, wasn't impressed with the play but Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean--YES!), SKYFALL and maybe LINCOLN but want feedback on what's out.

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in HOPE SPRINGS. This isn't usually my sort of film (no action, no violence, no Jason Statham, Chris Hemsworth or Channing Tatum) and yet this story of a middle-aged woman who wants to resurrect a dead marriage was very well done. Only Meryl Streep would allow herself to look so frumpy on screen--and she has another Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Tommy Lee Jones was also excellent.

Winter fashions, spring lines, anything Tom Ford does. Stylish clothes fascinate me--when the topic turns to trends, designers, fabrics, sales I'm all in.

Books! Romances, suspense, thrillers, cookbooks, biographies--what's everyone reading these days? Give us the low down!

So what do you want to talk about? What subjects would you prefer to avoid?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Over-Achieving Elves among Us

I exist to make holiday-happy, put-a-wreath-on-it folks (you know who you are) feel superior. My name's Pat, and I'm a Christmas slacker.

Today is December 13, a lucky date for those of you who finished shopping for gifts, wrapped them beautifully (no gift bags for you!), and placed them under a decked-out tree.

You achievers, though, tend to doubt yourselves. Quit it! You're making me and the elves crazy.  Stop kicking yourself for forgetting someone on your list. You made a list. High five! 

Do you wish you'd put up multi-color light strands instead of white or white instead of multi-color? Dude, you put up lights.

Are you second guessing the Starbucks card you bought for your child's teacher? Stop angsting. You know how you chug coffee before you wake up your kid for school? Multiply one kid times thirty and you'll understand how much a latte or cappuccino means to a teacher. Parent of the Year! Parent of the Year!

Wish you'd retouched the paint on the wooden reindeers prancing across your front lawn? Know I drive by your house to admire them every day. Who notices faded paint when the reindeer hold their heads at such a jaunty angle? You rock!

What? You baked tried-and-true sugar cookies instead of making Martha Stewart's Hazelnut Sandwich Cookies? You made cookies! They'll be no lumps of coal in your stocking.

By this time next week, I may have a decorated tree. If so, it's because of the shining example y'all have set.
That said, would it have killed you to set the bar a little lower?

Your turn: Do you prepare for the holidays weeks in advance or prefer the adrenaline rush of last-minute shopping?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Don't Steal This Book!!!

Saturday night my DH and I attended my local RWA chapter holiday party. It was a fun affair where everyone brought food--heavy on the desserts--and a book for a White Elephant gift. Given that about 35 of the 40 attendees were writers (the other 5 or so were husbands), books were a great replacement for the bizarre items opened and stolen in past years. There were no rules about what kind of book except it couldn't be one written by the person who brought it. Needless to say, in this bunch there was no lack of creativity in the offerings.

Among the novels, self-help, picture books, histories, biographies and humor, one book stood out. It would have even if three people hadn't brought the same title. The first copy unwrapped was stolen twice ( the maximum number of steals allowed). The second I happily unwrapped and, glaring at the thieving Heather MacAllister who took it from me, had to choose again. A whisper of encouragement told me there was yet another copy in the dwindling pile. All I had to do was figure out which package it was in. Using all my powers of deduction--by that point dulled a bit by red wine--I grabbed a Christmas striped bag and VICTORY! Not only did I get The Book but the generous Christie Craig had included a terrific craft book in the bag. No one dared steal my treasure this time.

So what was the coveted title? FIFTY SHADES OF CHICKEN. It's a cook book with some rather steamy recipes. The trailer is hilarious and gives you the "flavor" of the writing. Check it out:

By the way, no one brought that Grey book.

So what were your favorite books of 2012? Is there one you hope to get for Christmas or Hanukkah this year?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lessons Learned from TSA

My travel-ready stuff

The late comedian George Carlin is famous for his riff on "stuff," the items we tote around, hoard, or covet. I once spotted Carlin in an airport waiting area, and he was NOT guarding baggage. No, he was people-watching and seemed to be getting a kick out of it.

Because I resent fees for checked bags, I pack an eighteen-inch carry-on for trips of one week or less. This means I travel without my stuff. Cute clothes? I don't pack 'em. I wear black yoga pants and a black top on the plane and pack another pair of black slacks and two more dark tops. Sometimes I get wild and crazy and pack a black skirt and black tights. Did I tell you black makes me look like a member of the Addams Family? Luckily, a colorful scarf solves that problem, and if it's big enough, it doubles as an evening wrap and triples as a bed jacket.

Once upon a time, I'd gather up the mini-size toiletries supplied by hotels and toss 'em in my bag. No more. I leave them behind, even when they're Neutrogena or Crabtree & Evelyn, because my one-quart plastic bag already bulges with regular, everyday essentials--in containers of three ounces or less.

The less-is-better lesson of travel extends to home. I no longer store make-up and moisturizer in a pretty giveaway case from Clinique. Nope, everything remains in the quart bag except the toothpaste. My bathroom counter isn't pretty, but I'm TSA-ready at a moment's notice.

Speaking of TSA, I now travel lighter in another way. Two years ago, a pat-down turned humiliating when the female agent mistook my muffin top for contraband.  "It's a roll of fat," I told her. "I keep meaning to lose weight." The agent happened to be narrower than a dragonfly and wasn't moved. She patted me down again. Since that incident I've lost twenty pounds-- one small victory in the war on drugs.

Instead of toting books with me on trip, I take my Kindle. Instead of a laptop, I carry a netbook that fits in my purse.  Admittedly, the purse isn't teeny, but it fits under the seat. What's more, I've learned to tug the combined carry-on and purse behind me as I move down a plane's aisle. So far, none of my fellow passengers has been banged up in the process.

It turns out I like a pared-down life. More to the point, I enjoy the fantasy that my next adventure is around the corner--and I'm ready for it. 

Where are you headed on your next real or fantasy trip?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Our View
 Over Thanksgiving, my husband and I took a much needed escape to Paris. We've been many times before and done all the tourist sites and colorful neighborhoods. This was our chance to chill out in a wonderful apartment on the Rive Gauche and be Parisien  for ten days.

Our apartment was perfect--very French with a view of Notre Dame out the kitchen window and six restaurants within fifty yards of the apartment. We could walk wherever we wanted to go, eat out or cook in, sleep late or get up early, and enjoy our favorite neighborhoods and destinations with no pressure to see or do anything because we "should." It was a wonderfully relaxing, energizing break during which I made some observations, none very profound.
Romance-Free Bookstore

    • There are no romance novels in Shakespeare & Company. There are thousands of English language books on almost every subject. Harlan Cobin, John Grisham and Lee Child made the cut. Nora didn't.                                                                                       
    • Hot water heaters run at night. It's a good idea to get a shower before noon if you want hot water.
Steve in our living room
  • It's generally a Bad Hair City. That doesn't mean my hair was impossible like it is in Houston in summer. Very few people in Paris put much effort into their coifs so the bar is pretty low. This is good news because:
  • The electricity goes out frequently for short periods which requires the resetting of lots of critical systems including the hot water heater timer and the internet connection. These periods inevitable coincided with me getting in the shower.

Our Apartment Over Atelier Maitre Albert Restaurant
  • The goofy, overzealous American tourists that embarrass us in restaurants and cafes are usually treated with kindness and good humor by the wait staff. Sure, this is because they generally tip very well in a country where tipping is seldom more that a euro or so. Still, the Americans are welcomed where other Europeans and Asians (both poor or non-tippers we were told) are merely tolerated.
  • Trucks pick up glass bottles for recycling several times a week at about 6:30 a.m. Restaurants recycle A LOT of bottles. We were above one restaurant and across a narrow alley from three others. The crash of breaking glass is rather startling, especially that first morning. Other trash is picked up a couple times a week.  Luckily we live on a noisy street in Houston and were able to go right back to sleep.
  • The neighborhood shopkeepers smile a lot and try to be helpful. Buying from the boucherie, poissonerie, chartucherie, bonlangerie, and wine merchant is much more fun than going to a grocery store. But beware the fromagerie...those women can be mean!