Sunday, December 28, 2008

Home for the Holidays

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. It's more of a whole season rather than just a single day. It's kind of sad when we have to take down the decorations, so one year I left everything up from the day after Thanksgiving until mid-January. We had a real tree and all the needles were dropping off rather badly, and I had to wrap it with a sheet while I dragged it thru the house to the curb.

It was such a nuisance to get the needles picked out of the carpet that I learned my lesson. No, I didn't take the decorations down much earlier, but at least I did get an artificial tree (better for my son's allergies, too) so I didn't have as much of a mess.

This year, we were especially blessed to see all four of our kids and their families during the holidays. With them spread from California to South Carolina, it has been a real challenge to make that happen. So we thoroughly enjoy it whenever we can and make do when we cannot.

I hope the holidays were pleasant for all of you. I would love to hear about your favorite holiday traditions, whether for Christmas, Hannakuh, Kwanzaa or whatever. Those traditions are what make us all a family, either by blood or by choice.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Writing at Starbucks (or at least trying)

Several of my writer friends go to a Starbucks store on a regular basis to write, so I decided to try it. I have never been a fan of their coffee. Even the decaffeinated with half hot water is too strong for my tastes. Okay, so apparently I am a wimp when it comes to coffee. But they have good hot tea and their hot chocolate is a rare indulgence.

One of my misconceptions was that their WiFi was free. Silly me! As expensive as their products are, I should have realized they would charge for their internet connection. At $3.95 for a 2-hour session, the price is not prohibitive if I really needed to get connected. Interestingly, my available WiFi connections also showed one for the McDonald’s across the street. The cost for their connection was exactly the same. However, today I am just killing an hour between appointments, so I decided to work offline for a while instead.

What I don’t understand is the widespread appeal of writing at a Starbucks. When the place is crowded with people, there are too many distractions. For example, two young college girls were discussing who they “hooked up with” the previous night, with much more detail than I cared to know, while a pair of business professionals were trying to “one up” each other on how important their careers (and therefore they) were. Even the retired folks who quietly wandered in and out distracted me.

At the top of the hour, it was almost as if the school bell had rung and the majority of the customers cleared out. I thought that would make it easier to concentrate, but no, that was not the case. Then all the noises from the kitchen were irritatingly audible, although it was at the far end of the room from me. How can they let an alarm beep for 73 seconds at a time? Apparently, it bothered me much more than it did them.

Once the beeping stopped, I could hear conversations between the girls behind the counter, unfortunately. At least I think they were considered conversations. Grammatically, their choice of words was appalling. If they left out all the “and he goes…”, “and then I goes…” and all the “you know”s, it was an exceedingly short dialog.

So I learned something today, which is always a good thing. If I want to write, I will do it at home, where I can choose to listen to serene music (or not), or I will visit my local library, where I can enjoy the sounds of silence.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Easy Gingerbread Houses

I thoroughly enjoyed an early Christmas gift this last week. I spent the weekend with my grandchildren, aged 4 1/2 and 3. They live in another state some 12 hours away (or even 14, if I happen to get lost on the way), but the trip was a total success.

The kids opened their Christmas toys early so we could play with them, which is a great perk for any grandparent. I don't usually like battery-operated toys - they have a whole lot more natural energy than I do, so I wanted something to burn off some of that energy. Both games were a big success, even when the sound effects became annoying.

In addition to the usual pastimes of games, reading and playing with Thomas the Tank Engine trains, I cautiously tried out the new trampoline in the backyard. We had a ball, even though I wasn't anywhere near as agile as the kids.

One of my favorite memory-makers with the kids was to build individual gingerbread houses for each of them, which is a tradition we started last year. We all put on aprons, including some I had made for the kids with gingerbread on them. Given how young the grandkids are, we opted to use graham crackers to speed up the process and keep it geared toward their relatively short attention spans.

To make gingerbread houses this fast & easy way, you will need a box of graham crackers, a pound of powdered sugar, water, food coloring and assorted candies for decorating. We had an eclectic mixture of candy to include their favorites, such as gummy goldfish, as well as gum drops, miniature candy canes and M&Ms.

We carved the crackers into squares for the walls because they did not cooperate in breaking evenly and dry-fit them around a smaller floor section. The roof was two more squares, plus a square cut diagonally for the end pieces. The frosting we made was super simple - 2 cups of powdered sugar blended with 3 Tablespoons of warm water until smooth. Add more water if needed and a few drops of food coloring if desired.

To keep the kids occupied while my son & I assembled the two houses, I gave them each a plate of graham cracker pieces in various broken shapes covered with a dab of frosting. They delighted in sprinkling the "cookies" with colored sugar, red hots & M&Ms. They had a ball and grinned each time they popped one in their mouth.

We found it worked well to put a bit of frosting on a plate to anchor the walls while the frosting set. We assembled the roofs separately until set, then attached them on top of the walls.

Once the houses were firm, the kids decided how to decorate them with just a little help from us. Who says gummy goldfish don't belong on a house? We had a great time building gingerbread houses and memories.

As soon as the houses were decorated, the kids were ready to eat them, which may have been the most exciting part of the afternoon. Daddy made a loud growling noise and took a huge bite out of each roof, while the kids happily broke the walls apart.