Thursday, 31 December 2009

New Decade Dawning

I was wondering the other day what we would call this decade (life was so much simpler back in the 60s, 70s, etc.) Someone was clever enough to come up with “The Naughties” (Do you suppose the financial industry took that as permission?) What will we call the 2010’s? In my mind, ‘teens’ still means 1910’s and ‘twenty-tens’ is nearly a tongue-twister and too long. Shall we say we are in the ‘Tweens’? (Better yet, ‘Twens’; as a Gemini that could be auspicious for me…) Someone will come up with something, I’m sure.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been 10 years since the year began with a 1 instead of a 2. I remember that New Years Eve (2000) we had Bob and John staying over. We played Trivial Pursuit while waiting for the New Year. At midnight John played Auld Lang Syne on his accordion in the front garden and our neighbours shot off impressive fireworks in the street. The next morning we all went and did a 14 mile race. Thankfully Sadly, that race is no more.

The weekend before that, Bill and I had sat at the kitchen table and discussed – fantasized if you want to be right about it – how we might cope if the then-feared ‘Millenium bug’ actually materialized and shut down the computerized world on which everyone relied. We believed we had sufficient food to last at least a couple of months if not more, though we would soon run out of milk, which would be tough to do without. We figured our coal burning fireplaces might work again if we unstopped the chimneys. There is a lot of coal just lying around this area in piles; it also washes up on some of the beaches nearby. Alternatively we thought we might take firewood lying around in the park near us. We thought to start a vegetable garden in the spring with any seeds we had on hand or could begin to harvest. There are plenty of pigeons at the Metro station and rabbits are common around here, though we decided we’d likely be vegetarian if we had to kill the things ourselves. We could fish in the sea or the river, both being close to hand. We had bicycles for transport. We have all sorts of books on self-sufficiency.

I was all set to ditch the briefcase and high heels! It was silly day-dreaming, but fun. Sometimes one can understand while the whole survivalist thing in the U.S. appeals: life looks altogether simpler; we forget how much harder. I was almost disappointed when I got up in 2000 and everything still worked. I had no idea at that time that I would in fact be retired before the Naughties were through.

One New Year’s Eve since then we had dinner at the Grand Hotel in Tynemouth. It was a lovely, elegant occasion. It snowed and as our table overlooked the beach we had a wonderful view. The buffet food included everything and was completely over the top, including a formal presentation of a pig – one with an apple stuck in its mouth and everything. The table decorations were beautiful, the people at the tables near us congenial, there was dancing after the meal. It was expensive but, we thought, worth it. The next year they doubled the price to something completely stupid and we haven’t bothered with it since.

Ever after we have tended to have a special meal at home, toast the New Year in and crash. For several years we spent a fortune on good steaks only to find them mediocre (I’m resigned finally that Brits just don’t know how to do beef; this is fair, given what passes for beer in the US). Last year we bought venison steak instead and whilst it was nice, we didn’t think it justified the price.

This year we are going to lower the tone altogether and have a smorgasbord of our favourite foods – junk food included, or perhaps especially. Shrimp cocktail, smoked salmon, chorizo sausage and Wensleydale cheese with crackers, red wine, potato chips, houmous and veggie sticks are all featured on the menu. I expect we’ll be ill by midnight, but we do normally eat fairly healthy so we might survive anyhow.

I wonder what the next decade will bring? Here’s hoping it has good things in store for us all! See you ‘next year’!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Racing on Ice

It was easily the stupidest thing I've done all year if not this century. That was my main thought all the way around.

If I've said it. once, I have said it a million times, I don't run when it's icy. It's not worth it to me to train when am risking an injury. So why on earth did I do a 10K race in Yorkshire on snow and ice? Because I had a number, I've done it in the past (different weather) and enjoyed the scenery, Bill and Bob were going, I'd said I was going to do it, all pretty lame excuses.

We literally skated to the start. I nearly didn't even get there, I was so frightened of falling. Just before the race began, one of the marshals announced that yes, it was icy, but so were the town streets and one could break their leg just walking on the sidewalks. Great, I said, I feel really reassured with that. Then the gun went and we were off. The first mile was about the worst. The women around me were swearing a lot and none of us jogged more than a dozen steps at a time, I'm sure. When I finally got to the first mile marker I looked at my watch: 17 minutes!! Ridiculous.

Mind, after that it was beautiful when I could manage a look around. The course went across several snow covered fields that sparkled in the sunshine and through some forested areas that were heavenly. Also down country trails where the only safe place to run was in the crunchy snow on the edges -- you know, where people let their dogs poop, and where all the hedges you might grab are the thorny kind. There was a hill that everyone climbed just about on hands and knees, looking for any purchase that would take them up, not sliding down. That was when I stopped thinking of it as a race, but as an obstacle course instead.

I thought it would be not a race of the quickest but of those least afraid of falling (the winner did it in 38 minutes which everyone deemed impressive -- and suicidal). I was at the back with all the other chicken women but gradually overtook a handful. For all that, there were stretches that were dry and I did manage to relax enough to make use of the advantage.

Some got pretty tired towards the end of the race, given it took so long to finish. I'm sure I did 10 miles, not 10K what with all the detours I took to avoid the ice and find safer ground. In a couple of places marshals had to help me across icy bits. On the last, steeply arched, bridge the marshal wore cleets and literally dragged me over the ice, as he said he'd done everyone.

There were people out having walks and they were good about telling us where it was safest, as did the marshals. One woman remarked, "You are so brave". "Nope, just stupid." was my answer.

My goal was to finish without falling and I made it back in one piece, though I expect that will be the longest 10K I ever run. Good job I'd trained for that half marathon, not for just a 10K. The training stood me in good stead.

Then came the next challenge: the ladies' changing room at the rugby club, next to the men's, was in a concrete building with a stone floor and no heat. The showers were hot and brilliant but of course as soon as you stepped away the floor was so cold it almost burned. Getting dressed I was unbearably slow, being tired, cold and stiff. Two other women came in to change, neither chose to shower. One looked at me and said again that I was brave. I didn't bother to answer. I'd made the decision to get cleaned up because I knew we were going to have a nice pub lunch in town and I didn't want to be sticky and smelly. It is just part doing these races, roughing it to get cleaned up after. This picture was in the ladies' loo in the club house; some sort of tribal custom I guess.

We ended up having a 'carvery' lunch, with servings of both roast beef and roast pork with crackling (and we could have had some chicken chasseur), roast parsnips and potatoes, mashed potatoes, cabbage, carrots, Yorkshire pudding (which is not a sweet but something between pastry and a bread roll), mushy peas and gravy. I didn't pile my plate near as high as Bill and Bob, but it was still a struggle to shovel it all down. But shovel I did, enjoying every bite. Bill noticed this place did a really reasonable meal at New Year's Eve and we might go there next year.

I did manage to snap a few pictures from the road, but I mostly slept on the way home.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Martian Carrot Cake

We went to our running club Christmas party a couple of weeks ago. It was held at a student-y pub called Nancy's Bordello. I love the decor and must get back with my camera soon to share that with you.

The club generally has the meal catered but members fill in by bringing sweets and desserts. We had bought way too many carrots for Thanksgiving so I thought it would be good to use some up in a carrot cake. I'd never made one before, but it was easy enough. Anne asked for the recipe, so I thought I'd share it here.

From Betty Crocker's Cookbook, 1987.

1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups chopped tart apples (about 3 medium)
1 cup coarsely chopped nuts

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour rectangular pan, 13x9x2 inches. Mix sugar, oil and eggs until blended; beat 1 minute. Stir in remaining ingredients except apples and nuts; beat 1 minute. Stir in apples and nuts. Pour into pan.

Bake until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes. Frost with Caramel Frosting if desired.
15 servings: 350 calories per serving.

You may have noticed this is an apple cake. For a carrot cake, substitute 3 cups shredded carrots for the apples and frost with Cream Cheese Frosting if desired.

I generally substitute raisins for nuts in nearly any baking recipe (much cheaper). However, as there are odd people who don't like raisins/currants, etc., I didn't add anything other than the shredded carrots. Also, I made Creamy Vanilla Frosting:

3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup margarine or butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
About 2 tablespoons milk

Mix powdered sugar and margarine. Stir in vanilla and milk; beat until smooth and of spreading consistency. Frosts a 13x9 inch cake or fills and frosts 2 8- or 9-inch cake layers. 15 servings: 140 calories per serving.

I have to say that anytime I put an electric mixer in the vicinity of powdered /confectioners /icing sugar, watching the sticky cloud that forms around the bowl makes me feel like I'm in an episode of I Love Lucy. I keep thinking there is a trick to that I've not heard. If so, they haven't shared it in this cookbook.

However, there was a tip I encountered in the last couple of weeks (darned if I know which blog; if I did I'd link) that I used to make this cake mobile. The tip was to put small marshmallows (I brought back 2 bags from our trip in July) on tooth-picks and to put the toothpicks into the iced cake. Then when you put the plastic wrap over the cake, it doesn't stick to the icing. Brilliant tip, I thought, even if it made me think of little white Martians.

I still had to get the thing onto the Metro, in and out of the gym and down to Nancy's intact, in a way that I didn't have a bunch of stuff to carry home. I made a board with old Christmas cards and covered it with foil, but it wasn't stiff enough. So I went to the garage and found a slightly bigger piece of plywood and covered that with foil, sliding the other board onto this one and securing it with cello tape. For the lid I found a 49p basket in the boxroom, washed and dried it and inverted it over the cake, also cello taping it down. Perfect fit. I could just hitch the board on one hip like I used to carry school books, with my running bag slung over the opposite shoulder. Shame the picture didn't turn out very well. The batteries were having their last gasp.

Never mind, the cake travelled well, went down well and hey, 3 cups of carrots? This cake could almost count as a vegetable!

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Happy Boxing Day!

Having done the academic part last year, all I needed was a picture. We'll be sitting down to ham and roast veg today with all the 'chilluns'....

Friday, 25 December 2009

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Big Blinking Tree

I remember the annual Christmas tree hunt when I was very small. Mom was very particular about how her trees looked. They didn’t just have to be tall, they had to be full and symmetrical. My dad was generally fairly patient with her pickiness, but it sometimes got a little tense. It was a joint thing, these live (well, freshly dead) trees, because my Dad not only had to haul the thing home, roped to the top of the car, but he also had to do come carpentry to make a big wooden 'X' to nail to the bottom of the tree.

We had large cedar trees lining the back fence and she sometimes took cuttings to wire into her tree to make it fuller. I mainly remember the cold and the tree smell and the crowds of shoppers in the Christmas tree lot. I’m sure that was before they invented fake trees, or at least ones good enough to meet Mom's standards. Soon after these became common, she invested in one, an 8 footer, which meant at our house that it touched the ceiling.

It seemed to me that it took days for the tree to get decorated, but perhaps this was in later years when Mom was older. Back when I was small, Christmas lights came with separate bulbs, packed away out of the sockets to keep them from banging together. Testing the bulbs was my job and every year Mom warned me to keep my fingers out of the light socket, it would hurt. As with hot irons and hot chili peppers, I had to test the theory; she was right. There was an old metal star for the top of the tree and it was also my job to choose the colour of the bulb that would go in the centre each year. Bill has a saying “There is no such thing as too much garlic”. I think Mom held similar views about lights on her trees.

I’ve mentioned often that Mom collected ornaments for each year. If a date was not part of their design she would write or scrape the date in an inconspicuous location. When I was 4 she let me scrape the date on a few; the 1960 is very wobbly. After the lights and the ornaments came silver icicles. They could only go on one or two at a time, not in big clumps. They were collected in a fold of newspaper when the tree came down, for use again the following year. Some of my icicles are crinkly with age, and of course I like those the best. The finished product was a pyramid that touched the ceiling, blinking and sparkling, sometimes with sound effects (bird calls or Christmas jingles) but showing very little green.

I know there are people who go for monochrome or other colour schemes for their Christmas trees and (crazy) people who get rid of the old each year to buy new. The department store displays are very pretty but I’ve never wanted a Christmas tree that looked any different to the ones Mom put up and I don’t expect I ever will.

PS. This is Bill's first Christmas without his Mum. When he came across her little tree in the loft, he brought it down and put it in the front porch. When I finished decorating our tree, I added her tiny white wooden ornaments I found in a box. The others are ones Mom made sometime back in the '80s. The dancing little chappie is our 2009 ornament, from Stillwater, Minnesota.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Corinthians 13

Long before giving goats was fashionable, I struck upon the idea of a charitable contribution as a gift for my Grandmother. She was what I thought of as an ‘armchair Christian’, in that she got her church service from the TV (in spite of insisting we all went to church). However she did send checks to Billy Graham and to that Baker guy (the latter came back endorsed at the ‘Wild Life Fund’ and I always did wonder about that…).

She often talked about the work of a couple of nuns in a place called the Jesus House in Oklahoma City. It was a homeless shelter of sorts and not at that time part of the mainstream charitable organizations, though I think it did gain a more of a footing eventually. There was very little that Grandmother seemed to need or want at that time and so I sent the Jesus House a check, explaining that it was because my Grandmother admired their work. I wrote a note in a Christmas card telling Grandmother what I’d done. Soon after a thank you letter came from the Jesus House acknowleging the gift in her name and I gave that to her as well. She really, really liked that present.

I don’t remember much about the first Christmas after Mom died in 1990. I believe I was in Bakersfield with the then-in-laws. I don’t think I was very good company and the photos of me are solemn. The next Christmas was very busy as we’d moved to Salt Lake City and I was traveling back Oklahoma City to be my Aunt Rita’s matron of honour. I still missed Mom so much I could hardly bear it, but was determined to put on a braver face and not spoil Rita’s happiness. I’m smiling in the pictures of Christmas at her house but in the weeks leading up to then I was a stranger of only 3 months in my new job in Salt Lake and kept feeling around for the part of me that was acutely missed.

I grew up during the Cold War and Mom and Dad were always deeply interested in world events, particularly to do with communism. [ They also believed in extra-terrestrial beings, but that’s another story.] When Mom was in hospital a couple of days before she died, she was deeply sedated on morphine and wouldn’t let me sit with her. I remember sitting on the floor outside her room, knowing this was the end and wanting to be near her, but then I had to laugh. She was high as a kite and raving: "Don’t let the Russians catch up! It’s dangerous and we’ll be overtaken! Don’t let the Russians catch up!"

So 18 months later in Salt Lake the office next door invited ours to join in supporting their chosen charitable project: a newly immigrated Russian family. The Russian grandmother was 71 – Mom’s age. She needed a warm house robe.

I went out and bought the coziest robe I could find, one that I would have given anything to have been able to give Mom. For all that she worried about communism, I knew Mom would have thoroughly approved taking care of the poor immigrants and adding that wrapped up robe to the stack of gift boxes is one of the very most satisfying things I’ve ever done at Christmas.

I've mentioned in the past that I haven't found anything since leaving work that really moved me to contribute my time, but I've stumbled across Kiva in the blogs I read and decided this year I would put my money towards that. It is a loan, not a gift, so not strictly charitable, though there is always the risk that the loan will not be re-paid. It makes sense to me to help people stand on their own feet in the longer term, but also to accept that not everyone will make it. Better for them to get money from a charity than from a loanshark; these scary types are still a plague of the poor over here in Britain and I've no doubt they are also to be found in developing countries.

My priority was to help women; it always has been, having grown up in 'a man's world'. After visiting the slavery museum in Liverpool, Africa was my area of choice. I found no education or health projects that needed funding, but perhaps these will come up in future months. I did a quick Google about per capita income/gross domestic product and on the basis of those findings I chose Sierra Leone as the location.

This is what it said about the woman I chose:

Aminata Sesay is 35 years old and is married to a police officer attached to a local area unit where they are living. She has three children all of whom are attending school. Aminata herself has never been to school as preference was given to boys in the area where she was born.

Aminata sells baby clothes along one of the main roads in the town. She has been in this business for nineteen years. She started hawking (going door-to-door) but she now has a stall.

Aminata is determined to send all her children to school and to help her husband to construct a small house for the family. The loan she is requesting will help to raise the much needed funds to support her ambition.

Aminata has been a client with ARD for the last two years with a very good credit history. She is honest and very serious about her business.

This will have to do me until I find something else that will get me out the front door. I had discussed with Bill the idea of making donations to Kiva as part of Christmas gifts, but not being familiar with how it worked, we thought it would be awkward. Turns out they've worked out those problems and so this might be a good idea for next Christmas.

I enjoyed looking through the different options and I'm looking forward to building and watching my portfolio. Given these are a very entrepreneurial group of women, like my Mom and my Grandmother, it feels like something they would endorse as well. I'm pleased to have found another way in which to remember them.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Last Minute Christmas

Bill made a passing comment the other day that has echoed in my head: "It comes around every year." He was talking about putting aside money for winter heating bills, but I was thinking Christmas. Particularly as I still have a long list of things to get done. That's me, I guess. I did write the bulk of these blog posts before Thanksgiving, mind. So I can do things in advance, sometimes.

In the past our family gathered at Mom’s house Christmas Eve for our family gift exchange. There weren’t that many of us but I was never very organized about it all and often threw money at something at the very last minute. I’d like to think I was past this point of procrastination, can't claim that moral high ground just yet. Many times I think it’s just not having taken the time to think what to buy rather than putting off the actual purchase. So I decided to think of some last minute ideas just in case I might need them…

The worst case I remember of last minute shopping was dashing into a 7-11 one Christmas Eve on the way to Mom’s house to buy a carton of cigarettes for my Uncle Pat. They got wrapped in the back room about 5 minutes before they were opened in the living room. I promised myself never to do that again; in future I would buy the cigarettes much earlier…. However, I’m extremely pleased to say that Pat doesn’t smoke anymore and neither do I. In fact I don’t know many people who do smoke anymore and I wouldn't buy them cigarettes now anyhow. It's just the most extreme last minute purchase I remember ever making.

If your loved one likes a particular type of alcohol, this is generally easy to find, unless you live in Utah where not only alcohol but even a cup of hot coffee can be a challenge at times. I always bought Bill’s mom a bottle of sherry for her cupboard, that being the tipple of little old ladies in this country. Since his youngest, Sarah, introduced him to Balvenie Double Wood, this brand of whiskey generally appears on Bill’s wish list.

Chocolate goes down a treat with many people. Of course Brits think American milk chocolate is garbage – Belgian chocolate is the brand of choice, much more bittersweet. I’m completely hopeless since this just isn’t my thing. I suppose given a choice I’d go for white chocolate which is completely beyond the pale. Bill has put on his wishlist that he likes chocolates but only ones with soft centres. I’ve no idea how one assures that they are soft, but perhaps the other chocolate afficianados in his family will know.

Perhaps you know someone would love a cashmere twin set from a posh clothing store but don’t know what precise colour or size. Or someone adores music but you’re not up on the latest pop hits. Some people think cash or vouchers is a cop out but I think better give something useful than useless and having a voucher to use up is as guilt-free shopping as it gets, though I would add that it's not a great gift if it's not enough to buy nearly a whole item, if you follow me.

Bill has also listed cheeses (but not blue) and chutneys (v. British, these) on his wishlist. A few tins of corned beef would also push lots of his buttons. In fact, most any unhealthy food item would likely be a candidate for gift giving if you know that person is that way inclined. When I hit 90 I plan to eat all the crisps (potato chips) I want, but not before.

Buying someone a goat for Christmas has become, in some households, somewhat of a joke; it remains a very good idea. Some folks have a soft spot for developing countries, others for the homeless in their own country, children, aged, religion, women, diseases or conditions, etc. If you know what someone cares deeply about, a charitable contribution in their name can be very popular. Just as with any other gift, the key is to go for the cause they care about, not the one you prefer.

Do you have stock list of last minute gifts?

Monday, 21 December 2009

Shortest Day - Longest Post

Today is the shortest day of the year. According to WikiAnswers, historically, Christmas Day was set by the Roman Emperor Constantine. When he converted from Paganism to Christianity, he identified Jesus with the Pagan Sun God. The Winter Solstice is when the days start to get longer, and may thus be regarded as the birth of the Sun. Who knew?

We had sunrise at 8:29 am and the sun will set at 3:38 pm. It is icy here with a sparse snow on top. I'll be headed for the beach to run on sand instead of slick pavements.

Holiday Tidbits (over here they say ‘titbits’). Lots of good things have been happening here, little things but, to me, great fun.

===> The day after Thanksgiving, one of Bill’s new found cousins, Ann, and her husband Mick dropped by for a chat. We've just missed them on their previous trips up here from Coventry, being in foreign parts. Her father was the youngest brother of Bill’s paternal grandfather, a brother he didn’t know existed until she contacted him through Ann very kindly brought half a dozen old family photos to give to Bill. I’ve selected her parents’ wedding picture, as it dates from 1927 and I love the outfits. Ann and Mick were lovely and we had a great visit. They talked about their travels in Europe by mobile caravan (that’s an RV over here), something we’ve considered on occasion. I shall look forward to being in touch with them and seeing them again sometime, perhaps when Jane is around.

===> We went to the flea market at the Tynemouth Metro the next weekend to start our Christmas shopping. Bill’s mouth watered at all the heart-clogging delicacies available in the French Farmers’ Market. Lots of young women were also enchanted with the men’s accents. I found it amusing they walked around between their stalls carrying glasses of red wine. A marketing ploy, perhaps?

Also, Bill knew there were re-conditioned Dyson Hoovers vacuum cleaners to be had for only £30-40 (They call vacuum cleaners Hoovers over here just like I used to say Xerox for photocopy). We bought one of the older upright models for the upstairs to save lugging the other one up and down. I loved our first Dyson but the next one Bill got was the big ball and stick kind and I hate it. Can’t believe Dyson designed such a monstrosity. Have his amazing hand dryers made it to the US yet? Or perhaps he started them there, can’t remember where he lives now…

Anyhow, the other brilliant thing we got at the flea market was a coat rack, something I’ve wanted for absolutely ages. Bill keeps thinking there’s a man standing in the hall and jumps every time he comes out of the kitchen, but he’s learning to live with him it. This, too, saves trips up and down stairs to put guests’ coats away. I must be getting really lazy in my old age.

===> I met up with K for a coffee and some shopping. It was lovely to see her looking so happy and confident. I was on her PhD committee – seems like ages ago now – and she was always a bit unsure of herself back then. She now has a research post at Durham University and she seems a whole new person, very self-assured. I love watching her grow and am so honoured that she wants to keep in touch. Even though it wasn't 'in my job description', the time I spent mentoring her is probably about the most satisfying thing I did in my worklife over here.

We poked around in the Raspberry Bazaar, had coffee in the cafĂ© at the Land of Green Ginger and then popped into the funny little boutique, Gaf. I had a great afternoon just looking, as usual, though I did buy a couple of Christmas decorations for £1.50 each at RB.

===> I got a thank you note for the Thanksgiving evening on the back of the picture half of a recycled card from one of my wealthiest friends. I absolutely loved it! She understands the fun of the game!

===> Another friend, a former colleague from the University, who came to Thanksgiving invited us to attend a choral presentation from the Gilbert & Sullivan Society (I'd link you there, but the website doesn't work). The director of TGSS is also a former colleague (I don't think he needs much sleep). It was in a nice old church, easy to get to, and so we went.

It was titled Christmas Feast and they sang all songs about food, not necessarily from G&S. They served shortbread and minced pies at the intermission. I quite enjoyed it, in spite of it being a long time to sit on a wooden pew and too chilly to remove my coat. I mostly closed my eyes and let the lovely sounds wash over me.

The audience was invited to sing a couple of Christmas carols with them and I was reminded that Bill has a tolerable singing voice, which runs in his family. In between songs, the director read ‘olde-worlde’ snippets from Mrs. Beeton, which made me think of the previous post.

===> Of course I chose the day with the worst weather – wind, sleet and snow --

to go into Newcastle for Christmas shopping.

Funny thing was, as everyone else was screwing up their faces and clutching their coats I felt quite happy.

I realised then how very much I miss snow at Christmas time. It was lovely to see it fall, even if it didn't stick.

As I said earlier, I dropped into the Lit and Phil library that day. Whilst sitting at the table a man struck up a conversation and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Before I knew it I was getting up and going next door with him. I shall tell you all about it next year!

I also took some snaps of Fenwicks department store windows.

My camera does do videos, which would have been more appropriate to capture the animation, but I didn’t think of it at the time

and I’d have to figure out how to put the video on the blog.

I’m sure it’s not that hard, but that challenge will also have to wait until next year.

Fenwick's Christmas window displays are a part of the season here

as much as perhaps Macy’s parades on a smaller scale. I

thought of my Uncle Pat when I took these photos, thinking

he would appreciate knowing that in this secular country

there are still some who realise that ‘Christmas starts with Christ’.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Christmas Foods in Britain

There are several foods that one will invariably encounter this time of year over here, they are completely unavoidable, thrust in ones face at every turn should one step outside the house.

Mincemeat pies. I always heard of these when in the US. I thought they would be something to do with hamburger or at least shredded beef, but they taste mainly of sugar and fruit. Turns out, however, that even modern recipes include beef suet. Sounds disgusting, but these are quite delicious, in small amounts. Bill caught me looking at this 19th century recipe and reminded me that we in fact have an 18th century recipe, that of Elizabeth Smith, in her book dated 1732:

Par boyle sheeps hearts, 2 pd (ie pound?) of meat and a pd of suet. Mince them fine then to every pd put 2 pd of currans [currants], half an ounce of cinnamont mace cloves and nutmeg. Half a gill [ apparently pronounced 'jill'] of sack [a dry fortified wine such as Port or Sherry], a little brandy, rosewater, orange flower water, half a pd of sugar, lemon and orange pill [peel], 3 pippins [apparently these are small apples]. Mix them well.

So, now you know what to do with sheep's hearts...

Shortbread. Everyone knows what this stuff is, largely flour, sugar and butter. Rich and delicious, one of my favourites from childhood when sweets were not commonly allowed. Their history is an interesting read.

Christmas Pudding. When in Newcastle the other day I dived into the Lit and Phil Library to consult Mrs. Beeton's for a recipe. Little did I know I could have got it online.

Mrs. Beeton is practically a household word over here, sort of like Betty Crocker or perhaps even Martha Stewart in the US. Actually, looking through the online text, however, I do not find this recipe for Christmas Pudding (Rich) - Pudding de Noel, so it's a good thing I wrote it out after all:

Ingredients.- 1/2 a lb. of beef suet, 1 ounce of flour, 1/2 a lb. of raisins, 1/4 of a lb. of mixed peel, 1/2 a grated nutmeg, 1/2 an ounce of mixed spice, 1/2 an ounce of ground cinnamon, 1 gill of milk, 1 wineglassful of rum or brandy (optional), 1/2 a lb. of breadcrumbs, 1/2 a lb. of sultanas, 1/4 of a lb. of currants, 1 lemon, 2 ounces of dessicated coconut or shredded almonds, a pinch of salt, 4 eggs.

Method.- Shred the suet or use shredded. Clean the fruit, stone the raisins, finely shred the mixed peel. Peel and chop the lemon rind. Pull all the dry ingredients in a basin and mix well. Add the milk, stir in the eggs 1 at a time, add the rum or brandy and the strained juice of the lemon. Work the whole thoroughly for some minutes, so that the ingredients are well blended. Put the mixture in a well-buttered pudding basin or pudding cloth; if the latter is used it should be buttered or floured.

Time.- Boil for about 4 hours or steam for at least 5 hours.

Sufficient.- for 8 or 9 persons.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Pulling Crackers

Funny how words in English mean something different depending upon which side of the Atlantic one is on. A British tradition is to set the table for Christmas lunch with crackers.

These odd things remind me of Tootsie Rolls or of gifts wrapped after being stuffed into an empty toilet roll.

One pulls the ends with the person sitting next to you, causing it to snap like the old snap-gun toys of my childhood. This practice reminds me of pulling on the chicken wishbone when eating home cooked fried chicken (Does anyone still do that? Pull the wishbone I mean?) Whoever is holding the bulk of the cracker wins the small trinkets and toys that fall out (In the case of the wishbone, one’s gets one’s wish). One of these trinkets is invariably a paper hat. Then the neighbour offers their cracker to be pulled and so on, until the table is littered with ‘cheap plastic tat’ (Bill’s words) and everyone is wearing a ridiculous paper crown.

Silliness and humour are subtly engrained in British culture, something to do with being able to laugh at oneself, according to Watching the English, an excellent book I would highly recommend. (Thanks again, Vivien, brilliant gift!)

This happens even at the grandest of Christmas meals and even those associated with work. One can almost imagine the Royal Family seated around the grand table with umpteen-piece silver and crystal place settings, all wearing paper hats; excepting perhaps the Queen, having a real crown to wear. There has been the odd occasion when I’ve found myself seated at a large table with relative strangers on either side and pulling a cracker is one way of starting to break the ice.

I sent a gift of Christmas crackers across to the US one time, which I later found out was actually illegal, as they are classed as ‘explosive’. It was one of the few times I really didn’t mind having to put on the green customs label what were the contents of the box, as ‘crackers’ in American means ‘savoury biscuit’ in British and so the recipients would be none the wiser.

The history of Christmas crackers apparently started in 1847 with a man by the name of Tom Smith; you wouldn't make up a story and use such a boring name, would you?

By the time we go live in the US, the cracker tradition may well have immigrated, just as Halloween is doing its best to gain roots here, which would be rather sad in a way; the world already becoming far too homogenized in terms of chain stores, restaurants and clothing styles as it is. On the other hand, I suspect Bill will enjoy carrying British traditions to the US as I have enjoyed the reverse and we may just have to learn to make crackers.

I can envision getting Americans to pull a cracker easily enough; the wearing of paper hats is another thing…

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Homemade Gifts with Tags

Tell me three things you got for Christmas last year or the year before. For that matter, tell me what you bought for three people last year or the year before. Maybe you can, but I can’t (and I am in no way complaining about the quality of my gifts, they’ve been wonderful and I enjoyed them at the time).

When you step back and look at this annual business of rushing around amidst hoards of other rushing people, everyone frantically throwing down or, worse, borrowing money for gifts that are largely forgettable, it strikes me as being really pretty silly. If one wishes to show regard for others surely there are better ways. I am working on making homemade gifts one of our holiday traditions. I’m hoping that by setting an example I may open the door for others.

Last year I knitted scarves for everyone on my Christmas list. They were fun to make and each took only a few hours. I thought the design made them useful for enclosing the neck and keeping warm. In previous years I have given covered hangers, jewelry pouches, spice cakes, cookies, bean soup mix in a jar, embroidered or cross-stitched pictures and spiced tea mixes. Also, hotpads, either crocheted or gold stitched denim. The latter pattern came from my trusty Tightwad Gazette newsletters (Does anyone have a copy of number 51? I loaned mine to someone and never got it back…).

I also copied her idea for a gift tag, with a few alterations to fit in the occupation of the then spouse, to the gist of:

The Blue Jean Pot Holder

Our products are made of naturally seasoned denim treated with an unpatented multistep process. First, sew into pants and worn by actual human beings, the material is exposed to sweat, grime, sunlight and hundreds of washes to achieve an authentic fade and uniquely comfortable feel. Our new deluxe line employs the use of abrasion and harsh chemicals involved in concrete finishing, producing an extra faded and threadbare effect. Then using only select portions of un-patched, seamless and pocket-free we hand craft our original potholder design.

The BLUEJEAN POTHOLDER, a product already withstanding the test of time.

The mother-in-law found it all very amusing. I borrowed this wording idea again 20-some years later, albeit more long-winded, to go with some jewelry pouches:

Our products are made using an unpatented multi-step process. First the outer fabric is made into a scarf and sold with a coat in Salt Lake City in the early 90’s. This scarf is put away, unused for many years, folded and re-folded with each move from house to house, state to state and country to country. At last it is selected for its soft texture and rich colours, the seams are un-picked, the fabric is ironed and individually cut to a hand made pattern from a 1990’s Tightwad Gazette and following the original model, purchased in Atlanta in 1989.

The lining material is made into a curtain, hung for many years in a home in the North East of England, exposed to coal smoke, kipper smells and salt air from the North Sea in preparation for its acquisition from the Tynemouth Flea Market. After some storage similar to the outer fabric, the curtains are dismantled and the lining washed and cut to line the jewelry purse.

The fine, colour-coordinated cords are braided or crocheted from embroidery threads sourced from Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City department stores and from the musty Harbour Market in North Shields in England.

Our jewelry purses are hand crafted by a seamstress of limited experience and modest talent, thus each has its own unique and interesting flaws, ultimately part of their individual charm and insuring that home spun look.

Jewelry purses from the Tynemouth Tightwad: demonstrating principles of recycling and pack-ratting and providing the woman of substance with an attractive and practical means of securing her jewels whilst traveling.

Amy demonstrates that a clever tag can dress up an otherwise ordinary present. Her ideas seem to follow along three approaches, though no doubt many others are possible. As above, she outlines how something is made in florid marketing language.

Another idea is to tell a story about another part of the process. Her writing style is very turn of the last century:

The “Jim’s Homemade Wild Grape Jelly” Story

In September of 1986, while visiting the estate of his parents in Montague, Mass., James Dacyczyn noted the pungent aroma of wild grapes in the wind. He remarked of it to his wife of nearly four years. Amy, a woman of enterprising character (and slightly pregnant condition) proposed a quest to harvest the fruit.

After careful preparation they entered the wood with bucket in hand. The terrain had grown fierce since his youth. Brambles, briars, swamps and swarms of mosquitoes lay between the couple and their goal. Scratched, bitten and muddied they finally came upon the grapes growing high atop slender saplings on an embankment that dropped sharply to the raging waters of the Sawmill River. (1 foot deep and 10 feet wide)

Having come so far and braved such dangers James’ determination was not lessened as he climbed the sapling to the upper branches to where the vines grew. Hanging far over the river he filled his bucket with the wild and illusive fruit. With each movement the sound of wild grapes could be heard plunking in the water thirty feel below.

To insure maximum flavor the grapes were rushed to the kitchen of James’ mother where they were transformed into the first jars of “Jim’s Homemade Wild Grape Jelly.”

A professional graphic artist, Amy had a distinct advantage; so much so that people often didn’t realize her labels were homemade. With time, patience and computer graphics and clip art, however, an ordinary person should be able to come up with something functional. She recommended black and white images for ease in photocopying. Colour printers are common enough that this might not be necessary, though the black and white idea adds to the olde-fashioned homespun theme.

The candy label again shows her recognition of the marketing ploys in talking up the product, something about which we would all do well to be more cognizant.

Christmas Gift Tags, using humour and thoughtfulness to embellish homemade presents.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Wet Med Half

If it all started badly it was completely my fault. Not finding the photocopy of my passport until later, I put it in the scanner to make a copy – and left it there. I only came to realize this at 5:26 am after we’d picked up Bob and were almost to the airport. After I’d ransacked my purse to be certain, Bob pointed out we still had 30 minutes to get home and return to the airport. Don’t you know we all silently watched the numbers on the clock and the speedometer, cursed every slow car and damned the red lights. I did my mad dash up and down the stairs, house keys in hand, and Bill pulled into an airport car parking slot at 6:01. As we had checked in online and had no luggage, we just joined the security queue with our carry-on bags. By the time we sat down on the plane 30 minutes later we were all very awake, wide-eyed with adrenalin.

We were on our way to do a half-marathon race in Europe. I won’t say where because I try to be anonymous here and race results are published on the internet, but it was on the Mediterranean and when Bob had done it a few years ago it was in sunny, 60 F./ 16 C degree weather. It was a fateful run for him as he took a bad fall that eventually required surgery to correct the damage done to his neck. Not one to be put off, he was going back and it would be his 69th half-marathon proper, i.e., races 13.1 miles / 21 kilometres long. It was Bill’s and my first half for over 3 years.

Over the years the three of us have traveled to many races together and we fell into the companionable pattern I find quite comfortable. If Bill spaces out, Bob is still focused. If Bob gets uptight, Bill knows how to make him relax.
On the odd occasion when they both panic, that’s when I remain calm. They follow me picking up what I drop and carrying what I can’t. I find three brains carry the travel burden more easily than two and guarding the luggage whilst others visit the shops or the loo becomes that much simpler. We often share a family room to make the travel cheaper. It may sound very odd, and the occasional hotel staff has eyed me suspiciously it is true, but my first year with the running club was a real eye-opener.

I wouldn’t say the bus that took us to races was quite like the women’s changing room at the gym where most disrobe more or less in plain sight. It’s more like a co-ed changing room where everyone strips off under a towel or a t-shirt or behind a bench. I suppose if you wanted to look there would be plenty to see, but everyone seems to avert their eyes and get on with changing from wet and sweaty to dry, warm clothes with a quick semi-wash in between. Any long (2-3 hour) Sunday morning training run invariably involved jogging in circles while some member of the group or other dashed into the bushes for a moment, coming out hurriedly tucking and tugging at clothes. One just gets used to these things and as long as everyone is courteous it works just fine. At least in hotel rooms Bob and I can take turns changing clothes in the bathroom, infinitely more civilized, not to mention comfortable. I suspect other odd groups of runners in the club are similar. When we travel with single men and woman Bill and I have split and shared rooms to save them single supplement charges (ie, a couple pay say £50 for a room; a single would pay £25 plus maybe £15 single supplement. It's not exactly fair, but that’s how it is over here).

Anyhow, the next hiccup was at our destination when the battery in the tour operator’s bus was dead.

Everyone got out and the guys gave it a push start. The hotel lobby was lovely, decorated with loads

of poinsettias for Christmas. Our room was at the far end of the first floor and it was glacial. The heater seemed to only heat itself and not much more.

We walked the half mile or so to the location of the start/finish as Bob remembered it, but as a new stadium had been built in the interim we weren’t sure about this being the same. I had a burning pain in the front of my left shin that worried me. Shin splints only improve with rest and I was upset that the dash up the stairs, the long sit on the plane or some other unknown factor would prevent me from doing the race for which I’d done up to 2¾ hour training sessions in the dark, wet evenings.

That night the tour rep seemed more intent on standing in front of an audience with his mic and visiting with old chums and clients than on giving out our race numbers. We were consequently late to dinner and having been up since 4 am I was so irritable I could hardly stand myself. We did our usual preparations before bed, pinning race numbers on shirts and lacing electronic chips onto our shoes, laying out clothes, etc. In spite of the fact that the room was still freezing and I put the blanket and my coat over the bedspread for warmth, it was a relief to be horizontal and finally drop off to sleep.

The next day the weather was almost as forecasted: 9 degrees C / 48 F and breezy winds but not quite what I’d call heavy rain, just very persistent. We were all given green bin bags with holes for head and arms to wear down to the start. I always find being in a sea of adults so dressed a bit surreal, but I suppose that is part of the fun of participating. I had thankfully brought winter running kit and was reasonably comfortable, which obviously marks me as less than competitive. I’d rather pull off layers when too warm and tie the arms around my waist than shiver miserably at the start. The front runners seem to insist on bra tops and bikini bottoms with gloves and blue skin. It’s enough to make a person grateful to be slow.

I felt pretty good for the first half, no injury niggled at all. The second half was hard work as I knew it would be and the last few kilometers a struggle. I did manage a finishing sprint of sorts around the race track to the finish line. I was well pleased with my time, 2:18. Bill and Bob had a good race between them, with Bob finishing just in front of Bill. Bill has always been the faster runner, but as Bob has consistently done the endurance training, it is never certain who will finish first. They both finished within seconds at around 1:52, just under my best ever half marathon time of 1:53. Though they were both relatively pleased with their race times, that information gave them both pause to consider how much slower they have become.

We all walked back to the hotel and took turns showering. Then down to the bar for a bit of anesthetic and then an afternoon nap to rest the weary legs. We enjoyed our buffet dinner, eating far more than was wise,

but skipped the post-race party which was due to start at 10pm, our bedtime. All in all, I can’t say that the tour group we used added much value for us. The race was organized by the local town council to promote off season tourism and I would consider doing it again, as it was a reasonably good course. I wouldn’t bother with the tour rep, however, as we could do our own race entry and hotel booking and get a taxi from the airport.

That afternoon Bob discovered that a patio door hidden behind a curtain by his bed out in the hallway was not latched. The small draft being shut off aided the heater enormously; enough so that during the night I was able to remove the two layers of clothing I’d added to my PJs. It wasn’t the first time we’ve traveled off season to the Med and I’ve slept in my clothes. I started to type ‘to stay warm’ but there was a whole week in the Algarve where I never did get warm; I still can’t laugh about that experience.

Our return journey was more complicated because of Easy Jet having cancelled the direct flight after we’d committed to do the race. Instead we flew into London’s Stansted, took a train into London, another train back up to Newcastle, and the metro back to the airport to our car. I was enchanted by the London Liverpool train

station, having never seen it before. Bill uses it often for work trips by train and we would have spent time there admiring the architecture but Bob was keen to be at Kings Cross, ready for the next train. I love Kings Cross as well, but didn’t take pictures as it was all bundled up in scaffolding and plastic. You’ll know just what it looks like however, if you are familiar with Platform 9¾ from Harry Potter films. Carrying my bag up and down stairs at the train stations was rather challenging, but doable. We’d spotted the marathon runners at the first airport by their weary limps. We had about a 9 hour journey all told, but were still home sooner than if we’d waited for the connecting flight.

As I said, I’m pleased with my time – I’d have settled for 2½ hours, so 2:18 is great. The last time I attempted a half marathon 3 years ago, I didn’t finish. The first mile was uphill and did me in just trying to keep anyone in sight. Half way around a lovely man jogged along with me explaining that he had just turned something like 76 and didn’t mind being last, so I didn’t have to be. I could bear to be last, but not to take 3 hours and not to have this nice old man wait for me. I caught the sweeper bus back to the start, rather than keep everyone waiting another hour to go home.

Half-marathons were once my favourite racing distance and I would like to remain fit enough to finish as well as I did this weekend. I don’t want running to take over my life again, but I may be tempted to see if I can whittle down that 18 minutes a bit…

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Sustainable Gift Wrap

As I wrote last year, I’ve never been happy with the concept of the incredibly brief buy-use once-throw away cycle of Christmas wrapping paper, or at least not for a long time. Other than try to salvage the bows and the larger bits of paper to re-use, however, I never tried anything different until last year, when I bought some off-white curtains and used the fabric in place of wrapping paper. I only used it on Bill’s presents, but this year I plan to expand its use a bit more just to see how it goes over. There are still rolls of regular Christmas paper, so the change over will be gradual. None of Bill’s kids seem very interested in thrift or the environment, though come to think of it, Simon and Rhiannon planted runner beans as soon as they had a garden and Helen’s husband Martin has potential. He keeps their heating bills at an impressive minimum and they snuggle under a blanket to watch TV. That said, he’s also been to the US something like 32 times in his rather short life -- more times than I’ve been there – mostly to Vegas, but that’s another subject.

I’ve never been any good at making paper cards. Not only do I lack the cutting and gluing skills required, but paper doesn’t inspire me. One year when I was doing some last minute wrapping and couldn’t find any gift tags I found that one could cut rectangular bits from Christmas cards that fit the bill. Later I used a craft knife and a ruler to do this en masse and added a thread loop in one corner using a threaded needle. A few evenings of this entertaining pastime has given me a large envelope full which should last me a few years, particularly as I gift the same people each year and sometimes manage to salvage a few tags along with the paper.

Not everyone has a sewing stash of ribbons, though I suspect looking out for this sort of thing at thrift shops, estate sales, eBay and the like, one could acquire such a thing. Mine is the accumulation of Mom's and my sewing supplies, supplemented in a big way by Rita's vast collection, which has been wonderfully useful and fun to use. Bias tape and laces could also work. I’ve often used red or green yarn. I keep seeing craft articles about how to make pompoms that would look good on some packages. I've also read about people cutting strips of coloured plastic bag (and it does work) or even strips of fabric to use as ribbons.

I’ve no doubt Bill’s children, along the few others I send gifts in the US, think I’m a bit loopy but that’s fine with me. I like to think I introduce them to some novel ideas, some of which might be useful to them in future. I also like to think that I’m establishing the Christmas tradition that love and creativity are more important in this house than money and convention.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Gifts of Food

For years I’ve made food gifts for the people in my office. It would generally happen the weekend before the office Christmas party that Mom and I would look through a few cookbooks and choose 3 to 5 cookie recipes. Then we’d do the math for how many dozens I needed, make up a grocery list, shop and start baking. After a while we tended to use tried and true recipes and a gift typically contained 3 or 4 chocolate chip, cut out sugar cookies with icing, apple-oatmeal and chocolate crinkle, and maybe a pecan sandie or two. It was a very long day in her tiny kitchen what with the various stages of cookie dough, mixing, chilling or filling; cooking and decorating; washing cookie sheets for their next batch and then finally wrapping either in foil or in plastic bags covered with paper and then bows and tags. I must have felt it was worthwhile, I did it for so many years, even after Mom was gone.

Years later I discovered spice cake and started making it here at home to use up the bananas and other fruit we weren’t going to finish off before they spoiled. Making several batches of the same thing was much more straightforward, so I moved from cookies to small cakes. Then it was just a challenge to find enough ovenproof dishes of appropriate size and shape, but fortunately we have lots of Pyrex bowls, meatloaf pans and corning ware casseroles; and more recently that amazing rubbery stuff that nothing sticks to.

I’ve only met one person who didn’t like spice cake, at least only one who ever said. In addition to being a bit easier, spice cake, with less sugar and fat and more fruit, is a healthier present to give. Several women have asked me for the recipe, which I am happy to share both in it’s original format and my adjustments. I don’t know about elsewhere, but over here anything homemade is increasingly exotic.

If spending a day baking doesn’t appeal, I have always welcomed other food gifts: canned ham, exotic cheeses, blocks of chocolate, foreign mustard, special kinds of preserves or chutneys are all gifts we have received and enjoyed. These don’t have to be terribly expensive or unusual, but generic labeled items (good quality though they often are) should probably be avoided for this purpose. The traditional presentation for these sorts of things has tended to be in a basket of sorts, but I would think there would be other festive means, such as a decorative open box with the items nested in shredded paper, or wrapped in cloth shopping bags, or in brown paper and twine, or the like. I think food gifts want a slightly different treatment than more ordinary presents.

If you are sending food presents abroad, be careful that the customs people are happy with what you are sending to their country. I once got a rather nasty letter from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs saying they had destroyed a package of beef jerky someone had kindly attempted to send me for Christmas. They implied I had attempted to import the stuff and warned of consequences should I try it again. I thought they had a lot of nerve, this being the current kingdom of mad cow disease, but sadly emailed the sender “Thanks very much for the thought, but best not do that again.”

If posting food internationally, one might also consider the weight and subsequent costs. A paper box of fancy teas might be a better choice than a glass jar of mango chutney, for example. Having foods shipped within the country of origin might be an alternative, say from Harry and David. Though it’s not necessarily any cheaper, the shipping times will be shorter, if that’s a factor. I’ve not attempted shipping any homemade food, as I’ve been concerned about spoilage as much as US Customs.

Still, for locally presented gifts, I think food is a good option, particularly if you have men on your list. You know what they say about the way to a man’s heart…

Friday, 11 December 2009

Christmas Cards, Letters, Emails

For years after I moved away from home I did the Christmas card thing, after a fashion. I think I often had to borrow Mom’s address book, mine not being quite up to date, in spite of some of the relatives never having a different address all my life. Nearly all the addresses were somewhere in Oklahoma City, with a couple in Texas or Louisiana.

After Mom’s death and my move to Utah, I still consulted her address book for several more years. It was then, when I lived away, that I started trying Christmas letters, as there were many long time friends with whom I really wanted to stay in contact. In fact, I wrote something like quarterly letters and included a tick box form with silly questions and a self-addressed envelope in hopes of getting a reply. I was pretty homesick for a while. Not long after, email become more common and I got a home computer.

However, with dial-up, it never much occurred to me to send pictures or drawings of any kind and posted cards were still the trend, until I moved out of the country. Posting cards across the Atlantic looked exorbitantly expensive to me, not to mention the earlier deadline, which is practically fatal.

In order to keep in touch and send Christmas greetings, I turned to making up a Christmas design in Paint and sending homemade e-cards and, for some, a long Christmas email, with links to illustrative websites. My Paint efforts were very grade-school level, and tended to take several hours to produce, but they amused me so I didn't mind. Last year was the first in which I saw real snow here in England, when we were in the Yorkshire Dales celebrating Bill's birthday, so my usual childish drawing was replaced with a snow scene. This past February it snowed here at our house and I went about I capturing potential Christmas cards, though I wouldn't hesitate to go back to my Painting.

This weblog makes a Christmas letter mostly redundant. The few people on my card list who don’t use computers now get monthly or quarterly letters with pictures, my penance for not having written to Rita more often. Like Mom, this is the time of year I miss her the most.

In the old days (like, when I was growing up), nothing but a hand-written card or letter would do. These days a posted letter of any kind is a treasure. Typed and photocopied Christmas letters enclosed in cards used to be considered tacky. If I like someone at all, I'm quite keen to hear about what has been going on with them and their family, even if they only tell the good stuff (I think that's the part that gets people's goat).

Bill still resists the idea of emailed Christmas messages, but for many of my friends I only have their email address. This year we've sent some of everything -- cards, letters and emails. I'm happy to have whatever others send me; I'm just pleased to be remembered.

How do you send your Christmas greetings? Leave a comment, or take the poll at the bottom of the blog!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Gather Ye When Ye May

When I was little, our family tradition was to gather everyone at our house to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. I suspect this was so that grandparents could watch me, the only grandchild for the first 8 years, open gifts. (It was a tough job, but you know...) Also, everyone seemed to enjoy Mom’s cooking and the occasion for a few spiked eggnog's.

Grandma and Grandpa would come over just after dark and take me along in the car for our annual drive. There was a neighbourhood near us, Lakehurst, where everyone on the estate decorated their house with Christmas lights. Street after street, not a single house missing, with often a colour or other theme going for a whole block. I’m sure it was in a contract if you bought in the area. The lines of cars idling up and down the streets and jamming traffic will have made their lives very complicated. I wonder if they still do this 40 -- well, OK 45 to 50 -- years later. Is this still the thing to do with today's environmental concerns? Even Blackpool, famous for its 'illuminations' has added a (single) solar powered display (The Green Machine) as a nod to this.

Anyhow, Santa always came to our house early in his Christmas Eve delivery rounds, when I was out with Grandma and Grandpa. Forget the Christmas morning thing, Mom and Dad didn’t really do mornings if they didn’t have to.

When my Uncle John married, the first of the 4 ‘kids’ to do so, he unknowingly started a war with his mother. The first battle was the Christmas he and his wife spent with her mother instead of his. Grandmother took his absence as a personal affront and let everyone know how hurt she was, which probably only served to make spending Christmas elsewhere that more attractive.

This was my first inkling of how Christmas could get really complicated, and that was just the usual thing about ‘his vs her’ family, nothing to do with steps or exes, etc. I was talking to a friend's wife the other evening and she was saying how she didn't enjoy last Christmas at her brother-in-law's house; she liked to be in her own home on Christmas Day. I wondered if her in-laws felt much the same, and if this was soon to be a bone of contention.

Another thing from my childhood Christmases was that Rita was sometimes absent from our celebration, being a nurse and one without husband or children, she usually volunteered to work over Christmas.

Fast forward to the 1990's. Bill’s children were in their teens by the time we got together and lived with their Mum, with whom they still spend Christmas Day. Bill, also being a nurse, has tended to work the Christmas holidays to ensure he has New Years Eve off. Though he is now a manager and could have both off, he tends to think it only fair for him to do his share. So we gather as a family on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas Day.

This seemed quite strange at first, Boxing Day not being a holiday I recognized at all. Over the years I’ve got used to it and enjoy the peace and solitude before the storm, as it were. Also, it’s another day to get everything ready. For me, the gathering of family is the most important part of the holidays and it is clear that to be able to enjoy this one has to remain flexible about the specifics.

When and where does your family gather for Christmas?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Racing the Sun

If you’re a runner I can tell you that after having a training buddy and a goal, the next best thing to have is a blog. For one, you can bore everyone rigid discussing your training regime; also, during those long solitary trudges one can mentally compose and discard any number of posts.

Continuing up the Northumberland coast, for my long runs I drove up to Druridge Bay. I realize it’s daft and extravagant to drive this 40 mile round trip, but the coast line is the carrot that has kept me going this far. I’ve been to Druridge Bay a couple of other times and remembered its stunning beauty. The first time was to take a university colleague to visit a burial site for foot and mouth carcasses. We had to put on paper suits and rubber boots and get our feet sprayed with disinfectant before leaving. The irony of slaughtering the animals to start, then burning and burying them at a nationally designated site of outstanding natural beauty…never mind, that’s a rant for another day. The second time was when Bill and I cycled up there and back once, in my much fitter days.

My plan, which I discussed with Bill, was to park in the designated car park and run north on the cycle trail, perhaps reaching Amble, then to turn around and come back. In the event, the car park turned out to be just a small dead end road with a potholed loop at the end with maybe a dozen cars strung along the sides. I didn’t find a trail extending north from the car park, just a gate to a field without any signposts. Also, the long drive made my first priority to find a loo. Near entrance to this road, overlooking the beach, was a large concrete bunker surrounded by sand dunes and with no observable entrance. I decided the ladies’ room was a sheltered corner of the structure. My running club has taught me to do shocking things, I know.

Then, as beaches often do, this one pulled me out to admire its graceful curve, its blue and white waves, its long sweep of clean tan sand with only 2 or 3 other people in the distance. The sun was bright and the sound of the rushing water seductive. So I ran north along the beach, crossing a couple of streams that left me ankle-wet, but none the worse. At the end of that cove I found a trail that connected me to the signposted bicycle trail I was supposed to be on and I followed that through a village, Low Hauxley, and out the other end. I was passed by a couple of cyclists and I passed some ramblers, chatting away, coming the opposite way.

It wasn’t until I came into sight of Amble, approaching my 68 minute turnaround time, that I started to worry about the angle of the sun. I had used the rain that morning to justify my usual late start. This hadn’t mattered much the previous week, but now my run was a little longer and the day a little shorter. Neither country lanes nor bike trails are lit at night and I certainly didn’t have a flashlight with me (nor a map or a phone). Going back via the beach might not be an option as I’d no idea when the tide should be in or what those streams would look like on my I return.

As soon as I turned I realized I’d had such an easy run because of a strong tail wind and a slight downhill course, both very much against me now. I was occasionally lifted onto the verge of the trail mid-stride. Even when the trail curved, the side-wind stole the breath before I could suck it and let me near fall in the lull. The low sun was blinding. I pushed as well as I could, raising my hand to see the way forward. I knew vaguely how far I’d come as I’d noted the times at various landmarks on the way up and I was somewhat comforted by the sight of the occasional dog walker, or pram pusher, also lone women. However, I thought, they probably knew precisely how to get back to their car.

I felt on course as long as the sun was in front or to the right; when the trail curved inland I chickened out and headed for the cliffs overlooking the beach. I took the sand trail between the clumps of tall razor grass. The tide was still out a ways, but there was no access down, not that I thought it a good idea with dusk approaching. To the right was a long drop into a field surrounded with barbed wire, but no visible trail. High on the ridge I was easy prey for the wind and I clutched at the grasses to keep my balance. The meandering trails sometimes ended and I had to hunt another. It dawned on me that these were not man-made but naturally occurring: no guarantee of a logical route. I couldn’t run on the sand, but my adrenalin kept me pushing hard. Bill was going to be worried if I was late. If the worst happened and I wasn’t on the bike trail, how would he find me?

Thankfully, I spotted some ramblers ahead of me on the next hill, the very ones I’d passed earlier. I didn’t know if they could see me, but I scurried along to catch up with them, hoping that our sand trails would connect. The relief when I caught them was immense. They were all about my age, but dressed in walking boots, gloves and lined water proof jackets. The two men stopped for a moment and I passed them and tucked in behind the women, who later stopped to point something out in the distance. When they invited me to pass, I admitted I didn’t know where I was going, that I’d been relieved to have found them. They said they, too, had been unable to find the trail they were seeking. Being lost at dusk with strangers was still a huge advance on being alone! I had put my water-resistant jacket back on, but had to keep the hem bunched in my hand to keep from billowing up and flying away. We came to a deep ravine, one of the streams I’d crossed, and another older gentleman took our hands to help us make the leap across.

We were soon approaching their car. I was explaining about the concrete bunker I’d thought would be a landmark (not mentioning the pit stop) but they hadn’t seen one. One of the women kindly reassured me that they would 'see me safe'. As it turned out the 2 cars left at the end of the lane were theirs and mine! I thanked them profusely and ran towards my car.

The flashing of the tail lights when I clicked my keyring were as cheery as a Christmas tree. The water and banana on the seat beside me were delicious. The car heater soon had me toasty. I noted the time I got in the car: 3:39. The streetlights came on as I drove home. I made the decision then to run from home the next week, on the road sides with traffic and street signs and lights and all.