Thursday, December 31, 2009

The List

Well it's New Year's Eve, I'm full of pizza and cheesesteak from the local Italian lunch buffet, and I'm tired of packing Christmas decorations so I think it's time to write the list.

You know, the resolution list for the new year. I think we all have at least one item on the resolution list each year. Even those people who say "I don't have a list because I never keep my resolutions anyway." Well there ya go....not keeping your resolutions is your resolution and that's your list. Generally losing weight and getting organized are in the top tier of announced resolutions. Fine, admirable objectives, but they're awfully hard to obtain given that they always seem to be at the top of the list year year.

Here's my list for 2010:

1. Start exercising daily again. I was doing pretty good with this one until about October, when I got super busy with making things for the craft show. Then it was my birthday, Halloween, the craft show, new house, trip to Vegas, Thanksgiving, a whole month of holiday festivities in December and now packing to move. Whew! That's three solid months of busy-ness cushioned with cakes, candy, and cookies. Now I'm feeling more cushioned than I like and it's time to get back to using the elliptical machine again. I'm not going list "I want to lose more weight" as a resolution because that will come with the exercise if I just stick to it, plus I don't want to jinx myself.

2. Cultivate patience. This is a big one with me as I tend to get very hung up on efficiency and productivity within a given time period, whereas my two and a half year old daughter has no concept of "efficiency", "productivity", or even just "time" unless it's associated with naps or snacks. The reality of it is that Ally isn't likely to hurry up and stop dawdling anytime soon, so I need to be the one to change. I need to slow down, let some non-important things slide for awhile, and generally be more patient with her. Taking an occasional nap myself probably wouldn't hurt me. In fact, the dog would be delighted to have company on the sofa and I suspect that my husband would be grateful if I wasn't so dang cranky at times.

3. Make more time for family and friends. Relationships don't form out of thin air. They require time and effort, else they deteriorate and disappear over time. It's bad enough if you lose a friendship through neglect, but sometimes they can be repaired with effort and time if you're lucky. It's really bad when you wake up one day to discover that not only is the relationship gone, but so is the person, and you'll never get the chance to re-establish your friendship again.

4. Focus on my writing. This means something a little more robust than just posting to my blog.

5. Potty training for Ally. Enough said, but this will require a whole lot of Resolution #2.

6. Make the three lap quilts I've already planned and started.

I'll cap off my list at six items this year. I could easily add "Get organized" to my list, but that really means, "Get Ally's baby book completed, organize my digital photos, clean up my crafting supplies, clean out the closets and pantry, etc." No sense in getting all crazy now.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas 2009: the Aftermath and a New Start

Whew, it's been a whirlwind of festivities these past couple of days. Much visiting with friends and relatives, many gifts were exchanged, and way too many cookies have been eaten. We have new toys and clothes scattered about the house, but right now we're too tired to contemplate straightening things up. We're all feeling sluggish in body and spirit, in need of some revitalization. Ally has gone down for an afternoon nap, the first in several days, and I should think about taking one, too. Instead, I'm inclined to make a pot of coffee and get to work at getting the house back to normal.

Not that anything will be "normal" for a long, long time. It's time to start thinking about packing up our belongings and moving them to our new home. Thankfully our new house is only about six miles away from our current home, so we can gradually move things over a period of weeks. I'm grateful that we don't need to rent a moving van to transport all of our belongings at once to a destination several hundred miles away. We'll be able to unpack items and put them away in the new house when we bring them over, thus avoiding the whole "walk in the door and stare at the pile of unpacked boxes" associated with most moves.

I'm also very appreciative of this chance to sort, clean, and purge things before packing them up and moving. Nothing identified as something to be sold, donated, or thrown away will be migrating over to the new house. It stays here at our current home, awaiting for an indoor garage sale in February, a trip to Goodwill, or a quick trip to the curb on trash day. No sense in taking all that over to the new house, only to be dealt with on a later date. This will be a fresh start to a new year in a new home. At least, that's the plan.

As I write this I'm sitting on the sofa in our living room, staring at the newly unwrapped toys, piles of old books, many Christmas decorations and of course the Christmas tree. Suddenly I'm overwhelmed by the new toys on the floor, the old piles of books that have accumulated in here, my craft projects that I work on in the evenings after Ally has gone to bed, and the general flotsam and jetsam of the past ten years of our lives in this house. I'm tempted to find something else to do this afternoon instead of starting to work on the packing process, but a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, and that applies to a move of just six miles, too. I think I'll brew a cup of tea for a change from my regular coffee habit, put a non-Christmas CD in the player, and take a good look at what's in the pantry. One of the boxes leftover from Christmas day can hold any "purge" items I find in there. It's a good place to start and we'll just go from there.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sweet tooths, 2009, and Saturday mornings, circa 1979

I've been on a baking binge lately, making cookies for Christmas. So far I've made sugar cookies, cranberry-orange shortbread, and a cocoa-pecan variation of Mexican wedding cookies. Some people call Mexican wedding cookies Russian tea cakes, but I added dark cocoa powder and didn't roll them in powdered sugar after baking them, so these look more like lumps of coal rather than any Mexican or Russian party treats. Also on my list today are jam thumbprints and a pan of blondies. I might make a batch of cheesecake bars tomorrow, and I'll definitely be making a big ol' birthday cake for my father-in-law on the 26th. I like to bake but normally I don't keep a lot of sweets in the house. However, it's been a downhill slide starting with the Halloween candy two months ago. I figure I might as well have a huge dessert blowout before the new year, then try to correct all the dietary damage in January. Plus, we've got three family get-togethers this week and I'm counting on my relatives to make a dent in all this.

At two and a half, Ally is too young to help me make the cookies, but she sure does enjoy eating them. She seems to prefer the old fashioned sugar cookies over the others. I don't think the nut, cranberry, or orange flavors appeal to her sophisticated toddler palate just yet. However, she's all about those red and green sugar crystals on the sugar cookies. Ally's preference for raw sugar over other flavors got Steve and me thinking about some of the things we ate as kids.

I remember being around ten and eating anything sweet, preferably chocolate flavored and the gooier the better. As kids I think we lean towards quantity over quality, and now I can't imagine consuming some of the sugar and fat laden sweets I ate when I was younger. Hostess snack cakes were some of the best treats you could ask for when I was young. Marshmallow covered Snoballs, creme filled Suzy Qs, deep fried and glazed fruit pies, tubular swirled Ho Hos, and of course the ubiquitous Twinkies. Then there were the little bite-sized donuts coated with either powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, or a waxy chocolate glaze. Somehow these always seemed to be dry and stale, but no matter, I ate them anyways. And the two-pack of pecan rolls that you could find on the bottom shelves at the 7-Eleven. Pop-Tarts, Charleston Chews, Cocoa Puffs, chocolate milk, and pink bubble gum ice cream. I ate it all and I don't know if I ever would have turned down a second helping of any of it.

I suppose we can claim that our palates are more sophisticated when we're older, that we can recognize the quality of gourmet over plebeian store bought, and that oversized portions are childish and distasteful. In reality, I think it's because we find that most of what we ate as kids is revoltingly sticky-sweet and guaranteed to turn our stomachs at the third mouthful. Now I can barely think of packaged pecan rolls or a breakfast cereal that turns the milk chocolate without gagging.

Both of my parents worked on Saturdays when I was young. Once I was old enough, they would leave me by myself at the house. I'm not sure what they imagined I did alone on those mornings, but I had a grand time rolling out of bed just moments before my favorite cartoons started and then letting my brain rot in front of the TV. I'd sit in my PJs for hours and watch Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones, the Smurfs, and really, anything else that came on before the stations started showing old Western movies in the afternoon. I remember that Dad would call around 11:00 am and practically beg me to go brush my teeth and get dressed, which I would eventually do, grudgingly. I'm sure I ate something or other for breakfast, but my favorite thing to do was to make an ice cream sundae.


I'd trudge into the kitchen in my PJs and look in the freezer for any ice cream we might have. Usually it was Breyer's or High's ice cream. Dad preferred butter pecan or butter brickle. Mom and I liked the chocolate varieties. If I was lucky I'd find fudge ripple or something of the like. If it was a primarily vanilla flavor, no matter, because it wasn't going to taste like vanilla by the time I was done making my sundae.


After carving out two or three big scoops into a bowl, I'd start rummaging around the cabinets for anything to spruce up the sundae. Cookie sprinkles or decorations were fair game, along with powdered hot chocolate mix, chocolate syrup, or miniature marshmallows. I'd also add crumbled cookies, nuts, Cool-Whip, or maybe even chocolate chips.

I distinctly remember adding powdered nondairy creamer on the top of the bowl one time. Lots of it.


Then I would eat every last bit of it up, sometimes sitting on the kitchen counter even thought I wasn't supposed to do that. I didn't make those Saturday morning sundaes very often because we didn't always have ice cream in the house. I probably made them no more than three or four times, but the memory of them sticks with me. I can't imagine that these mishmash concoctions really tasted that good, but maybe it was the illicit taste of unsupervised freedom that I enjoyed. Certainly I knew that this breakfast would not garner parental approval and I never would dared to make one of these in front of my parents. I'm sure I had at least a twinge of a stomach ache afterwards, but that might have been more the result of guilt instead of an overdose of sugar, fat, and artificial flavorings and colorings. No doubt some day I'll come into the kitchen unexpectedly and find Ally perched on the counter, her feet swinging in the air and with a spoonful of some godawful combination of desserts, sugar, and syrup halfway to her mouth. I'll recognize that sweet taste of freedom, mourn my long-lost cast iron stomach, and remind Ally to ask if she needs any Pepto-Bismol later that day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Obsessed with a show about obsessions

I'm currently obsessed with the A&E show Hoarders. The show documents individuals and families with the obsessive-compulsive behavior to collect and hoard objects. These are often items of little or no value, sometimes trash or even hazardous materials. Each week I'm flabbergasted to see how people can cram their homes full of junk, trash, garbage, or worse. Sometimes they collect food, sometimes it's new items from the store that never get taken out of the shopping bags, sometimes they take in too many stray pets. Some of the people on the show are elderly, some are my age, and some aren't even out of grade school yet. I realize that the producers of the show must select the worst cases to capture the interest of the television audience and not everyone who hoards is as bad as the people presented on the show. The tortured souls presented each week represent some of the worst cases of compulsive hoarding because watching a show about someone's extensive stamp collection simply wouldn't be as fascinating as the featured elderly couple who had over 70 cats removed from their house, many of them long-dead and mummified. However, under certain conditions the stamp collector may be just as much of a compulsive hoarder as the cat lovers if the philately gets out of hand.

I'm certainly not an expert on compulsive hoarding or OCD behaviors in general, but I do know what an obsession that gets out of hand looks like. I know people who have whole rooms in their house filled with "stuff" to the point that the room is merely a storage area and unusable for any other purpose and there's only a narrow path to walk along among all the stuff. Piles of papers and books stacked on the table, boxes of children's items stacked on the spare bed, and stacks of laundry that never got put away in the dresser or closet. Fabric for a quilt, Christmas decorations from the basement, items for donation to Goodwill. Paperwork and books from the office that don't really have a place in the house, halfway finished craft projects from a month or two back, and pictures that never got hung on the wall. Things piled up on any available horizontal surface. Most of it was put in the room with the intention of doing something with it later, but then older items get buried by newer items and then eventually forgotten at the bottom of the pile.

Oh wait....I just described the guest room in my own house.

I don't think I have compulsive hoarding behavior. I am somewhat unorganized right now with a lot of ongoing projects, limited storage options, a toddler with generous grandparents, Christmas preparations, and an upcoming move next month. I do have a lot of stuff set aside for a moving sale in late winter, and this pile keeps growing as I sort, clean, and organize each room. I do have collections of pottery dishes and glassware, several nice pieces of Native American crafts, and I'm a bibliophile with overburdened bookshelves. But I don't think I'm a hoarder.

I do actually know some hoarders. Pack rat behavior runs deep in my family, and some family members seem to be edging closer and closer to the degree of hoarding shown on Hoarders. I won't discuss those members of my family or what they collect here, but over the years I've seen them go from a benign "merely eccentric person" level to full-fledged "crazy cat lady" status. (And no, my use of "crazy cat lady" does not denote gender or obsession here.)

Maybe part of my fascination with the show is the recognition of how easy it is to start collecting something, become obsessed with it, then slip into full-blown hoarding without any real sense that this behavior is unusual in any way. I watch the show with a little lump of fear deep down inside that there might be a genetic trait to hoarding behavior and I probably hold those genes. There's a little bit of schadenfreude mixed in there, too. I want to grab those people on the show and ask them how could they have possibly let it get to that level where you need to use a shovel in the house to clean out the layers of debris? Why couldn't you just put the trash in the trash can? How could you not know that some of the cats were missing? Or why did you buy all that stuff from Target and never take it out of the bag when you got it home? I don't understand it, but I worry that I could do the same thing without realizing it.

By the end of each show I'm shuddering with revulsion and flooded with the urge to straighten up the house, clean out the closets, and get the floors vacuumed. At least this way the guest bedroom is slowly getting organized again.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bah, humbug!

It's the holiday season but I haven't been able to focus on Christmas all that much aside from getting our tree up and pulling out the stockings. I feel very unorganized and scattered this year. I start to work on one project, like decorating the large bay window in our living room, and then get distracted by shopping online only to wind up planning a holiday menu. Sad part is, none of it actually gets completed. The window is only partially dressed, I still have shopping to finish, and I'm not sure what we'll be eating at dinner when the family comes over to visit other than smoked turkey and maybe some cheesecake bars.

But today I managed, with the assistance of copious amounts of coffee, to complete two pine cone swags for the bay window. The pine cones were craft show leftovers spray painted gold and silver. I used a hot glue gun to attach wide burgundy ribbon to the base of the silver cones and a sheer sage ribbon with gold stripes to the gold cones. (Without burning myself, which must count as a Festivus miracle if you ask me.) Once the glue set, I gathered the ribbons together so that the cones hung in a nice cluster, tied a knot at the end of the gathered ribbon, and clipped the free ends of the ribbons nicely. No, the swags don't match in color and the gold swag is bigger than the silver one because I had more green ribbon than burgundy, but the rest of our holiday decor doesn't match either, so there.

Once the swags were done and hanging in the window, I had such a feeling of accomplishment that I decided to finally do something with the dried poppy pods that were also left over from the craft show. I whipped out the tacky glue and decorated the tops of one bunch of pods with scarlet glitter and the second bunch with reddish-gold glitter. Admittedly this is only one step above making angel tree ornaments out of dried macaroni and pipe cleaners, but together the two bunches make a nice bouquet in a dark wood vase.

Feeling pleased with myself I decided to clean up the craft debris and make myself a snack of salsa and chips. It wasn't until I had nearly finished the salsa that I noticed that it looked awfully festive. Sparkly, even. As in scarlet and gold sparkly. I'm not sure how, but some of the glitter wound up garnishing my salsa. At least I hadn't been eating bits of pine cone.

Maybe I should cut back on the coffee tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Babes in Toyland

Last Friday we took our two-year-old daughter Ally over to Blacksburg to see the downtown holiday events. We were hoping to have her meet Santa, who was at the Lyric Theater, and take a picture of them together. As fate would have it, the organizer closed the door to the theater just as we walked up. Literally. The family in front of us opened the door and walked in, the organizer held the door for them but locked it and let it close before I could take the door. I didn't realize what she had done so I banged on the door lever ineffectively a couple of times, making enough of a racket that the organizer came to the door and said Santa couldn't see any more children or he'd be late for the Christmas parade later that evening.

I was furious. The Christmas parade in Blacksburg is notorious for running late each year, but apparently no one running the festivities has seen the need to have two Santas: one for meeting the children and one to ride in the parade. Thankfully we hadn't really talked a whole lot of meeting Santa that night so Ally was blissfully unaware of what she had just missed out on.

We walked up the street and got burritos and quesadillas for dinner at Moe's on the corner. Ally had a grand time watching all the people in the busy restaurant, listening to the background music, spinning around on the vinyl bench seat, and stuffing herself with the chips. And her kid's meal came with a chocolate chip cookie and juice box, so that just about made her evening right there. After dinner we walked in the dark up to the big spruce that the town decorates with lights each year.


The tree is big enough to walk under and Ally was amazed at being inside the Christmas tree with the lights all around her.


We then made our way over to the holiday farmers' market, where we listened to a tuba band play Christmas carols and watched more people. And lots of doggies were out that night. Ally is fascinated by dogs that are bigger than our miniature dachshund, and many of the dogs she saw Friday night were much, much bigger than ours. A colleague from my former department was selling wreaths made with his beautiful dahlia flowers which he had dried. He gave Ally one dried flower fashioned into a Christmas tree ornament, which Ally loved so much that she promptly crumpled it to death. Finally we walked back up to Main Street to wait for the Christmas parade to start.


Once it finally started, Ally drank it all in with big eyes and enormous fascination. The Blacksburg Christmas parade is classic small town, with home-made floats from the various churches, platoons of boy and girl scouts, people in costumes on bikes, and the high school beauty queen in a convertible. We only stayed for about twenty minutes before the cold got to be too much for us.



On the walk back to the car, Ally announced "I tired," in a deeply satisfied way. And I got to thinking at how little it takes to really impress a toddler. I had been very disappointed that we weren't able to see Santa, but Ally was thrilled by all the things she had seen, heard, and eaten that night. The chips and the cookie from dinner; the colorful lights, the dark night, and a tree you could walk under; tubas and doggies; and even all the bicyclists in the street. I know next Christmas will be very different because Ally will have naturally developed her own expectations for the holiday season, but for right now I'm very thankful for the opportunity to see Christmas through her truly innocent eyes.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Botanical Ark

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm all twitterpated in regards to my garden. We close on the new house on Dec. 14 and I'm assuming we'll actually take possession of it that day, as opposed to some catastrophic event that allows the seller to back out of the deal and we spend the next couple of months mourning our loss. If all goes according to plan (knock on wood), we'll move into the new house after the holidays and then put our current house on the market in late winter. The crux of my problem is this: I want to take a large number of plants with me to the new house, but February is a really lousy time to transplant. Montgomery County clay is hard enough to work with when it isn't frozen, and I don't particularly relish gardening when it's only 30 degrees and the wind is blowing hard. I've been potting up as many plants as I can this past week, taking advantage of the milder temperatures and workable soil. Thankfully I hadn't cleaned up the garden too thoroughly so I can tell where my perennials are from their dead foliage even though they've died back to the soil. Potting up plants isn't nearly as time-consuming as putting them out in the ground as I don't have to think much about proper sun exposure and soil moisture. I dig up the chosen plant, plop it down in a suitable pot, tamp the soil around it, and then move off to find the next plant.

However, I do need to bury those pots so the roots don't freeze when the temperatures dip down and stay down later on. For this I use the two raised beds my husband built for me years ago. They're perfect for overwintering pots, stashing new plants until I find the right spot for them in the garden, or raising vegetables in the summer. I've been amending the soil in these beds yearly until now it's a nice, dark loam that's a pleasure to turn over with a spade. I spent the greater part of yesterday afternoon doing just that, chopping up the remaining vegetation from the summer, incorporating some leaves from this fall, and digging holes for the plants I've already potted up so far. I feel much better knowing that I'll be able to take these pots out of the raised bed with little difficulty when the time comes to move into the new house.

That thought led me to think of these raised beds as a kind of botanical ark for my favorite plants. As I shoveled the soil around in the beds I wondered how the pilgrims, and later the pioneers, felt about taking plants with them to new lands and homesteads. While survival must have been foremost in their minds, I'm sure some of those people must have felt the need to bring some of their past with them in the form of a plant. Space would have been at a premium, so they probably carried more seeds than live plant material and most of it would have been for crops. Yet I wonder how many women might have collected seeds from a favorite flower or herb to take with them? Something to remind them of home, or perhaps someone special who they were leaving behind?

I was suddenly struck by how many of the plants I've chosen to take with me to the new house remind me of someone else and other places. There are the peonies and rhubarb that remind me of my grandmothers, the columbine from my favorite aunt in Alaska, and the beautiful peach shrub rose my husband gave me last year to celebrate our first date ten years ago. The lavender, coreopsis, and yarrow are all from the original bed I created while deep in the midst of working on my dissertation. They were watered with bitter tears of frustration and anger, but they thrived and gently reminded me of the importance of setting goals and the exhilaration of achieving them. The rose-of-Sharon, day lilies, hostas, and rose campion remind me of Poquoson because that's what my mother grows in her garden there. Then there are the irises. Mom gave me mine and she received hers many years ago from Mr. Snead. The Sneads were an elderly couple who lived across the street from us in Newport News. Mr. Snead had a passion for irises and grew some of the most gorgeous flowers. He shared some with Mom, who also inherited many others upon his death. I cannot think of irises without remembering Mr. Snead, and his memory brings forth all the others associated with our little Cape Cod house in that neighborhood. Suddenly I'm eight years old again, riding my bike all over the neighborhood all day long, stopping by the Sorenses' house for a cookie, hearing Mr. Epps' old-fashioned lawn mower whirring in the early summer morning, and throwing a wet slobbery tennis ball for a beautiful Irish setter named Heather, who lived in a yard with a white picket fence. I played freeze tag and Mother May I with the neighbors' kids on the long front lawns, spent many hours on the beach down by the James River a block or so behind our house, and caught fire flies at dusk. My childhood may not have been idyllic, but it was darn close to it at times, and it only takes an iris to bring all that back to me in a rush.

Sunset comes early in the winter, so I had to stop gardening sooner than I would have liked yesterday. As I put up my shovel and gloves to come inside and make dinner, I realized that not only are my raised beds a botanical ark for my favorite plants to rest in before we move, but my favorite plants also serve as a living memory book, connecting me to other people, places, and times.