Thursday, December 31, 2009

Epiphany - The Journey of the Wise Men (Day 5)

Their travels are long and the path is rugged, but the three intrepid kings just keep on going. Today they're on the kitchen table, off of which I did remember to brush the crumbs before I did the point-and-shoot thing.

While they're out there, they might consider grabbing a turkey sandwich (or "turkwich," as Meelyn called them when she was a wee one) from the beautiful Killian's Irish Turkey I roasted a couple of days ago. Some homemade bread, a little Hellmann's, a few carefully selected leaves of butter lettuce and some salt and pepper...mmmm. Now that's a sandwich that can put some heart in you for the road ahead.

My super power is rapid two-finger typing. What's yours?

For all of you who scoffed when I told you how fast I can type using only two fingers, just take a look at this blazing action, so fast that the keyboard was SMOKING after Meelyn snapped the picture and begged me, "Mom? Mom! SLOW DOWN! There's going to be a FIRE if you don't stop with the awesomely fast typing!!!"

You may have laughed. You may have mocked. You may have taunted me with your Mavis Beacon or your Typing Instructor Deluxe. You may have regaled me with stories about Mrs. Vores in the tenth grade and how she'd never let you rest on your laurels with a mere sixty words per minute. No, it was all "Faster! Better accuracy! KEEP YOUR EYES OFF THOSE KEYS, PEOPLE!" and walking up and down the rows making sweat break out on the back of your neck.

All I have to offer you in return is a great, big snaaaaa-a-a-a-ap. Word up.


The Olive Garden Project - Mission Accomplished

Today was Olive Garden day, the day that we've been saving up for since early November. The four of us had a lovely time, starting off with salad, breadsticks and some alfredo sauce for dipping and then we moved on to the main course: parmesan tilapia with grilled vegetables for Meelyn, stuffed chicken marsala for me and a dinner portion of shrimp fettucine alfredo split between Aisling and my husband, who distinguished himself by eating about eight breadsticks.

That part of the story is good, but what's even better is the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say. I've been saving this part just for this post.

About three weeks ago, Carol emailed me and said, "You're going to be getting something in the mail and there's something missing from it that I said was in there and I'll need to explain it all to you."

Cryptic, much? I was, of course, passionately interested, and bird-dogged the mailbox for the next couple of days, skidding out to the front porch just as soon as the mail carrier went down the steps and across the way to our neighbors' house.

The mysterious envelope, entrancingly bulky and enticing, arrived the day after Carol's email. Inside was a cute card, but inside the cute card were two twenty-five dollar gift certificates for the Olive Garden. I did what might be expected after I nearly fell off my desk chair: I burst into tears.

"Why are you crying?" asked Aisling, who still hasn't figured out this whole happy-tears thing. To a fourteen-year-old, tears indicate a squabble with a sister, an unfair mother or a really touching episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"I'm just so ha-ha-haaaaappy," I sniffled, wiping my eyes with the back of my wrist as I read Carol's card.

The story therein had two parts. The first part was about how she was relating my story of the Olive Garden Project to Uncle Graham; how it was Meelyn's idea, how we were accumulating unexpected amounts of pocket change and the occasional extra dollar bill; how we hoped to save up $80 to cover starters, entrées, dessert and the tip; how we were all really enthusiastic about the idea of a festive meal to say goodbye to the old year and hello to the new.

As she was reading blog posts to him, Carol said Uncle Graham was looking thoughtful. "How's about we help them along with that?" he asked her. Well, since Carol is the most generous and thoughtful person living on the face of this planet, more like my sister than my cousin, bonded to me for this life and the next through the shared experience of sleeping on a spider-infested couch, she immediately said "Great!" and they bought us one $25 gift card.

But wait! The happy isn't finished happening yet!

The following Monday, Carol went to work and was sitting at her desk enjoying every single second of her job -- she works in human resources and is in charge of making sure everyone's insurance benefits and the payroll are all up to snuff, so you know how delightful and stress-free her days are -- when her friend Lois came up to her. Lois is a faithful follower of InsomniMom, which makes me want to throw my arms around her neck and weep out my tearful thanks, and that's even before she did what she did about six seconds later.

"I've been reading about Shelley's family, how they're saving up to go to the Olive Garden on New Year's Eve?" she said to Carol. "And I have this money here; I was thinking about donating it to some organization, but I'd like to give it to Shelley and her family. Could you buy them a gift card and send it to them?"

Well. Well! Talk about touching! I have met Lois precisely once, and here she was, wanting to buy us an Olive Garden gift card! I nearly drowned at my own desk.

So our happy meal -- we had a darling waitress and we left her a honkin' big tip -- was dedicated in a toast to Lois, Carol and Uncle Graham, the benefactors of our feast, with heartfelt thanks and prayers for a joyful new year. We appreciate the three of you so very, very much.

I don't think there could be a better ending to that story, do you?

By the way, our bill came out to $55. Once we left the tip, we still had a goodly amount, so we put it to a vote and immediately started ourselves off on an account to pay our annual dues to the swim club, which are due in May. Since we do the swim club in lieu of a vacation every year and since it is our main form of summer recreation, allowing us to get outdoors and enjoy nature, it's kind of important to us to make sure we get those dues paid, but it definitely isn't easy. This year, with Meelyn's brilliant money-saving strategy to guide us, I think I'll be posting the results of another successful venture in May.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Epiphany - The Journey of the Wise Men (Day 4)

Today the three kings are making their weary trek across the table that stands beside the easy chair upstairs in my bedroom. I think there's a distinct possibility that they might be up to their porcelain ankles in dust: I was due to dust my bedroom last Thursday, which was Christmas Day, sooo.......

I hope they'll stop to take a look at the gorgeous little inlaid wood trinket box I got in Sorrento many years ago when I went to Italy with my grandmother. It's not only beautiful to look at, but also a priceless reminder of the one I was with and how she patiently looked at, like, a million little boxes before I finally picked out the one I wanted. Then we went on to Naples and took the hydrofoil ferry out to Capri and after spending the day there the weather turned rainy and the Mediterranean grew rather choppy and we both clutched each other in wordless terror, picturing a romantic yet soggy death in the Bay of Naples. Now there's a journey for you.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

RECIPE: Killian's Irish Turkey

Okay, I couldn't take a picture of my Christmas ham because there didn't seem to be anything particularly photo-licious about a ham stuffed in a slow-cooker. But would you just feast your eyes on this beauty? I pulled him out of the oven about five minutes ago -- I can see him from where I'm sitting -- and I'm telling you, that turkey smells so good, I can hardly wait for dinner tonight.

To the left in the photo are the ingredients I used for roasting the bird: one quart of chicken broth (not quite all of it is gone) for basting, two bottles of Killian's Irish Red, three sticks of butter and some salt and pepper.

I decided to use the Killian's because of an unusual roasting method Pat was telling me about: he makes the best turkey, like, EVER and he uses butter, salt, pepper and a can of Coke or Dr. Pepper or something like that. I decided to use the lager because it is made of God's own sweet barley and frankly, I'm not sure what soft drinks are made of. Besides, I thought it would be a nice experiment. If I throw some red wine in my ragù, why not some beer in the turkey? The worst that could happen, I thought, would be a really rich, smooth broth. Bummer.

Here's what I did. It couldn't have been easier:

1. I preheated the oven to 325 degrees and sprayed the inside of that big, disposable roasting pan with non-stick cooking spray

2. Unwrapped Mr. Butterball and rinsed him well with warm water, making sure to remove those mysterious packages in the neck and body cavities, which is what I didn't do the first time I roasted a turkey. Imagine my embarrassment when my mother-in-law, who was doing the carving, said, "You're supposed to take these out. Dear." Some people make gravy with the contents of those packages, but I throw them STRAIGHT IN THE TRASH.

3. Plunked the turkey breast side up in the roasting pan. Two sticks of soft butter in the body cavity, one stick of soft butter rubbed all over the outside of the turkey, which would have been a rather pleasant massage, I imagine, if he'd been alive and all.

4. One bottle of Killian's poured into the body cavity, one bottle reserved on the counter for basting. Chicken broth, ditto.

5. My turkey was 13 pounds and Butterball's instruction sheet recommended some configuration that ended up with my turkey needing to cook for three hours or so. So! Turkey into the oven at 11:30.

6. Basted that baby with a great deal of loving care and attention, just like a Julia chicken. Every half hour on the dot. Killian's and broth poured over the top.

7. Made a little foil tent and crimped it to the roasting pan at 2:00 and continued the roasting until 3:00.

8. Removed foil tent (being very careful not to be burned by the steam) at 3:00 and left in oven an additional twenty minutes to make the skin a nice, toasty golden brown.

9. Retrieved from oven at 3:20 and allowed to stand undisturbed for fifteen minutes, at which point the girls and I did a taste test. Delicious!

I carved the turkey later in the day and we had it for dinner last night, along with some rich gravy I made from the pan juices. It was a complete success and so simple. Obviously, with a good-sized turkey and the stock and lager and all, the most difficult part was taking the turkey in and out of the oven. (For basting, I just pulled the oven rack out a little bit, but I took the whole kit and kaboodle out when I made the foil tent.) Just make sure you have hot pads that have no thin places in them, you know what I'm saying?

Epiphany - The Journey of the Wise Men (Day 3)

Today finds the three Kings (or the three Wise Guys as Kayte called them, which lends them a rakish and slightly dangerous persona) feeling a little weary and travel-stained, which is perhaps why they're wandering atop the clothes dryer out in the laundry room, to wash their robes, or maybe spritz their puffy crown-like headgear with some Downy Wrinkle Remover. I can highly recommend its efficacy, because you know all those clothes that lie there quietly crumpling when you fail to hear the buzzer going off? Well, that Downy stuff can take care of that mess in no time at all.

The face says it all

It just goes to show you: Some people like getting a new Webkinz for their birthdays, or maybe even a scented candle. But then there are those people who beam like the summer sunshine when confronted with four cases of George Killian's Irish Red.

There, at last, thanks to the wonders of modern digital and internet technology, is my husband, the Prince of Salesmen, receiving his birthday gift yesterday evening. Photo credit goes to Meelyn, whose quick-on-the-trigger reflexes caught him right at the moment of astounded joyfulness. Guess it's not so bad being a Christmas baby after all, huh?

The girls and I have been buying the Irish Red in the 12-bottle cases ever since the beginning of November, secreting it around the house. He almost caught us with a case once, and Meelyn had to hustle it indoors while Aisling and I detained him in the driveway by telling him that we thought we were losing air in one of the van's tires. It was a lot of fun, all that scheming, and it was an ever greater pleasure when we saw the expression on his face.

I'm hoping now he'll be softened up enough to put my great-grandmother's chandelier up in the foyer and move the light fixture in the foyer out to the kitchen and then put her other chandelier up in our bedroom, moving the light fixture in our bedroom down to a box in the basement. Honey?

Cutest ever - The Only Hearts Club™ Dolls

Just have a look at these super-cute dolls that my friend Kate made me aware of. These are the Only Hearts Club™ dolls, a set of nine-inch poseable dolls with sweet, girlish faces and really adorable clothes.

A quick Google search led me to the Only Hearts Club™ website, where I discovered that each doll is $17, a bit pricier than Barbie, but widely available at Target stores nationwide (check out the store finder feature and enter your zip code to find a retailer near you.)

The Only Hearts Club™ is an entire brand consisting not only of these dolls and their clothes, but also play sets (you should just see the Princess Sleepwear and Sleeping Bag sets, omigosh...) and Only Hearts Li'l Kids™, which are tiny brothers and sisters for the bigger dolls, Only Hearts Pets™, So Small Pets™ and a really awesome horse and stable set that I would like to have myself.

I really love the realisitic look of these pretty girls and their outfits and I wanted to burst into tears when I found out that they've been available ever since Aisling was still at the age when she liked dolls like this. WHY DID I NOT KNOW OF THESE SOONER??!! WAAAAHHHH!!! I'm not quite sure if I can wait to get one of these until I have girl grandchildren, an event which I dearly hope lies about ten years in the future, so I may have to ask for one for my birthday. My love affair with dolls of all sorts has burned on unabated since I was three and Carol (grudgingly) let me play with her Barbies and these look like a must-have. Just don't tell my Webkinz.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy birthday to my husband

"See, it's like this," my husband said to me earnestly a month or so after we were married. "My birthday? It sucks. It sucks to be born around Christmas. It sucks because everyone forgets about your birthday because they're all running in circles buying presents for everybody and in cooking and traveling and decorating. And the people who do remember?" He paused for a breath, having gotten slightly worked up as he aired his grievances. "The people who do remember either wrap your gift in Christmas paper, or they say, 'This is a combination Christmas and birthday present.' It sucks."

"Well, at least you're not bitter," I murmured, taking many mental notes: No Christmas paper. No birthday-slash-Christmas gifts. LOTS OF FUSSING. My husband, I determined, would someday be able to look back on the eighty-seven happy years of our marriage and recall that there hadn't been a sucky birthday in that entire time.

I've been called upon, over the past eighteen years, to pull off some pretty spectacular feats. Like the year I flew him to Las Vegas so that he could sing with Frank Sinatra at the Desert Inn. Or that birthday I contacted my school friend Wibur Wright, who invited us down to North Carolina eleven days before my husband's birthday and where we ended up witnessing what turned out to be the first powered, controlled and sustained flight. It was freaking amazing.

Oh, but....

No. I didn't really do any of that.

What I did do the year he turned thirty-three was write thirty-three bits of trivia about his life -- what his middle name is, the city and state of his birth, his favorite football team -- and type, print. cut and tape all of them to the backs of thirty-three Twix bars. I then took them into his work and everyone had a great time teasing him about the fact that his middle name is Seymour.

It really isn't. I just call him that when he's being a pain.

This year, I was more subtle. It's his forty-third birthday and he made the mistake of telling me that he hoped no one at work would remember that today is His Special Day. That started the wheels turning; turning back to the day when he lamented that no one ever makes a fuss over any Christmas baby except for the one you'd expect everyone to be making a fuss over. Non-sucky birthdays is my motto and my reason for living, I said to myself this morning. Operation Cupcake is now underway.

So you see the cupcakes up there in that photo?* I baked those cupcakes with my own hands, and frosted them. Aisling sprinkled them with those cheerful little birthday-colored nonpareils (not a Christmasy-looking one in the entire mix) and we packed them in a bakery box and took them out to his place of employment after we picked Meelyn up from work.

The girls refused to march into the dealership singing the Happy Birthday song, which I thought was very mean of them, but my husband assured me that such a thing would have made him run for the men's room. As if he didn't think I was capable of following him in there and belting out that final " youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!!" Huh.

Anyway. Tacos for dinner tonight, his choice. Soft shells, extra-spicy meat, lots of cheese and lettuce. Homemade salsa too, to go with the tortilla chips I bought. All because he is the most adorable Christmas baby I have ever seen.

* I am really proud of that photo. I mean, really proud.

Epiphany - The Journey of the Wise Men (Day 2)

Today the wise men are in the kitchen, trekking through a bowl of clementines, which is an excellent choice not only because clementines are a great source of immune system-boosting vitamin C, but also because those things were on sale at Wal-Mart for four dollars a bag. Boooyah!!!

In the background there you can see just a few of my favorite cookbooks -- Le Cordon Bleu at Home, Baking with Dorie, The Bread Baker's Apprentice and Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, all titles which have figured largely here on this blog over the years. The slender lime green book is Cooking with Julia and that little primer is the one I'm using to write a syllabus for a foods course for Meelyn's junior year of high school. These three kings have very discerning taste. And well developed palates.

We didn't believe!

"A winter storm warning?" my husband said incredulously as we were watching a local meteorologist warn us yesterday that if we were low on cookies, beer and toilet paper, we'd better get crackin' and get to the grocery before they were all sold out. "Huh. I'll believe that when I see it."

"Yeah," I agreed, lip curled in a sneer. "Those weather forecasters don't know what they're talking about. I'd be more inclined to believe him if....if....he said that pink flamingos and beach balls were going to start falling out of the sky."

As it turns out, my husband and I are the ones who don't know what we're talking about, and I'd like to offer my sincere apologies to all the Indianapolis area meteorologists for our lack of faith, because yes, Virginia, there was indeed a winter storm and by nine o'clock yesterday evening when Meelyn took this picture from our front porch, we'd accumulated several inches of fluffy white snow.

Gladly, it is just enough enough snow to make the outdoors into a winter wonderland without making the roads treacherous. At least that's my impression from hearing the snow plows and salt trucks that drove past the house, like, all night long.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Epiphany - The Journey of the Wise Men

In our house, the three kings of the Orient begin traveling to the crèche in Bethlehem on the top of the media cabinet on or around the first Sunday after Christmas. That makes today the day when this trio yelled "ROAD TRIP!" and laid in a supply of snacks and warmed up the camels and started off on their epic adventure around our house until their arrival with their fabulous gifts on January 6.

Here they are in the downstairs bathroom, hoping to avoid the perils of curling irons and hair spray.

Crisis averted

This is my nine-year-old nephew Dayden, whom I adore, and I am happy and relieved to say that our relationship will be able to continue because, although this Nerf Dart Tag game does include guns that you purposely shoot at another person wearing a vest that will make noise when that person is struck by a Nerf dart, it doesn't make as much noise as the Barbie Shopping Time Cash Register my parents bought for three-year-old Kiersi.

So I am in good with Pat and Angie, but my parents? They are in big, big trouble. That cash register came with a microphone.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

RECIPE: Christmas Ham with Cherry Glaze

I wish I'd taken a picture of the ham I made for Christmas dinner yesterday, but I'll be the first to admit that it isn't really a picture-perfect presentation. I mean, I'm sure you could lift it out of the slow-cooker and put it on a platter surrounded by greens and kumquats and ripe cherries, but when all is said and done, you may as well just hide in the kitchen and furtively get some slices of ham onto that platter and forget your dreams of making a big show. To that end, here is a picture of someone else's ham.

This Christmas ham is one of the easiest recipes I've ever made. Since you use your slow-cooker, this method leaves your oven free for other festive components like dinner rolls and green bean casserole. Basically, all you have to do is plunk the ham into the slow-cooker, turn the slow cooker on low, stir up the glaze, pour it on and leave it to itself for about four hours, and presto! You look like a culinary genius and your family will say things like, "This is the best ham I've ever eaten."


1 large slow-cooker
1 pre-cooked, spiral-sliced smoked ham (9 pounds is the biggest ham that will fit in my slow-cooker, and I advise you to check out what your slow-cooker will hold well before you're down to the wire on a holiday when all the stores are closed)
cherry glaze for the ham (recipe follows)
1 1/2 - 2 cups of chicken broth
4 tablespoons of butter (reserve for later)

Spray the inside of your slow-cooker with non-stick cooking spray. Unwrap the ham carefully and place it, largest surface up, in your cooker. A nine pound ham completely fills my slow-cooker, leaving ju-u-ust enough room to put the lid on. Just barely enough. Please note that this goes against the wisdom of all slow-cooker manufacturers, who generally recommend leaving a space of about two inches between the top of your food and the bottom of your lid. If going against the manufacturer's recommendations bothers you, then put your ham in a roasting pan and warm it in your oven according to the packaging directions. If you're okay with assuming the burden of heating your ham in this manner, carry on.

Pour in the chicken broth; set slow-cooker's heat control to Low. Allow the cooker to warm up while you make the glaze.


I found this highly-rated ham glaze at one of my favorite internet sites, It is really a fabulous site and has a lot of nice features, like a personalized recipe box. This particular recipe currently has nineteen reviews and a five star rating, which was good enough for me.

3 tablespoons water
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 (12 ounce) jar cherry preserves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

The instructions couldn't be simpler: Spray a small saucepan with non-stick spray. Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring frequently over a medium heat. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for two minutes.

When you've finished the glaze, pour it over the ham and chicken broth in the slow-cooker, cut up the four tablespoons of butter and put them on top of the ham. Put the lid on the cooker -- my lid is always right up against the ham. Heat the ham on the Low setting for three and a half hours, turning it up to the High setting for the last half hour of cooking.

Remember, slow-cooker temps do vary. My current slow-cooker, which is about two years old, gets much hotter than my old one did. If you have a close relationship with your own slow-cooker, you'll know if this will be enough time. Because remember -- you are just heating this ham, not cooking it. Just, you know, keep your eye on it. The amount of time I stated was enough to thoroughly heat the ham into a moist and steamy yumminess and yours should turn out similarly.

Couldn't be easier and got me lots of compliments from my family, the same people who bitterly threatened a dining room anarchist movement if I served them chili once more before February.

Remembering Christmas 2008 (with the throwing up and all)

Last year at this time, the entire family was shivering and wheezing as we lurched our way to various bathrooms. Nanny and Poppy either caught the virus that felled us all like a forest of mighty oaks when they were out in Colorado or on the plane they took back to Indiana; they threw up everything they'd eaten since birth and then generously shared the bug with the rest of us, a gift for which we did not offer them gracious thanks. The two of them originally tried to blame their illness on eating some bologna that had gone past its sell-by date, but considering the fact that food poisoning isn't transmittable from one person to another, we didn't buy their story.

We were all sitting around the table yesterday at their house, reminiscing about last year and how there were only five of us there instead of our usual eleven - the other six were off clutching buckets and staring into the middle distance with hollow, haunted eyes.

"I'm glad none of you are eating the bologna sandwich this year," sighed my mother, citing our family's euphemism for barfing up one's spleen as we all tucked into the massive Christmas breakfast she'd made for us. We all nodded vigorously, chewing away, happy to be gathered in a place that wasn't littered with tissue boxes and those little papers that wrap cough drops. And the ubiquitous buckets.

I just found out that the families of three different friends spent their Christmases doing what we did last year, so I am posting this link for A Christmas Full of Bologna for them so that they'll know that others have suffered as they have.

My favorite things

This morning I watched a morning show segment about taking down all the Christmas decorations in the house. The advice guru, standing with his display of Rubbermaid tote boxes, said, "The day after Christmas, I tell my family, 'It is time to move on. Let's get this stuff packed up.'"

This is not the way of thinking in our house at all, which brings me to the ten-jillionth reasons I'm glad to be Catholic: When you're Catholic, "Christmas" isn't just one day to which we're built up over a number of increasingly early weeks; Christmas is a season. It lasts from Christmas Day until Epiphany, which falls on January 6.

All during those twelve days of Christmas, we sing carols and Mass, we feast here at home and enjoy our vacation from school, we keep the Christmas music fa-la-la-ing, we enjoy our decorations. In short, we live this short season for all get-out.

We take down our Christmas tree and pack away all the ornaments and decorations on January 7 every year, leaving all the nativity sets standing until Candlemas, February 2, which is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, the fortieth day after his birth, the time at which he was taken to the Temple and presented to the priests with the sacrifical offering of a pair of turtledoves. This is also when a baby's mother underwent the ritual purification after childbirth.

I can barely think of the author of the universe being taken to the Temple as a tiny, vulnerable infant with two doves -- animals of his own creation -- without tears welling up in my eyes, and I am so grateful for the Church, which gives us the opportunity to recognize this day every year and think about what it means to us.

The Church offers many such days and seasons throughout the year, Christmas naturally being one of the highest celebrations. Contrary to what so many people think, these seasons with their attendent rituals and/or small duties aren't meant to weight us down with "man-made" obligations: some people take verses such as Romans 8: 1-11 in a literal sense which they would never consider applying to verses such as, say, John 6: 53-59, which makes me view their motives with suspicion. No, the seasons in the liturgical year of the Church are meant for the sole purpose of guiding us into a closer relationship with Jesus. Besides, you can talk to me about freedom all you want to (which always seems to translate into "freedom from going to church and worshiping God on the golf course" or "freedom from the Law of Moses," which, I'm all like "Huh? Well, duh,") but all I'm going to do is talk to you about duty to the one who gave you the great and unearnable gift of salvation and what you ought to be doing to express your gratitude.

As humans, our very lives are guided by the turning of the seasonal wheel: winter warms into spring, spring blooms into summer, summer burns into fall and fall withers back into winter again. We can count on this process. In the same way, day follows night, which follows day. The sun never surprises us by rising in the south. Likewise, the liturgical seasons lead us through the life of Christ, always urging us to acknowledge his presence in our lives and our relationship with him.

This makes so much good sense. Advent, the season of preparation for the coming of Christ (both in the past and in the future) is followed by the Christ-Mass, the season of celebration. After a few weeks of Ordinary Time, we move into Lent, when we focus for those six weeks on the his passion and death that bought our salvation. After Lent comes Easter, fifty days of celebrating the fact that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Almighty Father, et cetera. Every detail of every scriptural reading through weekday and Sunday Masses, every hymn we sing, every rosary we pray -- all these things are designed to bring us to Jesus. And cultivate a spirit of humility and love and appreciation in us, a group of people who are largely inclined to take the many blessings he has given us for granted, all while hankering for more.

So here's to the season of Christmas, which has, like, just begun. The tree lights are glowing, the house is full of the good smells of cooking, and all will be merry and bright for the next eleven days. It is a blessing to be Catholic.

PRODUCT REVIEW: The Scentbug™ (Bath & Body Works)

Since this is a product review and all, I wish I'd been able to take a better picture, with less glare on the Scentbug and the fragrance oils and all. Better yet, I wish I had the ability to upload a scratch-n-sniff feature. But I am neither a professional photographer (or even a photo-taker of mild competence); nor am I some kind of computer wizard. So this is my offering, with the glaring off the shiny surfaces.

However, my review is going to be glowing, so that kind of makes up for the crummy photography, right? Er, anyway....Meelyn and Aisling each got a Scentbug for Christmas from Bath & Body Works. I knew that these little cuties had something to do with home fragrance, but I'd never really paid much attention to them: I am a candle kind of person. The big Christmas sales at Bath & Body Works piqued my interest, however, and when I was in the store making an absolute KILLING buying gifts for the girls and Angie, I picked up one for our house.

We've had an artificial tree for the past few years and I thought it would be fun to get a Scentbug so that I could put festive fragrances in it that would give our house the aroma of a piny woods. I purchased two fragrance oils -- Spiced Cider and Balsam Fir -- and carefully dripped ten drops of each oil onto the little cotton pad that live inside the Bug: that white band around its middle is actually a drawer that opens to reveal the pad's hiding place.

Once the fragrance oils are on the cotton pad, the mini-drawer closes and you push that button there in the middle -- it lights up green to indicate that the unit is turned on. Pushing the button activates a tiny, whisper-quiet fan that gently wafts the scent through those holes in the top. Within minutes, our living room and dining room, a fairly extensive area of square footage, smelled lovely. Not overwhelmingly strong, just very fresh and subtle. I imagine if you wanted the scent to be subtler still, you could put, say, five drops of each oil on the little pad.

The Scentbug is a nice thing for three reasons:

1. Scentbugs are very inexpensive and they even comes with batteries. Their regular price is $12.50 and the fragrance oils are normally $7.50 each, but if you wait for a coupon or a sale or BOTH, you can get one for much, much cheaper, as I did. And the bottles of fragrance oil look as if they'll last a long time.

2. It makes your house smell lovely without the dangers associated with candles. True, the Scentbug, while cute and chubby and available in a wide range of colors, does not have the ambiance of candlelight. But for house with small children or curious cats, this isn't such a bad thing.

3. If you live in a house with two stinky dogs, as we do, the added assistance in masking the odor of wet dog at this time of year is crucial. Wimzie and Hershey like nothing better than to go out and blissfully roll in the snow (or worse yet, the damp, muddy grass) and then come in and overpower us all with their penetrating stench. I am thinking about duct-taping a Scentbug to each of them, which is not the recommended use for one of these clever devices, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas dinner, made with love

This is the famous Christmas Jell-O, without which Christmas cannot happen. See, lots of other people have the mistaken impression that Santa coming down your chimney with a sack full of gifts is what makes Christmas happen, but they are all just flat-out wrong. It's the Jell-O, people.

I have never made this Jell-O before, which will explain its somewhat rustic look. That middle layer, made of cream cheese and whipped cream? It's supposed to be like a satiny ribbon of white between the red and green parts. But there were circumstances beyond my control that kept that from happening.

Anyway, the festive Jell-O was just one part of our happy dinner, and I'm glad to say that everything turned out very well. Here's the list -- I tried a couple of new things that were so good, they deserve to have recipe postings -- and it was very good and very merry.

1. Spiral-sliced ham (pre-cooked) in the nine pound size that fits into my slow-cooker. I like to heat a pre-cooked ham up in the slow-cooker because it saves so much oven space. I used a really easy cherry glaze on the ham that was new to me and it was just delicious, a definite keeper.

2. Broccoli and cheese casserole, a tried-and-true dish that is sooooo good and rich and full of things that are bad for you, we only have it a couple of times a year.

3. Cornbread-sausage dressing, which was the new recipe from Thanksgiving. It turned out well again, all crisp and golden on the top and bottom, steamy in the middle.

4. Cream gravy for the dressing, which was just, well....decadent. I have a way with gravy. It's one of those things I don't need a recipe for. I make it by feel.

5. Christmas Jell-O, which I ate happily and everyone else kind of picked at to humor me.

We were supposed to have dinner rolls, but I didn't have enough time to let them rise, so we decided we'd save them for later in the week.

The second-best part of the whole dinner is that I made TONS: we have delectable leftovers ahead of us for days on end and I can hardly wait for lunch tomorrow.

The best part of our Christmas dinner? Making good food for the three people I love the best in the whole world. It was a blessing to be around our dining room table, talking over the events of the day and laughing together, enjoying the last few hours of the happiest Christmas we've known in years.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nativity track 2009 - "gloria in excelsis deo!"

As you can see, a shepherd has arrived to see if what all those angels were talking and singing about up in the sky was actually true. He's the first, the youngest shepherd. The rest are following behind. He's on one knee there at the manger, overcome with wonder, while Mary kneels with clasped hands and Joseph hovers protectively nearby.

Tonight at Mass, we sang the Gloria for the first time since the Feast of Christ the King at the end of November. Advent is a period of waiting, so we don't lift our voices in that familiar refrain that starts out with the words the angels, reeling in excitement, sang in the sky over that hillside near Bethlehem all those many years ago:

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth!

Nativity track 2009 - And unto us a son is given

Who would ever want to have a baby in a barn? I come from a line of farming people -- not a long line, but a line nonetheless -- and I have known some awesome barns in my day. My great-grandpa's barn was long and low and it had some pigs and some sheep and a bunch of friendly cats in it. The barn on grandad's property was huge and tall and the best place in the world to explore. If my parents knew to this day some of the rickety ladders I climbed high up into the haymow, lying on my stomach to look two floors below into my horse's stall, they would probably fall prostrate to the floor in a dead faint this very day.

So I have known some barns. But I also know childbirth. This progressive knowledge makes me be able to say with certainty that the two do not mix. When I had my babies, if my husband had driven me to a barn instead of a hospital, I would have done everything in my power, to do something bad to him. I feel somewhat repressed in saying exactly what I might have done because Pat told me tonight that I have too many grouchy posts lately, so let me just say: IT WOULD HAVE BEEN REAL BAD.

But this baby? Born in this particular barn? To this one-of-a-kind mother? They all seem to go together. I can't imagine that the place was Mary's first choice, or Joseph's. But somehow, it all worked out for the best, didn't it?

How to: Cause your dearest kin to hate you

My husband and I just returned from Wal-Mart -- which was much less arduous an outing than you might have imagined -- where we purchased, at his urgent insistence, a toy for Dayden that I am certain is going to cause Pat and Angie to want to completely sever all ties with us.

I was looking at the Star Wars action figures, a safe bet, to be sure, but a pleaser nonetheless, unlike the jeans feckless Nanny bought for him last year, when my husband erupted around a corner, brandishing a large and colorful box.

"We have to get this," he said excitedly. "HE'LL LOVE IT!"

I examined the toy, which featured words on the front like SUPER-ACTION and RANGE OF TWENTY FEET and SOUND BLASTER. "Yes, I can see that Dayden will greatly enjoy this gift, but tell me....what do you have against Pat and Angie?"

"They won't mind," he said dismissively.

I thought about my brother, how under his growly exterior he hides a butter-soft heart, how he'll drop everything at a moment's notice to lend me a hand with computer or whatever; how comforting it is, somehow, to know that every work day, he's just a few blocks away at the bank, even though I really only see him once a month or so. And I thought about Angie, what a good wife and mother she is, how I don't think I could have chosen a better sister-in-law if I ordered her from Spiegel. How she can always be counted on to make you laugh or give you a hug at just the right time. And then I thought about the three kids and how I love them like my own and how perhaps a court-mandated restraining order might figure largely in our future relationship....

"There's NOTHING ELSE in this WHOLE STORE that I want to get him," my husband stated with finality. And he put the toy reverently into our cart. I hung my head and sighed.

Pat, Angie.....It was so nice knowing you. If we're still speaking next Christmas, I'll understand if you buy Meelyn and Aisling condoms and crystal meth for their holiday gifts.

'Twas the day before Christmas.....

....and all through the house, not a creature is stirring, except for me, of course. Everyone else is still a-bed, but I'm wide awake and feverishly going through a list of things that MUST BE DONE before we leave for Mass at two-thirty this afternoon, not the least of which is making sure we take with us the cheeseball, crackers and serving platter meant for our family festivities at Grandad's as soon as we get out of church. I have been haunted by dreams the past four days that I would forget that cheeseball and that we'd either show up empty handed or that we'd have to drive back home to get it and keep everyone else waiting. Gahhhh!!!

It's amazing, the things that can stress women out during the holidays.

Anyway, left on the list are gifts for Kieren, Dayden and Kiersi, which still need to be purchased and wrapped. The gifts we have for the girls also require some wrapping, although Meelyn and Aisling prefer gift bags festooned with tissue paper, which makes things easier. I think I have everything from the grocery I need, so we can avoid that particular torment. Aisling has to be at the church at three o'clock for a final practice from 3:00-3:30, with Christmas carols starting at three-thirty and continuing on until Mass starts at four. I'm glad we're getting there early, or there'd be NO CHANCE for a seat. And then on to New Castle to the assisted living center, where the family has a nice room reserved that we can all gather in to relax and eat hors d'oeuvres.

It's not even seven-thirty in the morning yet and I can already hear Hershey back there in the utility room, racketing around in his crate and grumbling to be let out. He must be afflicted with the Christmas whim-whams too, because he usually sleeps until at least nine o'clock. Wimzie is probably lying in her crate next to his and silently plotting his painful death for waking her up so early. She is, as always, full of festive cheer and abounding love for others.

Cheeseball. Cheeseball. Cheeseball......

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My favorite Christmas gift

A million years ago, when I was fourteen years old and the dinosaurs roamed the earth, Jimmy Carter was the president and the United States was suffering in the midst of an energy crisis that prompted my parents to turn the furnace's thermostat down to fifty degrees at night, and for those of you who didn't know that even the cotton balls you use to dab your Bonne Bell 10-0-6 pore cleanser on your face could be covered with a faint layer of frost, I assure you - they can.

During the day, my father turned the heat up to a balmy sixty-six degrees and told us if we got cold, we should run in place to get our congealed blood moving through our veins again.

It was during those times that I began to sense the wisdom of our pioneer foremothers, who took all seventeen of their children and sewed them into their union suits for the entire winter. While the gross-out factor of this practice cannot be overstated, I have to say that I can understand their reasoning. Because nothing -- nothing -- has ever been as cold as getting out of the shower at six o'clock on a snowy winter morning and knowing that you had gym first period, followed directly by algebra. NOTHING.

It was so cold at night that I took to wearing a sort of uniform to bed: a nightgown (my mother always favored those Lanz of Salzburg-style flannel gowns), a pair of sweatpants over some fuzzy footies, a pair of long tube socks over those, pulled up over the legs of my sweats; a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up, and gloves. It should have been to cold like Kevlar is to bullets, but somehow I always ended up freezing and having to stay huddled in one position all night long because moving my feet to a new place on the sheets was like receiving a strong electric shock.

So, shivering and blue-lipped and wearing my strange assortment of sleepwear with a bathrobe belted over it, I clapped my gloved hands when Mom handed me a large-ish sort of package, festively wrapped, on Christmas morning 1977. Pat had an identical one and I could tell he was hoping that he was getting ready to open a box of those long, orange plastic Hot Wheels race tracks, which he used as weapons to welt people who teased him about his curly blond hair. He was slightly disappointed when he realized that Mom and Dad would not have been getting me some Hot Wheels tracks because back then, I was all about Peter Frampton, so we both ripped into our presents with no clue as to what they could be.

What they were? Electric blankets. Pat's was blue and mine was pink. It was love at first sight, and as soon as I'd eaten breakfast, I pranced back to my bedroom and put it on my bed, searching the single controller for a setting that read "nuclear fusion." My bedroom, the farthest room from the furnace and possessed of only one vent, was nearly cold enough for me to see my breath, and I sat eagerly waiting for my bed to heat up, my gloved hands stuck in the kangaroo pocket of my hooded sweatshirt.

When it was finally warm, I took off everything except the nightgown and slid luxuriously between the sheets, which felt like they'd been toasted. Sooo warm. I slept for something like four hours that Christmas morning, reveling in full-bed warmth.

I kept that electric blanket until I was about twenty-six or so. Actually, I think I only got rid of it when my husband and I got married. It was pretty old by then, and it only had the one control anyway, but it was THE BEST thing while it lasted. It has always been my favorite Christmas gift.

What was yours?

A creative interpretation of the phrase "vow of silence"

Katie sent me this YouTube vid of a group of high school kids dressed as monks using flip cards to "sing" the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. Meelyn, Aisling and I watched it, doubled over and wheezing with laughter, tears of mirth streaming down our red-cheeked faces. This is truly one of the cleverest videos I've ever seen on YouTube and considering how much time I spend there reminiscing over the good old days with Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, I have seen a lot.

If this doesn't put you in the mood for Christmas, then may I suggest that your heart needs to grow two sizes and that you need to take those antlers off your dog, Max, before he hurts himself?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Festive friends

Meelyn and Aisling were invited to a friend's house on Sunday afternoon for her annual Christmas party: about ten girls gather to watch White Christmas, eat large amounts of candy, work heroically to stuff down a nice dinner, and giggle. Especially giggle. And then they eat more candy.

It's always very nice to have a pleasant get-together like this one, a happy little fête where everyone curls up with blankies to watch the classic movie and my girls hang around the mailbox every year around this time, waiting for their invitation to arrive.

From left to right in the back are Aisling, Emily, Rebecca and Meelyn; Teresa is in the front.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Rosemary bread

We're having spaghetti with mushroom ragú for dinner tonight -- it simmered on the stove all afternoon and smelled so good, so savory and rich, that I wanted nothing more than to go into the kitchen and plunge my head into the bubbling pot. A desire to keep my face unburned and oregano flecks out of my hair restrained me.

In honor of the homemade sauce, I decided to make some homemade bread to go with it ("FINALLY!" the girls exclaimed, and my husband said, "I just can't eat that stuff from the plastic wrapper anymore.") It's been about a month and I've been relying on the inexpensive sliced French bread from the Kroger bakery. It's not terrible bread, actually, but it isn't homemade either. Which is kind of a damning-with-faint-praise sort of statement, I realize, but sometimes you just have to hit the easy button.

So here is my first photo of MY BREAD, a nice, hefty no-knead milk-and-butter boule with rosemary and sesame seeds on top. The girls and I couldn't resist the yeasty aroma that it was sending forth two hours before dinner, so we sneakily cut off a couple of corners; the taste of that bread with cold butter spread on it was incredibly delicious and we all sat on the couch watching House Hunters International.

I love Christmas break!

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Yes, I know the date above this post says "Monday," but trust me, it still feels like Sunday since I am typing this at just after midnight. Advent always goes so fast, and it's at about this point in the season that I think, "Boy, I wish I'd thought to....." with about four different things I'd have liked to read or pray or whatever. Instead, I started this last week of the first liturgical season of the year with a desire to inflict physical harm on five fellow parishioners.

I hope to use this last week a little more effectively, such as in keeping myself away from all objects at Mass that might allow me to bludgeon someone from behind. Please hide the hymnals from me.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nativity track 2009

It's December 20, which is the official day of arrival for Mary and Joseph and their donkey in the little stable on top of the media cabinet. As you can see, Joseph has been out to the market and has bought a basket of fruit and vegetables and a jug of wine -- I was enchanted by those accessories when I bought this crèche years ago. You can't see the cow because she's lying down behind Joseph, saying, "No, get in front. I was in the picture yesterday." The sheep, however, are interested in the apples.

How to: Disrupt Mass in a three-pew radius

Yesterday evening, the girls and I went to the 4:30 Mass as we always do, with no indication that before we left the church, we were going to be experiencing the acid indigestion and tenseness that usually comes with trying to find a parking space at Castleton Square Mall this time of year.

Meelyn and I always sit at the back so that we can be near Aisling, who plays the piano. Any time she's not on call -- during the readings and the homily, for example -- she leaves her seat on the bench and comes to sit with us. Since we sit at the back, we're used to being around all the harried parents who are trying to keep their little ones under control, but we also see our fair share of people who just apparently wander in after suddenly remembering they're Catholics, with no intention whatsoever of participating in the Mass or even a pretense of reverence.

Two weeks ago, we sat behind three twenty-somethings, two of whom were married and one who was a guy friend of theirs. The two young married sat and whispered and giggled their way through Mass, while the guy friend texted from his cell phone as if an hour's loss of contact with the outside world might cause the collapse of everything in life he held dear. And then all three went forward to receive Communion -- because those kind ALWAYS receive Communion, don't they, while the truly decent ones stay in their seats thinking things like, "I told Marcia I'd meet her at noon but then I got held up by traffic and didn't get there until twelve-thirty. That was so thoughtless of me. I'd better not receive Communion until I can confess my sin" -- which just made me want to scream aloud in frustration, and I silently told Jesus that I hoped that decades were being shaved off my Purgatory because I managed to get through that entire hour and fifteen minutes without bashing the texter in the back of the head with my missal.

Yesterday, though, was a banner day, a truly horrible, awful day when the people in front of us, (two parents with their three vile teenage daughters) were so unbelievably rude and irreverent, I finally rose up in high dudgeon and outraged sensibilities and SAID SOMETHING....and then was afterward fervently thanked by several people sitting nearby.

The parents sat together and the girls sat in a row directly to their father's right and they spent the entire Mass fidgeting, slouching, putting their heads on their dad's shoulder (they all got up and left the nave of the church several times, rearranging their seating patterns upon their return), leaning against one another, pushing each other, giggling, playing with their cell phones. They did everything they possibly could have done at church except draw attention by standing up and raising their tops. When the oldest girl fell asleep during the homily, her sisters and her parents all laughed when she started awake by the rest of the congregation saying the Creed.

Naturally, no one bothered to lift up a hymnal. None of them said the Creed or prayed the Our Father. They did participate eagerly in the Sign of Peace, nearly knocking one another down with the effusiveness of their greetings, but ignoring everyone else in the pews around them. They whispered and giggled during the entire Consecration. When we all returned from Communion, I was kneeling there trying to focus on my prayers, but it was hard not to be distracted by the TEXT MESSAGES the oldest girl kept receiving, which made her and her sisters squeal and giggle and push one another, even as they all knelt, even as the rest of the church was wrapped in reverent silence. Except for the people in the pews around all of us, of course, where people before and behind were raising their heads to shoot indignant looks at the three girls and undoubtedly wanting to commit acts of mayhem against Mom and Dad.

I became aware of this feeling I get on rare occasions; a feeling so intense, it makes my lips numb. It only happens when I've been goaded beyond endurance, and the only way I can describe it is to say that somewhere deep inside me resides the Über-Teacher, one of the kind that keeps tissues stuffed in the sleeve of her cardigan, wears her spectacles on the end of her nose (all the better for transmitting that flinty look of terror to the back row of the classroom) and brandishes one of those wooden pointers, a handy tool for demonstrating the steps in long division or whacking a recalcitrant student's heinie with. That teacher rose up inside me as I watched those three young fools babbling and bickering and tee-hee-heeing as their stupid, useless parents sat there, oblivious.

I half stood out of my kneeling position and leaned forward so that I was approximately two inches behind the cluster of their three heads as they all looked at the oldest girl's cell phone. "Do you think the three of you could sit still and be quiet for one small moment? Because you are disturbing everyone around you who is trying to pray after Communion and your behavior is horrible," I breathed in a venomous hiss, injecting as much authoritative astringency as I could into those few words. Their three heads immediately separated and their spines became rigid, none of the three of them daring to give so much as a look to another. I abandoned my prayers entirely and sat in grim silence, JUST WAITING for one of them to look at that cell phone or giggle. Or whisper. Or in any way further violate the atmosphere of respect and devotion that should be taking place in a church after the congregation has received Communion.

I was READY.

As we were leaving the church, Meelyn asked incredulously, "Who WERE those people? I've never seen them before. Uh, THANK GOODNESS."

"I don't know who they were," I said wearily. "But I hope and pray we never see them again."

"Oh, they go here all right," Aisling informed us. "The youngest one, Chelsea, is in my Confirmation class."

Great. JUST GREAT. I mean, I realize that the Church is full of sinners, right? Because that's where we're supposed to be, receiving God's grace through our worship? I am always mindful of the old saw, "Churches are not country clubs for God's elite; they're emergency rooms for His common folk." And I believe that, I truly do. But the point is that we're supposed to be there cooperating with God's grace, not doing everything we can to reject it.

Otherwise, why bother? Why bother going if you think that you and your hellspawn children are too good to sing from a hymnal, pray the prayers or even PRETEND to kneel and pray after Communion? Why not just stay home, so that the people who are truly there to worship God and receive Jesus in holy communion aren't distracted from their prayers by the circus-like atmosphere in your pew? Just.....stay home. Sleep in. Read the Sunday papers, or in this case, take in a Saturday afternoon matinee at the cinema down the road. Don't think you're fooling God or anyone else by your presence there at Mass into thinking that you actually believe.

And if you can't bring yourselves to leave the rest of us in peace, then please AT LEAST don't mock the cornerstone of our faith by going forward to receive Communion. And don't let your dippy little teenage goofball be confirmed, either. Because I'm thinking that from her display last night? She has NO CLUE about the seriousness of the sacrament she's about to receive and you know what? I blame you, Mom and Dad. You two are the authors of the three idiots sitting with you.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Nativity track 2009

This pretty creche sits on top of our media center. It's been there for several weeks now and the cow and the sheep have been just kind of hanging out, chewing their cuds and waiting for something exciting to happen. On December 20 every year, a tired, travel-weary couple shows up and boyoboy.....from then on, there's not a dull moment. Especially what with those three kings in their outlandish hats who arrive on January 6. Fuuuuhhhreeeeeeaky. Those shepherds from the hills have never seen the like.

How to: Make a microwave heating bag

My mom got me this microwave heating bag from her church bazaar last year, I believe. Or maybe she got it when she was in Colorado? I don't know. All I know is that it is my best friend, my most beloved companion, this simple craft made of flannel, a little thread and some buckwheat hulls. There it is, posing attractively for you in my microwave.

I use it by heating it for three minutes in the microwave (it's a big bag that is probably twelve inches long, weighing two or three pounds) and then carrying it upstairs and putting in my bed, where the sheets feel like they've been refrigerated during the day. After it has warmed the place where my feet go, I arrange it along my back and I can't even tell you how comfortingly cozy it is, without the oops factor of a hot water bottle. Because sleeping on sheets that are both cold and wet? The opposite of all that is snuggly.

Here are the instructions for making a heating bag of your own, and before I tell you what they are, I want you to promise you won't be a cotton-headed ninnymuggins and heat it up for so long that it catches on fire in your microwave and burns down your kitchen or something. Keep an eye on it while it's in there. And don't nuke it for, like, fifteen minutes. Three minutes max, and three minutes is for a big heating bag like mine, not one that's the size of a Toss Across bean bag.

Here's a list of things you can use to stuff your warming bean bag:

--> Uncooked rice
--> Wheat
--> Feed corn
--> Buckwheat hulls
--> Barley
--> Oatmeal
--> Beans
--> Flax seed
--> Cherry pits

Once you've picked out whatever stuffer you want in your heating bag, pick out a nice fabric -- mine is that cute, woodsy print with the moose and the fir trees, done in a comfy flannel -- and sew a bag in whatever size you want your warmer to be. SEW IT TIGHTLY, for reasons I don't think I really need to explain. In short, this is not one of those fun projects you should let your six-year-old do with a needle and thread unless you really love sleeping on a bed of rice, like the world's biggest piece of grilled chicken.

When you've crafted the bag ON YOUR SEWING MACHINE, fill it full enough so that it can still flop around and conform to the contours of your body -- about half to three-quarters full should work -- and then sew it closed.

If your heating bag is about the size of a washcloth, you should probably only heat it for about a minute to a minute and a half in the microwave. I've heard that you can put a cup of water in the microwave to make some steam while you're heating it and that would reduce the risk of fire, I'd think. Just be sensible, you know? Work with it until you figure out the amount of time that heats the bag nicely without burning either yourself or your lovely home.

While these could be used to warm a child's bed or even a pet's bed, I wouldn't recommend using the bag as an actual heating pad for the very young or for our four-footed friends. Children's skin is so tender, and a dog may be tempted to eat the contents of the bag, although a cat would probably turn up its naughty nose.

Not in the spirit of the season

There's a family we know that Aisling sometimes babysits for: they have three adorable little boys that Aisling is terribly fond of. The mother of the family, Allie, is young and hip and super-cute, plus she's a Mary Kay consultant so Aisling admires her deeply and wishes to be a great deal like her when she herself is an adult.

Allie asked Aisling last week if she'd be available to babysit for a book group that would be meeting at the house of one of the moms we frequently see at that local moms' group we provide babysitting services for twice a month; there would be six children, Allie said, and the book group would last about two and a half hours.

It seemed like a great way to earn a little extra money before Christmas, so my husband and I agreed that Aisling could do this little job on Thursday morning, having made arrangements with her in advance for when she'd be making up the school work she'd be missing. She got up, dressed, ate a little breakfast and was at the door waiting when Allie pulled up in our driveway.

Aisling arrived home several hours later looking wild around the eye.

"How'd it go?" I asked her. "Did you earn a lot of money?"

Aisling held out her hands, displaying a crumpled ten dollar bill and two fives. "Twenty dollars. Twenty dollars for two and a half hours of work."

"For babysitting six kids?" I questioned in dismay.

"No. Not six kids. NINE kids. Nine kids under the age of six and I was supposed to keep them corralled in a playroom and there were three babies, one that was only two months old and another who screamed every time I tried to put her down, and another one who was quiet, thank goodness, and the older kids kept running out of the room every time I was occupied with the babies, which was a lot. And two of the mothers got mad at me and one had five kids of her own and she paid me FIVE DOLLARS, which is, like, fifty cents per kid per hour, and another one paid me five dollars for her two kids and two mothers didn't even pay me at all. Allie asked me how much the moms had paid me and when I told her 'ten dollars' she looked really upset and gave me ten dollars out of her wallet, even though she only had Chase there, which works out to be five dollars per hour for him, which doesn't seem fair and he wasn't even one of the naughty ones."

This made me simmering mad. As you can imagine.

When Meelyn and Aisling were little, I had plenty of opportunities to join craft groups (which I avoided anyway because of my total lack of creative talent), reading groups with serious books, reading books with light fiction, Bible studies, you-name-it. There was always some opportunity for stay at home moms out there, and most of them featured some kind of babysitting.

So I usually didn't join these things, you know? Because I had two kids and didn't really have the money in my budget to pay the babysitter fairly. Even if you really want to join something, you have to have the money to participate, so if you don't have the money, you can't. It's really very simple.

Which makes me kind of wonder about these mothers and why they think that they should feel free to enjoy a morning discussing books and eating banana-walnut bread and then totally stiffing the babysitter who was looking after their bratty kids? That is so incredibly rude, selfish and wrong. What's almost as bad is paying a babysitter fifty cents an hour per kid -- a rate that would have caused me to spit on the shoes of a mother who offered me that paltry sum when I was babysitting nearly THIRTY YEARS AGO -- for her five children, three of whom were apparently suffering from low-level demonic possession.

Two dollars per hour, per kid. That's the going rate around here. If you can't afford to pay it, then you need to stay home. That will be one of the many sacrifices you'll have to make as a stay at home mom, ladies. Don't expect a teenage babysitter to pick up your slack for you.

What women want

Yesterday, my husband took his big, festively arranged platter of Christmas cookies to work for the annual pitch-in. I have a really nice cut glass serving plate decorated with lit candles in a holly base, making it the perfect complement to all sorts of baked goods, so I placed all those different cookies on it with a definite feeling of satisfaction. That looks very nice, I told myself approvingly. Appetizing! Attractive! I wish Martha were here to see this!

He left for work at about seven-thirty, so I thoughtfully timed my first telephone call for about eleven o'clock, a time which I determined would be one in which people would want a little something sweet to go with that late morning cup of coffee; also, the sweetness would be useful in counteracting the savoriness of the meatballs in barbecue sauce and taco dip they'd been eating all morning.

When my husband answered his phone, I dispensed with the preliminaries and immediately said, "So! Does everyone like my cookies?"

His response? "Oh, yeah!" And that's all I could get out of him.

So this post is a bit of a public service announcement to any man who might be reading this -- When your wife calls to ask you if people liked the food she sent with you to work, here's what she wants to know:

1. Did anyone comment on the beauty of the goods arranged on the serving platter? Did they think it actually came from a deli/bakery and were they struck dumb with amazement when they found out that it came from the loving and talented hands of your gifted wife from her own kitchen?

2. Which treat seemed to be receiving the most approval? Since I was dealing with cookies, I'll go with that: Was it the peanut butter/oatmeal/M&M? The pretty little lemon cookies? The cream cheese drops (so cute, colored red and green and rolled in sugar)? Was it the pretzel candy in their professional-looking candy frills?

3. What was the state of the platter? One-third empty? Half empty? TWO-THIRDS??!! COME ON, GIVE ME SOMETHING TO WORK WITH, HERE!

4. When people took a bite of a cookie, you should have been analyzing their reactions and taking surreptitious notes. Was the general reaction an "Mmmmmm!!" or was it the more ambiguous, "How interesting!" Heaven forbid it was a full on "Could you hand me a napkin to spit this mess into?" Which person seemed most enthusiastic? Because that person will be getting his very own package of cookies after the holidays and I want to know what kind of treat it should feature.

5. Was everyone properly grateful, asking you to tender thanks to me, or did they just toss my hard-wrought creations down the hatch like circus peanuts? Will anyone be sending a balloon-o-gram? A singing elf? A gift certificate to Macy's?

Just a reminder, gentlemen. When your wife sends food to your work pitch-in, she expects more feedback than just a hearty, "Yeah! They liked it!" Details, please! Details! Details!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dipping buckeyes IN MY SLEEP

Yesterday I couldn't post anything because my hands were so cramped up from rolling cookies and dipping candies and making cookies into little tiny balls that I was rendered completely incapable of typing, unless I used my face. Which, by the time we'd been baking for seven hours, was an option.

What you're looking at here is two racks of Scotch shortbread dabbed with royal icing and then sprinkled with, well, sprinkles. Festive sprinkles, some shaped like snowflakes, some shaped like holly leaves and berries, some like little red balls, some like...ohhhh, never mind. And that foil-covered tray right next to them? Oh, well, THOSE would be the last of the ten thousand buckeyes we had to roll and dip and roll and dip and roll and dip and roll and.....excuse me. It was intense, and if I could be so exhausted by a day of Christmas cookie-baking, then Santa's elves really must be magical because they build toys, what? All year?

As it turns out, I am neither elfin or magical, so what everybody got from me is a great big bundle of grouchy headache by the end of the day. The only one who was still chipper was my mother, and even she was starting to crack around the edges.

Here's our list:

1. Dorie Greenspan's peanut butter/oatmeal/chocolate chip cookies, made with red and green M&Ms instead of chocolate chips. These were my husband's special request.

2. Scotch shortbread, festively decorated, as mentioned above (please pass the tequila.)

3. Buckeyes, which will be featuring in my nightmares probably until next Christmas

4. White chocolate almond bark with red and green M&Ms

5. Peppermint bark made with layered milk chocolate/white chocolate candy with crushed candy canes on top.

6. Pretzel candy made with broken pretzel sticks drizzled in melted milk chocolate and placed in the cutest little paper frill candy cups. These were, like, a million times easier than dipping an entire huge bag of tiny pretzel twists, which is what we did one year until we very nearly committed acts of violence upon one another

7. Lemon cookies, which were very easy and so good

8. Peanut butter cup thingies, those ones where you bake a peanut butter cookie in a mini muffin tin and then push a mini Reese's peanut butter cup down into it while the cookie is still warm from the oven

As I look at our list, I think we might have run a bit heavy on the peanut buttery side of things. Also if the stickiness of the kitchen floor underfoot was any indication. We have to go back tomorrow for a pick up, which means a trip to the Dollar Tree today so that we can buy some tins. And, oh yes! A platter for my husband's Christmas do at work tomorrow -- he's taking many of those peanut butter/oatmeal cookies and an assortment of others.

It was a fun day and the four of us -- Meelyn, Aisling, Nanny and I -- had a good time bonding over the peanut butter jars. Very jolly all around. Well, at least up until the last two hours.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas shop with Nan and Pop

As if it weren't exciting enough that the girls went to a Christmas dance on Saturday (right after Mass), they got to go Christmas shopping with Nanny and Poppy on Sunday morning as soon as Aisling and I got home from religious ed classes.

Nanny and Poppy treated them to lunch in order to help them get their strength up and then the three womenfolk formed this kind of tornado of shopping energy and covered the usual suspects -- Bath & Body Works, Aéropostale, Victoria's Secret and DSW -- and a bunch of others too. Which is good, since the money that my husband intended to spend on Christmas gifts went to buy that new fuel pump. Merry Christmas, girls!
Meelyn and Aisling came home breathless with excitement, interrupting each other as their words tumbled out like this "....and a new purse.....and this great perfume, that one I've been wanting....and a pair of jeans......two sweaters.......the cutest pair of shoes......five different scents of body wash......" They chattered on very happily and it was lovely to see their sweet faces so happy and animated.
For us, the days of the big, exciting Christmas bonus check are over. The Butterball Thanksgiving turkey? Totally flown the coop. The beautifully boxed Heavenly Ham, all glazed and spiral sliced? No more. The employee Christmas party with a nice dinner and free drinks? A thing of the past. But the annual Christmas shopping spree with the grandparents and the grandkidlets?
Still on!

Christmas dance

Here are Aisling and Meelyn at the Christmas dance they went to on Saturday evening, both in elegant basic black. These are the dresses I mentioned a week or so ago, saying that we found them at two different locations of the same store, one in New Castle where my parents live and the other here in our city.

Well, you know the store? It was Goodwill. And you know how much those dresses cost? Four-ninety-nine each. Only you know how much I really paid? Five-fifty. For both. Because they were on sale for fifty percent off on the day we bought them. It's something to do with the color of plastic thingie on the article of clothing, but I've never been able to figure it out. So anyway.

Two gorgeous black party dresses for FIVE-FREAKIN'-FIFTY. It was majorly exciting, but the most exciting thing of all was listening to the girls' account of the party when we were on our way home.

The most exciting thing is that this year, the boys didn't sit playing euchre, expecting the girls to come ask them to dance, which is what happened two years ago at Meelyn's first dance. And the next most exciting thing is that the boys weren't paid to ask the girls to dance, like last year. Geez. I'm trying to imagine a world where teenage boys would rather sit playing cards with one another or be cajoled through bribery in order to dance with pretty girls.

There were still a couple of adults who kept encouraging my girls to go ask the boys to dance: like most girls, my girls don't mind dancing with their friends and see no problem with doing that all evening if the boys aren't playing nice. Meelyn and Aisling have been raised the old-fashioned way and Aisling's reply to one mom's explanation that the boys were just kind of shy (oh, you mean those boys over there, wrestling around and twisting each other's nipples?) was, "Well, they're just going to have to step it up."

It was fun listening to them talk on the way home: the good time they had with their girlfriends, the boys they danced with, who was wearing a beautiful dress, which guy was the cutest, the girl who kept grabbing guys to dance with and then doing some kind of hoochie-mama swiveling grind with her hips even though her mother was right there in the room (Uh...hello? Mom? Would you mind not letting your daughter simulate sex acts on the dance floor? Thank you), the music that was played and how nice the party room sounded like a lovely evening and they both opined that they wouldn't mind doing it again next Saturday, no trouble at all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Third Week of Advent

Last week, on December 8, the Church celebrated the feast day of Mary as the Immaculate Conception. This belief has been one that is so misunderstood -- people often believe it refers to Jesus' conception instead of Mary's -- that Pope Pius IX solemnly defined it as dogma in 1854 in his Papal Bull titled Ineffabilis.

Now before I go on, let's us all remember that just because a dogma is defined at some given point in history doesn't mean that Roman Catholics just then started believing it. It simply means that the time had come for that belief to be formalized as an important teaching of the Church. Which is kind of funny, considering that the document the teaching is defined in is called a "bull." Some things just don't translate well from Latin to English, do they?

Anyway, Mary's immaculate conception is very important, considering who she was in God's plan for the salvation of mankind: she was the mother of Jesus. A big responsibility that required a special person, wouldn't you say? So special, in fact, that when God laid out His plan of salvation to the serpent in Genesis 3:15 ( "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel." -NAB), that plan was already complete. That's how God does things, which is part of the whole omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient package.

Since Mary was chosen to be the one -- the woman -- and was never part of a short list of likely candidates, the time and place and circumstances of her birth were already decided. The foreshadowings of Mary and Jesus in the Old Testament are best illustrated by the accounts and descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant was a large chest made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. The top part of the chest featured two kneeling cherubim, wings spread and facing inward; there were also gold rings cast at the four corners which held the long gold-covered poles used for transporting the Ark whenever it was moved from its place in the sanctum sanctorum.

The Ark held several articles relating to the Old Covenant: the stone tablets Moses received from God on Mt. Sinai, Aaron's staff that burst into bloom and a golden container of manna. Scholars believe that there was also a scroll of the Pentateuch contained inside, although that point is debatable. One point that isn't, though, is the holiness of this holy object.

Obviously, the contents of the ark were of enormous importance to the Hebrew people, not only symbolically, but in reality. But the actual chest itself was supposed to be a reminder of God's presence among His people. In fact, God spoke from the "propitiary", the place between the two cherubim's raised wings, during the time of Moses. God took this so seriously that only certain consecrated people were even allowed to move the ark and they had to follow some rather precise rules. During the reign of King David, the ark was brought back to Jerusalem after being captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 5, 7: 2) by ox cart. While it was being transported, the oxen who were drawing the cart stumbled and a man named Uzzah reached out to steady it so that it wouldn't tip off the cart. He immediately fell dead (2 Samuel 6: 2-7).

So it wasn't just what was in the ark that was sacred and holy. The ark itself was to be treated with reverence and honor.

That brings us to the New Testament, to the archangel Gabriel who brought a message to Mary, the ordinary-but-extraordinary Hebrew girl, who learned that she would be who the Greeks later called "theotokos," the God-bearer, the Ark of the New Covenant. Only this time, instead of being a wooden chest overlaid with precious gold, the new "ark" would be a human being. Instead of a holy object designed to the exact specifications of God, this new ark was a holy person, also designed to God's exact specifications -- the stain of the sin of Adam (original sin) was removed from her soul before her birth. And instead of holding sacred objects -- stone tablets of the Law, manna, the staff of Aaron -- this ark was designed to hold the most sacred being of all, the Lamb of God. Not just the manna from the wilderness that the Hebrew people ate of yet died, but the very Bread of Life. 1, 2, 3

Like the old ark, the new "ark" wasn't just designed to hold a sacred object - she herself was holy. Human, yes. Always human, never divine. A person, a woman, a girl. Never a goddess, never a second-string member of the Trinity, never an object of worship. But.....holy. When you consider it, it only makes sense. If two stone tablets, a walking stick and a container of manna were so important that they needed a sacred vessel to contain them, how could we believe any less of the woman who carried Jesus in her womb? Can you really imagine any less than a woman immaculately conceived in a one-time purposeful act of God as the mother of our Savior?

"Behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed": Those are Mary's prophetic words recorded in Luke 1: 46, the very words I am thinking about this Advent.

1 So they said to him, "What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"So Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." So they said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always."Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. -John 6: 30-35 NAB

2 I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?"

Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever."

These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?"
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, "Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe." Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father."

As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?"

Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God." -John 6: 48-69 NAB

3 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. -Matthew 26: 26-29 NAB