Friday, December 27, 2013

I Decorated for Christmas

Alternate title: The Laptop Hates my Pictures.  Subtitle: I Don't Really Believe in This "Blue Hour" Business, Anyway.

It didn't take as long as it looks to deck the place out for Christmas.  In fact, it probably took longer to take the pictures.  Taking the pictures was a beast.  And no one wants to look at them; Christmas is over*.  But I don't care.  (As I've recently noted, I write what I want to read.  This makes sense to me.)  I took the wretched things, and I am putting them up.  Maybe it will help me remember next year what the heck is in the decoration boxes.

We'll start in the hallway just inside the front door...because.  I think I already showed you that I switched out my usual plate display (green and florals.  Perfect for spring.  But I left it through fall) for something Christmas-y:

And then I put some nice garland on the banister:

If you were staring straight at the plate rack and for some reason you started walking backward, you'd find yourself in the living room (and shortly thereafter you would injure yourself on the couch).  Let's head there, but walking in a forward direction.  On the wall that separates the living room from the stair hall there's a huge bookshelf:

The previous owners installed it (it is not original to the house) and then I beefed up the trim a little.  And painted it.  I decorated it by strewing about some of the extra branches I got (for free) with my Christmas tree.  Doesn't get a lot easier than that:

If you pivot to the left, you can see the psychiatrist's couch and the mantel.  Also the TV, which I decorated the same way as the bookshelf:

Of course it interferes with the function of the remote control.  Why do you ask?  And, yes, I made all those stockings:

From left to right, they belong to my DH; my brother (he didn't join us for Christmas, so I shipped him his, because I am that good a big sister); Bailey (obviously); my sister (she insisted on a magenta-and-blue scheme, which I think is pretty heinous, actually); and me.  I also put a delightful Christmas vignette on the coffee table, on an antique silver tray of my mother's, with a giant scented Christmas candle and some windfall holly.  If you saw that, you would be able to see the other two walls of the living room, which would (I assume) help with that disoriented feeling I frequently get looking at house tours.  I took well over 100 pictures of my Christmas decor (don't worry, I'm not posting that many.  Half of them were total garbage).  Of course I didn't photograph the coffee table.

However, the big bookshelf picture shows a room with white chair rail and yellow wallpaper.  That room is the dining room.  We'll head there next.  It also has a mantel without a fireplace:

Kind people continue to send us Christmas cards although we don't send any ourselves.  (I have tried to discourage this, but it doesn't work.)  I throw out the ones with pictures of babies other than Jesus, and hang the nice ones:

I tried to get people not to put anything else on the mantel while the nativity scene was up there, because any other object would ruin the scale of the figurines and distract the eye from the scene.  Then I broke my own rule and set the oplatki there so I wouldn't lose them before Wigilia.  The wise men appear to be venerating them.  I decorated the adjacent china cabinet with more pine branches, and plates of cookies and fudge:

They look tastier up-close:

I'm still looking for some large decorative object for the wall above the china cabinet.  Maybe a bust of someone tasteless.  But for right now, it's a nice spot to decorate.  I remembered to light the Advent wreath most of the weeks in Advent:

And, as you see, I even got a table cloth out:

We didn't decorate the tree until Christmas Eve.  That seemed like a good balance.  But it did get done:

Bailey helped.  OK, let's see.  If you stand facing Bailey here, the living room would be to your left.  The kitchen would be to your right.  Into the kitchen, then:

Yes, I decorated the kitchen.  I am not claiming that is necessary, or even prudent.  Nevertheless.  I looked at the stove hood I made, and I saw a VACUUM where there could be wreaths.  Then I spent quite a bit of time on Pinterest, looking for how people set up horizontal trios of wreaths.  I found almost nothing.  I had already checked Houzz, and found almost nothing there.  (Possibly there are pictures of this that aren't associated with any of the search terms I tried.  I tried many.)  Undaunted, I proceeded to the craft store, where I had seen miniature wreaths.  They were sold out.  There was also a line 25 people long.  I think it goes without saying that I bought pine garland and ribbon to make my own wreaths and jolly well stood in that line.  I was sorely tempted to take the garland out of the package and have the entire project done by the time I got to the register, but decorum prevailed.  As soon as I got home, however, I attacked the stove hood with a vengeance.  I believe we can all agree that I emerged victorious:

I can explain how I got the whole setup to look like that if anyone wants to know.  It's more or less as it appears.  I also made some snowflake garland for the kitchen window:

I cut snowflakes according to a traditional Polish craft, which has the snowflakes pentagonal (actually, decagonal, if you want to get really technical about it).  I am aware that nature makes her snowflakes hexagonally.  I do not care.  I make superior paper snowflakes:

Sadly, my garland-draping skills are not likewise superior.  They were supposed to hang down from that ribbon.  Not one of my more successful efforts.  A girlfriend wisely suggested that I hang them from the ribbon with ornament hooks, and I am definitely going to get around to that.  I also decorated the other side of the room:

After I made the three mini wreaths for the stove hood, I had a bit of garland left over, so I made a wreath for the tea and coffee cupboard.  I also put a wee nativity I bought in college on a crystal cake stand with some pine branches for the prep table:

I think it's sweet.  I tried to go with a "use what you have" philosophy.  I'm not claiming that I didn't buy anything (the materials for the stove hood wreaths cost about $10, for example, and I bought a strand of plain white lights, four plain fake-pine wreaths, fabric for stockings, a tree, a package of peacock feathers, and some batteries).  But I spent very little on decorations, and the vast majority of what I used was either snipped from nature, dug out of my Christmas decoration boxes, or things in the china cabinet that I should be using more anyway.  So, for the last wall of the kitchen:

The branches eventually flopped over and started depositing needles into food that was being inserted in or removed from the microwave.  I considered this a festive garnish.  We all need more fiber in our diets.  And, as I think the photo of my snowflake garland indicates, the kitchen looks out onto the enclosed porch:

I happen to have cheap red and green fleece blankets already, so I just popped those over the bench on the porch.  And I picked up a galvanized bin at a thrift store and filled it with the wood for our fire pit and scooted that underneath the bench.  I also put (what I thought was) a cute little vignette on the porch table:

The white cloth is one of many vintage family linens that's the wrong size for my dining table.  The red runner (a darker red than this picture shows) is a pashmina.  I put some collected pine cones and scraps of tinsel in a crystal vase, popped red and white candles in a silver-plate candelabra I got at a thrift store, and filled crystal wine glasses with Hershey's kisses.  The glasses were raided when my sister arrived and made peanut butter blossoms or whatever they're called.  I ate the last one today, by the way.  At the far right edge of that picture, you can see the open door to the powder room.  The powder room that I'm always going on about:

I still want an enormous taxidermied moose head for that blank wall.  But for Christmas, I settled for a tinsel wreath.  I took, I think, 15 pictures of it.  This is actually the best:

Tinsel is unexpectedly difficult to photograph.  Let me just assure you that it is MUCH more sparkly than that in real life.  Also, I am aware that there is a certain (large) amount of lunacy inherent in decorating a bathroom.  That's why I decided to keep it to a single (albeit rather pronounced) decorative item.  This is probably the right time to tell you that I also decorated the bathroom upstairs:

I used snowflake garland up here, too.  I had already installed the unsuccessful kitchen snowflake garland, so this time I went with much more cooperative ribbon.  But I'm not satisfied with this one, either.  Upon reflection, I have concluded that while my snowflake garland is magnificent, there's simply not enough contrast with the pale blue bathroom walls for the viewer to appreciate fully the snowflakes' loveliness upon a mere casual observation:

You may be assured that I will remedy this error next year.  Anyway, returning to the enclosed porch.  You probably noticed the icicle lights:

This was, in my view, one of my more successful decoration installations.  The icicle lights (two strands) had actually been sitting unused in my Christmas bins for years (because I have had them since my freshman year of college.  These are some impressive lights), because I couldn't figure out where in our house to deploy them.  This use had several benefits: no ladder required; lights not exposed to elements; access to indoor electrical outlet; perfect length for the enclosed porch; festive appearance along windows; and (best of all), equally enjoyable from outside:

So I get credit for having Christmas lights up without setting foot outside!  I was very pleased.  Of course, I did not stop there.  I popped through the gate to hang a jingly Christmas object on the other side:

And I put blue twinkly lights in the laundry room window.  Which you can't see:

From this perspective, either:

Nor this one, really:

Upon reflection, I think the problem is precisely that they are twinkly lights.  They don't stay on very long before winking out again.  And in low light (these pictures were taken during the "blue hour"), the shutter has to stay open a while to get enough light for a picture (as I demonstrated over and over again with pictures striped with Christmas lights.  Apparently my hands shake a lot).  I should have turned the blue lights on the steady setting while I took the pictures.  This sounds really obvious, doesn't it?  I was totally mystified at the time.  Anyway, if you walk away from the house and down the driveway, you can see the gate I built.  I put wreaths on it:

Don't tell anyone, but I am considering getting larger ones for next year.  That would be excessive, wouldn't it?  Larger ones wouldn't even fit in my bins.  Ah, well.  Anyway, if you head back up the driveway and around to the front of the house...

I hung a wreath on each window, with a candle behind it.  (The wreaths are on the outside; the candles are inside the house, so I can plug them into an outlet.  I stole the setup idea from Susan, who is brilliant, obviously.)  They insist upon twisting themselves around in the wind:

And I got the wreath on the front door:

Ignore the pile of cornstalks from Hallowe'en.  They're not important.  I eventually got my peacock feathers, too:

I fear the fabulousness of my wreath design may be too subtle to be appreciated except at extremely close range.  As in, a lot closer than the road driving by.  Something else to work on for next year.  What can be appreciated by passing cars are the lights:

I know this because - imperiling life and limb in the selfless pursuit of Christmas decoration excellence - I climbed up on my neighbor's extension ladder and nailed a strand of lights along the porch roof.  (I note that this is not actually particularly perilous, especially compared to the antics that must have been required to install some of my more ambitious neighbors' light displays, but I am afraid of heights, and anything involving an extension ladder is a serious undertaking in my book.)  As I was getting the last few nails in, the strand flopped off the first several nails.  By this time I was tired and it was dark.  I was displeased.  I
hopped the ladder sideways Clark W. Griswold-style meticulously placed and re-placed the ladder a dozen times until I found a spot of ground where it did not rock at all and climbed wearily up to re-hang the recalcitrant strand (by now lit, since I had hooked the lights up to the extension cord when I got to the far end), and as I fiddled with the last few nails, a kind lady in the far lane leaned out of her car window to shout, "THAT LOOKS VERY PRETTY!"  I managed not to pitch myself off the ladder to certain death as I shouted back, "THANK YOU!"  This obviously is a person who had recently climbed a ladder to hang Very Important Christmas Lights of her own, and understands the sacrifice involved.  And I fervently hope that since I now have the nails in, this takes a fraction as much time next year.  (And don't even get me started on those "fits everything" light clips.  Yes, I got some.  And the ones that claim to fit gutters and a dozen other things don't come close to fitting my gutters.  Nails, on the other hand, actually fit everything, by virtue of the sharp part at the end.)

I know no one is reading this; indeed, it would be miraculous if anyone made it past the first picture.  But the internet now bears witness to my great decorating feats of 2013.  May this year be only the start of my conquest.

Ooh - and I'm sharing at Thrifty Decor Chick and Between Naps on the Porch!  Lots of other great projects (and recipes) there, too, so check out the links if you're looking for inspiration! 

In fact, this is not remotely true.  Christmas only started two days ago, and will go on for another ten.  And my decorations will remain up at least that long.  In blogland, however, Christmas appears to have started in early November.  I am working on a theory on this basis that blogging is sacrilegious.  Your thoughts welcome.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Yes - merry infertile Christmas. (Why does my auto-correct want "inferrt..." to be corrected to "intertribal"?)

I have a link on my sidebar to an article on being childless at Christmas, which has been there forever but I want to draw attention to. It's brilliant. It's important. If you haven't read it, read it. I need to read it again.

And - also - with reference to the pain management lecturer I mentioned two posts ago - there is another side. We all carry crosses. Some people's crosses are large enough to define their lives more or less entirely. But they never have to. You can understand how someone could be "that poor woman undergoing chemo," but you can also understand how the same woman could be, "the lady who makes those delicious cookies. Oh, yes, that's a wig! She has a bunch of different ones. She's undergoing chemo right now." And I'm pretty sure you can imagine "that poor couple with no kids" versus "the people who take the crazy RV trips" or "the folks on the corner who throw the BEST parties" or "you know, the Smiths - they're at the soup kitchen bright and early every Saturday morning." If you cry, they'll assume you have reason. If you smile, they'll assume you have reason for that, too. So, have a reason. Live the hell out of your life. 

I know (believe me, I know) that this really is not possible in the middle of infertility treatment. In that stage, you're buried in a grueling schedule of drugs and appointments and timed relations. If you weren't already crazy, that burden would push you over the edge; and if you manage to hang on by your fingernails, the hormone supplements will kick you right off the cliff. That's the road to Calvary, truly; ain't nobody smiling there. But let me offer a word (well, many words) of unsolicited advice. Don't live there any longer than you have to, OK? Figure out what you want to do, how aggressive you want to be, knock it out. I promise you, if you have a rigorous 18-month treatment plan, it will still take you five years - that you can't have back. And maybe in that time you'll get pregnant, in which case the time will all seem worth it. But maybe you won't. And if you don't, that article raises some excellent points. As long as you (and the people around you, on your behalf) look at you and see the empty space for the baby you wanted, nobody has much of any hope for a joyful life to offer you. But there IS hope. You just have to step further on. 

Remember that you had a life before treatment - and that was just based on five or ten years of being your adult self. And there are DECADES more. Be you. Be everything you want to be - and if your response is "but ALL I want to be is a mother," then you need to have a word with yourself (it may take a year or so), because that isn't true, and there are doubtless lots of women (and men) you admire for reasons having nothing to do with parenthood (and plenty of people whose parenting you do NOT admire), and you have a whole life and lots of good things to do with it. Do them. Carpe vitam. We all only get one. And for those who also receive the blessing of new life - that isn't your life, but somebody else's (as I'm sure all healthy parents - which doesn't include mine - keenly understand). And unless you decide to squash that person's healthy development, the dreams lived out in that life will be someone else's. The only life you have for living out your dreams, big or small, is yours.

This year, I decided I would be the gal who made stockings (and dozens of cookies, and decorated excessively, and made two Christmas dinners - one fish for Vigil, and for today, lamb. It was on sale). I also took pictures of my decorations to share in the blog tour of homes and the evil camera and/or evil computer would not load them. Maybe I will post them still. I don't have any pictures of empty cribs (because I don't own a crib. Don't make your life needlessly difficult), but I have a picture of a tinsel wreath in the bathroom, and of my sister getting the dog to wear a dog-shaped stocking on her paw. (The dog's, not my sister's. My sister doesn't have paws. This is where I would type "#funwithpronouns" except that even after dozens of TV ultrasounds I still have some self-respect.)

The bottom line? Handel put it well (though of course he didn't come up with it. Hey, I'm not that original, either):


That's you. Merry Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

make fudge in ten minutes

You're running around, scrambling to buy that last online present today, because you thought you were ahead (Christmas is over a week away, and you've already bought 90% of your gifts), and suddenly your old faithful online retailers are threatening you that things may not arrive by Christmas unless you select super-duper-magic shipping - whaaaat??? - and you still have to clean the house and make food for the week and plan a menu for Christmas and wrap the presents and put up some more decorations and buy a tree and do at least one adorable cute Christmas thing and you haven't even STARTED baking cookies oh good grief.

But I am here to help.  (Actually, I cannot be trusted in any way, unless maybe you call me personally, because I would feel guilty about betraying you under those circumstances, but I am totally willing to betray the internet at large, mostly with psyops, because it's the internet and it deserves it.  However, I use my own prior blog posts as a recipe file - whenever I get one fine-tuned that I'll want to use again and haven't got memorized yet, I put it on the blog; my approach to blog content is strictly: What do I want to read? - so you run the risk that I'm a lousy cook or a lousy editor, but I would never deliberately post an inaccurate recipe.  Don't you feel better already?  Merry Christmas.)

In general, candy is more difficult and time-consuming to make than cookies.  Therefore, if you make candies, you somehow automatically get more moral credit than if you make cookies.  The Joy of Cooking even explains that truffles are the easiest candy to make (and I have now made hundreds of truffles, and I can assure you that they are actually easier than Joy's recipe would make them.  But they will still take you 12-14 hours.  And no, I would not lie about something this important), driving this point home most forcefully.  (Of course you could come up with a cookie recipe that would take 20 hours, but those would be difficult cookies, whereas truffles are easy candy - see?)  But Joy forgot something.

Fudge is also candy, and it's infinitely faster and easier to make than truffles.  I always thought it was time-consuming and difficult (and with some recipes, I am sure this is true), so I had actually never made it myself, but last year I stumbled on an easy fudge recipe from another blogger (whose identity I have unforgivably forgotten) and it changed my life.

And since then, I have made her recipe even easier.  That's just the kind of person I am (lazy).  So if the idea of making even one large batch of cookies seems an enormously daunting task, then you don't love cookies as much as I do.  Ahem.  What I meant to say was, if the idea of making even one large batch of cookies seems an enormously daunting task, what if I told you you could have a delicious batch of sweets that would get you all kinds of credit for domesticity but are gluten-free, don't require you to haul out the mixer, have four ingredients, don't need baking, and will dirty only one dish and one spatula, and you could finish them in less time than it has already taken you to read this truly endless blog post about something ludicrously simple?  (Polonius wasn't real and I don't have to listen to him.)  That's what I thought.

Here's what you do.  I'll write it out in my Dickensian prose, and it will still be short.  Ready?  

Take a rectangular-ish glass baking dish approximately 9" by 9".  Pour in two twelve-ounce bags of semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips.  Shake them level.  Pour over them one fourteen-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk.  Spread it around sort of evenly; no need to be overly precise.  Drip 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract over this, and then shake on 1/8 teaspoon salt.  Pop the dish in the microwave on high for one minute.  Distract yourself with something else for a few minutes.  Suddenly remember the fudge, and then put it in for another minute on high.  Take it out and mix it to evenness with a rubber spatula.  Take special care to turn over the very bottom so there is no un-mixed sweetened condensed milk hiding down there.  Pop it in to refrigerate for two hours.  Thereafter, it can be kept at room temperature, and it is at this point that you can cut it into squares and put them on a cute plate.  

If this isn't complicated enough for you, you could divide the batch in half after the microwaving, and combine one half with 1/8 teaspoon peppermint extract, just for kicks.  Try cutting that one in a different shape after it's cooled, so people don't have to smell each piece before they decide which one they want.


Friday, December 13, 2013

just being well

Recently I had a visit from a friend.  Her life has been all over the place (literally, all over the country) for some time now, so I was glad to have a chance to sit down with her and hear what she's been up to.  It turns out that, in addition to everything else, she has tinnitis - a condition (of various and sometimes unknown cause - that strike a chord with anyone?) that entails constantly-ringing ears.  Including at night, so she can't sleep - the most sleep she's gotten in at least a year is four hours in a night. 

She went through a battery of tests to figure out what the cause was.  (The last doctor in a long series gave her a "We think that it might have been caused by . . . which could perhaps have come about as a result of . . . and may resolve itself eventually I think, but there's no telling when . . . ."  And that was the guy with a clue.  Can't imagine anyone else has had an experience like that!)  During that time, the folks at the VA (she's a military veteran) put her through a battery of services based on every imaginable theory of the cause.  Apparently (and I think this is pretty cool), the VA has "classes" for various issues - apparently some kind of cross between lecture/information presentation and group therapy.  It's not the same as psychiatric treatment and certainly not medical treatment.  But honestly, isn't this something so many people could use, in so many areas of life?  (Is this sort of like what Resolve does?  I don't subscribe to all of their ideas, and I've not been to a meeting, but I think it's great that they offer what they do.) 

Anyway, they put her in a class for people with mental disorders (perhaps the ringing was all in her head), and in another one for people with PTSD.  (She said that it was traumatic just listening to what the other participants - mostly women - had been through, but when they came to her, she could only say, "No, nothing like that.  Never felt inclined to barricade myself in my home.  It's just that my ears are ringing - I've been trying to tell you!") 

Finally, they put her in a class for people with chronic pain.  She was skeptical of that one, too.  The instructor, a man, told the participants to write down their life's major goals in a few words - something at the level of breadth that one would want on one's tombstone.  (So, not "bake twelve dozen cookies by Christmas," but "spend as much time as I can with the people I love."  You get the idea.)  After the participants thought about and discussed their goals, the instructor asked them to think about and write down what they could do to move in the direction of that goal. 

My friend's response: "I can't move in the direction of my goals, because I have this ringing in my ears, so I can't sleep, so I can't remember anything, so I CAN'T FIND MY CAR!" 

She was kidding, of course.  Obviously she has a literal problem moving forward, but he was trying to get the people with chronic pain (and chronic ringing) to think in a new way.  For one thing, they spent all their time thinking about exactly one thing: the pain, and how they could get it to stop.  All their mental energy was devoted to solving one problem, the problem they defined as an obstacle to every other good thing in life.  Eventually, life reduced itself to simply a battle with the pain. 

(I want to note here that I don't mean to belittle the debilitating effects of chronic pain.  I suffer it sometimes, with the endo.  But I know there are much worse forms.  And I think it will become clear that I identify with this problem.) 

The instructor asked the class to stop defining their lives in terms of the pain they suffered, and the things that they (as a result) could not do.  The ordinary daily chores that they would have done but for the pain, the project they would have finished (or started) but for the pain, everything about the pain and what it meant they couldn't do.  And to take a step further back - so, the stay-at-home mom who's a brilliant cook and wants nothing more than to host a big Thanksgiving dinner for her whole family: an attainable goal, even a humble goal - but for the pain that makes her so exhausted she could never do all the cleaning and cooking necessary for such an undertaking.  She needs to let go of hosting Thanksgiving dinner (and oh, what a letting go that would be).  And accept that she may have to order rotisserie chickens, or let someone else cook the food, or even have the dinner at someone else's house, because - her fundamental personal goals are not to show off how well she can baste a turkey, but to build community for the family she loves.  She can do that from the sofa.  She doesn't want to.  But she can.  And if she chooses to create community from the sofa, she can achieve the most important things to her in life, in spite of the pain.  If she never lets go of cooking the Thanksgiving meal, she will achieve nothing.  In that case, she lets the pain define her life, instead of deciding herself what she wants her life to mean. 

Annoyance at losing her car aside, my friend signed onto this fellow's theory.  Though she's not in pain, she found it applied to her life as well.  And, she said, when she decided to proceed with living her life - not spend all her time praying novenas and seeing doctors in hopes that the ear-ringing would stop, but going and doing the other things she would have wanted to do if her ears hadn't been ringing (even if that means a less ambitious to-do list to account for the fact that she is always tired) - she didn't notice the ringing so much.  It didn't go away.  It didn't get quieter.  But it didn't bother her as much as when she spent all her mental energy fighting it. 

I was blown away by all of this.  Technically, I suppose, nothing the fellow said was earth-shattering.  It's all sensible and logical and consistent with what I already think about the living of a meaningful life and the carrying of crosses and all of that.  But he wrapped it all up in one neat little meaningful package - a package of brilliance and wisdom that I need engraved on my eyelids so that I never forget it. 

I'm happy to say that these are things that (in a fragmented way, not in the wise and far-seeing way he presented it) I had actually already started thinking about.  In the last few years of fertility treatment, I started trying to sort out my muddled head by asking myself questions like, "What is it you really want?  And why?"  It was much too easy, of course, to reflexively answer the first question with something like, "A baby," or "To be able to [!] get pregnant," or "Not to be infertile," and the second question with, "BECAUSE."  But even then I knew that that was not an answer. 

At some point I started coming to clarity that what I wanted was a family.  I had never wanted a baby anyway - I wanted maybe a dozen.  I always balked at the idea of having one baby as winning in the IF wars.  (I am not criticizing mothers of only children.  I hope it's clear that my point was sorting out my goals.)  And finally it hit me that I didn't care whether I had a baby - or multiple babies - at all, though I had let myself become confused into thinking that was what I wanted.  I wanted a family; adults would be fine.  And they didn't have to be related to me.  Indeed, people all over the land have realized, long before me, that a loving and genuine community is a blessing, and it needn't consist of a mom, a dad, and their ___ children, plus one dog, one cat, two SUVs, and a white picket fence.  Deep in the throes of infertility treatment and repeated failures and depression and desperation and misery, we believe that's what a family is, and, indeed, what a family has always been.  Not to knock picket fences (I love them), but even within the Christian tradition, "family" looks like that for a minority of people in a minority of places for just the smallest little bit of history.  Indeed, throughout human history, family looks like almost everything else.  It's the people who need you and whom you need now, today, where you are, whether they need a shoulder to cry on or a plate of hot food or someone with whom to share life's joys.  Or whether you need any or all of those things.  You will.  We all will.  And if you have small children, then those people are definitely your family, because they need you and they can't fend for themselves.  That's an obvious one, but we can't get mentally lazy and stop there. 

So for me, the goal is clear: be part of a loving family.  (Wow.  I've never made it that succinct until this minute.  And put like that, I know I have every reason in the world to have that goal - because I had a broken ugly dysfunctional family growing up.  There's lots of things I'd like to do, and probably many of them I will accomplish; but this one is the essential.)  And I have the chronic illness (infertility), and the classic reflexive response: I can't move toward my goal, because the obvious concrete step is to have a baby, and then after that another baby, and this illness is preventing me.  And the response of this instructor is so elegant: what can you do, starting from where you are, to move toward your goal?  Things you can do.  I can't have a baby.  But there are about a thousand things I can do.  Over the last few years, I've started to look around the edges of the infertility and go about doing them. 

I need to stop asking myself what I can't do because of the infertility (well, we all know what that is), and even what I can do in spite of the infertility, and move on into - what can I do?  Maybe this blog shouldn't be "just being infertile," but "just being while infertile." 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I did more stuff, not including making spinach dip (on this particular occasion)

Yesterday there was a snow day because ridiculousness (the snow was so beautiful - when I woke up [after going back to bed and sleeping in!!] giant flakes were still falling - but then it got too warm in the afternoon and it all MELTED.  Also, the roads were not really impeded.  The city is ludicrous).  I had mentally set myself a to-do list for the day Just In Case.  It included:

(1) Add another coat of paint to the cabinet I just hung in the laundry room.  (I'm redoing my laundry room.  But I'm not showing you pictures.  Thbbbppt.) 

(2) Hang the doors on the cabinet after the new paint dries. 

(3) Put the hardware on the cabinet doors. 

(4) Put away the laundry I folded the day before. 

(5) Make a big batch of pasta using the pork I roasted the night before.

(6) Wash all the "big dishes" and load the "small dishes" into the washer. 

(7) Fill the steam cleaner I borrowed up again and go over my car upholstery one more time. 

(8) Print the sheet music for the Christmas carols for which our friends (host of the upcoming huge awesome Advent party) don't have sheet music yet.  (I also made the carol books.  They're fantabulous.) 

(9) Get the Christmas wreaths and candles up in the front windows, and the wreath on the porch.  (Note: the peacock feathers appear to be shipping at ground speed from Shanghai.  I guess I'll have them on next year's door wreath.  It looks fine with just the pine cones.) 

(10) Decorate the banister, hang icicle lights on the sun porch, and put mini trees in the bedrooms.  And start putting out little spots of Christmas stuff in other rooms. 

(11) Do something relaxing. 

(12) Eat only a moderate amount of the homemade dark chocolate ice cream I just finished. 

I did everything on my list.  I know, right?  I don't think that's ever happened to me before.  Of course, I later realized that there were other things that should have been on my list and weren't, but I can't count that because then it would not be humanly possible to finish any list of any kind ever.  ("And I should have prayed ten Rosaries...and...") 

It turns out that the secret to continuing productivity is to get the big jobs done as early in the day as possible so that the end of the day is saved for the relaxing; and, when the momentum starts to fade, have some chocolate ice cream and immediately throw yourself into the next task.  That last part is very important.  It's why a diet and a happy life are incompatible.  (I'm still working the bugs out of that theory.) 

Of course, there's still some more Christmas decorating I need to do.  (I shoved a small stack of colored lights and a pile of pine-colored tinsel and two giant strands of silver tinsel into a pile while I meditated on what to do with them.  I have, indeed, now come up with something.  MORE SPARKLES.) 

For my "do something relaxing," I waited until my husband was working elsewhere than the living room, took over the TV, and started on a marathon of Martha Stewart's Christmas series on hulu.  That woman is out of her mind, you know?  Her empire-building is amazing to me.  And her incredible business focus.  And her ability to take total, crippling OCD and market the daylights out of it.  Also, her total and absolute incompatibility with any guest she invites on.  Whatever the opposite of making people feel at their ease is - she has that.  It's hilarious to watch.  Also - obviously - her cooking and decorating skills are legendary.  Her house is stunning.  Her Christmas celebration is over-the-top. 

It's actually a great antidote to looking at a lot of decorated homes on the internet, for me, because whatever I see Martha do, I automatically think to myself: "You don't need to do that."  I was feeling a smidge guilty about buying fake-pine wreaths and embellishing them so I wouldn't have to pay for pine garland, or make it into a wreath (which is a pain - I have done it, though definitely not to Martha's standard), or redo the work every year.  Then I saw Martha make wreaths out of arbor vitae, and ribbon poinsettias.  She openly admitted it would take hours.  (For her, and she's got some DIY chops.)  And I felt fine.  I don't need to make fresh wreaths.  I'll have a live tree; that's fine. 

Then today I got an email from Home Depot (I keep thinking that I'll win one of these amazing giveaways on teh internets and signing up for newsletters because they'll have some mysteriously great idea, and they never do) and it included a spinach dip recipe from Martha herself (allegedly).  Which is semi-amusing coming from HD, but, hey, they sell ovens and stuff.  Anyway - I felt bad for Martha.  She has multiple ludicrously gorgeous homes, each four times the size of my humble cottage, and a staff to keep them looking smashing, and her own line of paint colors (tell me that would not be fun), but I can tell that my spinach dip is much better than hers.  And I came up with it all by myself (with obvious inspirations; I'm not that original) and it's easier to make.  Ready?  You will need:

10 oz. frozen chopped spinach
8 oz. cream cheese (Neufchatel is fine)
4-6 oz. shredded cheese (Monterey Jack, Swiss, sharp cheddar - something you like that melts well)
1 medium-large white onion
4 oz. imitation crab or salad shrimp (cooked, de-veined, and shelled)

Thaw and warm up your spinach.  Oh, and thaw your imitation crab or salad shrimp, too, if it's frozen.  While your microwave is doing all the hard work, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Then chop your onion into small dice.  Cut up your shrimp or crab into small pieces, too, if it's not already.  Mash the shrimp, onion, cream cheese, and spinach together with a fork in an oven-safe dish (I use a pie plate).  You can add some Old Bay or another favorite seasoning, too, if you like.  Smooth out the top when everything is combined, and sprinkle a good layer of cheese on top.  Pop in the oven for about half an hour, or until the cheese is golden.  Serve with bread rounds or sturdy crackers. 

Hope you're all having a wonderful Advent!! 

Sunday, December 1, 2013


He's coming!

I am ludicrously on top of things this year.  In addition to hosting Thanksgiving, and roasting my first-ever turkey (which I failed to totally ruin despite a grave betrayal by one Alton Brown - we're not speaking, Alton), and now having mostly cleaned up the mess, and finishing Christmas stockings for my brother and sister by this morning, and starting to buy Christmas presents already (just a few, and nothing during the door-buster deals, which occurred while I was sleeping), I have my Advent wreath up on the first day of Advent, for the first time in my life.

However, apparently that little lecture I gave myself at the store a week ago about how I did not need new Advent candles "just in case" and I was greedy and materialistic and buying everything in sight just because of an excess of holiday enthusiasm - was misplaced.  Looks like I could have used another set.  Next year.

I also put out the Nativity:

My little answer to the internet's proliferation of "holiday mantels."  (And, apparently, my answer to good interior photography.  Sigh.)  Note that all the other little figures are reverencing an empty manger at this point:

Baby Jesus will be hanging out in the punch bowl in the china cabinet until December 24th.  I know that's how He'd want it.  I also did one or two other things.  I switched out the green-and-floral theme in my plate rack for a Christmas one:

Sorry the color reads so poorly.  (It wasn't even dark yet, and this is next to a window.)  The dessert plates are clear blood-red glass (from a red glassware collection my mother started for me when I was little - she's an odd one); the candy dish and candlesticks are green glass (from some things my husband's grandmother had); the ironstone is of course off-white (a set my mother collected that's going to my sister whenever she's able to take it with her); the wall behind them is a pale mint green; the holly sprig (which I picked up during a Thanksgiving morning jog) is in there provisionally, until I figure out how it would look nicest; and the Infant of Prague was a gift from my lovely prayer buddy one of these years (still very much loved).  The plate rack is on an odd spot of blank wall at the bottom of the stairs:

And I've started working on my front door wreath.  Like the wreath around the Advent candles (and the pair I just hung on the gate), it's a 24" jobber from A.C. Moore (I seem to spend a lot of time there lately), now on sale for $3.33.  They're not fluffy, they're fairly flat, but for hanging-on-things and for sitting-under-the-Advent-candles purposes, this is ideal.  And the fake fir is pretty good.  I decided that the front door one needs to be jazzed up a bit, so I wheedled my husband into picking up bunches of windfall pine cones for me while jogging, and then I painted the edges gold and tied them into the wreath:

A little subtle glamour.  (In electric light, the gold edging is fairly difficult to see.)  I've also bought a package of peacock feathers I'm going to tuck in around the wreath, in further pursuit of the natural/glamour look.  (It seems to me that the gold-painted-pine-cones-and-peacock-feathers wreath appeared in my brain fully formed, but if I could run a slide show of my subconscious, I'm pretty sure I could figure out what things I've seen in the past few weeks that made me think of doing this.  I'm claiming that that's evidence that looking at ten thousand images of holiday pretties that you have no intention of buying is an extremely productive use of time.)

I will be sure to show off the finished product in case anyone might want to try this idea.  The early stages were pretty easy - gold-edging seven or eight pine cones takes a bit of patience, but it's pretty easy to tie them onto the wreath with thread, and I think tucking in the feathers will be even easier.  I just can't decide yet whether it needs a bow.

Bizarrely, I seem to have an enormous amount of mental energy and focus hanging about, and I'm dumping most of it into holiday decorating and - I predict - baking.  Obviously, I adore Christmas.  But this is the first year I can recall myself turning into all of Santa's workshop by December 1.  I guess we were just getting settled into being married (and moving constantly, plus we were broke), before we moved to DC.  Then I spent those next few years doing fertility treatment.  My thyroid was too low and I was depressed and exhausted and miserable - and didn't even realize it.  The first Christmas in this house was three months after we moved, and I was overwhelmed getting settled in and trying to paint and furnish every room in the house.  Last year...oh, yeah, last year I was trying to remodel a kitchen while teaching myself how to remodel and make cabinets, and working full-time, and ridiculously sick until right before Christmas.  This year we've already had the big party, and pulled off Thanksgiving pretty well.  The only house project I have to do before Christmas (I have promised myself) is redo the laundry room, which is pretty easy as these things go - find a chest that fits under the pantry cabinet (extremely difficult, so far), remove the horrible under-washer/dryer drawers, remove the wire shelving and replace with a cabinet (already painted and waiting to go in), repaint the walls and ceiling, et voila!  New laundry room.

That leaves plenty of time for wreaths and candles in all the front windows (soon), icicle lights on the porch and garland on the banister (next weekend), mini trees in the bedrooms, garland in the living room, and some sort of nonsense in the kitchen (the weekend after), and a real tree in the dining room (the weekend after that), and lots and lots of baking.  Query: do I need Christmas decorations in the bathrooms?  Something to ponder.

Today at Mass, I said a prayer of thanksgiving for so much energy and feeling so healthy and so good.  Sure, I have ten-and-counting pounds to lose before I feel like myself again (or fit most of my clothes), and my hormone levels are still wacky from the depo, making it a crazy battle to lose even a pound.  But I can run for miles and not get tired.  I sprint up the escalators in the metro (and glower at the backs of people in front of me who walk them).  Even though I tend to throw myself into frenzy by setting impossible goals for entertaining, I've actually been meeting them, without any kind of breakdown.  There have been so many years I would have killed for this, and didn't even know what I was missing or what was wrong with me or why I felt so bad.  There are far more serious things in life for people to pray for, and bigger goals at which to throw energy and good health, but this one is important to me and I am so, so grateful.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

the year the misfit made stockings

I know I raised a great dilemma of Christmas stockings. As I shared, I had had the brilliant idea to make stockings out of pashminas. I was going for something a little like this:

Then I didn't find appropriate pashminas at the first place I looked, and suddenly the momentum of the project lurched out in a different direction and had not been reined in before I actually purchased fabric, which means it will never be reined in and we'll never know where I might have gone next if I had thought about it more. 

Except that I think I would still have done what I did, because I'm pretty sure it's awesome, but we'll see. 

And this bit (about the momentum and the buying of the fabric and the execution of the project) prompts a digression which will make this post endless but which, to me, right now, seems both relevant and important. 

On the one hand, I intensely dislike the excessively early preparation for Christmas.  The day after Hallowe'en, I stopped by a local plaza to pick something up, and a few store employees were hanging pine garland around some big store entrance columns.  Thanksgiving was a month away.  And it's getting worse every day, and it's still far enough before Thanksgiving that I haven't finished my menu, and I am hosting, and yes, of course, I plan my menus excessively in advance.  But there is excess, and there is excess, OK? 

And I adore Christmas and I get excited for it way in advance, so I support that, but the problem that all of this excessively early anticipation by retail outlets is, of course, the motive (and yes, I know I am only the ten millionth person to make this point).  They do this because they want us to buy more stuff.  They care naught for the reasons.  Horrifyingly, it works - even on me.  But I am offended - at myself - because the manipulation by a lot of atheist or (more likely) anti-Christian corporations actually leads me to increase their year-end sales volume by evoking ideas that suggest to me an even better way of celebrating something that's been incredibly important to me my entire life, for the obvious reason that

Christmas is His birthday - you hadn't heard?  I can see how you might have missed it.  It often seems more like the Federal Day of Remembrance of Buying a Lexus with a Red Bow, Because You Love Them.  (When my husband growls at the Kay Jewelers commercials about how they should be making a pendant that commemorates the lives of small African children spent in diamond mines, you know it's gone pretty far.) 

And the Catholic tradition specifically recognizes Christmas as so extremely important that we ought to set aside time to prepare for it spiritually.  For which purpose there is a four-week season of penance (yes!) and preparation, to ensure that our hearts are really ready (well, as ready as they can be) to receive the newborn babe who was sent to suffer and to die, for the salvation of all the world.  Also known as Advent (from the Latin "advenit" - "He arrives").  Put THAT on a cubic zirconium pendant and smoke it, writers of obnoxious commercials.  So the celebration of Christmas during Advent (i.e., at any time before the Christmas Vigil on the evening of December 24th) is unacceptable.  And celebrating it before Advent is simply unthinkable.  Making (and blogging about making) Christmas stockings in November is obviously contributing to a significant problem, which is near the top of my (long) list of personal pet peeves.  

But there is another side to this coin.  That other side is contained in an extremely large basket in a closet with my sewing machine.  It's all the fabric that I've bought for projects that I started but never finished.  In a different closet, I have two stretched canvases and a set of unopened watercolors and oil paints - the real ones - and a 15% finished sketch from a photo I took on my trip to Warsaw with my siblings.  It would be an awesome painting, if I ever finished it (er - started it), and if I remembered my painting skills, which were decent (though not exceptional) when I learned 10th 1996.  That year is only getting further away while the canvases sit in the closet.  I comfort myself with the thought that I am not the only person with this issue, and by telling myself that in fact I finish so many things (anyway, it always seems like that at the time). 

So actually making the Christmas stockings before I even have to start cleaning and baking for Thanksgiving is, if not a good thing, certainly a necessary thing if they're going to get done at all.  With every week that passes between now and New Year's, I will be busier.  So if I can get them done early enough to put them away in the Christmas decoration bin and have them sit there for weeks before I even bring up the bins, that sort of gets to all the priorities, right?  Right. 

OK.  So, stockings.  I have been dazzled with height-of-trendy, DIY-friendly (or DIY-friendly-looking) stocking ideas since last year.  Such as:

(I got that from Pinterest, but it really looks like it comes from a catalog.  Just don't know which.)  Or this:

And, for the true shabby chic lover, this:

And then there are things you see on One King's Lane.  Such as:


I think my OKL shopping method is the very best (of course I do), because I see lovely pictures full of $70 stockings and then go and (spoiler) buy $13 worth of fabric and make my own and am happier with them than I would be with fancy made ones.  Of course OKL isn't the only retailer in the game.  No, we have fodder from Restoration Hardware:

And Pottery Barn:

And West Elm:

And they all are eye-catching, and what's a neurotic blogger to do?  As mentioned, first I thought I would make some of out pashminas.  I thought that was brilliant, but it failed to pan out.  And last year I had had the brilliant idea of making some cable-knit stockings out of sweaters from thrift stores, as brilliantly depicted here:

And then someone even made stockings out of a Fair Isle sweater, which I would never have thought to do (and wouldn't be willing to do unless it had, I don't know, a giant hole in it somewhere else):

But my notions weren't getting off the ground.  Sp, a couple of weekends ago I added an item to an already crazed day of errands and took myself to the fancy fabric store.  It is a rare thing when I go into a store with splendiferous beautiful things and service.  I spend most of my time digging through junk bins and thrift stores, and the lumber section at Home Depot, where I am perfectly happy.  But every so often I remember that certain rarefied air in the nice stores.  And then sometimes I also remember that there are other reasons to be there. 

Since this errand was my treat after about ten other stops, I gave myself permission to look at everything.  To stroke the $90/yard fake fur (which was heavenly), and flip through a bin of actual hides, and examine all of the plaid flannels, and then, of course, I went to the home decor section, with the massive rolls of drapery and upholstery fabric hung on racks up to the ceiling.  Beautiful embroidered damasks and tapestries so shockingly expensive (I saw one for $150/yard and then I stopped looking) that even the little bit I needed for one stocking would be totally unaffordable.  I looked at all their beautiful colors and patterns, and then I wandered through apparel fabric, and peeked in every remnant bin I could find, and finally picked up a fat quarter of quilting broadcloth in a pattern that looked like it had potential, and walked around to see whether there were anything I had missed, and then I saw it.  Next to the massive rolls of decor fabric, a huge table, heavy with folded fabric, bearing a sign that said, "Upholstery remnants, $9.97/yard." 

I spent most of my early life in and out of fabric stores, because, though we were poor, my mother was a very talented seamstress (putting my meager skills entirely to shame), and fabric stores were her treat, too, even when she wasn't buying anything (which was most of the time).  And I have it firmly ingrained since childhood that $10/yard stuff is expensive fabric.  And I had come for a budget project.  But I knew these lovely pieces had originally been priced at ten times so much - or more.  So, though they were upholstery material, and most of them were shades of moss or tan, I set myself to looking through every single piece.  In all those pieces of fabric (much of which was very lovely indeed), two caught my eye the instant I laid eyes on them, and I had to carry them around with me because I was afraid to put them down.  After going through every corner of the store, I approached a wise-looking person with weathered hands and an expert way with expensive fabric shears, and asked for half a yard of each. 

They're not printed, but embroidered, and the fabric is heavy and thick, with a beautiful drape - perfect for stockings.  Expensive-looking stockings.  And, of course - probably predictably, to anyone who read the prior post - in extremely traditional prints, which have probably been produced for decades if not longer, and will look no more current or dated in 20 or 50 years than they do now.  That was always where I was headed; it just took me a while to realize it, for some reason.  And it's fitting, because, the pictures above notwithstanding, I don't see stockings as a way to jazz up one's holiday decor to conform to current trends.  A good stocking is something you keep for life.   

I still had not sorted out the matter of lining, or trimming for the tops, or a pattern, but I had now spent $10 and this was supposed to be a budget project.  I figured I could use one stocking's main fabric for another's trim, but I had only found two fabrics and I wanted to make three stockings (one for me, one for the husband, and one for Bailey). 

Obviously, what this endless post needs now is another endless digression.  I think I mentioned it in my "how shall I make stockings" post, but I started puzzling over making my own stockings last year.  The truth is, this is a project I would have taken on years ago - when I was first married, in fact - had we been able to have children.  If I'd gotten pregnant in the first few months of marriage, as I planned to do, I would have set out straightaway making three stockings, and then in each pregnancy thereafter I'd have made another, finding some way to link them all in a pattern, no doubt.  In fact, this is the sort of thing I think of when I think it's too bad I didn't have kids.  I'm good at making crafts and keeping kids entertained and cooking and making beds and fashioning Hallowe'en costumes and teaching things and helping with homework and I'm still good at all the subjects in elementary school and I could teach a little introductory piano and a smidge of several languages.  I think I would have excelled at the doing parts of motherhood - the stuff that makes it to Pinterest, you know?  But who knows about the being parts - the keeping my temper and nurturing their little personalities and the growing in holiness with selflessness and all that?  There's no reason to suppose I'd have been any great shakes there.  And frankly, there are worse things than depriving a family's worth of putative children of my extraordinary gifts with construction paper.  So I shall turn my energy to learning to cook Lebanese food and keeping the company of adults. 

But, of course (digression not finished), as will surprise no one who has run the gauntlet of infertility, when it turned out that I could not have children, things in the stocking department went rather otherwise.  Indeed, like most infertile women, I found that Christmas (which I have always loved so much) became a season of trial rather than one of joy.  I've worked against that in the last several years, remembering how at the hardest and darkest times in my life, Christmas gave me joy that I found nowhere else, and that I must not allow this cross to steal that joy away.  I've concluded that rather than fearing the wan celebration of the holiday that I felt must be the lot of someone without a child to share it with, a sad celebration I felt must inspire pity in those around me, I should do the opposite: celebrate with great zeal, love all the little things I've always loved, drink endless cups of cocoa, revel in the snow, decorate exuberantly, sing carols ceaselessly, plan continual merriment for weeks, exhaust others with my enthusiasm, watch every movie I loved as a child - in short, as I know Christ was born for us all, even the childless, there should be nothing wan about my Christmas; it should inspire by its joy. 

But when we moved into our home two years ago, I saw right away that it had three hooks in the underside of the mantel, for stockings.  And I thought the idea of two stockings - not the two stockings of newlyweds with a baby on the way, but the permanently two stockings of old married folks who knew it would always just be them - was so sad I couldn't even contemplate it.  And then we got Bailey, and I thought the idea of two lonely adult stockings and a doggy stocking might be even more horrible than that.  And then last Christmas, seeing so many attractive stockings for sale, for the first time in all those years, I thought that I would like us to have stockings, and it wouldn't make me sad.  And, what the heck - Bailey should have one, too.  Because everyone in the house should share in the season of joy, and a dog stocking would be adorable

So, to return to the thread (heh heh) of our story.  I then remembered that I had seen a table of home decor remnants at A.C. Moore, $5.98 for 1-2 yard pieces.  This was certainly a great price, and a good half of the pieces (which were of good quality) looked as if they were tailor-made (hee) for Christmas stockings.  It could very well be why they're for sale.  But I hadn't bought any when I first saw them, because I was still trying to find my bearings after the failure of my pashmina idea.  My course was ultimately set by the finding of the magnificent upholstery remnants.  But I still needed a third piece of fabric, and that $5.98 table was the only other source I knew of.  So I marched back to the store, 55% off coupon in hand.  (One would generally use a coupon like that for something much more expensive, but that turned out to be the most expensive item in my basket.)  I was looking for something in a strong green, to coordinate with but not match the other two prints.  I figured using them as one another's trim would tie the set together.  I found lots of lovely prints with dominant reds, and a really wonderful red and green wool plaid that would have made a great set of stockings, but didn't go with my embroidered pieces.  And then I happened upon a heavy velour in a rich solid tan. 

I had considered that the Bailey stocking would be best if it had paw pads sewn on - but they would be hard to see against a busy print.  Making her stocking in a solid would solve that problem.  Moreover, if the tan of this fabric was a match for the gold tones in the other two, the fuzzy tan fabric would be the perfect trim for both patterned stockings.  And the piece was large enough I might have enough left over for a skirt, and my last ultrasuede skirt had died some time back, to my great sadness, so that was a bonus.  For about $3 I brought it home, gambling that the color would work.  Which panned out:

The tan was exactly the same color as the gold in the two prints, just several tones darker.  (Whoever selected the colors for those prints chose a rich, deep gold, not a yellowy or brassy one.  Score another point for the fancy fabric store.)  And then I remembered that in the basement I had an old panel curtain from Target, a nice heavy 100% cotton twill in a perfect Christmas red that didn't go with anything in my house but seemed too nice a piece of fabric to throw out.  Voila - lining. 

So I found a picture (on OKL) of a stocking in just the right shape:

And I made a pattern out of a paper bag.  And then, another pattern.  And the rest, as they say, is history...

The paw shape didn't come out quite as I intended it - I wanted round toes, and I could do some more sewing to get them there, but I'm happy with it:

They're nicely lined:

And the velour made nice cuffs, and I made them nice sturdy hanging loops: