I must have needed the time to think.
It was Christmas Eve, the final few moments before the family’s arrival and the previous few frenetic days of to-do lists, Christmas carols and relative quiet would explode in the bustle, noise and complicated wonderfulness of family. I looked around my kitchen and bowls of dough were everywhere. Literally, everywhere.
I hadn’t thought about all this when I planned my Christmas menu. Now, as I looked around, I realized I’d spent hours working with dough. There were pizza doughs, and pasta doughs and doughnut doughs and bread doughs.
Dough was rising and baking and evolving around me as I slipped away into kneading thoughts of my own. Dough is my Zen Garden. I went there without ever really knowing why, like a well-trained horse wandering back to the ranch house without the need of a pull on the reins.
I think somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that this would be my family’s first completely non-alcoholic holiday. I think it worried me, though I never connected with that until a couple of days of later. I’m sure this is why I gravitated to the dough.
Later the family arrived and we ate pizza and doughnuts and bread and all the treats I’d been busily making. We crammed into our little house and played games and likely annoyed each other but I felt … congruent. I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be. I felt OK, and I think those moments lost inside my head, my forearms flexing and straining, my grip twisting and smooshing the flexible life in my hands had a lot to do with it. Nobody seemed to care they were drinking sparkling water instead of Pinot Noir. What a gift.
My yoga teacher likes to say, “the body knows what it needs.” My doughworks were my body’s way of asking the overbearing mind to step aside and let it have it what it needed.
Tonight I finished off the last of the fudge I made for Christmas:
The Christmas cookies went the way of gifts, and I stupidly forget to slip some into my freezer:
Even the stocking stuffers are long gone:
Seriously, no stale marsh-mellow Santas in our stockings… how bad do you want to be my kid at Christmas, I ask you?! Pretty… bad.
Christmas is officially over. It’s been fun. Very fun. But the good times can’t last forever, and apparently neither can the chocolate. Let the withdrawals begin, sadly.
But the memories will last because we ate like kids playing hide-and-seek with Willy Wonka this year! Ummm mmmn good.
The best breakfast in the world is a simple one. You take risen bread dough (as my Grandma Deer would say, “eh… just get the frozen dough) smoosh it into little pancakes and then fry it in olive oil. Top with Ricotta Cheese and freezer jam. Perfecto! As I’ve said before, breakfast is a vital part of my day, and this breakfast is the top of the top.
It’s been my favorite since Nonie’ made it for as a kid and it’s still my kids favorite and will likely be their kids’ favorites as well when they get to the important task of providing me bambinas and bambinos like they are supposed to do.
I don’t usually mess with perfection, but I did this year. I decided to make Blueberry Jelly doughnuts. I had never done this before, and Christmas morning seems like an odd time to be experimenting, but if I could smoke a turkey for the first time on Thanksgiving, I could do this.
As it turned out, the experiment didn’t fall too far from the lab. What I ended up with was risen fried dough with jam inside instead of on top. I missed the ricotta.
They were good though. Just a lot more work.
Here’s the quick version for those wanting to try these at home:
First make your dough and let it rise:
Then roll it out and cut a bunch of little circles into the dough:
Put jam on half the circles:
Paint the edges with milk, top with the other half of the dough circles, and pinch the edges tight. Then smoosh the pinches back into the dough so it looks more like a doughnut than a ravioli. It took me a while to figure this out, but toward the end they took on the right shape.
Take all the extra dough and shape it into a big fat glazed doughnut and top with fresh coconut, Effin Artist’s favorite doughnut. Think of it like a tribute. You can then mail it to me. Tribute accepted, thank you very much.
Let all this rise for another 30-45 minutes, then fry them in very hot oil. They go quick and you don’t want black, just golden brown.
Roll in super fine sugar as soon as they come out and you’re done. Serve hot or the next morning and the next morning after that.
Enjoy. But then go for a hike or a run, because these are not good for you in any way shape or form except they taste EFFin delightful.
I believe I said this would happen.
Back during the hotly contested caramel week, things got a little dicey when my brother swooped in for the prize. My daughters were not pleased, especially when they compared notes and realized I sent them the same email once they heard the news the caramel wasn’t coming their way. I wrote:
“Too bad too, because you were way in the lead… you were going to be the winner for sure!”
My daughters are lovely, beautiful, confident, smart women. They also have a nasty streak. I knew there’d be hell to pay. Still, I let me guard down. On Christmas morning as we swapped our gifts, I didn’t see it coming when the oldest sweetly handed me a gift and said it was from “us girls.”
I opened it happily.
Yep, you guessed it. Coal. In a Trader Joe’s caramel box.
So I’m making more caramel this week. If I don’t the next package could be a horse’s head.
These girls are Italian afterall.
Merry Christmas indeed. Like I said before, “tough crowd.”
Not to worry. The next morning we took everyone on a hike in the mountains behind our house. The temperature was barely above freezing, like our beloved San Francisco on a windy night at ATT Park in late May.
“How long do you think this hike is going to be,” my oldest asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, I’ve heard 2 miles, 3 miles, 4 miles… I just need to know which is the most accurate.”
“I don’t really know. Maybe two miles, but it could be four. We’re going right up there,” I said happily, pointing to a peak nearly straight up.
I heard the grumbles. They made me happy. Coal huh? I got your coal right here!
Like I said, tough crowd.
But it’s the hard that makes it great right? And the hike was great!
- Coal (sarahremy.wordpress.com)
- An Open Letter to Santa: Please Stop Putting Lumps of Coal in Stockings (sustainableurbanfuture.wordpress.com)
- Caramels and creativity go sweetly together (effinartist.wordpress.com)
If you saw Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own you’ll likely recall this line. Sobering up for the women’s baseball championship, caught up in the team as it battles for a place in history, Hanks character Jimmy Dugan tells his best player Dottie that she shouldn’t leave to go home to conventional life as a farmer’s wife. She would miss it he predicts. Dottie shakes her head and says that it was all just too hard. Dugan’s line has stayed with me all these years.
“Of course it’s hard. If it wasn’t everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”
How often I have thought this to myself as I struggled with whatever life doled out in that moment. It helped me develop a pit-bull’s bite of tenacity once I get involved in something. Even when I should be discouraged, I tend to grit my way through, the mantra in my head, “if it was easy, everyone would do it… it’s the hard that makes it great.”
One of our Christmas presents this year fell into this category. We wanted to make those trendy signs we’d seen in all the boutiques, with big words painted on rough wood. Typical of me, I wanted really rough wood. I wanted recycled wood. I wanted to make signs and reclaim something off a scrap pile at the same time.
I made it much harder than it had to be.
This is not one of those tutorials on how to make signs. Those all start with the cheery encouragement of how easy it is to make the signs. Not this one. It’s EFFin hard.
I choose a dark background paint that made it much harder to make the letters more visible.
After making my stencils (I chose an elaborate script and a Serif font instead of wide blocky letters that would have been much easier to paint), we couldn’t successfully transfer them to the rough, ridged wood. I ended up carving the words in with an razor blade for about eight long hours leading up to Christmas. My bride then had to paint those letters, another eight hours.
But when the kids unwrapped them, each one with a different part of our favorite family poem “Desiderata,” which has hung on our wall since they were small, it was well… great.
And that made it all worth it. Because it’s the hard that makes it great.
- Pumpkin Empenada- It’s the hard that makes it great (effinartist.wordpress.com)
- How To Make a Sign (thewoodgraincottage.com)
- Top 10 Tom Hanks Movies. IGN you’re doing it wrong. (nerdfarmblog.com)
I hit that fork in the to-do list road. My Chuck III approach to one thing at a time was working very well. I got most everything done, watched the 49ers squeak out a playoff birth, had the Christmas carols playing and was fully embracing the moment.
I woke up refreshed and dug back into the list. The time had come to set off for my bike ride, mail the now very late Christmas cards– war correspondence is faster than Snapfish sends photos–and pass the final Rubicon. To tree or not to tree?
I am not a procrastinator, but I had sure put this off. When the kids were little I insisted on a tree Dec. 1, no matter what. The whole month is Christmas and it started with decorating the tree. I had cut down trees in snow and I had drug them through muddy fields. I had had them blown off the roof on my car. But I also bagged my tree.
Now, I was trying to talk myself into a new tradition: Christmas Eve Tree Trimmings, just like Donna Reed in Its a Wonderful Life. (have I mentioned I love, love, love Donna Reed??) Only one problem. Today is the day, and I still didn’t really want the tree and all the hassles incumbent on getting one. The kids arrive soon and they will destroy me over a tree absence. So I sucked it up, headed into the chaos of last-minute Christmas panic and sought a tree. I even talked myself into biking it home — another adventure in their weird things I cart around on my bike instead of using my perfectly functioning car.
As I pedalled around the traffic — you can sense the stress even from outside the cars — I thought of the first time my parents decided to skip the tree. They gave a bunch of excuses. They said we were all gone and they were alone and didn’t really need a tree. They didn’t like the pine needles. Etc.
I thought, “yeah, yeah…. LAME.” They gave me the just-you-wait-and-see-when-you-are-old-buddy look.
Now, hear I was thinking they might just be on to something.
When the first store I went to had no trees, I knew I had to suck it up. The bike ride with the tree was now going to dodge some serious traffic. The plan was unravelling.
And then I had a thought.
I pedaled home. No tree. Cross that one off the list for good now. I told myself I was evolved and this was fine and the house looks great and the food is bombdiggity and the games will be fun and the kids will gripe but get over it and maybe my parents knew a thing or two and…
Nah. It’s still lame. But there it is. Something had to give and this year, the tree was it. I put the presents in a corner and lovely as they look, it just isn’t right.
To tree or not to tree, that was the question. I got it all wrong.
PS… click below for a bit more on the Christmas tree musings and of course, the lovely Donna Reed:
- ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ actress reflects on extraordinary life (komonews.com)
- Origins And History Of The Christmas Tree (mysticablog.wordpress.com)
- Christmas tree (mikalaa.wordpress.com)
What’s a sugar plum?
I grew up in the urban areas of California. I didn’t really connect that the berries my grandmother used to make incredible freezer jam had to actually be picked by a person until I went to college and friends took me out strawberry picking. They grew up in a place where every kid made extra money picking berries. I was stunned by the whole experience, and still broke because I was the worst strawberry picker ever.
I think about this as the morning of Christmas Eve dawns, and I finalize my Christmas Menu 2013. Visions of this bounty of food — no sugar plums, sadly — dance in my mind. Life is full, expansive and curious. It only took me nearly half a century to wonder about a sugar plum.
I think I love the act of planning big family meals almost more than eating them. I love the details, the coordination, the scheduling and the shopping. I love the cooking, because all my kids will pop in to help. Even my wife joins in — she cooks like my father attended Mass: twice a year on Easter and Christmas and no questions asked about the rest of the year. It’s an arrangement that works well for us, because she cleans, something of which I’m less fond.
My to-do list is nearly finished, Elvis Christmas carols play in the background and the place looks great:
Food and family. That blessing tops all others at the holidays.
As day breaks on these holidays I have so much, so very much for which to be grateful. Every bite of these meals will be one where I say grace over and over in my mind.
A blessed holiday to you and yours.
Christmas Menu 2013
Christmas Eve: Pizza night (per tradition):
Homemade Pepperoni, Margherita, and Combo, with a big green salad topped with cranberries and apples.
Breakfast: Homemade Blueberry Jelly Doughnuts, Pesto Scramble.
Lunch: Fried Eggplant with marinara sauce, antipasto platter and Italian deviled eggs.
Grilled Prime Rib… yes its Dinner. Thank you Dinner my steer. This night you fulfill your great destiny to be a holiday dinner no less.
Fresh-made fettucine with either the family meat sauce or alfredo, baked Italian bread
Bacon- braised brussel sprouts (say that five times fast!)
Asparagus spears with lemon
Double-fudge with caramel cookie topped with homemade peanut butter ice-cream
I’d love to hear what you’re planning for Christmas meals. Reply below.
A final note about the holidays. Readers of this column may note it is really a celebration of recovery. I’ve been sober now for 54 months. My wife has been sober for six. This is our first non-alcoholic family Christmas in…. well, ever. This is a true gift from God.
When I drank I couldn’t imagine life without it. I figured the fun would cease and desist leaving me a sad, empty diminished soul. The exact opposite occurred. Like Baby soaring high in Patrick Swayze’s arms, “I’m having the time of my life.”
Celebrate sober. You’ll love it. And as always, I’m here if you need an ear. Drop me a line if you are struggling with drugs and/or alcohol, especially this holiday season. I can’t do much, but I’ll listen.
- Do Sugar Plums Have To Dance All Night? More to the point, what the heck is a sugar plum? (drhguy.com)
- The Sugar Plum Fairy (sugarlows.wordpress.com)
- visions of sugar plum dancings (gabriellepace.wordpress.com)
I made a list of the things I needed to do before Christmas yesterday. As I wrote it all down, my anxiety began to rise. I’d already been working full-time the last few days on various projects and gifts and planning for the holiday events. But the list seemed ominous, a monster under the bed with those scary musical chords that suggest something bad is about to happen playing in the background of my mind.
So I dealt with it then and ther. I slayed the monster.
First I remembered old Chuck Winchester III. One thing a time…
Next, I added to the list.
Check it out. Here’s the first list:
– Ship packages
– Finish DIY presents
– Finish Christmas cookies
– Wrap DIY and cookies and mail
– Mail out Christmas cards (yes, I know, they’ll be late… )
– Make and hang burlap curtains
– Decorate house
– Get tree (don’t ask… I just didn’t get to it this year yet)
– Decorate tree
– Find Xmas CDs
– Make Peanut Butter for Test Kitchen
– Make Peanut Butter-based test recipes
– Plan holiday week menus
– Shop for groceries
– Clean house
– Make stockings for new family members
– Get some actual work done (good luck with that one…)
Here are the modifications I made to the list:
– Watch 3- hour Eagles documentary (which led to add on: write blog about Eagles documentary). So cool. Stayed up a bit too late and slept not enough, but it was worth it.
– Ship packages – I left this at the top because the clock was ticking. Once I did this and scheduled the postal pick-up, my stress level went down… way down. So that’s something I do with lists, attack the hard stuff, the procrasting stuff first. As M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, do it first. Shove it to the top. Once you cross it off, the momentum is like riding a bike downhill.
– Finish DIY presents
– Plan menus – I like planning menus and after the shipping and the projects, I needed a break. This turned into a fun Sunday break.
–Go for a run, end at grocery store and shop- It’s easy to let yourself go when you’re trippin’ on stress. By forcing myself to do something healthy, I felt better about the day. I worked in the shopping to still get a key item done. The one downside I didn’t fully plan for was carrying $80 of groceries up this hill:
– Lift weights- bonus round. My arms and shoulders and calves felt blown out once I got the groceries home.
– Finish Christmas cookies- satisfied with my workout, I turned on a football game and baked cookies. An agenda item turned into a pleasant afternoon. I added an impromptu item to the to-do list:
– Facebook your Seahawks loving nephew and punk him about the loss… at home no less! (Check that one off right away. tee hee… tee hee…)
– Wrap DIY and cookies and mail – I really don’t like wrapping presents. I’m not that great at it and you never really know how much there is to do until you start in. Typically I’d wait until Christmas Eve, turn on It’s a Wonderful Life, and wrap presents for the the whole three-hour movie and then still not be done at the end. I’d be wiped out Christmas morning. This year I want to be awake. So instead I watched The Big Lebowski and wrapped most of my gifts early. I have only about six more to do on Christmas Eve, which will be a pleasant tradition now as I watch Donna Reed (I’ve always had a big crush on her) and leisurely wrap a few presents. Not to mention “The Dudeness” was so stupidly funny, I had a good time. Besides the sugar high from tasting some of the cookies amped me up a bit and I ended up cleaning the living room. Bonus.
– Mail out Christmas cards (yes, I know, they’ll be late… ) I told myself to let it go. Who knew the little photo cards would take more than a week to ship? The cards are ready, addressed and stamped. They’ll get there late, but they are nice and its done, so for now, this will have to do. (Family members reading from home… this is my excuse. Ok? Save the hostile emails for the Test Kitchen.)
– Make and hang burlap curtains – One of those projects that sounded great on paper… now… eh? I know it’s going to be a lot of work, so I’ll tackle this first thing Monday morning (after I write this blog of course). Just like shipping yesterday, I’m knocking off the hardest thing first.
– Decorate house – No biggie. I’m no longer the nutty guy in Christmas Vacation with all the lights. I used to be, I confess. I used to be…. now, this won’t take thirty minutes.
– Get tree (don’t ask… I just didn’t get to it this year yet)- Still 50/50 on this. If I don’t have time, at this late date, we’ll just do without. My daughters will give me shit. They’ll get over it. I’m sure I’ll buckle under, but right now it doesn’t seem too important. Besides, how am I going to tie a tree to my bike? We’ll see. I’m giving myself permission to skip it so, I’m moving it down with get some work done and as the optional part of this list.
– Decorate tree- Hey, two for the price of one! This too moves to the bottom of the list.
– Yoga– the run made such a difference yesterday both physically and mentally that I want to follow it up with yoga this morning. I already feel my head telling me I don’t have time, which is precisely why I’ll do it. This little diversion will pay benefits all day long.
– Find Xmas CDs- Already found them when looking for shipping boxes! Cross that baby off
– Make Peanut Butter for Test Kitchen – Afternoon activities
– Make Peanut Butter-based test recipes
– Plan holiday week menus- check, see above
– Shop for groceries- check, check… who hoo!
– Clean house – I’ve been taking a room at a time. I’m almost half done without even trying. Tuesday I’ll do a once over that will take about a third of the time I envisioned when I wrote the list.
– Watch 49ers game on Monday Night Football.- This little bonus is the payoff for finishing the burlap. Once I know that’s done, I can relax tonight, so I’ll watch the game and while I watch I’ll:
– Make stockings for new family members – another chore turned into a fun evening.
– Get some actual work done (good luck with that one…) Yeah, we’ll see about that… maybe once the tree is up, or maybe instead of the tree.
The point is, if there is one, that lists can so consumed us with the future we miss the present. The obligation of all these things — most of which I took on because they are fun and show my love for my family and friends — threatened to not only take away the joy of the present but make me miss the Holiday season altogether. A few modifications, a few add-ons, a lot more in-the-moment living instead of future trippin, and the dread turned to experiences I welcome and have enjoyed.
My whole outlook has changed and I will be in much better shape to thoroughly enjoy the holidays with my family now then I was 24 hours ago.
Make time for what matters. It really is as simple as that.
- Retro Christmas Cards – DIY (thejoyofcaking.wordpress.com)
- Getting in the Holiday Spirit #7: Christmas Cookies with the Family (laurenelizabethsays.wordpress.com)
- How to Set Your December Daily Journal Apart – Vintage Christmas Cards (blogher.com)
This reference dates me, but who can forget Charles Emerson Winchester III and his pious preaching of excellence?
“I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, then I move on,” he blustered.
The show, of course, ruins his belief as he realizes a M*A*S*H unit is not like a Boston hospital. Hawkeye, the mad multi-tasker with magician hands saves the day and knocks the elitist Winchester III down a peg or two.
I loved it. We all did. We loved Hawkeye.
Too bad he was wrong. Winchester was right. And it’s not even close if we really think about it. Ask yourself: do I want a surgeon with focus, or one trying to be a comedian, a flirt, recover from a hangover and take care of two other patients while he works on me?
I’ll take Winchester III thank you very much. But emotionally we all want Hawkeye to be our guy. That’s where we’ve got it all wrong.
Multi-tasking robs focus. Without focus, life is blurry and off-balance. The experts — true American Type A overachievers, to be sure — got it all wrong. Multi-tasking blows. Focus, the discipline to concentrate on the task at hand, is a far more effective way to conduct ones business, though its far less sexy.
Our society loves multi-taskers, fast talkers, go-to-gals who eat stress for breakfast and then flick it away in spin class, without ever putting down the devices, plural.
But it seems the bets people made to this driven way of life are turning up losers. Emotionally bankrupt souls are exhausted and stressed and addicted and desperate. Yes, there is a better way.
More and more I read of people who are interested in mindfulness over multitasking. See some examples below. Even the Type A experts are coming to appreciate a state of zen. Time management expert Mark Forester writes,
“One of the most important time management principles, to which I have often referred in the past, is ‘one thing at a time’.”
In my own life, I increasingly have to tell myself to stop… focus… and return to the task at hand. When I do, I do better. I am more efficient, not less.
We are not just what we accomplish. For a genuine hoof to head approach, how we accomplish the things we do matters as well. The journey and all that…
Tis’ the season … for multi-tasking. Christmas breeds frenetic anxiety. Lists grow like crabgrass with shoots creeping into every minute of our day.
Just a precious few days remain until Christmas. Stop the insanity now. Focus. Do one thing a time, do it very well, then move on. You’ll be amazed how you get more done and feel far better. You might just have some time to relax, do something like take a hike and even listen to Christmas carols. Tis’ the season… why miss it?