Daytrippin’ the Hill Country

bluebonnetsIt looks like we’re finally going to have a Spring in Central Texas. It was touch-and-go there for a while, as the temperatures swung 30-40 degrees daily. They finally stabilized into a pattern more recognizable to the inhabitants.

There is something so comforting about seeing splashes of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and buttercups, even bordering the Austin freeways. Along with the not-easily-fooled mesquite tree finally budding out, these ironclad promises of spring make everyone feel more optimistic and adds  “spring” to the step.

When I was a child, spring showed up early in my mother’s iris beds. There were two clumps of bulbs planted in the middle of the front yard, one purple, one white. I loved to cut a white one and put it in a glass of water and red food color. Before long that pure white blossom would be tiger-striped, the red liquid sucked up  into every vein. I used green food coloring if there were any irises left for St. Patrick’s Day. The rest of the year the foliage served as something for me to leap over, as I practiced the world’s shortest long-jumps.

Some people plan trips to Paris (the one in France) or India, safaris in Africa, or mountaintop Incan ruins. Bryan and I plan one- or two-day trips in the Hill Country. We never tire of exploring the little towns, museums, and shops, and if we’re lucky, getting into conversations with friendly locals.
My favorite quotation is by the sportswriter/novelist Dan Jenkins: “What I love about Texans is, you ask them a question, they tell you a story.” That’s a major part of the charm in driving around Texas. If you mind your own business and fail to strike up a conversation in the shops and cafes, you’re missing out on a lifetime of stories.
Bryan and I have become fond of Johnson City. We “rediscovered” it when I attended a seminar for writers at their library. While I studied the craft, Bryan hiked around Pedernales Falls State Park. Before we left, a charmingly pushy librarian sold us tickets to their spaghetti/bingo fundraiser the next month.
I wrote about the event in the post, “London, Paris, Las Vegas…Johnson City?” (3-8-2013), where Bryan won a $50 gift certificate to Ronnie’s Ice House, totally unknown to us. It was several months before we got around to driving back up to JC and cashing in our prize.
Ronnies 3
      Ronnies 1Ronnie’s is kind of strange to city slickers, used to restaurants open most of the day and night. They are open from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. every day but Sunday. We tend to plan our daytrips around Ronnie’s hours, but it’s worth it. The brisket is possibly the best I’ve ever eaten, so good I had to force myself to try the chicken (wonderful) or  the pork loin (life-changing).
I also like their sides, which go beyond the standard potato salad and beans to include corn salad, tomato and cucumber salad, and others. I’ve always meant to try one of their two desserts, buttermilk pie and pecan pie, but I’ve never had the room for it.
The interior, a cross between a hunting camp and a classic truckstop, is as friendly as the regulars who talk to each other across the room.
“How you doin’, friend?”
“Can’t complain. Wouldn’t do any good anyways. Where’s Mary?”
“She’s gettin’ ready to go to Austin. Gotta get a root canal.”
“Oh, Lord! You tell her we’ll be prayin’ for her.”
“I’ll do that. While you’re at it, say one for our bank account, too.”
It strikes a deep chord in anyone who grew up in Texas or would have liked to. And I’m not too citified to find all of this comforting and charming. If Norman Rockwell had been a Texan, the Saturday Evening Post’s covers would have regularly portrayed the inside of Ronnie’s.
Johnson City is a great staging area for side trips, too. Sometimes we visit Enchanted Rock to reminisce about when we could both climb it. It’s an easy jog to Fredericksburg for shopping, too. Last time we explored JC and visited the museum at the LBJ Childhood Home complex. I even managed a circuit on the walking path that circles several historic buildings.
If you want to unwind without a large time or cash investment, I recommend daytripping. Pretty soon you’ll get as excited over a visit to the Hill Country as a trip to Europe, which as my father used to say, is “just too far and snaky to go.”

Five Christmases, a Birthday, a Broken Finger, and a Virus

The title of this post is the answer to the questions:

1) How were your holidays?

2) Why haven’t you posted to your blog in such a long time?

We had five separate Christmas get-togethers. The evening after the first one, I fell in a parking lot and broke my pinky finger. Going with my upbringing (If there is no blood and no bones sticking out, you’re fine!) I continued the holidays wondering vaguely why my finger hurt so much.

The day after actual Christmas, I hosted a 65th birthday party/roast for a friend who has had a rough year. You can’t go wrong with 20 old friends and Threadgill’s comfort food. Then it was off to Longview for the last Christmas and to see our family there.

Every bit of all this was a blast. We had wonderful holidays and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The first day back from the trip it was time, however, to get the finger checked out. Eight days after the fall I found out it had a hairline fracture. No wonder it hurt.

New Years came and went, and two days later I was wrestled to the ground by a virus. It had the earmarks of flu but no fever, so I just had to tough it out for two weeks with over the counter medicine. It ended the day the cedar pollen went through the roof, which landed me back in bed.

Okay, enough already. I am finally well and anxious to get back to my life. And back to my writing. My pinky finger can finally hit Enter without too much pain, and I’m ready to go forward.

One benefit of the illness, I was able to restart my diet. I had turned into an eating machine over the holidays, but that all changed with two weeks in bed. I’m pleased to report my stomach has adjusted to Small Bird Diet II, and I’m on my way to whipping my figure back into shape.

I’ve been fighting the battle of the bulge my whole life. I was a fat baby, child, and teenager. As an adult, my weight roller coastered so much, I collected enough different sizes of clothes to start my own thrift shop. But one of my New Year’s resolutions is to declare war on my body, get control of my weight this year and keep it under control. My other resolution is to cut back to three or four Christmases next year.

So if you haven’t seen or heard from me in a while, now you know why. But I’M BACK! Pull up your socks and tune in for adventures in 2014.

Guilty Pleasures

janis joplinzodiakjane austen

duck dynastyapple pie

I wish I loved opera. Or abstract art. Or The Catcher in the Rye. The truth of the matter is, I never hum “Don Giovanni” in the shower. I can’t look at abstract art without noting the folly of not wearing a seatbelt. And one paragraph into J. D. Salinger”s novel, I wanted to slap him and his whiney main character, Holden Caulfield. I am afraid my tastes are downright plebeian.

‘Fess up, now. We all have guilty pleasures, those little diversions we don’t mention to strangers. We enjoy them, despite the fact they are nerdy, uncool, and sometimes downright tacky. They almost never include any of the things we are supposed to enjoy. But since we’re all friends here, I’ll confess my top five.

When it comes to music, I don’t listen to much of anything recorded after 1975. As far as I’m concerned, disco heralded the end of civilization. I wrap myself in oldies and sing along to lyrics seared in my brain. There were a few dicey moments when Austin, a city stuck in the ’60s, decided it no longer needed an oldies radio station. Thanks to Sirius, I’m back on the road in my time machine, radio buttons programmed by decades, ending with the ’70s. And I’ll keep going to those tribute concerts, like Janis Joplin and the Fab Four. Heck! I may never have to catch up.

Although I have never paid to have my horoscope done, I admit I check out the forecasts for me and various friends and family members each morning. It’s not that I actually believe in it or depend on it. I just like to see what it says lies in store for the day. It’s completely coincidental that I pay especial attention to it when my life is in crisis, or I want to see if a friend’s new sugar is compatible or an axe murderer.

When it comes to literature, you’d think as a writer I would have more intellectual tastes. Of the authors I had to read in school, I liked only a handful. I loved Harper Lee, Dorothy Parker, and Oscar Wilde. Stream of consciousness, a la William Faulkner and James Joyce left me frustrated and angry. Mostly I read nonfiction: history, especially World War II, biography, and true crime.

There’s one exception, Jane Austen. I have her complete works on my Kindle, and whenever I’m waiting for something, or when I’ve had a whole day of dealing with the masses of asses that make up too much of today’s society, I retreat into Jane Austen’s world. It had its share of asses, too, but at least they were painstakingly civil.

As for reality television programming, the next time I swallow some deadly poison, I’ll just tune into Honey Boo Boo. Forget ipecac; that show makes me violently nauseous. There is, however, one reality show I like, and it’s definitely a guilty pleasure. I’ve gotten a little hooked on Duck Dynasty. At first I had my doubts, but I watched to humor Bryan, who seemed just about ready to dash off a fan letter. Once I got past the beards, I realized these are well-educated, articulate people who espouse values I can get behind. No women’s work/men’s work sexism here. Men’s work consists of duck hunting and anything else the women will let them do. The truths of life, even delivered with a southern accent, are still valuable and refreshing

And then there is food. Gourmet food is lost on my peasant’s palate. Three bites of thinly-sliced something, drizzled with squiggles of some sauce from a mustard squeeze bottle will never get me through the night or cheer me up, much less make me want to slap my mama.

There was a local company called Pie Fixes Everything. They made miniature pies that contained absolutely no guilt. Unfortunately they went out of business after eight years. If only I’d found them sooner! In their honor, however, I have adopted their company name as my personal credo. If I ever design a family crest, Pie Fixes Everything will be emblazoned on a field of rhubarb and meringue. I’ve been known to drown my sorrows in a Hostess Fruit Pie, so I can’t imagine a more appropriate family motto.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Guilty pleasures. Dish! I can’t wait to hear…

London, Paris, Las Vegas…Johnson City?

QuiltI’m not admitting I’ve sold out to aging, but Bryan and I had an unusually fun weekend recently doing something I never thought I’d do. For my birthday, we drove to Johnson City to attend a fundraiser for their library.

I became aware of this function the weekend before when I attended a writers’ workshop at the library. There I met Leslie, one of the library ladies when she’s not selling ice to Eskimos. We talked while I waited for my folk to arrive, and she pointed out a gorgeous hand-made quilt they were raffling, several cellophane-wrapped baskets of goodies to be auctioned, and she mentioned the spaghetti dinner, Bingo, and silent auction the  following weekend. I bought some raffle tickets, because I really wanted that quilt, and went on to my workshop.

Bryan did the driving that morning, and we arrived early enough to eat breakfast at the Hill Country Cupboard, a Johnson City must. They advertise their chicken fried steaks – Nearly 3 Dozen Sold – but their breakfasts are really excellent, not the artery-clogging fare we expected. He dropped me off at the library before backtracking to Pedernales State Park to do some hiking.

Showing back up at the appointed time, he entertained himself looking at all the things I had checked out earlier. Leslie asked if he was Janet’s husband. I’m not sure why, since the whole class consisted of women about my age, and he said yes and introduced himself. She proceeded to tell him everything we had discussed earlier, filling him in on the fundraiser, and he was paying for two tickets to the spaghetti dinner when I met up with him.

Fast forward to the next weekend. We drove to Johnson City, found the Methodist Church where they were holding the fundraiser, and were welcomed by some really nice church ladies that looked exactly like the church ladies we both remembered from our childhoods. Dinner was tasty and organized as only church ladies and drill sergeants can.

Soon it was time for Bingo. The last time I played that game we covered the numbers with pinto beans. These cards, with their little sliding number covers, were strictly uptown. Bryan won a Bingo game and received a gift certificate for a local, highly-recommended barbecue joint, so we’ll be going back to Johnson City again real soon. I won nothing, including the quilt, but that was a close one. I had a moment of excitement when they drew and announced the winner was another Janet from Austin, but not me. Bryan also put in the winning bid on a watch at the silent auction, one of the few he didn’t already own. He couldn’t have been happier if he were twins! As he says, you can never have too many watches.

While driving back on Hill Country backroads as dark as the inside of a black cow, we talked about how much fun we’d had. We visited with some really nice people, ate good food, gambled, and played Bingo, all without having to set foot out of our home range. We also didn’t have to set foot in Vegas, something I try to avoid. I may be getting older, but I wouldn’t trade our Hill Country odyssey for a chi-chi dinner in a Houston uber-restaurant, which we used to enjoy so much in our younger days. We wore comfortable clothes, sensible shoes, and garnered many a story to pass on over the next few weeks–AND–it was for a wonderful cause, helping the Johnson City Library pay on their beautiful new building.

So if you get tired of Green Pastures, the Driskill Hotel, or even Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, consider spending your time and money in Johnson City, Texas. It’s definitely a place worth writing (home) about.

High Resolutions

Christmas is over and it’s time for me to deal with my annual will power outage. We still have to get through New Year’s, but except for blackeyed peas, it’s a non-fattening holiday. It’s no wonder most of my resolutions for the new year pertain to eating, or rather not eating, and losing weight accrued between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I have learned, however, to be realistic in making these resolutions, lest I stack up a pile of failures before the year even gets off the ground. Take it slow, take it easy, open one eye, a tentative toe in the water. Small victories are still posted in the win column. Here is my annual list of resolutions I think I can handle.

I will…

  1. …not buy bigger clothes, especially underwear. Being uncomfortable is great motivation to lose weight.
  2. …not wear baggy clothes, even if the tight ones make me look like the Michelin Man’s girlfriend.
  3. …reacquaint myself with the wonders of kale. Temporarily banished from my kitchen for the holidays, Big K  is back in town.
  4. …show people at least as much patience as I show my dogs.
  5. …call at least one friend per week to catch up, and not just monitor their lives voyeuristically on FaceBook.
  6. …dust something every day.
  7. …work to become a better writer by writing more and better.
  8. …remember to take my reusable bags into the grocery store with me every time.
  9. …check the care label in clothes before I buy them, and put back anything “dry clean only” or “hand wash, dry flat.”
  10. …stop rationalizing why I need to buy a new outfit, eat a doughnut, or watch one more episode of an NCIS marathon.

Some people may think I’ve lowered the bar a bit too much, but I say, “Baby steps, people!” If these resolutions work out this year, I’ll consider upping the ante next year, and the next, and the next. With any luck at all, I’ll pass on before I have to  do anything too strenuous, like climbing Mt. Everest or walking the entire Houston Galleria.

Feel free to use my resolutions or come up with your own. Be realistic, circumspect, and flexible. And by all means, let me know if you come up with some I can use next year.

Happy Holidays and Family Fruitcakes

Christmas at the Zach

After my last blog, a plaintive rage against the negative aspects of the holidays, some of you may think I was born with a heart three sizes too small. I have great memories of the family Christmases of my childhood, and this time of year never fails to trigger my nostalgia.

Funny how my sharpest holiday memories revolve around the women in my family. As far as I could tell, the men were mere observers, invited guests who played little part in the preparations. They were generally affable, long-suffering sorts who lived on the outskirts of our lives. They worked hard, hunted, fished, and tried to stay out of the way of their womenfolk.

Likewise, children were expected to watch from a distance, do odd jobs when asked, and keep out from underfoot. The boys usually headed outside to run around and make noise, but for me and the other girls, the kitchen was a finishing school offering everything we needed to know to take over as the next generation of Southern women.

Firstly, everyone either had a nickname or was addressed with multiple names. Uncle Robert Edwin was Pete and Uncle Charlie was Jock. My cousins, John Howard, Merry Lynn and Janice Kay, remain thus to me, even if they prefer John, Merry, and Janice now. And then there was my Great-aunt Pobo. Her real name was Willie Polk, which she hated. As an adult she legally changed it to Pocahontas P., which she considered an improvement. One of the kids dubbed her Pobo and it stuck.

What is it about the southern latitudes that encourage quirkiness? Maybe it’s the heat and humidity, bringing it out in families the way it brings out mildew on bathroom tile. Movie makers and writers usually just perpetuate Southern stereotypes, with few capturing our essence. A transplanted Mid-westerner, who loved “Steel Magnolias,” was flabbergasted when I told her I was related to or went to school with every woman in that movie.

“Oh, come on,” she said. “What about the Shirley MacLaine character, Ouiser. Who do you know like her?”

“My Great-aunt Pobo and my husband’s Aunt Faynelle,” I answered without hesitation. “Every Southern family has one. Matter of fact, you’re lucky if there’s only one.”

I never knew any Tennessee Williams women. We didn’t have a Blanche Dubois or a Maggie the Cat in my family. They never stood around in their slips–that I knew of. Most of them wore corsets or enough Lycra to make their real shapes anyone’s guess. And they never “depended upon the kindness of strangers.” Most were tempered steel, wrapped in velvet. The rest were just plain steel.

Pobo tended to take out her dentures after eating and lay them on the table. My mother believed in parenting through paranoia, inventing terrifying superstitions for every occasion. My grandmother loved watching professional wrestling on television, waving her fists and yelling things she’d whack me for saying.

Women in my family had timidity bred out of them, and those who married in soon learned. You had to fight to get a word in, the noise level intimidating all but the most determined conversationalists. I never knew anyone in my family who was quiet or shy. If such a throwback existed, she would have gone unnoticed and unfed, fading away from starvation.

These women who filled my childhood are gone now, but I clearly see and hear them in my mind. They are bustling around the kitchen like tugboats in a busy harbor. Cackling laughter drifts through the house, following delicious holiday smells—ham, pickled peaches, mincemeat pie, and my mother’s “blonde” fruitcake. Made in a huge bowl I only saw at Christmas, it was chock-full of nuts and candied fruit, but not a drop of whiskey. Mama was raised Hardshell Methodist, a branch rarely found outside the South.

Above all, I hear their voices rising above the kitchen clatter:

“Did you notice how much weight Clarice has gained?”

“Notice? She looks like she’s being followed!”

“Now, y’all be nice. It’s Christmas!”

“I am being nice. Did I say a word about her hair color? Did I ask if she got it from the Ringling Brothers?”

I have a sudden craving for fruitcake.


Getting Prepositioned

On the edge, under the gun, at wit’s end, around the bend, under pressure, over the top, beside oneself, near panic. When someone asks how you are this time of year, just grab yourself a preposition. A preposition shows location. With a few exceptions, it’s anything you can say about a table: on, under, beside, etc. We also use prepositions to describe the soon-to-be-declared crazy.

This time of year we rush around, finding just the right gifts for our loved ones, deeply engrossed in a buying-wrapping-giving orgy of activity. For me it’s always a time of excess in spending, cooking, and eating. There are no small revels, only small revelers. I spend enough on the big dinner to feed us for a month. We ingest enough calories to supply energy for an alpine forced march. And our post-holiday bills roughly equal the GNP of Uganda. It’s the American way.

Our holiday excess is an art form. Children’s letters to Santa read like inventory sheets for Toys R Us. But we still weep over reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” Christmas episodes, when the kids offer Ma the set of coasters they made for her with their own little hands. She caresses them as if golden—although actually made from buffalo chips–and tearfully declares this the best Christmas ever! There is a credibility gap between our fantasy of Christmas and the reality.

I really try to give what people want, or at least something they need. I only resort to summer sausage and cheese log assortments when buying for complete strangers. (This begs the question, why buy gifts for strangers, but it comes up every year.) I ask for suggestions, make lists, put down alternate ideas, and I buy with care. It makes for fewer surprises, but that’s not always a bad thing.

I pity the family members who have to buy for me. When asked, I always say I can’t think of a thing I need. I really am happy as I am, but that doesn’t help my family. And my tastes are so eclectic, only my daughter will take a flyer on something she thinks I’ll like.  This is why Husband Bryan considers Christmas shopping for me the Seventh Circle of Hell. Ever since the Opal Fiasco, he insists I make a list.

Early in our relationship, he bought me a beautiful opal ring and necklace. I smiled bravely, thanked him profusely, and tried not to feel doomed. You see, my mother, who had a superstition for every occasion, always said wearing opals was bad luck unless it was your birthstone. Although some people thought you could neutralize the curse if the opals were surrounded by diamonds, my mother pooh-poohed that as wishful thinking. To be on the safe side, she advised avoiding barehanded contact with an opal of any kind.

Trying not to look like I was raised by a Tennessee mountain witch (although not far from the truth), I smiled and donned the acursed gemstones. When they didn’t immediately sear my flesh, I thought perhaps I’d dodged a bullet and could wear my gifts in health and safety. This was not to be. After a year of the worst luck I’d had in my entire life, I broke the news to Bryan and permanently deposited his gifts in my jewelry box. He accepted the situation with the grace of a man who knows a no-win situation when he sees one.

From that time on, however, I never received another surprise gift from my husband. He gets my list and googles each gift to make sure it doesn’t come with an associated curse. He’s under the gun because of a wife who is around the bend, and I’m beside myself with holiday angst.  Getting those presents under the tree is a dangerous preposition.

Downtown Odyssey

Some of my best adventures happen close to home. This past weekend turned out to be a keeper, having a great time and never getting more than 17 miles from home. I went downtown Saturday and Sunday, and I might as well have been in Paris—Texas or France.

The big hoo-hah parades on television during the holidays leave me flat, but I love going to downtown Austin to watch a display of Local Cool march by. Whether the Texas Independence parade in March or Chuy’s Christmas parade last Saturday, I appreciate the efforts of those who get out there and act goofy for the entertainment of others.

This year’s Chuy’s parade had an added incentive for me to drive downtown, walk farther than I should, and stand longer than I should, just to get a glimpse of my oldest granddaughter marching with Cheer Station.

A lady in front of me saw their banner and said, “Cheer Station?” I don’t know what that is.”

I immediately explained my connection, that it is where my “gkid”  takes cheer and tumbling lessons. The youngsters duly impressed the onlookers, hoisting small girls up in the air, managing to catch them before they hit terra firma. The lady I spoke to and all her relatives cheered like fiends and turned to smile encouragingly at me. I felt surprisingly validated, knowing they thought my granddaughter and her friends were terrific, too.

I chose my perch for the parade on Congress Avenue carefully. It was a short walk to St. David’s on 7th street, where I had agreed to meet my daughter at the Art from the Streets exhibit. We’ve been before, but this time was especially fun, as Megan interviewed artists and took pictures for a grad school project. After introducing herself to one of the exhibitors and explaining why she wanted to interview her, the lady exclaimed, “Oh, I love the paparazzi!”

I shopped while Megan worked, finding a couple of handmade necklaces I needed. I also bought two photographs by Sam Cole, one of Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend and one of iconic bluebonnets. I bought those for my husband’s office, which is decorated in Rustic Texan, especially when he’s at his desk. Megan and I ate lunch at Scholz Garten, and I headed home to rest up for Sunday.

Sunday found me back downtown to see “Santaland Diaries” at the Zach Scott Theatre. It has become something of a holiday tradition for us, and every year I laugh like a maniac, as if seeing it for the first time. Short-term memory loss has its benefits. This is the farewell season for Martin Burke, however, the genius actor responsible for much of its popularity. His almost one-man show was terrific as always, but I left wondering where I’d be this time next year. I can only hope Martin reconsiders and comes out of his retirement from this role. Cher does it all the time.

We usually lunch at Casa de Luz before going to a play, but in deference to friends from San Antonio who are deeply suspicious of vegetarian fare, we ate at Threadgill’s, which never fails to please omnivores, especially those raised in the South.

I was ready to rest up Sunday night, just as tired as if I’d taken in a Broadway show. At least I didn’t have to unpack. We who are fortunate enough to live in Austin have diamonds on our doorsteps, good times just waiting for us. I’ll meet you downtown. 

Doin’ the Lighten-Up

What kind of country schedules four major annual holidays within a period of 60 days? Answer: America the Bootiefull. Every year we spend ten months a year trying to recover from and lose weight gained during two consecutive months of seasonal stuffing. Beginning with Halloween and ending with New Years, traditional holiday goodies are more trick than treat, more jowl-ly than jolly.

Actually, even if you don’t eat a lot of holiday goodies, the odds are you’re ingesting thousands more calories than usual for you. This is because holiday foods were invented by people who thought butter, sugar, and eggs constituted their own food group. What other time of the year can you consume a 2” cookie containing more calories than the daily allotment for an NFL linebacker?

Over the years, I’ve become adept at lightening up my mother’s holiday recipes. Believe me, it can be done and without altering the flavor. Most of the ingredients I substitute are empty calories you never miss. For instance, replace eggs with egg substitute, and in some cases, melted butter with reconstituted Butter Buds™. These two changes function beautifully in Mama’s dressing, eliminating a truckload of calories, a blessing because I haven’t figured out how to lighten up the cornbread and dried white bread. Applesauce can be substituted for oil in baked goods, which brings my pumpkin bread into the realm of reason. As I mentioned in my Thanksgiving blog, killer pies can be replaced by manslaughter mini-pies, eliminating much booty-bound fat.

My point is, if you just think about it, you can probably lighten up your family’s traditional recipes, too, and even your crabbiest relatives will never know the difference. It’s unrealistic to expect people to pass up holiday foods in favor of a sensible diet, but you can minimize the impact with a few simple changes. And when you’re finished, you won’t feel so much like that stuffed turkey.

I’m still working on lightening the menu for Christmas and New Year’s Day. I haven’t decided whether our traditional Christmas chili will be a tasty vegetarian version or made with lean bison in lieu of beef. The tamales will certainly be of the vegetarian or chicken variety. (You don’t really want to know what the traditional ones are made from anyway.) And as for my New Year’s blackeyed peas, I can’t do much about those calories, once I eliminate the slab bacon my mother cooked with hers. I’m open to suggestions.

So do your family and yourself a favor this year. Do the lighten-up with those holiday recipes, before your clothes do the tighten-up. You won’t be deprived of the holiday munch-down, and you’ll feel a lot better afterwards.


We Gather Together…Cautiously

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, but it has evolved over the years into something quite different from the ones I remember from childhood. Those were gatherings of family members who rarely saw each other the rest of the year, after the force-fed camaraderie of November and December. In those days, I was part of a large and cautiously friendly family.

The family backstory is long and complex, and I’m not sure I ever really heard it all or got it straight. And that was just on my mother’s side. My father’s relatives were equally absent most of the year, although at least they had the excuse of living out-of-town. I liked most of my relatives on both sides, but I heard a lot of grumbling from my older siblings. I think they would have preferred to be invited to Gettysburg for holiday dinners with the Eisenhowers. The result is I never learned to be part of any family, even my immediate one.

Lest this turn into bona fide cheap therapy, I’ll move on to talk about the type of Thanksgiving we have engineered to suit our needs, which we will enjoy again this year. We prefer to approach the holidays carefully. Part of the family is on the same basic diet and likes mostly the same foods. That group, which I’ll call Team Kale, will gather on Thanksgiving Day to eat lots of vegetables and lightened traditional foods.

My daughter is part of Team Kale, and every year she and I have our one family tradition moment with the raw dressing. The recipe has exact measurements except for the moistening chicken broth, so every year I add and stir until it looks right. At that point I call my daughter into the kitchen and say, “See, Megan, this is what it’s supposed to look like.”

“Right, Mama, I see” she replies as if answering ritual questions at a seder. I smile, having  fulfilled the tradition, and we don’t discuss dressing again until next year.

Over the next few days, we will visit the rest of our family groups, hopefully as less a part of the problem and more solution-oriented. We’ll visit calmly, with decorum, making tentative forays and returning before dark. It may be odd, but it works for us.

The point is, we have looked into the abyss that is a ridiculously closely-spaced holiday season in America, and we have blinked. Because there are no longer aging grandparents (other than us) to accommodate with a gathering of the clan, we have managed to bring a very Kilgorean sense of order to the chaos.

Christmas will be approached with the same caution. Gift-opening was an orderly business in my childhood home. Everyone sat and watched as one person opened all their presents. Order was determined by age, progressing from the youngest to the oldest. When I married Bryan, he threw this rather Prussian approach out the window, and we adopted his family custom of taking turns opening gifts, which also ensured reactions were seen by all, but in a more happy-go-lucky format.

I’m here to tell you, holidays are complicated, family dynamics are byzantine, and neither is for the faint-hearted. I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving this week. Don’t be concerned if you come to my house and see signs in the yard that say, “Slow—Rough Pavement Ahead,” or “Reduce Speed—Loose Rocks.” It’s just our way of proceeding with caution.