The Fun Parts

Sometimes, you’re forcing yourself to write. Sometimes, you’re forcing yourself to revise. Sometimes, other people are interrupting the process. But sometimes, interruptions are inspirations.

I’ve been slogging through writing for a while. A TOUGH period. Lots of words on the page, and not much else. I’ve finally sent a big chunk (okay, most of Book 1) to one of my beta readers for feedback. That means either slogging into Book 2, or taking a short break while I wait for feedback.

Waiting is Hell, btw. In case you had any doubts, I don’t think any of us do it well. And nagging is…unseemly.

Luckily for me, my critique partner has reached the point where she’s ready to send me something to review. It is sooo fun to read something new from a friend/colleague. A new story, a new genre, a new world…And I get to reassure her that it is fabulous, and help massage out some rough spots, and ask questions, and generally revel in getting to know new characters.

AND, at the same time, I’ve gotten my entries as a judge in one of my writer group chapters. More new stories by new authors looking for feedback and validation and reassurance and maybe some guidance–and hoping for luck.

I LOVE doing critiques and judging. It uses different skills, and yet helps with my own writing. As I ask “Oh, why have you waited until so late to let us know X?”, I start wondering if I should drop hints earlier in my book about a certain subplot. When I notice an area that lacks description, it helps me realize which areas I tend to skim over in my prose. When I find myself commenting, “She uses this phrase A LOT…”, it makes me accept that, yeah…that cute catch-phrase I love is probably turning up too often in my own pages, and I need to find alternatives because, yeah, the reader REALLY DOES notice.

I also like the idea of providing positive feedback. I know how hard it is to put your writing out there–especially in draft form. Being able to say, “Yes, this is good…keep going.” gives you a warm feeling. Sure, you run into the occasional contest entry that is less-than-perfect, but it’s nice to know you can help by pointing them in the right direction–whether it’s towards a writers group, an editor, or a subject matter expert.

Reading new stories that no one else has seen yet gives me a thrill. It’s fun, exciting, and revs me back up for my own writing. It’s an aspect of writing I hadn’t considered when I first started down this career path, but one I truly enjoy.

Christmas Ornaments—the Reprise

Harking back to my earlier post, luckily for the sake of the attic in the family home, about the time we had restocked the family ornament collection was right around the time my sister and I moved into our own apartments—and, even though we still went home for Christmas at first, we put up our own Christmas trees.

There’s something odd—both exciting and bittersweet—about dividing up the ornaments for fresh starts.  We had always had “our” ornaments.  Our ‘first’ ones were little brass angels with a bell and our names on them that our “new” neighbor had given me and my sister the first Christmas we moved back to the U.S. from Germany.  We developed favorites over the years—a little girl on a rocking horse, a special one from a grandparent.  We always put our special ornaments on the tree ourselves.  Now, they moved to our homes to be the first ones up on ‘our’ trees.  There were others—ones we had gotten in the recent years of restocking, earlier ones that friends had given us.  I was a bit startled when Mom gave us each some of the ones we had made as kids.  And there were a few that we wheedled out of Mom and Dad from the ‘family’ stock that had been favorites, but not many of those.

One of the cool things about striking out as a young adult was the realization that I needed a lot of ornaments to fill the tree.  And Mom and Dad didn’t have any say at all in what I did.  I found a string of glass beads that had a Victorian look.  A roll of ribbon with wired edges to weave through the branches.  A friend who knew I loved tall ships found a set of clipper ships for me one year.  I found strands of dark blue lights that gave a mysterious gleam to the tree.

And, for the first time ever, I was able to indulge some of my whimsical likes.  A friend has given me some of the light-up Star Trek and Star Wars ships that plug into the light string.  In the ’90s, suddenly one could find dragons and unicorns as ornament themes.  A business trip to Cape Cod netted me some darling mermaids and glitter covered shells that look far better than they sound.

When I got married, my husband’s childhood ornaments got added, along with new themes—we now sport a set of dwarves, Dilbert/Dogbert lights, a selection of Civil War related ornaments, and a fair bit of armor and castles.  He also brought along ornaments from a number of historical sites and houses.

When the kids were born, I found a darling set of blue and pink glass pacifiers that are darling as their “first ornaments”.  The kids are adding their own—literally, as we now have our own collection of hand-made ornaments from daycare and school.  And ones they’ve gotten as gifts from family and friends.  And their own preferred ‘themes’—Baloo from Jungle Book for my daughter, and anything Star Wars or Superhero for my son.  She does puppies, he does elephants or turtles.  They’ve each identified ‘their’ special ornaments from the family collection…

And the tradition continues.

But until they move out, we’re going to need a bigger tree.

The Christmas Pickle

Back in the States as20131218_120234 I got older, people asked, since I had grown up in Germany, did we always have a “Christmas pickle” on the Christmas tree?  I was stumped.  I had never heard of it.  Never seen one. Over time, I learned it was an old German tradition, where the family hid a pickle-shaped ornament on the tree, and the child that first spotted the pickle (green ornament in a green tree…) got an extra little present.  Thought it seemed kind of…strange and creepy—I mean, who put a realistic food ornament on their Christmas tree that wasn’t a candy cane? Okay, maybe it could be kind of cute, but I had still never heard of it.  Over time, I’ve gotten used to the story, and pretty much added “and no, we never did the Christmas pickle thing” to any story about growing up in Germany—including the previous blog post, which originally had a sentence on that.

I realized I should probably include a vignette or link about the German Pickle Ornament, and went to find some reputable site explain the historic origins.

Guess what?  It’s a MYTH.  It’s not an “ancient custom.”  It’s NOT EVEN GERMAN.  Which would go far in explaining why we never learned it there.  I checked it out online, and generally it dates to the U.S., mid-to-late 1800s.  They think it’s an American Civil War era tale or possibly just an 1890s marketing scam used to sell Americans some weird German veggie-shaped glass ornaments that had been shipped to America for the first time. They say it’s BECOME an American tradition, but was probably never European in the first place.

How odd!!

Christmas—Traditions in Transit

For my family, Christmas, like Paris, has been a moveable feast.  We were a military family.  I grew up in Illinois, Germany, Virginia, New Mexico, and Thailand.  We were lucky—Dad was always able to be home for the holiday.  Grandparents, however, were a different matter.

I have memories of Christmas in Germany—images, and remembrances triggered by old photos and slides.  At least one year, both sets of grandparents (well, my Dad’s parents and my Mom’s mom—her dad hadBoot xmas display passed away when she was a child.) came over.  We have some great old photos of the family walking across the Rhine River one year when it froze solid.

Both sides of the family lived in Virginia, so when we were stateside and local, we’d drive down to Charlottesville or they would come up to Northern Virginia.  I loved seeing all the different houses decorated for the season.

Oddly enough, the first white Christmas I remember was in New Mexico!  Virginia usually gets its first snow in mid-January—and the snowy months are February and March.  But that year, we woke up Christmas morning to a heavy dusting of snow in the desert.

Bangkok, Thailand, was my first tropical Christmas. The seasons are backwards there, so it was the height of summer—shorts and sleeveless tops.  It was fun seeing the Asian-themed holiday decorations and ornaments, like silk-trimmed Christmas cards and having a water buffalo turn up in the crèche scenes.  That was the first year there was An Issue with the Christmas tree.  It was the late ’60s—artificial trees were cheap, ugly, and, frankly, decent people didn’t use them.  And yet…we were in the Orient.

Dad got notice when cut trees were available to be picked up from the PX.  We were startled when he returned without one.  He broke the news to us—to get to Bangkok by mid-December, the trees had been cut, sent to California for shipping, and put on a cargo boat some FOUR MONTHS earlier.  Yes, the trees had probably been cut sometime between August and September.  He explained that the ones that were available were basically dead and not even green (some, he was pretty sure, had been spray painted), showered needles whenever they were touched, and he said if he put a string of lights in them, he was fairly sure they’d just burst into flame.

We decided we couldn’t do without a tree at all, and Mom declared if we were going to have a fake tree, we weren’t going to be pretending it was a real one. The tree that year was a six-foot silver aluminum one.

Between the tropical weather and the silver tree, it made for a VERY unique Christmas.  We used that tree both years, and it travelled home with us afterwards.  For years, we’d set it up on the screen porch with the larger “generic” extra ornaments—mostly just balls of various colors or that had been gifts with a slightly tacky theme.

I had my parents’ bias against artificial trees for decades.  My husband was in North Carolina for the holidays one year, and I had preschoolers, a full-time job, a killer commute, and a really tight budget.  I went out looking for a real tree that I could afford and handle, and came up blank.  Finally, Christmas Eve, in pure frustration, I bought a pre-lit artificial tree from Target that had just been marked down 50 percent.

And I had it up and lit in less than half an hour.  It was like a freaking Christmas miracle. It looked great.  Especially with ornaments on it, it is difficult to tell that it’s artificial.  All I miss is the scent of a fresh tree—and, frankly, that can be bought these days.  I cannot believe it never really sank in how much ‘fake’ trees had improved in, oh, thirty years.  *sigh*

Now, I’m eyeing one that’s prelit with COLOR lights (the all white gets hot, and is kind of glaring).  I saw one this year that’s programmable—with a clicker and everything (because every house needs ANOTHER remote to lose around the holidays in all the Christmas clutter)—that can be changed from multi-color, to single color, to white, or cycles through. Finding the right size, right style, and right price is a problem, but hopefully we’ll have a new one by next year.

Honestly, my real goal is to have multiple trees…I love ornaments, and really have outgrown a single tree.  I need either a two-story living room for a much taller tree, or multiple trees.  Though I wouldn’t turn down both.

New Year’s Day Lucky Black-Eyed Pea Dip

Family tradition has ALWAYS been that you have to have black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day to have a lucky New Year. And I have always despised black-eyed peas, making this an issue.

One year, my boss came in with some chips and dip for New Year’s, and it was FABULOUS. THEN she told us it was made from black-eye peas. !?!? For real. She shared the recipe. It’s easy to make, keeps for a few days, reheats well, and is adjustable. I find this a bit spicy as-is, but willingly admit I am a complete weenie when it comes to spicy food. I cut the jalapeno down to pretty much nothing, and reduce the pepper. Feel free to adjust as you see fit. (I’ve also never made it with bacon, so I’m sure that makes it even better)

New Year’s Day Good Luck Black-Eyed Pea Dip

Saute in bacon grease or butter (in a pot or deep frying pan):

½ of a green pepper, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 jalapeno or one 4 oz can of chopped green chiles
One onion, chopped

Add:

1 Tbs Tabasco
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
2 cans black eyed peas
1 Tbs of garlic powder (or equivalent of fresh crushed garlic)
1½ cups ketchup

Cook for 30 minutes

Remove some fluid from pot. Mix fluid with 3 Tablespoons of flour; put back in the pot to thicken.

Cook a few minutes longer.

Serve warm with crumbled bacon on top.

Use large Fritos or something similar for dippers. Better the 2nd day.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Christmas—Traditions

I remember tales my mom used to tell of her Christmases.  When she and her brother went to bed on Christmas Eve, nothing was decorated.  There was no tree, no wreaths, nothing.  They hung their stockings on a bare mantel.

When they woke up and came down Christmas morning, the entire house had been decorated; stockings were stuffed, and the tree was up, lit with candles, fully decorated, with presents beneath it.  Santa Claus had done it all.

Oddly enough, I don’t remember any similar stories from my Dad’s side of the family.

Our homage to that family tradition was, we put the tree up Christmas Eve.  It came down New Year’s Day.

Knowing this at least gave a framework.  Over the years, as my sister and I got older, we’d lobby for putting some things out earlier…but it wasn’t ever anywhere near Thanksgiving, much less Halloween.

For a number of years, we wondered if it weren’t just disorganization and rank procrastination that had started the ‘story’ of Santa bringing the tree.  I do understand that is another real European tradition that was carried on in some places in the States.

As an adult, I can fully see the total impracticality of the theory.  That puts an amazing amount of pressure on the parents to help Santa out.  Quietly.  On top of all of the other seasonal demands on their time at, say, 10 p.m. Christmas Eve.

But I can imagine the totally magical effect it must have had.

Over time, as my sister and became adults, the tree got put up a bit earlier, though in Mom’s house, it always came down on New Year’s Day.  As we both have our own households now, my sister and I put up our own trees, and the Christmas Eve tree is now just a family story, not a family tradition.

Personally, I find I like having the season last longer by have the tree up earlier.

Christmas—Childhood Traditions

I love Christmas.  Always have.  I love the magic of it, the magic of belief.  And the decorations.  The cheerful, colorful, happy, sparkly decorations.

I spent early Christmases in Germany in the early 1960s, and a lot of those traditions rubbed off—St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) as sort of a teaser for the big event with boots. The old-world decorations—red and white mushrooms, green and red gnomes, magical white stags, and classic sleighs. closeup top of boot w ornaments

My family had gorgeous European glass ornaments—most of which my sister and I weren’t allowed to touch for years.  Then, one year, we had a Christmas tragedy—one of the dogs knocked over the tree, and most of the ‘family’ ornaments shattered.  In the ’80s, it was nearly impossible to find “old world” ornaments as replacements.  Garish was in, along with bizarre colors.  I remember searching high and low for ANYTHING appropriate for replacements, and coming up with some sort of beige-ish gold balls that were the epitome of BORING.

My sister and came up with a plan—during the year, we would search high and low at our respective college towns and business travel locations and, by Christmas, come up with an ornament to use as a package decoration for each person.  Sure enough, given enough time and craft festivals, we could usually come up with a unique piece per person.  Over time, we slowly started building up the family tree.

Then, the chain import stores opened, and getting a set of traditional German clip on mushrooms was suddenly possible.  And Christmas stores became trendy, and all at once finding unique wooden or ceramic items wasn’t hard.

The tree wasn’t the same as it had been as a kid, but it was still a unique and classic tree every year.