Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year!

Another year has come and gone.  2011: you were fabulous.  I got married, honeymooned in Maui, and started telecommuting.  Lots of wonderful things happened!  (I also started this blog in 2011, but I'll let you decide whether or not that was a good thing).

Over the years, my relationship with New Years Eve has evolved.  As a child, I thought it was one of the best parts of being an adult.  Everyone went to exciting parties, wore fabulous dresses and had life-altering experiences at midnight.  (My opinion was deeply influenced by When Harry Met Sally).

As a junior high and high school student, New Years Eve meant "lucrative babysitting gigs."  One year, it meant "Twin Peaks marathon."  I have a very low tolerance for scary/creepy shows, and to this day, I am haunted by one of the Twin Peaks episodes that I watched on December 31, 199?.

As a college student, New Years Eve was unpredictable/weird.  For the 1999/2000 celebration, my high school friend Kristin decided we should stay awake all night and take lots of photos.  My memories of that night are hazy, but we definitely drove to San Diego, ate a meal at Denny's, and took photographs at the Santa Monica pier around sunset.  For the 2000/2001 celebration, my baby sister had her appendix removed.  At midnight, I was in the emergency room.  It was an experience, to say the least.

In my mid-20s, I alternated between good New Years Eves and boring/awkward/disappointing New Years Eves.  The holiday just carries too many expectations for the young and single. 

Now, in my 30s, I celebrate the beginning/end of the year at home with my husband.  We cook a good meal, watch t.v. and fall asleep when we are tired.  Last year, this meant falling asleep before 10 p.m. 

No matter how you are celebrating New Years Eve, I hope you enjoy a safe and happy holiday.  And remember, there is no shame in falling asleep before midnight.   Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

It's Not Just A Puzzle. It's An Emotional Journey.

On a rainy day, my husband and I decided to assemble a 300 piece puzzle.  We cleared the kitchen table and dumped out all the pieces.

This was going to be so easy!  What were we thinking, buying a 300 piece puzzle?  We should have bought the 1000, no, the 5000 piece puzzle!  And a flat, two-dimensional puzzle?  Child's play.  We should have bought one of those 3-d puzzles of the Taj Majal. 

Cheerfully, we began to piece together the puzzle's border. 

The border was not as easy to assemble as we thought it would be.  We discovered that when you buy a puzzle of trees with orange leaves, most of the pieces are orange and look exactly the same as the other 299 pieces.  When you are dealing with predominantly orange puzzle pieces, and you find a piece with a fleck of green, that is suddenly the most exciting moment of your day.  Holy eff!  This piece has a fleck of green!  This is the most amazing thing ever!   

After we assembled the border, we were left with a pile of orange pieces.  Uh-oh.  Why did we buy the fall foliage puzzle?  There was a tropical fish puzzle with like a gazillion different colors.  We bought the most difficult puzzle in the world.   

After many breaks, and pep talks, the puzzle began to come together.  We are puzzle gods!  Is there a competitive jigsaw puzzle circuit?  Because we would destroy the competion.

It was slow, but satisfying, process.  Kind of like climbing a mountain.  But less athletic.

And finally, after several days and many puzzle sessions, we were in the home stretch.  Our shoulders were sore from hunching over the table, and our eyeballs were ready to fall out but we were almost there.

And then, magically, we were done.  We admired our handiwork, as if we ourselves had grown the trees and painted the leaves orange.  We talked intensely about the different shades of foliage.  We praised ourselves for our perseverance and teamwork.

And then, in the space of about 45 seconds, we disassembled the puzzle, dumped the pieces back into the box, and shoved the puzzle box on a bookshelf.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Scavenger Hunt: The Rose Parade Edition

First, a Public Service Announcement: Pasadena's Rose Parade is January 2, 2012 at 8:00 a.m. PST.  Wait, what?  Isn't it supposed to be on New Years Day?  Did somebody reschedule New Years Day?  No, silly, New Years Day is still on January 1, 2012.  But the Rose Parade is never held on a Sunday, so this year, it has been pushed to Monday, January 2.  (Long ago, God struck a deal with Pasadena).

Part of me loves the Rose Parade.  They make floats out of flowers!  How cool is that?  But parades are slow and tedious.  When I go to a parade, I always pick the wrong spot: the floats speed by, and the bands linger.  I end up hearing a marching band's rendition of the Macarena five or six times but only see each float for approximately 0.7 seconds. 

Lucky for me, I live within walking distance of the Rose Parade.  Rather than camp out all night and stand in one spot for the entire parade, I just walk along the route.  If there's something I want to admire, I stop and look.  I don't see everything, but I see enough.

But I realize some of you are committed to watching the entire parade.  In that case, I recommend playing a scavenger hunt to pass the time.  This is not the sort of game that involves knocking on neighbors' doors and collecting weird items.  This is a game where you just look for "moments" and "sights."  You can play alone, with friends or even with your worst enemy. 

If you are watching the 2012 Rose Parade, try to find:
  • A skittish horse about to throw its rider.
  • A marching band from a city you have never heard of.
  • A vendor selling cotton candy and wearing an absurd hat.  (Last year, the vendors by my house were wearing hats that looked like panda heads).
  • A person riding on a float who looks bored.  (Bonus points if she's a member of the Rose Court).
  • A vehicle in distress - e.g. moving erratically, not moving at all, etc.
  • A child asking his parents why the parade is so boring.
  • A float that looks like one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
  • A tuba player on the verge of a heart attack.
  • A float with a message/theme that makes no sense - e.g. "The Humble Water Tree Unites The World" or "Let's Be Jubilant and Weep."
  • A float that makes children cry.
  • A float that is bigger than your house.
  • A marching band that makes you want to stand up and dance.
  • A marching band that makes you want to leave the country and avoid parades for the rest of your life.
  • An extended family that has been camping along the parade route for several days.  Bonus points if they have installed a couch on the roof of their RV.
  • Onlookers watching the parade from a precarious position, e.g. children sitting on collapsible lawn chairs on the slanted roof of a house.  Which I actually saw last year (and briefly, thought about alerting the authorities).
  • A lost car trying to drive across the parade route. 
  • A police officer ready to defend the parade's integrity with his dying breath.
  • A pizza being delivered to someone watching the parade.  Bonus points if you ordered the pizza yourself.
  • Onlookers who seriously misjudged the weather. 
  • Cheerleaders who are entirely too excited about the fact that they are in a parade.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

New Year Resolutions-Schmezolutions

New Year Resolutions are about fresh starts and beginnings.  It's about looking at your life and resolving to embrace new and improved habits.  Eat less!  Exercise more!  Stop impersonating the Swedish Chef in public!

Theoretically, if you make a resolution, then it shows you are determined to make that change a part of your life. 

Yeah.  Right.

In my experience, if it's on your New Years Resolution list, then it's not going to happen:

 What Actually Happens
 Lose weight!
 Gain 20-30 pounds.
 Quit biting nails!
 Chew off entire finger.
 Be nicer to your fellow man!
 Engage in an act of road rage so severe, it makes the national evening news.

I thought about making some Reverse Resolutions this year.  You know, instead of resolving to lose weight, I'll resolve to gain weight.  Then, I'll feel unnaturally compelled to train for a marathon and adopt a vegan diet.

However, I am not prepared to take that sort of risk.  Knowing my luck, I would finally manage to keep a New Years Resolution.  By the end of 2012, I'd look like a porpoise.  So this year, I am making zero resolutions.  Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pasadena's Greatest Hits List For Rose Bowl And Rose Parade Tourists

To all of the Oregon Ducks and Wisconsin Badgers fans who have traveled to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl: Welcome!  Pasadena is a great city, and I hope you enjoy your visit.

To all of the tourists from distance parts who have traveled to Pasadena for the sole purpose of camping in the streets and watching the Rose Parade: Seriously?  It's a parade.  You can watch it on t.v. It's broadcast on multiple channels!  Outside, it's cold, crowded and the bathroom set-up is questionable.  Inside, it's warm, comfortable and if the bathroom is questionable, that's your own damn fault.  But you're here, so I guess you must really like parades.  In which case, you have come to the right town!  Welcome (and please do not park your car on my front lawn). 

For all of the tourists who are descending upon the city, I thought I'd compile a list of Pasadena's Greatest Hits.  Enjoy!

Things to Do:
  • If you liked the movie Sea Biscuit, go to Santa Anita Park, a historic and beautiful race track.  You can bet on the horses or just admire the grounds.  I promise, you will feel like you time traveled to the 1930s.  If you've never bet on a horse race before, here's my super secret tip: just pick the horse with the best name.  (And yes, I started my list with a place in Arcadia, but Arcadia is Pasadena-adjacent).   
  • Go shopping in Old Town Pasadena.  It has all of the stores you expect to find at a good mall, like Banana Republic and Pottery Barn, but it has the charm of an old Main Street.  There are tons of restaurants, and many of the restaurants have outdoor seating.  If you want a cup of coffee while you are shopping, go to the Starbucks at the Barnes & Noble and ask for a cup from the Clover Brewer.  Trust me.
  • If you are traveling with small children, I understand you should take them to Kidspace Children's Museum.  I have never been, but my friends with little ones claim it is the place to visit.  So there's that.

Museums and Gardens:
  • The Huntington is a beautiful old mansion turned into an art museum with spectacular gardens.  (Warning: the gardens were damaged during Pasadena's recent wind storms).
  • The Norton Simon is a small but excellent art museum with a sculpture garden and lots of paintings from the Impressionists (think Degas and Van Gogh). 
  • Descanso Gardens are just a 10-15 minute drive from Old Town Pasadena, but it feels like another world.  In thirty minutes, you can wander through a formal rose garden, a Japanese garden (with bridges over a koi pond) and an oak forest.  There's a small train for the kiddies.   
Breakfast Spots:
  • Green Street Restaurant: The zucchini bread is a must.  They make my favorite egg dishes.
  • Russell's: A good restaurant with good breakfast in Old Town.
  • The Terrace at the Langham: If you are interested in an upscale ($$$) breakfast in a beautiful setting, this is the place.  The Langham is the best hotel in Pasadena, and the grounds are lovely.  If you watch Mad Men, Don Draper had cocktails at the Langham's bar during the California episodes.  (When the UCLA Bruins are playing at home at the Rose Bowl, the football players stay at the Langham.  If you are a Ducks or Badgers fan, maybe your players are staying here as well).
Mmm, Hamburgers:
  • In-N-Out: This is California's hamburger chain restaurant, and the burgers are delicious.  Warning: the location on Foothill just has a few outdoor tables.  I recommend the drive-thru.
  • The Counter: A nice restaurant with gourmet burgers.  Warning: the website plays loud music!
  • Super Burger: This is a hamburger stand with al fresco dining.  (By "al fresco," I mean you will be sitting next to a busy street, across from an old gas station, and surrounded by fearless pigeons).  The ambiance is best described as "rough."  But the cheeseburgers and fries are excellent.  If you are the sort of person who is always searching for the best burger, go here.
Mexican Restaurants:
  • El Cholo is a Los Angeles institution.  This is the place for margaritas, guacamole and fajitas.  (Note: there are multiple El Cholo's in Los Angeles County, but there is some family drama, so the Pasadena location has its own website.  You have to google Pasadena El Cholo or just click the link I provided).
  • Chiquita Bonita has no ambiance. But the food is amazing.  If you are looking for cheap but delicious and filling Mexican food that will leave you in a coma for the next week, this is your place.
And In Its Own Category, I've Saved the Best for Last:
  • Pie N Burger: This is the best pie in the universe.  During your visit, you should probably just skip regular meals and eat pie all day.  Especially the boysenberry. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I hope your day is filled with joy, love and laughter.  Feliz Navidad!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Off to Nebraska!

Yes, you read that right - I am off to Nebraska for the holidays!  My husband grew up in a small town of 1,600 in rural Nebraska.  We are spending the holidays with my new in-laws. (I have scheduled some posts for next week in case you are desperate for a Cranky Pumpkin fix.)

Today, we fly to Omaha.  Earlier this year, there was a direct flight between Los Angles and Omaha.  And this is fabulous because who wants to make a connection, especially during the holiday travel season?  But, alas, the airline cancelled the direct flight (AAARGGHH) so we will be flying to Omaha via Dallas.  Take a look at a U.S. map - you will note that the path from L.A. to Omaha via Dallas is not exactly a direct route.  In fact, some would say it is an extremely indirect route.  Oh well, such is life.

At Eppley Airfield, aka the Omaha airport, I will watch for our baggage while Nathan secures the rental car.  Then, we have to walk outside to get the car, and this will be the coldest walk of my life.  Holy crap, just thinking about the walk makes me shiver.  I went to college in middle-of-nowhere-New Hampshire, and I took some long, cold walks across the campus at 3 a.m. in February because that is what stupid dumbass college students do.  But the walk from the baggage claim area to the rental car lot at the Omaha airport is colder. 

Then, we will drive into Nebraska because the Omaha airport is actually in Iowa.  (Duh).  We will drive to my mother-in-law's house in an Omaha suburb and spend the next twenty-one hours at her place, eating cookies, opening presents, eating more cookies, and eating a Christmas Eve holiday lunch. 

In my family, we always celebrate Christmas Eve with my Aunt Berta's lasagna.  Let me tell you about Aunt Berta's lasagna: it's amazing.  There's also a pink frothy jello casserole thing which should be terrible but is hauntingly delicious.  So, I should spend Christmas Eve pining for the traditional food I grew up with, but fortunately, my mother-in-law is an excellent cook.  She makes a dumpling dish that I think about all year.  Dumplings for lasagna is a fair trade.

After we are fortified with dumplings and handed bags of cookies, we will depart for rural Nebraska.  It's a 3 hour drive from Omaha to my husband's hometown, but we will make various detours for holiday celebrations - there's Christmas Eve dinner with the paternal grandparents in one town; Christmas Day lunch with the maternal grandparents in another town; and then we will finally drive to Nathan's hometown. 

Are you still reading?  If so, here are some photos of rural Nebraska that I took while we were driving through the countryside during December 2009.  The photos might be a little blurry, because I took them while Nathan was driving.  There's no "parking the car and admiring the view and considering the best angle for your photograph" in Nebraska in December.  The car is warm; the air outside is snot-freezing cold.  You take what photos you can from the moving vehicle, and you hope that a few are okay.  
With that said, this is what the drive in December from Omaha to Small Town, Nebraska looks like:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Secret Christmas Wish List

When I was little, one of the best parts about Christmas was the Sears Wish Book.  My brother and I flipped through the catalog and initialed the toys that we wanted for Christmas.  I would try to be conservative and initial just a reasonable number of gifts.   But then I got drunk on the pages and pages of toys - doll houses!  ant farms!  boardgames!  stuffed animals!  microscopes!  swing sets!  And like a drunken frat boy, I would black out and initial about 370 different toys. 

It was not the best strategy.  Did I really expect Santa to deliver 370 toys?  I was a pretty good kid, but no one is that good.  I should have initialed, at most, ten or twelve toys, and maximized my chances of getting the toys that I really wanted. 

Sears still publishes the Wish Book, but I stopped initialing its pages years ago.  And if I did initial its pages today, I'd mark boring crap, like a humidifier, new dust buster, and a soap dispenser.  (If I was feeling really sassy, I'd initial a set of metal shelves for the garage). 

But even though I've grown up, I still have an unattainable wish list.  I suppose you could say I've graduated from the Sears Wish Book.  This year, I secretly covet:

- A Segway (but I would graciously accept a golf cart, dune buggy or a mint green Vespa).
- A confetti cannon (a girl should always be ready to make a dramatic entrance).
- A copy of Thump, Thump, Thump, one of my favorite books when I was a child.  It's out of print now.  Maybe Santa will steal the library's copy for me?

As you can see, I have matured.  My secret wish list does not include an Italian villa, a pet dinosaur or dinner with Benjamin Franklin.  Its short and very practical.  Santa should be able to fit these gifts down my chimney easily.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Shameful Handwriting

It's a good thing that I was born in The Age of the Keyboard, because my handwriting is just shameful.

Here's a recent example:

I can't even read this.  Seriously, I have no idea what I wrote.  My best guess is that it says "Fart Davel," except that makes no sense.  Who/what/where is Fart Davel?  Is this an idea for the Great American Novel?  A new store I want to visit? 

Or, more likely, is this an early warning sign for a mental breakdown?  Did a demon write this while I was sleeping?  It looks like my handwriting, but I bet demons are adept at forgery.

I can tell this mysterious note is going to haunt me for a long time.

O Fake Christmas Tree!

I love our fake Walmart Christmas tree.  Every year, we assemble it Thanksgiving weekend and leave it up until the New Year; and we never have to worry about a dead Christmas tree inferno.  I know some people love trekking to a Christmas tree lot to pick out their tree, but I've never been one of those people. 

These are some of the reasons I hate buying a tree from the lot:

1.  All of the trees are flawed - they either lean like the Tower of Pisa or have a big unsighty hole. 

2.  You have to tie the damn thing to the roof of your car and drive it home.  Seriously?  This is legal? 

3. You have to drag the tree through your house, leaving a trail of damp pine needles.  And no matter how many times you vacuum the mess, you will still be finding rogue needles in July.

4.  When you set the tree up, it's never the right size.  It's either too big for the room, and you have to decapitate it.  Or, it's ludicrously small and just looks sad.  

5.  After you decorate the tree, you have to water it every day or two.  In order to water the tree, you have to shimmy under the branches on your belly and get poked in the face by a thousand needles.  And when you shimmy under the tree, the branches shake and ornaments fall.  The fragile glass ornamnets especially enjoy falling.  There's nothing quite like a broken Christmas ornament to bring out one's inner Grinch.   

The fake Christmas tree eliminates all of these problems.  If you miss the smell of pine or the "fun" of going to a tree lot, just wander around your local tree lot and buy a wreath.  It's cheaper and much more civilized.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holy Crap, The Commercials Weren't Lying

While I was standing in line at the register at Walgreen's, I spotted Topple, an old boardgame from the 80s.  I had never actually played the game, but I was brainwashed by 80s commercials to believe it was AMAZING.  And commercials never lie, right?   When my husband reported the game only cost $7, the decision was made: I had to own Topple.

Still, I had my doubts.  This was a boardgame that I wanted to play when I was 8 years old.  Was it really going to amuse Mature Older Courtney?  It was probably just a poor man's Jenga.  But, there are worse ways to waste $7.

I don't know why I doubted the Topple commercials.  For starters, take a look at the back of the box: 

Let's start with the mom's sweater vest.  How amazing is that thing??  And how did they get her hair to look like she was just electrocuted?  Is it safe to wear that much hair spray?  Would she just spontaneously combust if she walked near an open flame?  And what color is the dad's hair?  It's electric blonde on top with dark brown side burns!  Obviously, any game that comes in this packaging is going to be amazing.  (And, even if the game sucks, the box can still be proudly displayed as a work of art).

The game is amazing.  I kind of want to stop writing this post right now and play again.  It's just the right mix of skill, strategy and luck. 

Here's my husband carefully placing a piece on the wobbly board.  Please note that he is strategically leaning in order to place the piece without "toppling" the board.  It's an intense game.  (Oh look, Rivals of Catan is still on the table.  Blush.)

Now that I've played Topple several times, I would gladly buy it again for $20.  The 80s commercials did not lie.  Every household in America needs this game. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Christmas Wrap Quilt

 I wrapped Christmas presents yesterday.  Wrapping presents is a special type of torture.  (I believe it's the fifth level of hell in Dante's Inferno). 

In Christmases past, I tried to wrap everything in one sitting.  Bad idea.  Bad effing idea.  After the second present, I sacrificed style for speed.  My presents looked liked they had been wrapped by a thumbless elf.  And, by the time I was done, I felt like I was five minutes away from throwing my back out.  I guess my posture suffers when I'm wrestling with gift wrap and oddly-shaped presents.  

This year, I planned ahead.  I devoted an entire Sunday to wrapping presents.  I gathered all the presents, wrapping paper, and supplies in my living room - and then I walked away.  I wrapped a few presents - and then I walked away.  By bedtime, everything was wrapped and presentable.  (Sorry). 

Only one gift presented any difficulties.  (OMG.  I hate myself).  I knew I was in trouble when the package arrived:

Given the box's length, I was going to have to overlap sheets of gift wrap.  But, I didn't want to use half a roll of gift wrap on a single present.  What to do?

I used the remnants from Christmas 2010's gift wrap and created a Gift Wrap Quilt.  It's festive, in a tragic sort of way.  The silver bow really ties it all together.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Thirteen Stages Of What Happens When You Wear A Distinctive Dress to A Holiday Party And Some Other $%&# Is Wearing The Same Dress

'Tis the season for holiday parties! 

I don't know why I just used the exclamation mark to finish that sentence.  The exclamation mark implies that I love holiday parties, but in my experience, holiday parties suck.  Maybe I would change my mind if I was invited to an Ugly Christmas Sweater party or an intimate cocktail party hosted by Tina Fey.  But in my experience, "holiday party" is just a nice way to say "obligatory office party that is depressing, awkward and awful." 

You know what's the worst part about holiday parties?  Deciphering the dress code.  Actually, that's probably not the worst part of a holiday party.  The worst part is getting stuck at a table with your least favorite co-workers and then being forced to dance with your boss.  (Not that I'm speaking from experience).  But "deciphering the dress code" is definitely on the list of Twenty Or Thirty Things That Really Suck About Holiday Parties.

And you know what's also on that list?  Wearing a distinctive dress to a holiday party and then some other #$%& is wearing the exact same dress.  The emotional response to this catastrophe is complicated but can be broken down into thirteen stages:

1.  Ignorance: You wear a distinctive dress to a holiday party.

2.  More ignorance: You are having a good time.  Someone compliments your dress.

3.  Awareness: Someone walks by and oh my god she's wearing my dress.

4.  Rage: That bitch.

5.  Insecurity: Is she thinner than me?

6.  Denial: That's okay, I still look hot in this dress.  

7.  Self-consciousness: Everyone knows.  They have all seen  that we are wearing the same dress.  That's all they can talk about.  Everyone in this ballroom/conference room/aquarium is debating who looks better in my dress: me or that bitch.

8.  Reasonableness: Stop being so paranoid.

9.  Despair: Oh my god, why is she wearing my dress???

10.  Alcohol: This alcohol tastes good.

11.  More Alcohol: Soooooo goooood.

12.  Forgetfulness: I really like waffles.

13.  The Next Day: Oh, it was so hilarious, I was my office's holiday party, and I was wearing the same dress as the boss' wife! Isn’t that a funny coincidence?

Wearing the same dress as another party goer is not a faux pas, but it certainly feels like one.  This year, I hope the Fashion Gods are kind and protect you from this disaster.  If not, I recommend hiding behind a Christmas tree with a big glass of egg nog.  Happy holiday parties! 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Adventures In Preparing Holiday Meals

Nathan and I celebrated Thanksgiving with my extended family, and I only baked a pumpkin cheesecake for that gathering.  We are celebrating Christmas with my in-laws in Nebraska, so I will not get a chance to bake or cook for that gathering.  (It's kind of hard to travel with sweet potato casserole as a carry-on.  And I don't even want to think what would happen if I packed it in my checked baggage).  But I wanted to prepare a proper holiday meal, so Nathan and I recently hosted a generic holiday meal for my parents and sister. 

First off, I don't know how professional chefs do it.  I had so much fun cooking all of the side dishes, and I love preparing big meals for my family.  But holy crap, I was so exhausted, I fell asleep at 7 p.m.  I was lying on the couch watching The Muppet Show with Nathan.  At the end of an episode, I said, "I just need to rest my eyes for a few minutes."  Right.  Just a few minutes.  I passed out, only reviving briefly at 9:30 p.m. to devour a Quarter Pounder with cheese.  (We'd eaten the holiday meal at 2 p.m). I ate that burger as fast as I could because I just wanted to crawl into bed and zonk out for the next twelve hours.    

As I prepared all of the side dishes for the Generic Holiday Meal, I vacillated between Serenity and Panic.  My inner monologue went something like this:

- Oh my god, it's already 7 a.m.!  How am I going to prepare all this food!
- This is so freaking easy.  La de da, I'm going to take a break and watch some t.v.
- What was I thinking?  STUPID STUPID STUPID.  There's no time for television!  We'll be lucky if I finish even one of these dishes.
- Oh, why was I so worried?  I am a Side Dish Goddess.  I can make this stuffing with my eyes closed.
- ^#@&*^*!(_*#_(!)*$)(*!)(*!!!!!!!!!

And so on.  I probably passed out at 7 p.m. from emotional, and not physical, exhaustion. 

But the food was delicious and I was so happy to share the meal with my family.  (If anything, my panic probably made the meal tastier and satisfying for me).  If you are looking for some good holiday recipes, this is what we enjoyed:

- Turkey fried with infra-red technology in The Big Easy.

- Sweet potato casserole with a pecan topping, using this recipe.  This thing is criminally delicious.  I was skeptical because I've always loved yams with marshmallows, but this casserole should be on every holiday table. 

- Stuffing using this recipe.  It was very delicious, but I am not ready to sign up for a committed relationship with this stuffing.  I still want to audition some other recipes.

- Balsamic braised brussel sprouts with pancetta, using this recipe.  Oh, so delicious.  I am in a monogamous, committed relationship with this recipe.  Whenever I want fancy brussel sprouts, I'm inviting these guys to the party. 

- And for dessert, nutmeg maple butter cookies, using this recipe.  We really didn't need dessert, but these cookies are delicious and stay tasty for a week.  They manage to be crispy but chewy at the same time.  I'll definitely be baking these cookies again next December.  (Oh hell, who am I kidding?  I'll definitely be baking these cookies again next week!) 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Muppets Mania!

I am currently in the throes of a Muppets obsession.  My love for the Muppets started as a child with the Muppet movies, Muppet Babies (one of my favorite cartoon series) and of course Sesame Street.  I'm told I watched The Muppet Show, but if that's true, it predates the development of my long term memory. 

I have loved the Muppets through the years, but the new Muppets movie pushed my enthusiasm to a new (slightly embarrassing) level.  And I almost didn't see the movie!  My husband and I tried to see the early show of The Muppets on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, but the projector was broken.  (I guess the projector guy was having a wild Saturday night, if you know what I mean).  We waited for 45 minutes and incredibly, in the year 2011, the theater had to cancel the showing.  WTF?  The mega-movie theater at my mall does not have a spare video projector?  And then, they cancel The Muppets instead of the latest Twilight crapfest?

But we finally managed to see The Muppets about ten days ago, and I smiled during the entire movie.  I have only one complaint: I deliberately took an emergency bathroom break during a scene that I was positive would not involve the Swedish Chef.  But of course, *&$(@Q, I missed a Swedish Chef moment.  My husband described the scene in detail, but it's just not the same.  (I guess I have to go see the movie again.  Right now!)

Now we are watching The Muppet Show.  Netflix sent us Season One, but we probably need to buy the DVDs.

I also want to design my own Muppet Whatnot, available here from FAO Schwartz.  You get to choose your Muppet's body, eyes, nose, hair and outfit.  I am overwhelmed by the possibilities.  Should my Whatnot have glasses?  A beard?  Does it need a Broadway showgirl outfit?  Or a lounge jacket?  I can't even decide if my Muppet Whatnot is a boy or girl!  I just know that I need one, stat.   

In the meantime, I am happy with the Beaker ornament we bought for our tree.  I cannot pick a favorite Muppet, but Beaker is a serious contender.  This year, Hallmark released a special singing Beaker ornament that's available at Hallmark stores.  Every tree should have a Beaker ornament, but here's a video of the ornament in action so you can vicariously appreciate its awesomeness.  Please pardon the shaky footage - I filmed this with my iPhone (and Sundance won't be calling me anytime soon).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Very Tragic Christmas Craft Project

Last week, I had a vision for a craft project called "The Christmas Tree Bouquet."  Let's pretend a Christmas tree fell in love with a bouquet of flowers and they had a child.  That child is The Christmas Tree Bouquet. 

In my imagination, the Christmas Tree Bouquet is a holiday decoration that is festive, whimsical, and rustic.  It looks great on your mantle!  It's an amazing centerpiece!  It's the IT decoration for winter weddings!  And, you only need some sticks, red yarn and a glass vase.

In actuality, the Christmas Tree Bouquet is an adomination:

I wrapped red yarn around some sticks and gathered the sticks into a bouquet.  When I started this project, I had delusions that involved Martha Stewart and the Barefoot Contessa.  (Don't ask.)  But by the time I was done, I felt sorry for the sticks.  And the yarn.

Before I accepted defeat, I decided to put the Christmas Tree Bouquet on my mantle.  I had to at least see how it looked, right?

In the photograph, it actually looks okay.  But in person, it's just a very tragic craft project. You remember the sad little tree that Charlie Brown bought for the Peanuts' pageant?  It was just a tired twig, but Charlie Brown saw its potential.  Well, if Charlie Brown saw my Christmas Tree Bouquet, he would set it on fire.  

But I will not stop crafting!  I love crafting, and I'm not going to let an abomination like the Christmas Tree Bouquet break my spirit.  (Okay, it did break my spirit, but only for about fifteen minutes.  Then I had a piece of fudge, and fudge makes everything better). 

I just hope that I will always be able to admit defeat when the craft project I imagine does not match the finished creation. Or, at a minimum, I hope that I will always have good friends who are willing to say, "Hey Courtney, you know that Christmas Tree Bouquet you made?  It's really freaking ugly.  Throw that %$&@ out."

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Silly Kitchen Feet

For the record, this is what my feet look like when I'm cooking and baking:

The Crocs offer critical support so I can stand for hours and not get tired.  The red striped socks offer warmth and a North Pole sense of style. 

Note to readers: if you are looking for fashion advice, you have come to the wrong blog.

Man Toy: The Big Easy

My husband Nathan made a turkey this past weekend in the Big Easy.  The Big Easy is an oil-less infrared turkey fryer that makes amazing turkey.  I used to regard turkey as a necessary evil that justified Thanksgiving side dishes.  When Nathan first used the Big Easy last year, it turned me into a turkey convert.  Holy crap, fried turkey is delicious! 

According to Amazon, the Big Easy can fry up to a 16 pound turkey.  But on Saturday, we were able to squash a 17.5 bird into the Big Easy cage.  (We did have to tie the legs together.  And the cooked turkey did not want to come out of its cage.  But hey, it worked). 

The Big Easy fries the turkey so you get a crispy skin and moist, yummy turkey.  But, it does not use oil, so you eliminate the danger of burning your house down.  Instead of oil, the Big Easy just hooks up to a tank of propane.  And its infrared, which just sounds bad ass. 

The Big Easy is safe, but we still set it up by the pool and far away from things that like to burn.  In case of fire, we can just kick the Big Easy into the water.  (What would our pool man think if he found a raw turkey, a propane tank, and the Big Easy at the bottom of our pool?)

Here's an action shot of the Big Easy working its magic on our tukey (imagine the most wonderful smell ever):

It takes about 10 minutes per pound to cook a turkey in the Big Easy.  Other meats apparently take longer, but so far, we have only cooked turkey in the Big Easy. 

I'm excited to experiment with other meats because, while delicious, turkey is a big production. We brine the turkey for two days, which means removing a shelf from the fridge and letting the turkey take over.  Yesterday, after we tranferred the brined bird to the Big Easy, I spent about 30 minutes sterilizing my kitchen with paper towels and 409.  Call it paranoia, but when it comes to raw poultry, I am vigilent. 

If you are looking for a fun toy for the man in your life, I highly recommend this device.  If you think of turkey as a blah poultry, the Big Easy will make you a turkey convert.  And if you already think you like turkey, you are going to have a religious experience.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cupid: Dumbest Name Ever For A Flying Reindeer

As a small child, I thought it was very important to memorize the names of Santa's reindeer.  I remember silently practicing the lyrics to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer during any downtime I had at school.  (I was a huge nerd).

Although I have recited the names of the reindeer about one million times, it only recently occurred to me that Cupid the Reindeer shares a name with Cupid the Greek god.  After I made this important connection, I spent an unhealthy amount of time wondering: why the hell did Santa name one of his reindeer after the official mascot of Valentine's Day

Finally, I put the pieces together: Cupid the Fat Baby God can fly; Cupid the Reindeer can fly; and Santa was trying to inspire his reindeer to soar through the sky like a magnificent Greek god.    

But is Cupid the God the sort of role model we want for Cupid the Reindeer?  Cupid the God is a fat baby who terrorizes the singles of the world with his enchanted arrows.  Do we really want an obese, violent reindeer landing on our roofs?  I don't know about you, but I prefer my Christmas reindeer svelte and sedated.  (Have you listened to Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer recently?  A cautionary tale if I've ever heard one).

And while I'm on the subject: what was Venus/Aphrodite doing letting her fat son fly around and shoot people with arrows?  If Venus and Cupid were alive today, Venus would be convicted of child abuse and Cupid would be sent into foster care.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Scavenger Hunt: The Christmas Lights Edition

As you drive around your neighborhood admiring the Christmas lights, try to find:
  • A house with just 3 sad blinking lights.
  • A house that looks like the Griswolds.
  • Two neighbors on the same block who are locked in a death match for the title "King of the Christmas Decorations"
  • A Christmas light display that makes you feel uncomfortable and/or sad
  • Decorations that were hung by a heavily intoxicated/annoyed husband
  • A display that makes you say "where do they store those decorations all year?"
  • An electric bill that represents the GNP of a small European nation
  • A house with just one strand of lights lining the roof, like sane people used to do in the 80s

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pie n' Burger; Or, This Is The Pie They Serve In Heaven

Would you take a look at this pie? I mean, seriously, pie this beautiful should not be legal, but apparently it is, and you can buy it by the slice at Pie n' Burger in Pasadena, California.

If you like pie (and who doesn't?) and you are within driving range of Pasadena, then you must visit Pie n' Burger.  And if you love pie, then just get on a plane and come here tomorrow.

If you are going to visit Pie n' Burger, I recommend two strategies:

1. Arrive around 8:45 p.m. and order a slice of boysenberry pie with ice cream. You will be tempted by the other selections - which are admittedly all excellent - but if you know what is good for you, you will order the boysenberry pie.

2. Go for lunch or dinner but at a weird hour (like 2:30 for lunch, or 4:47 for dinner). Sit at the counter with your date, friend, etc. Order ONE patty melt and ONE order of fries - this is all you need. Do not finish the fries because you have to save room for dessert. Then, order a slice of boysenberry pie with ice cream (see #1, above). When the waitress asks, "Just one slice for the two of you?" give her your best look of horror/shock/confusion/disbelief. Then, calmly explain, "No, we would each like a slice of pie; two slices of boysenberry pie. Please." This is important. If you try to share a slice of boysenberry pie, someone is bound to get "accidentally" stabbed with a fork.


The Santa Stump

I know I have been blogging like a broken record about the Santa Ana wind storm (aka Windocalypse) that hit my neighborhood last week.  And I'm going to try to stop blogging about all the fallen trees.  But I just had to share this photo:

Someone put a Santa hat on a stump.  How awesome is that?  Talk about making the best of a bad situation.

Now I want to buy some cheap Santa hats and put them in random places to make people smile.  Do you think it's a federal offense to put a Santa hat on a mailbox? 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas Pumpkins

Q: Do I have to throw out my pumpkins, now that it's December?  They are just so orange, and they scream "Harvest!  Pilgrims!  Cornucopia!"  Pumpkins just do not fit in with the December holiday spirit, right? 

A: DO NOT THROW OUT YOUR PUMPKINS.  You should never throw out a pumpkin until it has rotted and smells like death.  It's very easy to update your pumpkins for Christmas.  Behold, the Christmas Pumpkin!

Baking + Disaster = Bake-aster

I am officially cursed: I am incapable of baking a pretty cake for my husband's birthday.  

Last year, I tried baking him a German chocolate cake.  (It's his favorite).  What I created tasted like a German chocolate cake, but it did not look like a German chocolate cake.  When I was frosting the "cake," it collapsed on itself and turned into a pile of crumbs.  Tasty crumbs, but not something you would ever think to call a "cake."

This year, I vetoed the German chocolate cake and opted for a simple chocolate cake with a chocolate ganache frosting.  And like its predecessor, the "cake" was absolutely delicious - moist with a chocolately flavor that was rich but not too rich.  But visually?

It was a bake-aster. 

Let's take a look at the cake from another angle so you can appeciate just how tragic it is.

The cake layers would not come out of their pans.  I carefully ran a knife around the cakes' edges.  Then, I cautiously inverted the cakes and ... nothing.  I ran a knife around the cakes' edges again, this time more aggressively.  Again, I inverted the cakes and ... nothing. 

I left the pans upside down, assuming the cakes would eventually succumb to gravity.  Impatient, I thwacked the pans like Animal playing the drums. Finally, after about twenty minutes of hanging upside down, one of the cakes fell from its pan.  The other two bitches refused to budged. 

Meanwhile, the ganache had turned into a block of inedible mess.  I had put the ganache in the fridge to cool off - the recipe said I could! - but then forgot about it.  By the time Nathan rescued the ganache from the fridge, it had turned into a solid mass of chocolate.  We set the ganache on the table, pretending it might soften and turn back into frosting.  [Insert hysterical laughter here].  It did not. 

Fortunately, I had purchased an emergency container of Betty Crocker frosting at the grocery store. 

Unfortunately, two of my three layers were still welded to the cake pans.  What the eff?  I had meticulously buttered the pans, laid down a layer of wax paper on their bottoms, and buttered the wax layer.  I have made many cakes with these very pans, and all of those cake layers were happy to spring from the pans at the slightest of urgings.

But the chocolate layers?  Not going anywhere.  So, I cut out a big wedge of cake, slapped it on top of the one layer that I had manage to coax from the pan, and constructed a dessert that looks like something Frank Gehry would bake.

Although an eyesore, the chocolate cake and store-bought frosting were delicious, and the birthday boy was very happy.  I survived the bake-aster, with my sense of humor intact.

But next year, I'm baking Nathan a birthday pie.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy Holidays, Natural Disaster Style

Last week, the Santa Ana winds tore through Pasadena and kicked the crap out of my neighborhood.  It was a natural disaster in a major city, but the media treated it like a bad traffic jam.  They did not even try to give the storm a cool name, like Windocalypse or Stormy.  

You know why the media basically ignored Windocalpyse?  Because it hit suddenly and with unexpected intensity - so the media did not get a chance to go into pre-storm panic mode and predict The Coming of the End of Days.  And, fortunately, no one died - so the media did not get to speculate about the death toll.  Who wants to report on power outages and fallen trees?  BORING.

But Windocalypse was a natural disaster, and it caused a lot of damage.  Thousands lost power for days.  In Pasadena, more than 400 trees fell, landing on houses, fences and cars.  The streets were literally dammed with trees, as if hoards of devil beavers had attacked Pasadena during the night.  

The City of Pasadena has done a five star job cleaning up the mess.  My only complaint is that I have forfeited my right to complain about the City (and come on, who doesn't like to complain about the government?)  

While I was taking a walk in my neighborhood this weekend, I saw this holiday sign:

Let's just zoom in on the sign:

My neighbors lost their white picket fence during the storm, and now they are wishing everyone "Happy Holidays."  Or are there?

I cannot decipher the intended tone for this message.  Do the owners mean "happy holidays" as in "let's hang the stockings, drink some egg nog and count our blessings - we're so lucky we just lost this old fence"?  Or, do they mean "happy holidays" as in "we maxed out our credit cards on Black Friday, Grandma Edith started drinking again during the storm, we forgot to renew our homeowner's policy last month, so Santa can take our picket fence and shove it up his you-know-what"?

My Inner Cynic tells me it's the latter.  But, in the spirit of the season, I've decided it must be the former.  Maybe Santa will bring them a new picket fence for Christmas.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Secret Santa: Gift Ideas

It's that time of year again!  It's time to trim the tree, drink lots of hot chocolate and listen to Christmas carols until your husband begs for mercy. 

But Christmas is not all mistletoe and Kris Kringle.  A season as wonderful as Christmas needs at least one or two crappy traditions.  That's why the Universe invented the Secret Santa gift exchange.

I realize that, in principle, Secret Santa can be fun.  But Secret Santa is only as good as the lowest denominator.  And there is always a lowest common denominator.  If the participants are told to spend about $20 on their Secret Santa gift, someone who will spend $3 on mothballs and a crushed candy cane.  And I don't mean to sound like Ebeneezer Scrooge, but I always buy an awesome present that goes way over the $20 limit and end up with the mothballs. 

My brothers and sisters, it is time to fight back!  If you have ever received a crappy gift from your Secret Santa, it is time for Santa's revenge.  This year, don't waste your time agonizing over the perfect Secret Santa gift.  Instead, use one of my ideas:
  • A framed photograph of yourself.  Don't spend too much on the frame.  The photo is the star of this gift.
  • Diet pills. 
  • A package of ground beef.  (Bonus points if the recipient is a vegan).
Seriously, there's no need to buy a video game system for the ungrateful secretary who works down the hall.  Because you know who your Secret Santa is?  That's right, it's your boss.  And you know what he's going to give you this year?  Some post-it notes and pens that he stole from the supply closet. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pasadena Santa Ana Wind Storm, Part Three

I would like to thank the City of Pasadena for its swift response to the damage caused by last night's Santa Ana wind storm.  I have been listening to the musical stylings of chainsaws all afternoon as clean-up crews attack the fallen trees.  I cannot imagine how long it will take to clear all of the debris, but it seems like the City effectively triaged the situation.

I would also like to commend my postman, who is still delivering the mail, despite the fact that half of the blocks in my neighborhood are impassable.  Benjamin Franklin, the first United States General Postmaster, would be proud:

And finally, as I wrap up these storm posts, my thoughts and prayers are with my neighbors who suffered serious damage to their homes and personal property.

It's only 2011, but I hope this was Pasadena's "Storm of the Century."

Pasadena Santa Ana Wind Storm, Part Two

Holy crap, I'm exhausted!  It's only 3 p.m. and I'm ready to crawl into bed and spend the next 18 hours sleeping.  This probably has something to do with the fact that I spent several hours today cleaning up damage from the Santa Ana wind storm that swept through Pasadena last night. 

We had to rake leaves, fish leaves out of the pool, clear away branches, and pick up dozens of roof tiles from the ground.  And after all our work, it still looks like a tornado ravaged the backyard last night.

There's more wind in tonight's forecast (YAY!), so we also relocated chairs, pool toys, the deck box, etc. into our garage.  I'd like to think that tonight will be better.  But in case it's not, I don't want a watering can flying through the bedroom window.

In all, my husband and I feel very lucky.  Our pool filter is clogged and might be broken, and the wind blew tons of tiles off the roof, but we are safe and unhurt. 

The 100 year old trees in our neighborhood were not so lucky.

I feel so sad for the trees.  They are so old and majestic, and they gave our neighborhood so much beauty and character.  I still feel overwhelmed and shocked every time I look out the window and see the trees lying across the street.  Poor trees.

Wind Storm Damage: Part One

Last night, we had a wind storm in Pasadena.  The Santa Ana winds were in rare form.  All night, the winds howled and raged and swirled around our house.  It felt like our house was a ship at sea in a storm being pummeled by waves.  I also kept thinking about Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West. 

In the morning, I looked out the bedroom window and saw this:

I was not surprised by all the leaves in the pool, but I did not think the wind was actually pick up our deck box and throw it into the deep end of the pool:

When I looked out our front window, I teared up.  Our street is lined with beautiful old trees and almost all of them sustained serious damage.  The hurricane force winds snapped off enormous branches.

We were able to clear away the branches that were blocking our driveway, but we cannot do anything about the tree in the street:

It feels like we survived a rainless hurricane.