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30 posts from December 2010

December 31, 2010

Big Changes in 2011

You already know that Barbara O'Neal is joining us. In January (or February -- your blogwerker is a little vague on the details) Joshilyn Jackson is getting tarted up, too. More exciting stuff. Stay tuned.


The Universe has seen the light and put the Book Tarts In Charge.

Of everything.
We have a few changes that we're going to be making in the global and national situations beginning immediately. And as long as we are making these big changes, we going to slip in a few personal items on the total tally.

Kathy Sweeney:
Mary Kathryn Rosina Reschini Sweeney is delighted to announce that she has been hand-picked to serve as Steward Queen of the Universe.  "I really don't have time for this," she stated, "but as usual, things are a freaking mess and someone has to fix them.  And I don't wear crowns.  They give me a headache.  You may, however, address me as 'Your Highness' and the next person to even think of a short joke is going to the dungeon."


As her first act as reigning Monarch, Ms. Sweeney plans to lower all the counters in all public areas so she can easily see what it going on back there.  In addition, all little people will get to sit in the front rows so no big blockhead obstructs their view.  Chocolate will now be required at all public meetings. In addition, she has already appointed royal guards to bring Dick Cheney in for a little game of Truth and Consequences.  She has no further comment at this time.



From Hank:
No more applause, please, no more applause. I am thrilled and gratified to have been appointed Minister of Food and Fashion. In that role, I am so delighted to announce the demise of fashion aristocracy that deems certain things "in" and "out", therefore requiring you to buy new "things." I am also delighted to reveal some new and exciting developments in the world of food.


Fashion first. I hereby declare, as the Tart Minister of Fashion, that you can wear anything you want. Absolutely anything, and it will be considered fun and stylish and attractive. Skirt lengths, heel heights, you can choose, your call, its all about what makes you happy and comfortable. If you long for those Flashdance sweatshirts and leg warmers, no problem. If you liked the way shoulder pads made your waist look small, by all means, bring 'em out.
We at the ministry will also be happy to collect your unneeded and unused clothing and use it as an alternative fuel source: we understand platform shoes, ruched necklines, gaucho pants, micro-miniskirts, asymmetrical necklines and acrylic burn especially efficiently.  But I reiterate, if you love you some platforms, by all means, rock them. It's all good.
Giving to unused clothing to charity is also good, and will get you Tart Points™.
Now, as for nutrition. The item formerly known as "calories" has now been deemed not to exist. In fact, we here at the ministry declare all food is going to be categorized as "good for you" or "not."  You know what "good for you" means, tarts of the realm. So eat that. Yes, if Jamoca Almond Fudge seems "good"--then it is. Clearly is it not always "good." Use your best judgment, we trust you.

Finally, as all of us in tart-land know, there are certain tenets and practices we all embrace. Love each other. Be kind. Be generous. Buy books. Laugh and laugh again. If you are in Iraq or Afghanistan, we love you and want you to come home soon, and safely. And be of good cheer--you never know what wonderful thing is just around the corner.
Happy New Year! 

Her, Margie:
Hi!  It's Me, Margie.  I guess you already know I am the unofficial goodwill ambassador for, well, lots of things.  But especially the Book Tarts because they tend to be cranky when their deadlines approach (as if no one else has ever had a deadline before or since puh-leeze) and lucky for them I am a constant smiling face in this office or they would never get anything repaired or delivered on time.  Just saying.

So they asked me to be a National Storyteller Lariat or something and I didn't even know you could talk about, you know, bondage, but I am working on some wonderful stories.  What?  Oh. It's Laureate.  Never mind.


When I rule the world in 2011:
    US companies that outsource jobs to foreign countries will be heavily penalized and the money will be used to create jobs in the United States or for unemployment compensation and job retraining. Companies that hire U.S. citizens would be rewarded with tax credits and bonuses.
    The lenders who created the current mortgage crisis will be prosecuted as terrorists for their destruction of the American economy.
     Politicians will be expected to practice what they preach. Those who vote against health care will be required to pay for their own health insurance. Those who vote in favor of wars will be required to send their own sons, daughters and grandchildren to fight in the war for which they voted. Those who cut spending to public schools will be required to send their own children and grandchildren to public schools.
    Those who preach fiscal responsibility and practice it by denying help to the poor, the hungry and the schools will renounce all the perks and freebies that come with their jobs -- including free parking at Washington National Airport for members of Congress, free haircuts, subsidized meals at the House, Senate and Supreme Court cafeterias.


    Elaine Viets will be elected National News Czar and reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.
    Any media outlet will be required to present news stories which are honest, equitable and balanced. All reporters will be required to check facts uttered by politicians and lobbyists and refute those facts if they are not true. This applies to both liberal and conservative media.
     Lobbying groups will once more be required to list the amount of their political donations and to whom they were given.
    Sarah Palin will be banned from the air waves until she has declared herself as a candidate for public office.
    The founder of WikiLeaks will be honored, along with Michael Moore and the soldier who gave the information. Using national security as an excuse for a cover up went out with Nixon. The press will also make a serious effort to discover whether Julian Assange is indeed guilty of rape and why a country which does little to prosecute its own crimes of rape went after him.
    Airport security will be revamped and personnel redistributed to provide more effective protection. We will study the methods of countries with successful airline security, including Israel, keeping in mind that those countries may have much smaller borders than ours. We will also protect our ports, which are mostly wide open.
    People who fly on private jets will be subject to the same security as those flying steerage.
   Fox News will not run continuously at hospitals, doctors' offices, bars and other public places. People in public waiting rooms will be allow to vote on their choice of station and will have the option of turning off the television so they can use their iPod, iPad, or enjoy silence.
     Personal wishes:
   Both my Dead-end Job and Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper series will top the bestseller charts and be optioned. Maggie Gyllenhaal will fight Sandra Bullock to play Josie Marcus. Sandra would lose the fight. As consolation, Sandra will play Helen Hawthorne in the movie.
  I will take more vacations and walks on the beach. When the end comes, no one ever wishes she'd spent more time at work.
Happy New Year,


And you? What honorific, epithet, rank, office, position will you take on to accomplish what goals in this next year?

December 30, 2010

Your Mother Wears Combat Oven Mitts

By Nancy Pickard

My mom really does make the world’s best meatloaf.  Your mom doesn’t.  Nuh uh.  Does not.  And My Mom’s Meatloaf has even gotten BETTER in the last few years, impossible as that would have seemed to me before it happened.  My Mom’s Meatloaf is best eaten hot with mashed/baked/scalloped potatoes and green beans, but mac ‘n’ cheese is good with it, too.  It’s terrific as left-overs served in hot samiches with mayo and lettuce.

 My Mom’s Meatloaf 


Oops, wrong Meatloaf. . .and I'm sure nobody has ever made that joke before, hahaha. . .

Turkey meatloaf 004

NOW, My Mom's Meatloaf. . .*

1 pound ground beef

½ pound ground sausage (we like the “mild.”  Jimmy Dean’s is good.  Alas, poor Jimmy, at least you left us sausage.)

Note: If you want to make more, the formula is half as much sausage as beef.  Or, if you prefer, twice as much beef as sausage.

Another Note: Resist the urge to put in crackers or bread crumbs.  My grandmother used crumbs, but that was because she needed to "extend" the recipe.  We think the meatloaf is jucier without them.

1 raw egg, not including shell

However much chopped onion you think you'd like in it

A dollop of ketsup

A smaller dollop of wet mustard (plain ol')

Salt & pepper to suit yourself

Smoosh that all up together with your hands. 

Cold meat makes my hands ache like crazy, so I either leave the meat out just long enough to take some chill off, or I do the wimpy thing and put a layer of plastic wrap between my dainty hands and the meat.  I suppose you could use a food processor.  Huh.

Brush top with a little catsup

Put it in a casserole dish.  My mom says, don’t form a loaf.  It cooks more evenly if you moosh it down (loosely) flat and even in the dish.  Also, the dish should have a flower pattern on the outside.

 Bake in MICROWAVE at half power for 25 minutes, or until juicy and (almost) done.  (Depends on how big you make your meatloaf, of course.)  If you don’t use a microwave, or you don’t trust this, go ahead and cook it in your wood burning stove at 375 for however long it takes.  But I’m telling you, it won’t be as good. It’ll be good, just not as good. I realize this is hard to believe.  But removing the bread crumbs and using the microwave is why my mom’s meatloaf got better.  

Serves however many people you’ve got, depending on size of slices, duh.  We’re only two, so we get to eat a lot of hot samiches for several days.  I know! So lucky!  We have great meatloaf karma.

So there you go!  It's the world's simplest recipe, which I have managed to complicate unnecessarily, ha ha.


 1.  What did/does your mom fix that is better than anybody else’s version of it?  What food never tastes as good if somebody else makes it? 

 2.  What food did you always tell your mom you liked, but the truth is you really didn’t?  I always told my mom I loved her Christmas cinnamon rolls, but honestly? Hard as rocks.  If we’d had a bigger family, there’d have been a cinnamon roll fight and concussions.  The NML  (National Meatloaf League) would have ordered the use of helmets.

 3. If you’re a mom or dad, what do you cook that your kids love best?


* Photo above is not really of My Mom's Meatloaf, or her potato or green beans, for that matter.  Her meatloaf is much juicier, her potato is softer, and her green beans are WHOLE and bacon-y. "Cut" green beans are yukky. gws






December 29, 2010

Food and bread and falling in love with MFK Fisher

The Tarts are proud to announce that the wonderful Barbara O'Neal/Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind/et al is now a Book Tart! She will be added to the roster in January, but today she is here to talk to us about one of our favorite subjects, FOOD. Which translates into her new book, How to Bake a Perfect Life!

Barbara O’Neal     Go to fullsize image


       A little while back, when I first blogged here at Lipstick Chronicles, a couple of people mentioned writer MFK Fisher.  I had never read her, but always hungry for food writers, I googled her and started reading.  Two hours later, I ordered four of her books from Amazon, including the hefty anniversary edition of The Art of Eating

      When the books arrived, I curled up in my chair with two kittens and a class of wine and cracked open Art, and I’ve been dipping into every day or two ever since, doling out the pages like some rare, complex cheese.   Sometimes, I cannot stop reading as fast as I’d like, carried along by the drama of her narrative as surely as if I’m lost in a novel.  She led an unusual and adventurous life, and was a highly celebrated woman writer during at time when that was not at all common or easy. I feel as I did when I first read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—how is it possible I missed this work until now?

       All things in their proper time.  Thanks to some of you here, I have found a new favorite in Fisher. 

       For those who are not familiar with her work, she was a food writer who predates Julia Child by some decades.  She wrote in the thirties and forties and fifties, writing with good humor and intelligence and wit.


       In The Gastronomical Me, she writes in her foreword:


     “People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?

      “They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

       “The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that.  It seems to me that our three basic needs for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one. 

       “I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits…”


       Reading that, I was instantly smitten, ready to follow her wherever she might eat or drink.  I followed her to Mexico, to France, to Switzerland for the most heartbreaking love story, while the most cataclysmic war we’ve ever known is rumbling in the distance.  She writes of meals and singing, of loneliness and learning to overcome it by cooking for herself the foods she particularly loves, served with wine of her choosing, in a tiny apartment without much of a kitchen, and it is the story of her life.

         Fisher makes me consider my own gastronomical journey.  When she wrote of learning to eat by herself in a little room in Hollywood, I remembered the vastly empty period after my marriage had first broken.  My oldest son had gone off to college and the other worked a restaurant job at night.  There was no need to cook.  I made do with cold cereal or Lean Cuisines or sometimes apples and cheese eaten in front of the computer while I read blogs to keep myself company. 

          One night, after a long day writing, I just couldn’t face such an indifferent meal again, so I went to the local grocery store and bought angel hair pasta and basil, olive oil and tomatoes and a bottle of red wine.  I tossed it all together, a simple easy meal, and set the table with cloth placemat and good dishes, poured a glass of wine, and turned the radio to the classical station. It was food my ex and children would not have loved at all, but it was exactly right for me.

        A friend’s mother said, “When you begin to set the table instead of eating from the pot, you know you will live.”  It appeared I would live.

       Food tells us things about people, too.  A little while later, I found myself dating a charming and verbal man who came to see me after I’d gone to dinner with a friend and feasted on roasted garlic, olive oil and very good bread.  We drank wine, ate the bread and garlic, and tottered home sated and happy.

        Apparently, my date didn’t care for my garlic perfume, and that was the moment I saw that we’d never be a good pair.

        Food is the story of our lives.  Christmas has just passed and I found myself thinking often of my grandmother, her Waldorf salad, her cheese-stuffed celery.  I make both dishes now, humble Southern specialties, but each time I sprinkle nutmeg over the apples, or stir celery salt into Miracle Whip (never mayo, not in my grandmother’s recipes), I can practically smell her perfume.

         Because I am a novelist, these food moments make their way into my books.  The protagonist of How to Bake a Perfect Life first learned to bake bread as a miserable, pregnant teenager.  It gives her a sense of connection, a place to think, a way to heal.  If you’ve ever baked bread, you know how it smells, first that raw yeast and flour scent, the heady notes as you knead, the way your hands shape and change the dough.  The process gives Ramona a sense of wholeness, which is born out of my love of making bread.  When she is divorced and depressed at a later stage in her life, she turns to bread once again, and that connection to the bread and the process of sourdough connects her back to herself. In baking, she can think.  In baking, she creates herself.

          Like MFK Fisher, I believe food is vastly important to us, and shapes us in dozens of large and small ways.  Do you have a food memory that tells something about who you are? Do you remember a time food changed something—for the good or the bad?

How to Bake a Perfect Life: A Novel

December 28, 2010

Margie's Story Time: New Years!

Margie's Story Time: New Years!

By Me, Margie with no help from anyone even though certain cousins promised to stop over and help write this but apparently are still recovering from the seven fishes because some stunad decided to pair a different drink with each one and certain other idiotas followed suit.  Stick with me I know better.  Just Saying.

Glamour-calendarOnce upon a time, someone was inventing a calendar, and they picked names for months and numbers for dates.  It was pretty much based on the moon, as dictated by a monarch, which means half the time it makes no damn sense and the other half all you have to do is check the night sky to know what time of the month it is.  You can also check the volume of chocolate covered pretzels eaten by certain Aunts, but that is a different kind of story, isn't it?

So back in the old country, where the Julian calendar was mandated (heh - that is a good word for a laugh but it really means some king shoved it down the throats and/or up the asses of the regular people whether they liked it or not, but can also mean Rocco's holiday plans.  Hi Rocco and thanks for not helping) the ancestors of the brothers Hallmarkelloni and the sisters at Orientali Tradingina got together to bitch about how to drum up business, and holidays were born.  

1971,Aug18 Okay, I know what you are thinking - "Hey You, Margie - what were you, born in a barn?  Who do you think set up all those days where you have to go to church/make certain foods/have parades/raise money to build statues and go to church?"  Duh.  Like I don't know about the holy days and the Feasts.  (If you don't know what a Feast is, listen up - it's a tribute day for Saints.  Sure, you can make a pilgrimage to the town of their birth, but what they really want is old school tribute which means a statue of them, a parade named for them, or both.)

I mean, the only ones who really made out on the Feast Days were the church and the people who sold the food and the holy tchotchkes.  No offense to the Vatican kiosks, but most of that stuff looks like crap.  No offense x 2, and I am genuflecting just in case because I am not stupid and I like to plan for all contingencies, which, for some of my cousins who don't read much, means 'be ready for whatever shit is around the corner because you have no clue what it might be, unless its the Benadetti boys, in which case you know exactly what it is. And Rita says you're welcome.'  (Yeah, Rita, that just happened.  Maybe next time you'll help.)

Fireworks Well, then the Zambellini family - who started making fireworks back when it was just black powder and fire, and not one of those kids has a full set of fingers to this day - because that is intelligent design at work - said 'Hey, we want a piece of this calendar vig too'.  No one said no to them because of all the fingers lost, no one ever lost their trigger finger and talk about unplanned 'accidents' and timely 'fires' ? Please, those people knew from staging.

And so December 31 was designated not only as the last day of the calendar year, but also a day to set off fireworks and send cards and buy jimcrack that had the current year on it so it was only useful for about ten hours, and then you had to buy all new stuff.  These people?  Genius.  I get a little choked up because I am just so damn proud of my heritage.  sniff.

Well, as you can imagine, it just rolled on like a tidal wave from there.  One year, the Porkarino family had a major livestock boom, and suddenly everyone had to make a pork dish or risk a whole year of bad luck.  And the Lentilano family accidentally planted all lentils and nothing else, so lentils became the official food of hoping for wealth/coins/whatever and everyone had to eat them on New Years or face personal and professional bankruptcy before the Feast of the Epiphany.  See, Connie Lentilano married Vinny Zambellini and the two families formed an alliance, so if you offended one, you offended the other and you don't have to be Michael Corleone to figure that one out.

Finally, there was a family that bought way too much red silk from China because a certain merchant cousin who was supposed to go over there and get lots of cool stuff spent his whole time getting to know a certain house of women and he had to buy whatever was out on the road that day when he sprinted for the last boat out before St. Rocco's day, because everyone knew if you wanted any shot at the black Friday shoppers, you had to start back by then.

Wallpaper205 When this stunad got back to Sicily, his cugina Maria met him at the dock, took one look and - in the way of so many of my motherline - came up with a genius idea.  And that is why everyone has to wear red underwear on New Years. Because it is a seriously major tradition and if you don't, the shores will run red with the blood of your family because Maria Mancini married the oldest Zambellini son (a total stud who was only missing his pinky finger so who cares) and that was that.

So - get ready for new years.  Order the pork and lentils.  Find a fireworks show. And for the sake of all humankind, wear red underwear. Because it's my family's tradition, plus it is totally hot.  And everyone wants to start their new year off with a bang.  Just saying.

The end, and you should totally be writing this stuff down.

Felice Anno Nuovo to all, and to all a really, really good night.  





December 27, 2010

Christmas Past

by Heather

And now it’s Christmas Past!

The Christmas rush was on . . . how does it happen every year? It's not like I don't know that Christmas is coming. Maybe it's part of the total lack of organization that has sadly been part of me since birth. (Yes, trust me, I know I was a disorganized infant.) 4706508-lg

Maybe it's that in my mind--lacking drawers and file cabinets--everything must be done at the last minute. Or maybe I just didn't realize that if I moved the obvious dust, more bunnies would fly in from everywhere!

Perhaps it's because I'm blessed with a lot of people in my life. So that's something like fourteen stockings, secret Santa gifts, tons of stuff in the house before I start to clean it.

But I did try.

Somehow, I managed to wreck a good vacuum cleaner, so all the vacuuming went to naught. I really cleaned one room, only to pile it up with all the junk from the other rooms.

Housekeeping I realized dusting is a full time job.

Each year, I swear I will not be in a mall on Christmas Eve—each year, I am.

Time marches on, whether we’re ever “done” or ready for the future to become the present. And then, in the rush of it all, nothing done or not done, dust or piles of junk, mean anything at all.

Christmas 2010 has come and gone, and I’m sitting here this morning thinking of how precious life is; we had a wonderful time being together. Christmas Eve was with our extended family (in-law-in-laws) and Christmas day I cooked at my nephew’s house, my nephew did the clean up, the little ones ran around and got exhausted and looked adorable falling asleep on their parents. The family played games and laughed and ate, and I thought of how very lucky I was . . . and, of course, I missed the ones not with us anymore.

Especially my sister.

I was always the disorganized one. Vickie was always in control. She was a few years older, the one who teased me mercilessly, and championed me against any hurt in the world. She was domestically talented, and made pretty things—and remembered all cards and occasions and kept our little family in order.

She came from a long line of incredibly strong women. My great-grandmother, who came to America with her children and grandchildren. My Mom—who always reminded me of the knight in Monty Python. She was brilliant—and could open any jar in the kitchen. And no matter how many licks life gave her, “it was only a flesh wound.”

I’ve missed my dad for a very long time, my father-in-law, my step-father, mother-in-law . . . so many people I really loved.  I miss my brother-in-law—I’d known him since I was fifteen, always had a key to his house, and he was truly a “brother.”

I really had a wonderful Christmas. I’m so lucky. And so scared. I miss my sister terribly. I’m the disorganized disaster, and she made things right.

She was meant to be the grand Irish matriarch of our generation. And this morning, while I’m thinking about how grateful I truly am, I’m also feeling the pinch of nostalgia. And I try to remember that I’m lucky, too, in my memories. On special occasions that are wonderful and painful, we do remember the wonderful people who were part of our lives, and to miss them makes us human, far more than an opposable thumb.

Hm. All this must be because another year is about to end. I hope everyone out there had a wonderful holiday season, and I wish you the best in 2011!






December 26, 2010

If I Go to Hell

By Elaine Viets


If I go to hell, I know exactly where it is: The security line at the Orlando International Airport. It will be during the holidays and I’ll be surrounded by children wearing Mouse ears and shrieking like demons.

I didn’t want to go to Orlando at Christmastime – not on purpose. I was coming home after a speech in St. Louis. The only flight available to Fort Lauderdale was through Orlando.

Then snow and rain snarled the nation’s air traffic and my Lauderdale flight was canceled. I wound up in Orlando, more than 200 miles from home and long past midnight. The airline put me up at an airport hotel. I woke up at 5 a.m. to catch the shuttle bus to Hades.

Orlando Airport

We all have our definitions of hell. The nuns were big on burning lakes of fire.

"Put your hand on a hot stove," Sister Valeria told our class. "Keep it there forever. That is hell."

That was stupid, Sister.

But the nuns continued to terrify us with hellfire – and claimed I was headed there in a handbasket.

They were wrong – well, about the first part, anyway. The prospect of endless heat doesn’t worry me. I’ve spent August in Florida.

I’ve heard that hell is being surrounded by undesirable persons. We all have different definitions of "undesirable." I kinda like renegades and I’m leery of the overly righteous. I believe Mark Twain had it right: "Heaven for climate, hell for society."

Hieronymos Bosch saw hell filled with strange creatures. Not me. I live in Florida, which can top even California for pure weirdness. I enjoy variety.Last-Judgement-(fragment)-1506-08-large

Sartre said "Hell is other people." I’d narrow that down to screaming children in the TSA line.

Many folks feel the holidays are not complete without children. They love all God’s screechers and rush to offer them comfort.

I missed the maternal gene. My family motto was: "Children shall be seen and not heard." My parents gave two explanations for a crisis: "Shut up" and "Because I said so."

I realize that parenting techniques have changed. I know traveling with children is an ordeal. You have my sympathy, folks. I salute your courage.

But Well Meaning Mom and Dad, when you’re in line at the airport and TSA says everyone has to take off their shoes, don’t try to reason with your squawling four-year-old. Hold the kid and whip off the shoes. You can explain why later.

That didn’t happen in Orlando. I was trapped in a TSA line while WMMD were soothing their little howler. I heard the following desperate conversation:

"I don’t wanna take off my shoes," the kid cried.

WMMD said, "Now, Thuringia, dear, we talked about this, remember? Everyone has to take off their shoes, even that lady there."

"Bawwwwwwww," screamed Thuringia, a blond moppet with a howl that made Pavarotti sound like a pipsqueak.

"Sweetie, please, listen to Mommy," WMM said. "Look. I’m taking off my shoes."

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!" shrieked Thuringia.

Fortunately, I was in the line alongside WMMD and their kid, behind a herd of sullen teenagers. They did not deign to speak to adults. They removed their shoes and sneered at the stupidity of the command. I blessed their surly silence. My line was faster and quieter.

I could still hear Thuringia bellowing as I loped to Gate 210 and caught a very bumpy flight. For all I know, she’s still yowling.

I used to think my job was hell. My boss sure was. Then she was moved to another department and I got fired. Hell ended and I went to a better place, where I wrote mystery novels.

True hell is endless. Which is why I will be in the TSA line at the Orlando airport, surrounded by screaming children in pink Mouse ears at Christmastime.

Pink mouse ears


December 25, 2010

Star With Loyal Beauty Bright

Margaret Maron 

            Until I married, I never knew a bought Christmas tree.  Our family always went out into the woods and just chopped down a bushy cedar and stuck it in a bucket of wet sand with a sheet draped around the bottom to simulate a white Christmas (something else I'd never known).  Some years, no matter how hard we looked, no cedar could be found and we'd have to make do with a holly or pine, draping the tinsel extra thickly to hide the tree's pitiful thin limbs. 

            Some years our lights were multicolored, some years they were bubble lights, one year they were all red.  But three things remained constant:  tinsel icicles were always laid on one strand at a time, beginning at the bottom, from the trunk out to the limb tips, till the whole tree shimmered magically with the slightest movement of air.  At the top was a shiny red tin star.  Lastly, afterwe'd finished trimming the tree, Mother always made hot chocolate with marshmallows melting sweetly into the milky cocoa. 

            Over the years, ornaments broke, tinsel ropes became threadbare and the bubble lights bubbled out, but the red tin star, battered and crumpled, still shone from the top of the tree.  And marshmallows still topped the hot chocolate.

            Then came Christmas in a foreign city several thousand miles from North Carolina.  I was newly-married and anxious to begin new rituals with my new husband, which meant that I wanted everything exactly the same as it had always been, only better because he was now in my life.

            Of course, we couldn't go out to the city park and cut down our own tree.  Instead, as was his family's custom, we bought a fir at the local market, along with a couple of dozen glass balls, some lights, and several boxes of icicles. No tinsel ropes though—"My mother thought they looked junky," he said.  And even though I searched the city as thoroughly as I'd once searched our woods for the perfect cedar, I could find no red tin star.  I felt like Ruth, standing in alien corn.  What kind of a tree would it be without a star? What kind of a Christmas? 

            "We usually had a glass spire on top," he said holding one up for my approval.

            I nodded and tried not to feel hurt that his traditions were outweighing mine.

            Worse was to come when we got home and began to decorate.  I emerged from my side of the tree to discover that I'd married a tinsel slinger, a man who hurled the icicles on in clumps instead of one strand at a time, the only proper way.

            Reminding myself that marriage is a compromise, I held my tongue and went out to the kitchen to make hot chocolate.

           "What's this on top?" my husband asked when I handed him a steaming mug. "Marshmallows?  Yuck!  We always had whipped cream."

            If I could have driven back to North Carolina, I'd have been out the door with the car keys before he could uncap the Redi-Whip squirt can.

            Next day, I waited till after he'd gone off to work, then spent an hour unclumping the icicles on his half of the tree and trying not to cry.  As I rehung them one by one, I thought about insensitive louts who clearly didn't have a clue about the significance of rituals, and I wondered if I'd made a huge mistake by this marriage.

            When he came home that evening and handed me a bag, I realized all over again that I hadn't. 

            "I know it's not red and it's not tin," he said, "but I looked all over town and it's the only star I could find."

            A pretty pathetic excuse for a star:  five tinsel-covered wires sticking out stiffly from a shiny blue center.

            "Is it okay?" he asked anxiously.  "Just for now?  As soon as we get back to theStates, I'll get you any star you want.  I promise."


       100_1346    That was over forty Christmases ago.  Occasionally, when we're replacing broken glass balls, we'll see a perfectly stunning star, yet somehow I'm never tempted.  That same pathetic tinsel star continues to top our tree.  After all these years, it's getting more than a little threadbare and ratty looking, but who cares? 

            It wouldn't be Christmas--not our Christmas anyhow--without it.

          (And while I still think icicles should be hung, not flung, I have to admit whipped cream's not so bad in hot chocolate, either.)

        What about your first Christmas or Hanukkah out of the nest?  Any surprises?


December 24, 2010

Christmas Goes to the Dogs

by Diane Chamberlain

Mr and mrs santa clause (ben and chapel) - Copy
For decades now, I've made my dogs a part of my Christmas card greetings. Since my blog post falls on Christmas Eve, I thought it would be fitting to share a few of the pictures that have graced my cards over the years.

The pix above I call "Mr and Mrs Santa Paws." My two sweet goldens, Chapel and Ben, posed obediently for my Christmas cards for more than a decade. (Outtakes from this photo shoot are at the end of this post). Chapel and Ben were simply the finest dogs I've ever had the privilege to know. They were as close as this picture implies. They had so many adventures together: escaping from every fenced-in yard, killing a possum on my deck (the possum was only playing dead, as I discovered when I went to scoop him up), swimming in the ocean and tearing through the woods, but what they loved best was cuddling together. When Ben's time ran out (and I promise this is the only sad thing I'll write in this post), I remembered reading something in an Ann Landers column. She said that when dogs were very close, it was a good idea to have both dogs present when one was (euphemistically) put to sleep. So Chapel accompanied Ben and me to the vet, who thought the idea was a little ridiculous. While Ben lay breathing heavily on the floor, Chapel leaped happily around the room, sniffing the corners and wagging her tail. "She's totally oblivious," said the vet, and I thought he was right. But suddenly Chapel stopped her prancing and looked at Ben. She walked over to him, lay down right next to him, muzzle to muzzle, and stayed with him while the vet did what he had to do. She never searched the house for Ben. She knew where he was, and I was so glad she'd been with Ben and me that day.

That doesn't mean I suddenly began treating her with respect when it came to Christmas card pictures. When Rheumatoid Arthritis was making a mess out of my joints (before the good drugs came along and I discovered 'better living through chemistry'), I bought a mobility scooter to help me get around. I adored my scooter, thus I subjected poor Chapel to the most humiliating card yet. That dog was one good sport, even winking at the camera.


When Chapel went to the Rainbow Bridge, I knew it would take a BIG dog to fill her paws. That's when I got Bruin, the Bernese Mountain Dog. Bruin was a stunner. He was bred to be a show dog, but he had a low sperm count (shh) and so the breeder needed a home for him. The problem was, he'd spent his first three years in a kennel and by the time I got him, he was the world's most neurotic dog. Berners usually bond with one person and that bond is like super glue. He wanted to be in my lap at all times. If I went out of town, he mourned. He was terrified of being left alone. But I was divorced at the time and I loved his company, so it all worked out for the best. Xmas4

    Unfortunately, big dogs are often short-lived, but since I promised no more sadness, we'll move right along! I decided to downsize after Bruin. RA and a few other considerations made a big dog more difficult for me, so a friend took me to meet a 6 month old Sheltie she'd heard needed a home. I'd formerly thought of Shelties as a waste of fur. Compared to Goldens and Bernese Mountain Dogs, they didn't seem to have much to recommend them. I humored my friend by going to meet the 6 month old pup the breeder had named Bluesman for his Bi-Blue coat. I sat on the floor and Bluesman gingerly came close enough for me to scratch his chest. He looked at me with his one brown/one blue eyes and seemed to be promising me a big-dog personality in his kind of funny looking little body. It was a total con job, but I surrendered to his adorableness. I changed his name to Keeper, after my book Keeper of the Light. It took Keeper a while to warm up to me. Where I couldn't detach Bruin from my lap, I couldn't get Keeper to pay any attention to me whatsoever.    "He hates me," I told my friend. I began feeding him by hand, one piece of kibble at a time. That did the trick and he soon became my little shadow. It took him a while to turn into the beautiful boy he is today, though. One of my friends, looking from my Christmas card with Bruin to my card with Keeper, said "From the sublime to the ridiculous." That still makes me laugh. 

Diane and keeper

I thought Keeper might be a little lonely for a canine companion--or maybe I just didn't feel I had quite enough dog yet. I was in a serious relationship by then and John, who had lived for many years with up to twenty Bernese Mountain Dogs/puppies at a time, begged me not to do it. But when I brought home Jet, Keeper's brother from another litter, John was instantly won over. Where Keeper is reserved, Jet is outgoing.  Keeper believes in conserving his energy. He stands in one place and watches Jet run around the house like a little madman. When Jet runs down the stairs to greet me, Keeper waits at the top. Why make the trip for nothing? They get along beautifully, though. The only member of the household who doesn't love them is Rhonda the Roomba, who constantly shouts at me from wherever she is stuck "Clean Roomba's Brushes Now!"

Diane Jet Keeper

Finally, here are the promised outtakes from Chapel and Ben's stint as Mr and Mrs Santa Paws. They were never so happy to hear their release command "Okay!" as they were that day!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

2 outtakes


Outtake smaller


December 23, 2010

Florida: A State of Emergency

By Elaine Viets

 Snow scene

Yeah, yeah, I know this winter has been tough up north. Snowstorms dumped more than two feet of snow. The roof collapsed on the Minnesota Vikings’ Metrodome. Highways and schools closed. Trains and planes were canceled.

But here in Florida, we’ve had real problems. Gov. Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency. Temperatures broke 169-year-old records.

It got down to forty degrees in Fort Lauderdale.

I can hear gales of laughter from California to Canada, but baby, that’s cold here. Homeless people can die of exposure. The humidity dips and there are brush fire warnings because the air is so dry. And you won’t be laughing when your produce prices shoot up at the supermarket. It got down in the thirties in Florida’s farm country and froze your veggies.


But back to us south Floridians, shivering in the forty-degree temperatures.

Florida homes are designed for sunny days. We have jalousie doors with glass slats to let in gentle breezes. Now icy wind whistles through our homes. Naked tile floors turn into ice rinks. Our heating systems can’t hold a candle to real furnaces. Many older Florida homes don’t have furnaces, period.

When the cold hits, Don and I pile on four blankets, two fleece bathrobes and two cats to keep warm at night.

As a former northerner (well, southern northerner – I grew up in St. Louis) I know about cold and snow. I enjoy the news coverage for the Florida cold crisis.

One station featured video of frost on a pickup truck roof. Not frost on the windshield – the truck’s black roof. It was a patch of frost the size of a cafe table. The camera person videoed that patch from above, the side and head on. It still didn’t look like much, but I could see the desperation.

A TV reporter interviewed a middle school girl who would have to walk a couple of block to school "in this dangerous cold." The reporter revealed in hushed tones that the brave young woman would wear TWO COATS tomorrow. There was no mention of gloves, a warm hat or a wool scarf.


When the temperatures drop in Lauderdale, northerners like to say the air is crisp. Actually, it reeks of moth balls. The locals – almost all transplants – dig our old winter coats out of closets and storage chests.

You can tell when people moved to Florida by their winter coats. I’ve seen slim 90s styles, shoulder-padded 80s outrages, orange 70s models, neon 60s styles, and an occasional Mamie Eisenhower model from the 1950s. If the woman wearing it is over eighty years old, we know that’s her original coat. On a younger woman, it’s vintage.

Though we transplants kept the coats, we’ve forgotten how to dress for the cold. We might have some wool gloves. Target even sells them. But ear muffs and scarves are unknown. We think winter hats are ugly.

A former Bostonian who wore a sensible cap with ear flaps in the Florida cold was derided as Elmer Fudd.

Elmer Fudd 
He laughed at my outfit. I was wearing a navy sweater and long pants. In Florida, where seniors wear skimpy Speedos, I was bundled up.

"What kind of outfit is that for the cold?" Mr. Boston said with a sneer.

"Hey, I’m wearing leather gloves," I said. Besides, I was more sensibly dressed than when I took a walk on the winter beach. That time, I wore jeans, a black leather jacket and gloves. I still felt cold. Must be the wind off that icy water, I thought.

I trudged on for three blocks before I realized why I was cold.

I was wearing sandals.



December 22, 2010

Memories of Ornaments Past

Margaret Maron

Last week, we trekked down to a lower field to cut our tree.  It's a Charlie Brown pine that we've fattened up with extra branches, but it's only 6' tall vice the 8-footers from years past.   (As we get older, getting down on the floor and up under the branches gets harder, so for the last two years, we've put the tree and its stand on a low table so that we can keep it watered more easily.)  

Our granddaughters helped us haul out the boxes and sort through the ornaments.  Because the tree is smaller, we have to be more selective about what goes on.  They want to hang the ones we got for their first Christmases andPink Flamingo with Clam Bucket Ornament I want the only sole survivor  from the first tree my husband and I shared even though all three are really too big for this smaller tree.  As are the flamingoes, the 7" Statue of Liberty and the homemade styrofoam TinTin characters their father made when he was younger than either of  them.  Nevertheless, they Kurt Adler Polonaise...all go on the tree.  (Well, not the Statue of Liberty which now stands on the snowy village square beneath the tree and salutes the electric train that circles the table endlessly.)

The girls want to hear the story of each ornament: why a Matchbox sports car? Why a miniature chair? The clothespin angel? The shiny little spider?  The tin Mexican bird?    

And they are right in thinking that every ornament has its own special story.  For years, whenever I traveled to a new city to promote a book, I would bring home something for the tree to remind me of the booksellers and friends I'd met along the way.  Or they are connected with research:  the chair is from the furniture market in Killer Market, Kaye Barley sent me  that replica of a car Deborah crashed in High Country Fall,  the Santa fashioned from a crab shell symbolizes Shooting at Loons and the tiny moonshine jug Uncommon Clay.  


Our tree is a big messy scrapbook and would never make the glossy pages of a Martha Stewart Living magazine.  Occasionally I've considered having only gold or silver ornaments or using lights of a single color.  But sentiment trumps taste every year.

What about you?  What's your favorite ornament memory?