Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dad Santa

I wrote this essay way back in 2008, in the hopes I'd be able to sell it to some small newspaper, magazine or website. But I couldn't find the right niche. A Jewish man dressing up as Santa may blow the mind of the Catholics living in my old provincial neighborhood, but  no one in the real world finds that at all unusual. Lots of Jewish Americans celebrate Christmas, so big whoop.

But I had a nice chat with my Dad researching this piece and since no one wants to pay me to tell the story, maybe you'll indulge me while I tell it for free.

I grew up in Gerritsen Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood where my Irish Catholic mother had been raised and where my Dad was the only Jew in a fifteen-block radius.

My parents raised my brother and me Catholic, but mixed in Jewish holidays. December was marked with the advent wreath, the Hanukkah menorah and a Christmas tree. Dad’s family began exchanging gifts on Christmas before he was born. During the Great Depression, his Aunt Molly landed an office job and a Christmas bonus and celebrated the extra cash by bringing home bags of presents. The next year, the rest of the family followed suit, creating a new tradition.

My father had even gotten answers to his letters to Santa, printed on Saint Nick’s personal letterhead, produced at Uncle Morris’s printing shop.

It was only natural that they’d throw an annual Christmas/Hannukah party, where my mother, the domestic shiksa goddess, would serve dozens of latkes alongside a baked ham.

It never struck me as unusual. At the age of 9, I thought everyone’s dad was Jewish. When I was 11, I decided it was only the portly dads with mustaches.

Since Dad looked like a cartoon fireman, it wasn’t too surprising when he joined the local volunteer fire department.

Every year, on Thanksgiving morning, the volunteer fire department held the Ragamuffin Parade. The parade wound its way through the streets of the neighborhood, led by the local marching band. The fire engine, ambulance and rescue truck came next, followed by a crowd of costumed children—the ragamuffins. EMTs and Firefighters dressed as Cookie Monster or Elmo shook children’s hands, handed out cookies and signed autographs.
The star of the show was always Santa, perched atop the fire engine and merrily waving to the onlookers.

One year, the usual Santa was unavailable, so the job passed to my father. I think they let him do it so they could rib him about how little padding he needed to fill out the costume. Besides, the gentile firefighters thought that the idea of a Jewish Santa was hilarious.
Dad thought it was a little incongruous, but it didn’t worry him. Some of the members of the choir at his synagogue weren’t Jewish. He only cared about playing the part well enough that the children would believe that he really was the big guy and not just some schlub in a costume.

That morning, Dad put on the red suit, beard and hat in the men’s restroom while someone guarded the door. Members often brought their children along to march in costume. Everyone knew the real Santa was in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, but it was important to keep up the illusion.

When Dad was ready, we all bustled into the hallway to create a diversion so that it would look like Saint Nick had arrived through the back door instead of the bathroom. The trick worked so well that until I did it myself, I hadn’t realized that the back door had been chained shut for over a decade and had never been opened for Santa.

Dad ho-ho-hoed with gusto as he climbed on top of the fire engine and got settled in the folding chair resting on top of the fire hoses. Once he was sitting, I realized what a dangerous proposition this was. I imagined my famously nearsighted and clumsy father toppling off his chair onto a helpless child below, and traumatizing dozens of kids with the sight of Santa falling off the fire truck and being rushed away in the ambulance.
We gathered the costumed children and the trucks slowly set off. On top of the truck, waving at the crowd, he looked like the Pope.

Back at the firehouse, dozens more children were waiting to speak to Santa. Dad took his seat, clearly thrilled to be the center of attention and probably relieved that he’d climbed down from the fire engine with his dignity intact. The kids sat on his lap and told him what they wanted for Christmas. He soothed the ones who were afraid of him, and made sure their parents got a good photo. The little ones were easy to please and impress. Each one left with a candy cane and huge smile on their face.

When the last true believer was gone, Dad changed back into himself and we went to dinner with the family. He said that it had been like wearing a superhero costume. It had been a tremendous responsibility to stay in character all morning, and it was a relief to know that now he could belch without traumatizing a four year old.

The next year, the usual Santa reclaimed his position and Dad was disappointed. He’d never get to play the big guy again.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Marital Discussion: Not All Puns Are Created Equal

Rejoice and be glad, for season 1 of Murphy Brown is on DVD. I rented it from Netflix, and oh, sweet Berry Gordy, I missed that show. Not for the music, but because Murphy Brown is my spirit animal. It was from Murphy that I learned you didn't have to be nice to be successful as long as you were smarter and more talented and harder working than everyone else.

In my techie days, I wasn't the office bitch, but I didn't suffer fools gladly. I would've been a lot more patient with fools if someone had been able to explain to me the benefits of doing the work of 2 or 3 other people AND being nice to them. There are limits to how much of a doormat I'm willing to be, and I can thank Murphy for that.

Which leads us to:

Me: I've already forgotten why I pretend punched you in the nose.

Him: Do you want me to retell the bad joke?

Me: Yes, please.

Him: They should've done a sequel to Murphy Brown where she joins the circus, called Murphy Clown.

Me: So I'm not losing my mind. I was just blocking out the terrible joke.

Him: Yes

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Wisdom of Beetlejuice

HA and I recently rewatched Beetlejuice and I realized that it contains a lot of life lessons. Such as:

Always dress comfortably because if you die, you might be stuck in those clothes forever. Imagine spending eternity in an ill fitting bra.

Never brake for animals. (If, like me, you've seen the whole movie once or twice and bits of it a bunch of times, you may have forgotten that the fatal car accident was caused by swerving to avoid a dog just moseying along in the middle of the road.)

Read the manual even if it's written like a stereo manual and makes no sense the first time. Poor technical writing is no excuse for your ignorance.

Sandworms are like sharks. Punch them in the nose and they'll back off.

Hell is other people's bad taste. Any taste besides your own is bad. 

People dying in weird ways is never not funny. As long as it's fictional of course. See also Dead Like Me

Never throw a dinner party in a haunted house. 

Can't we all just get along with our ghosts? Raising the dead is so rude.

Don't just stand there while a weird demony guy does weird demony things. Though trying to run away isn't going to help much either.

Pay attention to your kids or they'll start hanging out with ghosts. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Marital Discussion: Cats!

This cat doesn't know WTF is going on with show either.
Last month, PBS showed a production of CATS.  His Awesomeness and I watched it (much later, because TiVo). He'd never seen it and I'd seen it as a kid from obstructed view seats. I was unable to see a bunch of stuff that happened upstage and for some reason, I got the impression that it involved pirate cats.

Which it didn't, but that's totally plausible in show that includes a rock star cat.

Without the spectacle of live performance, it's actually an incredibly stupid show. Like, how did this ever become a hit levels of stupid. I mean, yeah, spectacle, and foreign tourists could enjoy it without speaking English and it was family friendly, but I can see why I didn't rush right out and buy the soundtrack album. We could only stand to watch 3 songs in a row before we had to stop.

Which is all just preamble to this conversation:

Him: They used to show TV commercials for the touring production of CATS. [His description sounds like it was the same commercial they showed in NYC, embedded below because why not.] I saw the shot of the cats being lifted by the giant tire, only I couldn't tell it was a trie. So I thought it was a show about alien cats and at the end, a flying saucer came and took them home like in The Cat From Outer Space.

Me: I can't believe you didn't make your parents take you to see the cats from space show. That's totally you thing. How long did you think it was about alien cats?

Him: Until we started watching it this week, and I looked up the plot on Wikipedia.

So for 30 years, he thought CATS was slightly less weird than it actually is.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Fastest Latkes in the Midwest

This originally appeared on The Famished Freelancer on January 23, 2014.

Every time we visit my in-laws in Missouri for the holidays (i.e. right after Hanukah) we think, hey, we should introduce these goyim to the joys of latkes.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - I don't get why Hanukah isn't the most popular holiday in the US. It's all about the fried food! Yes, I realize that non-Christians celebrating Christmas is about assimilation. But there is a Charles Dickens peace on earth version of Christmas that anyone can celebrate regardless of how they feel about the big JC. 

And, of course, our nation's history of anti-semitism means that some people view Jewish holidays as strange and mysterious. So I say we should bring Hanukah (or at least latkes) to the goyim in the interest of cultural understanding.

Anyhoodle, we haven't made latkes for the Missouri family until this year because they're a bit of a hassle to make, especially in someone else's kitchen. But this year, I was explaining that latkes are like Jewish hash browns and it hit me. 

In a world with a recipe for Thankgivingukkah latke balls, there has got to be a quickie recipe for latkes using frozen hash browns. Of course it was so, and we used this recipe

When you don't have to peel and shred the potatoes, making latkes is crazy easy. Of course, we made it in my mother-in-law's kitchen and since she doesn't really cook anymore, there were challenges. 

I went to dice the onion and discovered that there wasn't anything close to a sharp knife in her kitchen. I asked her for a chef's knife and she got it from the closet, joking that she doesn't let just anyone have a sharp knife. 

This was extra hilarious since I was fairly certain that someone who doesn't cook is going to have the dullest chef's knife evahs. I was correct in this assumption. Luckily, she also had a sharpening steel so I was able to dice the onion without risking life and limb.

We fried 'em up - forgetting to turn on the fan in the stove's hood which we didn't know was there so that the entire house reeked of fried potatoes. As did my hair well into the next day. Good times.

Then I instructed the family on my preferred latke-eating technique. Steal a latke from the cooling pile, hold it in a paper towel and eat up. That's how I ate them as a child and I still think it's way better than on a plate. Latkes taste even better if Mom is still making them and doesn't notice that you've stolen five already. And apple sauce a sour cream are for amateurs, I mean traditionalists. 

And they tasted just fine even though making them didn't involve hours of peeling and shredding. I may even make them again before the Winter is over. The Maccabees would totally be on board with celebrating the Super Bowl with latkes, right?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Oh Christmas Tree

Be cool and just ignore the surrounding clutter, OK?
Oh Christmas Tree, oh Christmas tree, we actually put you up this year. (It doesn't quite work if you try to sing that to the tune of Oh, Tanenbaum, but try anyway. It's fun.)

We haven't put up a Christmas tree in years. We don't have people over, and visit relatives, so it hasn't seemed worth it to dig out the Christmas stuff from the walk-in closets that are too full to walk into. Especially when I'm just so sickly. 

But in the interest of no longer waiting to get better to do stuff, we went for it. It was much less daunting once we realized that we weren't going to have time/energy to invite a few people over and therefore didn't have to clean the whole apartment.

Other people's Christmas trees are simultaneously boring as fuck and really interesting. The human brain is weird. So, for you amusement and ennui, here are a few hastily snapped phone pix.

These are the misfit toys and all the other little dudes from Rudolph. Yes, I just tossed Santa  into place because he's a fucker who's totally on board with everyone shunning a little reindeer for being a little different. Until he can use the poor guy, of course. And the mean boss elf? I've been around long enough to know that upper management is to blame for shit like that. 

And yes, as I placed each misfit toy under the tree, I said its line ("Nobody wants a Charlie in the Box"). I'm not entirely dead inside.

This is one of my favorite ornaments and I couldn't possibly tell you why because I don't know. I think I picked it up at a Christmas shop while traveling for business.

Speaking of travel, I buy an ornament wherever I go. Less clutter than magnets or shot glasses. I just realized that we didn't hang the $20 ornament I bought on a business trip to Florida. It's a metal representation of the hotel, which was the nicest hotel I ever stayed at, which means of course it was a super short trip and I didn't have time to find a less expensive ornament at the airport. 

This one is from the Steamboat Arabia, where we went last year. 

We couldn't find the angel, so I used this topper for the first time. It's part of a set that my college friend Karl (who comments here as Karl, for obvious reasons) and his wife gave us as a wedding gift. A big tub of glass ornaments so well packaged that you can drop it without breaking them? Yes, please!

No, it's not the angle of the photo that's off. The tree is leaning slightly. With no small children or pets to knock it over, I can live with a little lean. I have enough problems in my life without worrying about a leaning tree.

It's hard to see, but this ornament is the tree at Rockefeller Center. It's a tree on a tree. I find this way more amusing than anyone reasonably should.

I'm pretty sure we bought this when we went to Disney World a few years ago. Because after a week of looking at mickey's head on everything, a Mickey Head of jiggle bells starts to seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to buy.

And here are some hand knit ornaments (with the Starship Enterprise in the background). Leftover yarn is great for that sort of thing. Fun fact: I made the blue & orange ball from yarn leftover from a pair of socks that I made for His Awesomeness and he's wearing those socks today. See? Oddly fascinating and incredibly boring all at once.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Quest For Gingerbread

This originally appeared on The Famished Freelancer on January 14, 2014.

Or, more accurately, quest for holiday sweets that I can actually eat. 

I was all set to make the fruitcakes the weekend before Christmas when I decided that if I was going to bake, I was damn well going to get something I can eat without getting a migraine out of it. (Dried fruit, tons of rum - why should something so delicious cause me such pain?)

So, gingerbread happened. It took more energy than I had to spare, but I got cookies out of it. Wacky cookies, because I own an assortment of 100 cookie cutters. Who doesn't like gingerbread dinosaurs? Or gingerbread bunnies? Or butterflies? Or feet?

We decorated them with royal icing because it looks nice. But my husband and I have different icing philosophies. 

He went for maximum coverage because icing is tasty:

I went for pretty:

Or as pretty as I could manage. I decided to go with the cutting the corner of a ziploc bag instead of finding my piping tips. The first bags we tried had a little fold in the corners, so snipping it meant getting a huge hole. Switching to a different ziploc got me better results, but still, I'll find the tips and maybe even get a proper pastry bag for next year.

And oh yes, I'll be doing this again next year. They were tasty and fun. But really, it's all bout the pictures, so here ya go.

The money shot - note squished, mangled ziplocs full of icing.

Gingerbread cyclops

A happy foot and the liberty bell (hence the crack). This is what you get when your husband is a surrealist.

Little Bunny Foo-Foos
Who knows? Maybe I'll even make them again before the winter ends. Those were some pretty yummy cookies.

What are your go to holiday/winter recipes?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Marital Discussion: I Could Be Worse

This is how humid I need the bedroom to be.
The Setup, Part 1: His Awesomeness and I watched a silent film called Sunrise (available on You Tube in its entirety), in which a wicked city woman* tempts a farmer to kill his wife so he can run off to the big city with her. He starts to try to kill her, but hesitates because he realizes what a shitty thing he's doing. She escapes and jumps onto a tram (not screaming for help, because women didn't do that in the 20s). He catches the tram too and rides with her to the city. He's all, "I'm sorry, I'm not gonna kill ya" and she's all weeping and trying to get away. He buys them a big plate of sandwiches, but this does not placate her. They see a bride entering a church and go in. During the ceremony, the minister tells the groom that he has to keep his wife safe, which is the exact opposite of trying to kill her. He starts sobbing in remorse and she forgives him and they spend a wondrous day in the city. It's like him trying to kill her is the best thing that ever happened to their marriage.**

The Setup, Part 2: The same day, I had completed the annual cleaning of the humidifier, but hadn't reassembled it. HA discovered it as he was getting ready for bed, and therefore had to fill and carry 2 big water tanks into the bedroom for me, which is way more exertion than anyone heading off to dreamland should be getting.

Me: I'm the worst. That's the worst thing I've ever done to you.

Him: No, it isn't.

Me: Um, what have I done to you that's worse? 

Him: I can't think of anything. I just mean that there are worse things you could do.

Me: Like try to murder you so I could run off with a wicked city woman?

Him: Exactly.

Me: Or is that the best thing I could do? It seemed to work out pretty well in the movie.

Him: Let's not do that.

*AAA Wicked City Women is totally the name of an escort service in my old neighborhood. Just one of the many crazy things you learn volunteering on an ambulance.

**Though at one point during their wondrous day in the city, she wants to dance and getting him to dance requires her asking him 3 times and the encouragement of everyone else in the ballroom. Dude, seriously. You just fucking tried to kill your wife. Dance with her the first time she asks. What the fuck is up with men who won't dance? Don't they see that refusing to dance makes them look worse than their terrible dancing? That is such a pet peeve of mine.

Monday, December 1, 2014

No Thank You to Homemade Food Gifts

This was originally posted on The Famished Freelancer on December 5, 2013.

A friend of mine shared this list of great DiY food gifts. Buzzfeed calls them good party favors or hostess gifts, but I've given food gifts as actual under the tree presents in the past. With mixed results.

Which is a nice way of saying, mostly bad results.

Every year, I toil away making a double or triple batch of Alton Brown's Free Range Fruitcake so I'll have enough for everyone. In this case, everyone is my mom, my husband's uncle...aaaand at this point, that's really about it. I can't eat fruitcake anymore because it's chock full of my migraine triggers. My husband eats it, but not as much as he did when I could still have some.

And before you start with the fruitcake jokes, this one is made with real dried fruit, not the radiation-colored jellied fake stuff. It also involves a lot of rum and brandy, so what's not to love?

Except for the brandy, apparently, because one of my aunts declined to try my fruitcake one year because she doesn't like brandy. I don't quite understand that since I think brandy is yummy, but I don't care for bourbon, so OK, fine.

But the fruitcake is the only food gift that has ever gone over well with my family. (Friends might be more amenable to food gifts, but who can afford to exchange gifts with their friends anymore? I don't think I've done it since the early 90s.) Anyway, a few years ago, I gave away a bunch of Alton Brown's hot cocoa mix to some of my relatives. You know who drank it? No one.

My brother was afraid to because I'd included a dash of cayenne pepper in his to make Mexican Hot Chocolate and that scared him. He lives in Austin, TX, home of Tex Mex cuisine and he's a Burning Man guy, yet he feared the Mexican hot cocoa. As my friend Judy likes to say, people are interesting.

My mom and aunt (not the one who dislikes brandy) didn't have any because…I'm not entirely sure why. This is the same Mom who ate a bite of mud pie because I made sad eyes at her and said, "But I made it for you." But hot cocoa mix? Feh!

But hot chocolate is supposed to be comforting and the familiarity is part of that. So even though the mix I made was richer and tastier than Swiss Miss, that's probably what they reached for when they were in a cocoa mood.

Food is such a personal (and sometimes fraught) thing that giving it as a gift is a risk. People have allergies and sensitivities. People are finicky. People distrust their ability to prepare anything that isn't pre-measured.

It takes way too much effort to make a food gift that's just going to be wasted. So I just can't bring myself to make them anymore.

What's your experience with giving and receiving homemade food gifts?