Thursday, December 29, 2005

PUNKED at Christmas...

As a kid, my Christmases were lean: the orange in the toe of my Christmas stocking a coveted treasure each year. And for many reasons when I was a kid, Christmas was a time of tension and anxiety for my family. That’s my excuse, as an adult, for viewing Christmas as one of the best opportunities all year to exercise my revenge on the past; a time to lavish gifts, affection and fun on friends and family. At Christmas, less is not more, more is more, and bah, humbug to everyone who thinks this somehow makes Christmas commercial. Quantity has always been appealing, but the gifts can be modest, and so Christmas has always been a time when I gave my kids gift-wrapped packages of pajamas, socks and mittens in addition to toys, books, and games.

When my kids were still young, we began writing clues on the tags. Originally, the clues were helpful (e.g., “Merry Christmas, Christo - the cat’s ______s” was the clue for a pair of pajamas). But eventually, we realized that it was even more fun to have the clues either obscure (“What rhymes with devotion but is not a love potion and didn’t come from the ocean” - scented lotion...) or downright misleading (“Merry Christmas, Mike - you don’t think earmuffs are dorky, do you?” for a video game he’d been coveting).

Christmas Eve has always found us sitting in front of the fireplace, passing out gifts, one at a time, and reading clues and trying to guess what’s in the package before it’s opened. We always begin with the youngest and go on up through the oldest. It takes hours to open all the gifts in this way, but even after getting divorced I’ve kept up this tradition, because it’s a lot of fun.

Somewhere along the way, long before the show, "You've been punked", we began coming up with one “punked” gift each year. I think it began the year that Alex wanted a Swatch wristwatch, and didn’t expect to get it. That year, I got her a Swatch guard to put on her regular watch. She accepted this modest gift with remarkable grace. A couple of hours later, after every gift had been opened, I suddenly “remembered” a gift still stashed in my bedroom closet - the coveted Swatch.

We all enjoyed her reaction so much that it became a tradition for us to punk an immediate family member each Christmas. The punked gift always has an element of spontaneity, in that the punking is never consciously assigned or rotated among family members, it just evolves, depending on circumstances. One year, as the punked gift, I gave Christopher a magician’s straight jacket...but that’s another story.

This year, with everyone grown, for the first time ever we drew names. To be accurate, we drew names for everyone except Xander, who at age 3 still has many years ahead of him of hauling in a full load of loot each Christmas in this family. Still, everyone was more than a little concerned about how it would all work; going from hours of opening gifts on Christmas Eve to opening just one or two gifts per person. This year, there were 10 of us at my house on Christmas Eve: Anthony, me, Alex, her fiancĂ© Chris, Katharine, Brenden, Xander, Melanie (Brenden’s mom), Mike, and Christopher. Katharine had issued an evite for the drawing, so none of us knew whose names anyone other than ourselves had drawn.

Nevertheless, shortly after I returned from Chicago, where I’d spent Thanksgiving with Alex and Chris, Katharine and Mike contacted me and told me they’d drawn Chris and Alex’s names and needed gift suggestions for them. I suggested Lyric Opera tickets, as I knew that was a luxury Alex and Chris would enjoy that simply isn’t in their graduate student budget.

Kath and Mike both agreed it was a good idea, and here is where the fun began. Katharine is younger than Alex by almost 3 years, and there’s always been a certain amount of sibling rivalry between the two, with Katharine feeling that Alex discounts many of her ideas in an older/younger sibling sort of way. Given that history, Katharine said that she wanted to think up bogus tickets to something awful, with the idea that Alex and Chris would think it was Katharine’s flawed idea of a good time. Mike and I loved the idea, and proceeded to let it stew in the back of our minds.

A couple of nights before Alex and Chris flew into town, I met Kath and Mike for a quick bite to eat. “I’ve got an idea for an AWFUL show,” I said. In response to Katharine’s, “What is it?” I said, “Hamlet on Ice.” :) Understand, there is no such show, and probably for very good reason. Kath came up with the idea of saying she’d heard about the show by listening to the end of a review on NPR (“Dunno whether they thought it was good or bad, because I tuned in too late, but they reviewed it!”). We also came up with the idea that the show was conceived when a group of actors who’d been performing Hamlet in Denmark went ice skating one night, after the show, and decided it would be a natural idea to perform Hamlet on ice. It sounded believable and incredibly awful. Katharine was immediately having fun punning:
“Something’s rotten in the SKATE of Denmark”.

Mike spent all day Christmas Eve designing and producing the bogus tickets. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a visual arts major at UA. He issued the tickets for Allstate Arena, a real arena north of O’Hare airport in Chicago. He dated the tickets for an incredibly inconvenient 7 PM Wednesday night performance. Among other things, Alex tutors on Wednesdays, and this meant she’d not only have to miss tutoring (which is frowned upon) but she’d have to come up with a substitute tutor (no easy task). He priced the bogus tickets at $58.00 each (slightly over our limit of $50 per person) and issued them not only for separate seats, but for separate ROWS (thank you, Sara, for reminding Mike to do that). Katharine bought card stock on which to print the tickets, and she also bought a perforating machine at Staples, who questioned the legality of what we were doing (but sold Kath the perforating machine, nevertheless).

The tickets look and feel like real tickets. Kath, Brenden, Mike and I were the only people who knew these tickets were bogus. Alex and Chris were nothing short of amazed when they opened the envelope containing them. They thanked Kath and Mike profusely, and insisted they were thrilled with receiving tickets to Hamlet on Ice on a Wednesday night at an arena so far from their apartment that they’d have to leave by 4:00 to get there by 7:00, only to be sitting three rows and several seats apart from each other. Kath pouted, “I don’t think you really like them!” and they protested, “No, we DO, it’s just that we’ve never heard of Hamlet on Ice...” They did have to take a cigarette break by themselves on the patio to process this “gift”.

As usual, gift opening continued in an orderly fashion for another 45 minutes or so, at which time Kath, Mike and I descended upon Alex and Chris and exclaimed loudly: “Merry Christmas! You’ve been PUNKED!” and proceeded to give them the real tickets:

Two seats, together, to a Friday night Lyric Opera performance
of Verdi's Rigoletto.

They were incredulous. Everyone was incredulous. The bar’s been raised very high this year, and in spite of the big change in the number of gifts, once again, a good time was had by all. Merry Christmas everyone, and I hope you all had as happy a Christmas as I did.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Patrick's Saturday Six, Episode 87

1. You're producing a school program for the holidays and you learn that there will be major objections if you include in your musical selections the traditional Christmas hymns that reference the "true meaning of Christmas." Assuming that there are secular tunes (like "Frosty the Snowman") already included in the program, what do you do with the hymns? Do you allow them to go as is, do you use the melody and rewrite the words, do you include as many pieces of music from other religions as possible, or do you remove all but the secular songs? I’d remove all but the secular songs.

2. What percentage of your Christmas shopping is done at this point? When do you expect to have it finished if you haven't already finished? We’ve drawn names this year, and I still have to buy the present for the person whose name I’ve drawn, and I still need to shop for Xander. I expect to finish up next weekend.

3. What was your favorite board game to play as a kid? Is it still your favorite now? I loved Monopoly; my favorite these days is Scrabble.

4. Take this quiz: What famous artist should paint your portrait?
Salvador Dali should paint my portrait. I love to think about the world in a different way then everyone else. I’m very ambitious, and I like strange things. I am curious about everything and love to learn.

5. How accurate is this quiz's description of you? Very accurate!

6. If you could go back in time and have one more picture taken with a deceased loved one, who would you select and why? I’d select my mother, because the only photo I have of just the two of us is the snapshot above from when I was 5 years old.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The 5er

1. Where is the furthest you have traveled for Christmas and will you be traveling this year?
One year when the girls were little, we traveled 325 miles to my parent's house a couple of weeks before Christmas. That's the furthest we've ever traveled at Christmas, but this year, Alex and her fiance, Chris, will fly here for Christmas, a journey of a little over 1000 miles for them, and Mike will fly in from Tucson...dunno the exact mileage, but it's a LONG way away.

2. Do you celebrate any other holiday this month? Kwanza? Chanukah? Festivus? Christmas is the only holiday we celebrate in December (thank goodness)!

3. Who is the hardest person to shop for on your Christmas list and why do you think they are so hard to buy for? I shop year 'round, so this doesn't really apply.

4. How old were you when you stopped believing in Santa? Extra credit if you have a picture of you with Santa! What do you mean, stopped believing in Santa? What!?!? What kind of kiljoy are you, anyway? Do you mean to imply that Santa doesn't exist? :) I was 5 when I started thinking that there was no way that Santa could make all those stops in one night. Quite the little scientist, I pretended to be asleep when Mom checked on me so I could tiptoe downstairs to check out my theory. Yep, I was correct; Santa wasn't in the kitchen putting an orange in the toe of my stocking, but Mom and Dad were. I don't have any pics of myself with Santa, but I'm posting two pics of my kids with Santa: one of Alex & Katharine with Santa at Marshall Field's in Chicago, circa 1981, and one of Mike & Chris with Santa at Northpark in Dallas, circa 1989. Please note both Santas have real beards. I have a thing about that.

5. Fill in the blank; For me Christmas just wouldn't be the same without _______? My family. I can't imagine a Christmas without them, and I feel sad thinking of people who don't have family to be with at Christmas.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

just a few beautiful pics

The fruit and nuts are soaking in brandy, and as it's a beautiful day here, I went outside with my camera. Here's what I saw...

I've planted pots of pansies on my front and back patios. The first pic, of a big blue pansy, is from one of those pots. When I was a kid, in the frozen north, my grandmother had beds of pansies around her house in the summertime. Here in Texas, pansies are winter flowers.

Although we got off to a slow start, this has been one of the most beautiful years for fall color in Texas that I can remember in over 20 years here. Even the oaks are turning a glorious red (that's the second pic), and the crepe myrtle leaves are red and orange (the third pic). I had discarded that knock-your-socks-off magenta geranium about 6 weeks ago. I set it out, in it's pot, in one of my flower beds, thinking it would go dormant. Geraniums don't like the heat of Texas summers, and it was yellow and almost dead when I set it aside. I guess it's showed me that it can make a comeback; look at that bloom! What a beautiful day.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

I love fruitcake. Well, not any commercially baked fruitcake, not ever, not under any circumstances, but...I have an old family recipe, a Southern recipe that's close to a hundred years old. I've made it many times, and it's delicious: a dense cake fragrant with various spices (cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg), and filled with currants and raisins, assorted dried fruits, pecans, and of course...brandy...LOTS of brandy. I'm going to start making it today. The recipe begins by mixing the dried fruits and pecans and soaking them in brandy overnight. How could a recipe that begins like that be anything but good? Tomorrow, I'll add the dry ingredients and then bake it, slowly, for hours. After it cools, I'll put it in a tightly closed tin, where it will stay, undisturbed except to be basted once a week with more brandy, until Christmas Day. Then I'll open the tin, baste the cake once more with brandy, and cut thin slices that I'll serve with a generous dollop of chantilly....

Mmmmmmmmm...I can't wait.