Sunday, December 19, 2010

Seasonal reading

The majority of books that I read through the year are newly published -- a hazard/benefit (depending on my amount of reading time available) of working in a library.  Some others are new to me but not to the world at large ... these tend to fall into two categories for me: classics and former bestsellers that I didn't read while they were hot because everyone else was dying to get them.  I also have the compulsion to reread books in a series when a new title is coming out either due to the eager anticipation for the next installment or because, sadly, it's been so long since the last book came out that I've kind of forgotten what's going on.  I have to admit that lately the latter has been more important after I picked up a new title and 100 pages in was trying to figure out who a character was ... he had been one of the three major characters through all of the first ten books ... oops!

However, there are some very special stories that I pick up at certain times of the year.  I like to head off with Bilbo and the dwarves in the fall.  Every summer, I choose a different Shakespeare play to reread in one greedy gulp during a hot afternoon.  For some reason, Anne of Green Gables and Betsy from Deep Valley tend to come calling in the grimness of March's dirty snow and ice.  I don't reread all of them every year, but it's often enough that I can definitely see a pattern.

So, if you have some extra time in the next few days, here are some of my favorites for this time of year.  Many of them are short stories, so it's easy to find a few minutes to fit one in.
    • The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis  This is my favorite time travel book ever.  It's set both in Oxford of the not-so-distant future and the countryside of England near Oxford in the year 1348 during the Christmas season.  I like all of the time travel books that Connie Willis has written, but this one tops list for me.  I will warn you, it's not necessarily a happy book.  However, daily life during the English middle ages is vivid as Kivrin deals with all the challenges that she did expect as a historian studying "in time" and many many more that she isn't prepared for.  At the same time, the parallel story in the future keeps adding tension to the situation.
    • "Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor" by John Cheever  A short story that never fails to entertain me. I love to picture Charlie telling Mrs. Gadshill that the elevator is going to do the loop-de-loop and drool over the descriptions of all of the varied Christmas dinners.
    • "Dulce Domum" from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame  As a single person, this bit resonates with me for those first hours after I come home from celebrating the holidays with my family.  The house is quiet and cold, there never seems to be something I want to eat in the frig, and I'm exhausted.  But there's also the familiarity of my own things (humble as they might seem to others), the joy of my cat greeting me with excited dashing about, and the knowledge that once I get a fire started in the woodstove my outlook will improve.
    • "Old Folks' Christmas" by Ring Lardner  This story fascinates me because it is so different from my own experience.  I hope that my parents would agree that our family does not mimic this one.
    • "A Hint for Next Christmas" by A. A. Milne  Though I've never been in this situation, the cheek of adding one's name to a card intrigues me and makes me wonder if the author once found himself in this situation.
    • "Our Crafty Little Christmas" by John Neary  It seems to go in cycles - the fad for excessive, lavish gifts giving way to the handmade price-limit exchange.  While I try not to indulge in either end of the extreme, I must admit that a crafty gift goes over better when you have some experience with the craft in question.
    • "Miracle" by Connie Willis  Quick!  What's your favorite Christmas movie?  This story might change your mind.  Or, at least, make you think about the next mysterious "Chris" that you meet.
    • "Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N and the Magi" by Leo Rosten  I don't think that many school classes still buy presents as a group for their teachers, but this story brings out all of the anguish of choice by committee on several levels.
    • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott  You can just read the first bit where the girls discuss what they want for Christmas, speculate on the boy next door, and send their breakfast to the Hummels.  However, once you start, it's easy to continue on as they become friends with Laurie, fall in love, and grow up.
    • "Crisp New Bills for Mr. Teagle" by Frank Sullivan  There are some days - rare and far between - when only good things seem to fall out of the sky.  Perhaps they aren't as overt as this story, but they are meant to be cherished.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

#15 - Random Acts of Kindness

For the last month, I have made an concerted effort to spread kindness into the world.  I don't know if anything I did was a success for anyone else, but it certainly made me think about all of the advantages that I enjoy in my own life.  After my week of not complaining, I decided that working on this goal would make a nice antidote for the struggle to keep my mouth shut about minor annoying things - sort of attacking the negativity problem from the other end. 

My self-imposed rules for this project were:
  • if a person asked for something, the action didn't count - I had to be moved to do whatever it was of my own accord
  • if I knew that a person needed/wanted/would like to have something but they didn't ask, the action did count
  • I had to do at least one action per day, multiple kind deeds could not be stored for the next day
  • things that I would have done anyhow, but were not asked for, counted

The hardest days were those that I had off from work simply because I tend to become a hermit during "staycation" moments - mostly as a way to let my introvert personality recharge after working with the public regularly.  However, I did find ways to make the world a little brighter every day.  The easiest days were those that I spent out running errands; this was not something I expected, but I guess sometimes it is easier (or less potentially embarrassing) to do something for a stranger.  I thought that my days working with the public would be the easiest; however, the first rule knocked down most of the nice things that I did as part of my work hours because someone asked me to do them.

Among the items I tried to do (and, yes, I kept a list) there are some stand-outs.
  • There were several days when I shoveled snow for a neighbor who has been having some health problems.  
  • A whole string of entries on the list included giving cookies to people - this is a big thing for me this time of the year, but I decided that it counted.  I not only give cookies to friends and work associates, I also make up plates that I hand out to random people who use the library who I know could use some cheering up for one reason or another.  Those plates go fast - I gave out 25 in two days this year.  
  • I tried paying ahead twice; by this I mean paying at least a portion (or all) of the bill for the next person in the checkout line - it's hard to know what the next total will be.  The worker at the drive-thru window at Arby's took it in stride with the comment of "that's really nice of you".  However, the grocery store clerk looked at me like I was insane when I tried to explain it to her.  The more I thought of the disparity in reactions, the sadder it seems ... everyone needs to buy groceries, so I could have really been helping someone out (given the date and time I was shopping that was actually extremely likely), yet my gut feeling is that most people who get drive-thru fast food can probably afford it.  
  • The most truly random thing on the list was leaving Operation Beautiful notes in different spots in town.  I have no idea who saw them.  Operation Beautiful is a movement to boost self esteem for women; check out their site here.  This was the cheapest, quickest, most anonymous thing I tried (on more than one day); I hope it made someone's day.  
  • This morning, as the last day of my month, I sent flowers to my parents with a note saying how much I appreciate them.  I'm sure this last act will brighten their day immensely ... a good way for me to end my goal.

I loved this goal; although some days I was wondering in the late afternoon what I was going to be able to add to the list, I always came up with something nice to do.  I spent time thinking about the "no complaints" week I had recently finished and concluded that it's easier for me to be positive by doing something kind for another person than by trying not to complain.  I often found that being nice to the next person who happened along was just as effective in relieving stress and frustration as venting.  And there were some "karma moments" along the way ... I had never seen another actual Operation Beautiful note, but, last night, I went to a play and there was one on the bathroom mirror.  One of my friends came over to walk with me and brought her shovel to use on my sidewalk - it would have been a wonderful treat after all the shoveling I had been doing, but, alas, I had already finished it - thank you for the thought Amanda!  And my friend Nina took over my two least favorite holiday baking associated tasks - unwrapping candies and helping with packaging the final products - she deserves the "queen of repetitive tasks" award and huzzahs and alleluias. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Apricot Divinity

Every year around this time, I spend huge amounts of time in my kitchen baking cookies to give away.  Not just a few cookies ... more like hundreds of dozens.  It's a silly obsession with me that I indulge once a year; runners talk about getting a high from exercise ... well, I get my kicks from turning butter, flour and sugar into yummy things to eat.  And, well, I think it's officially become a tradition now (as well as a good-natured joke) that I'm going to spend most of the time between Thanksgiving and St. Nicholas Day unavailable to anyone who isn't willing to help unwrap candy or taste test.

Some years, I've made other items to put on the trays that I give out - truffles, Christmas tree ornaments, etc.  This year - along with the mutant pepper jelly - I am going to be adding handmade candies to the mix.  I have all of these great candy recipes that I've been saving, but they always seem to get pushed aside in favor of another variety of cookies (yes, those recipes get switched and added to every year as well).  The true siren call of peppermint twists, homemade pecan caramels, and peppermint toffee is louder than ever this year, and I must succumb!  However, late (for me) in the process of choosing which recipes to make, I came across two new candy ideas.  The first - Drunken Sugarplums - I have to make simply because of the name.  I started the brandy marinade last night ...

The second was Apricot Divinity which I made last night.  It was fantastic!  It tastes great, and I reverted to my inner four-year-old while I was making it.  I don't remember the last time that I laughed so hard at myself.  By the time I was finished, not only were my hands covered in white candy with golden bits, but there was also traces on my face, glasses, shirt, pants, several items on the counter that hadn't been involved in the candy process, and kitchen floor.  I would have taken a photo, but the camera was in another (candy-free) room and I wasn't sure how to pick it up without coating it as well.  I decided on the spot that I will be making this recipe again in the company of little kids - parent participation optional!  And, though I usually do not give out my recipes, this one simply has to go out in the world to spread happiness and white sticky stuff over everything ...

If you want to give it a try, here's the recipe - taken from a Taste of Home Holidays & Celebrations Cookbook, originally supplied by Loraieyer of Bend, OR.

Sweet Apricot Candy
1 jar (7 ounces) marshmallow creme
1 Tbsp butter, softened
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp grated orange peel
3 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans

In a large bowl, combine the marshmallow creme, butter, vanilla, salt, and orange peel; beat until well blended.  Gradually add 2 cups confectioners' sugar; beat until combined (mixture will be stiff).  By hand, knead in apricots, pecans and enough remaining confectioners' sugar to make a very stiff mixture.  Press into a greased 8 in. square pan.  Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.  Cut into 1 in. squares.  Yield. 1 1/2 pounds.