To Infinity and Beyond

As our country devolves into a 24/7 protest, people are casting their eyes to the stars. They’re either hoping for a) an asteroid to hit the planet, b) our alien overlords to save us from catastrophe or c) the chance to flee to Mars to populate (and eventually destroy) another planet.

astronomy-earth-lunar-surface-87009Life on this beautiful blue marble (or beautiful blue dinner plate if you’re a flat-Earther) has had a good run. We’ve evolved from being hunters/gatherers to being couch potatoes while creating technology that is certain to bring about our impending doom. Do we really need a talking fridge?

But Mars! Oh, the possibilities!

I envision a world where everyone lives in hexagonal domes, speaks in British-accented tones, and wears white flowing robes. That could be a problem. I can’t wear white, even when I’m not living on a planet covered in red dust. Every night I would look like a red chimney sweep.

NASA wants to send the first humans to Mars in the 2030s, which creates an interesting predicament. I’ll be too old to populate anything, but every planet needs a wise old woman giving cryptic warnings to the younger generation. I could fill that role, assuming I survive the seven-month journey to the Red Planet.

The possibility of relocating to the planet of war has become an animated discussion in our home.

Me: Would you want to live on Mars?

Hubbie: Of course!

Me: Wouldn’t you be afraid we’d die on the way there?

Hubbie: Wait. You’re going, too?

Seven months is a long time to give someone the silent treatment.

Describing the flight to Mars, NASA uses magical terms like “transfer orbit” and “astronomical position” which I’ve learned are NOT part of the Kama Sutra. Voyagers traveling to Mars could lose fingernails, have spinal fractures and vision problems, and there’s always the chance you’ll upchuck in your spacesuit and suffocate after blocking the air system with your intergalactic vomit. So, there’s that.

Once we land, we’ll spend a lot of time cleaning up abandoned movie sets that Abbott and Costello, Matt Damon and Santa Claus basically trashed during filming. But once that’s done, then what do we do?

I guess people will build greenhouses and grow food. I won’t be on that crew because I can’t even grow mold. Others will install solar panels. Solar companies are already training door-to-door salesmen for the Mars market.

ai-artificial-intelligence-astronomy-73910There will be a team working on communications so we can keep up with our favorite Netflix shows and hopefully someone will open a really good Mexican restaurant.

Space enthusiasts have wanted off-Earth colonization for decades. There’s been discussion about creating a city on the moon, but scientists feared people would treat it like a giant bounce-house and not get anything accomplished. Plus, one day on the moon is equal to one month on Earth. And you thought an 8-hour workday was bad.

Venus was never an option. With skin-melting temperatures, acid rain and a super-dense atmosphere, Venus was too much like Alabama in August. However, nights on Venus can last up to 120 days. Maybe then I could actually get eight hours of sleep.

So, Mars it is.

What if once we get settled, we find a prehistoric Statue of Liberty, buried in the red clay? We’ll discover that billions of years ago, people left Mars to travel to Earth because idiots were destroying the Red Planet. Like one of those giant leaps for mankind, only backwards.

There’s no chance of me relocating to another planet. But I can still stare at the stars and watch Mars twinkle in the distance. I just hope it’s not flat like Earth.

 

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Rockin’ Around the Real Christmas Tree

Now that we’re almost empty nesters, my husband tentatively suggested that we destroy Christmas. We were cuddling in front of the TV when he whispered, “Do you think it’s time we invested in a fake tree?”

“No.”

“But a real tree stresses you out each year.”

“That’s not stress, it’s the Christmas spirit,” I replied.

“I didn’t know the Christmas spirit was so grouchy.”

DSC_0798A real Christmas tree has always been the center of my holiday decorating. Growing up, we’d hang stockings, put out Advent calendars and display nativity scenes, but the season didn’t officially start until the tree was plunked into a bucket of boiling Mountain Dew. We had the only caffeine-addicted tree on the street.

After dad strung the lights and went to hide in his bedroom, we’d attack the tree like a whirling tornado, fighting over who got to hang favorite ornaments. Once we were in bed, mom and dad would re-decorate and hang tinsel, one silvery strand at a time, on every branch.

I’ve carried on that tradition (minus the tinsel that would cling to our clothes) to create our own perfect Christmas tree.

Our holiday tree has never been a symbol of opulence. We’ve never had a Winter Wonderland tree with white fluffy reindeer frolicking through snowy silk ribbons, dangling with sparkly Swarovski crystals and silver-sequined snowflakes.

Instead, our tree’s branches are weighed down by homemade angels with ratted-out hair and lopsided halos, clothespin reindeer tangled around hand-beaded wreaths, and South Park characters rubbing shoulders with the baby Jesus.

Decades of school photo ornaments hang amid the evergreen boughs, detailing years of missing teeth, questionable hairstyles and teenage angst. And loved ones who have passed away are remembered with ornaments ranging from dancing shoes to teardrop prisms.

Put together, it’s an explosion of bad taste that would make Martha Stewart cry. But it’s not just a Christmas tree—it’s a family tree representing years of holiday memories.

The finished product is only half of the story. Finding the perfect Christmas tree is a tradition/catastrophe I anticipate/loathe every December. Hence my husband’s misguided “fake tree” suggestion. He just doesn’t understand that a plastic tree is a soulless imitation of holiday beauty, and the first step to anarchy.

Each year, I schedule a day to pick out a tree, and without fail it’s the coldest, snowiest, iciest weekend of the month. My youngest daughter tags along to make sure I get it right, and to help hold the tree on top of the car once the loosely-tied knots start to unravel–much like my mind.

We scour tree lots, looking for an evergreen that is devoid of bare spots, more alive than dead, and not full of spiders. (Don’t ask. It’s a horrible holiday memory.) We also try to avoid tree lots managed by the town drunk. (That’s another Christmas/horror saga involving a leering, inebriated tree salesperson with a chain saw.)

pig angelOnce the tree arrives safely home, we discover the 10-foot tree won’t fit into our 8-foot living room. We attack it with dull handsaws and scissors until it fits, and then, in a flurry of Christmas chaos, we adorn it with lights and ornaments, and top it with a rickety angel, balanced precariously on the highest branch.

When the dust settles, we’ll snuggle by the tree, watching Christmas lights twinkle while the snow softly falls. It’s the epitome of holiday perfection. Until my husband whispers, “What do you think about having Christmas dinner at Village Inn?”

Could be a long, cold winter in our home.

O Tidings of Comfort Annoy

blur-business-card-211290Now that Facebook has become a year-round newsletter, packed with enough posts to make us feel miserable all year long, can we finally call it quits on those dreadful holiday letters?

I understand a family newsletter can be a highlight of the season, recapping all your adventures with witty repartee and candy cane clip art, but to many people, this bragalicious tradition is lemon juice in the paper cuts of life. Reading about how you cured black lung disease or saved an endangered species makes others’ successes look like table scraps.

My newsletter would go something like this, “Dear family and friends, I did not get arrested this year. Happy New Year! Love, Peri.” (Disclaimer: The year’s not over yet.)

So, first of all, don’t write a Christmas letter. However, if you feel you must write an annual message or your life won’t be complete, here are tips to make it bearable for friends and family.

Let your children do the writing. I would LOVE getting a Christmas message that read, “Mom cries in the bathroom and tells us to eat Froot Loops for dinner. Dad has a special ‘drinking mug’ in his garage. Aunt Ethel spent Thanksgiving in the county jail for walking streets. Happy Holidays!”

Use your letter as a weapon. A Christmas newsletter can encourage friendly competition amongst your offspring. Announce who had the most As, the best-cleaned room or who peed the bed the least amount of times. Be sure to embarrass the *&%$ out of them so they’ll be on their best behavior next year.

Create an acronym. For instance, NOEL can be Notice Our Exceptional Lives or No One Enjoys Letters.

Quote Quiz. Choose the funniest quotes said by your family during the year and have your readers guess who said it.

January–“Who left the %&@* lights on?!”

February—“Is there a reason there are a dozen shoes by the back door?”

March—“Who left the %&@* lights on again?”

Write from your pet’s perspective. “This is Peri’s dog, Ringo. I was taken to the vet three times this year and had to get shots. She forgot to give me a treat twice last week, even after I sat under her feet for three consecutive episodes of Westworld. She also didn’t pet me long enough after she got home from work, but she gave me a steak bone, so all’s forgiven.”card-celebration-christmas-1652103

Share a family recipe. If people ask for your sugar cookie recipe, put it in your Christmas newsletter. But don’t be like my neighbor who leaves out key ingredients so my cookies never taste quite the same as hers. Not cool.

Don’t recount Family Disasters 2016. Your water heater broke, your car died in the desert, you have rats in the basement and bats in your belfry. You lost several jobs, were abducted by aliens and SWAT kicked in your door at 3 a.m. Newsletters are not catastrophe competitions. Next!

Don’t brag. For every straight-A accomplishment, for every award-winning dance competition and for every higher-salary promotion you exclaim over, your letter will be read by a man with kids struggling in school, a daughter with no noticeable rhythm and a woman in a dead-end, mind-numbing job. Take it down a notch, will ya?

Even better, since I never receive mail anymore (except for Hickory Farm catalogs and postcards from mortgage companies), maybe save all your glowing updates for Facebook and Instagram where you can gush all you’d like. You can even add clip art.

The Stockings were Flung in the Chimney with Flair

Every year on November 30, while my girls slept, I’d spend the evening putting up Christmas decorations. I’d place every Santa just so and every angel just right. My daughters would wake up to a magical Christmas wonderland with twinkling lights, cinnamon-scented pinecones and beautifully wrapped packages.

branch-celebration-christmas-257909That was my dream. Reality was much different.

Oh, the house was decorated, and the girls were excited, but within five minutes the entire holiday-scape was destroyed.

My daughters would walk into the idyllic wonderland I’d created, squeal with glee and run to their favorite Christmas decoration. One daughter immediately turned on the display that had Disney characters barking your favorite carols. If you haven’t heard “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” sung in “Woofs” by Pluto for 25 days in a row, you don’t know the real meaning of Christmas.

Another daughter ran to the Nativity scene where she helped Mother Mary run off with Frosty the Snowman, leaving Baby Jesus in the care of a 6-foot polar bear wearing a holiday scarf.

Yet another daughter took the ornamental French horn off the wall and marched through the house trumpeting Jingle Bells. Not to be outdone, her little sister used the tree skirt as a cloak and pretended to be the Queen of Christmas, which caused several fistfights in front of the holy manger.

When the girls went off to school each day, I’d put all the decorations back in their traditionally ordained locations. I found Ken and Barbie naked in a Christmas stocking. I discovered one of the Wise Men snuggled with an angel behind an advent calendar. I glued the shepherds’ crooks back on because the girls would have them fight ninja-style and kept breaking them off.

I found the singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer shoved into a pile of laundry. Oh, wait. I’d put that there. Because it never shut up.

The girls would come home from school and spend the rest of the evening rearranging the decorations while I radiated anger.

“Leave the damn tree alone!” I’d repeat 40 times a day.

“But someone moved my ornament from its special place.” (Insert the sound of Christmas decorations falling off the tree.)

When I found the Christmas pillow I had painstakingly cross-stitched had been used to wipe up a Kool-Aid spill, I finally lost it. I was exhausted from trying to redecorate the house every day to keep everything looked perfect.

I screeched, in a very unholiday voice, “Put the Baby Jesus back in the manger before I tell Santa to burn all your presents!”

Everyone froze. The daughter who had wrapped Baby Jesus in layers of toilet paper to keep him warm looked at me, eyes brimming with tears. “I just wanted to hold him,” she said, as her lip quivered.

art-celebration-child-701025

That’s when it hit me. I was the Grinch. Why the hell was I ruining Christmas? Why was I trying to keep everything perfect? To my daughters, it was already perfect. They loved the decorations and wanted to play with them for the short time they were displayed.

I took a few deep breaths. I apologized. I even agreed to sit through a Christmas play where the Wise Men kidnapped Jesus and held him for ransom, but a stuffed Santa Claus karate-kicked the Wise Men to rescue the holy babe who was given back to Mother Mary. (She had returned from her illicit rendezvous with Frosty in time to change the baby’s diaper and put him back in the manger.)

My house was messy and emotional, but delightful and creative, too. This was my Christmas wonderland.

Passing the T-Day Torch

NormanRockwellAt what point does the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner get handed over to the next generation? Is there a statute explaining the process of turning the oven mitts over to the daughters/sons so they can begin their own traditions?

I grew up thinking it was a law for grandmothers to make the Thanksgiving feast, with all the favorite dishes like perfectly-roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, fluffy biscuits and pumpkin pie with real whipped cream; and the not-so-favorite bowls of sweet potato casserole and giblet stuffing. I never thought T-Day would ever change, that we’d go on eating at grandma’s house until the end of time.

But then my Grandma Stewart passed away. And then my Grandma Brickey passed away. And although I knew my mom was a good cook, I worried that Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be the same. She didn’t have the aluminum drinking cups that gave grandma’s 7-Up and Kool-Aid concoction that metallic tang. And she didn’t have access to boysenberry bushes to create my favorite holiday pie. And my cousins wouldn’t be around to torment.

Thanksgiving rolled around, and (surprise!) the meal magically appeared on the table—with all the appropriate fixin’s. My mom had done it! She pulled it off! I was impressed, and showed her my gratitude by eating two dozen of her dinner rolls, doused in homemade strawberry jam.

I decided I could put off worrying about traditions being changed for many, many years.

Or so I thought.

One day, my mom announced she was moving to the far-off state of North Carolina with her new husband, blatantly ignoring the fact that her daughters were Thanksgiving-disabled. Oh sure, we brought the mandatory side dish to each holiday meal; but we’d never cooked an entire T-Day banquet. It seemed our choices were either a) move to North Carolina, b) order KFC take-out, or c) eat only pie (which I was totally okay with).

My sisters and I called an emergency meeting. We tentatively agreed to cook a turkey, but had no idea how big that turkey should be, or how many potatoes needed to be peeled, and we were clueless about making gravy. We knew mom’s first ingredient was always butter; we figured we couldn’t go wrong from there.

Luckily, we had mom on speed-dial, and she talked us through that first Thanksgiving without her. We survived with only mild cases of food poisoning, and a broccoli stuffing that was quietly served into the garbage disposal.

But after mom passed away, we couldn’t even call her for tips.

IMG_0654That’s when I realized that I had become the grandmother, that legally it was my role to feed my family Thanksgiving dinner. I still can’t time a turkey; it’s either finished cooking way too early, or still roasting while we eat pie. And I refuse to make sweet potatoes. But we’ve established our traditions, and hopefully my grandkids associate the holiday with my desserts and homemade rolls. And not the overcooked stuffing or too-salty gravy.

I often wonder which of my daughters will take over the role of Thanksgiving chef when I’m too old and feeble to cook (any day now). And I wonder what favorite foods will become traditions at their meals. As our families become more diverse, T-Day might include tamales, shrimp curry or sushi. I’m cool with that.

As long as there are homemade rolls and jam, and any kind of pie, my Thanksgiving is complete.

Breaking Bread

I’ve never been one to follow fad diets. I like food too much to limit my choices to cabbage, grapefruit and a toxic drink of lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. I’m pretty sure that’s a mixture they use to waterproof asphalt.

So when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 2016, the idea of taking my favorite foods off the table was . . . well . . . off the table.bake-bakery-baking-5765

My doctor insisted I’d feel better if I stopped eating gluten. I laughed and told him I’d never be one of those people who badger waiters about menu ingredients, scour Pinterest for gluten-free cookie recipes or bore friends to tears with a recap of my gluten-induced misery.

I was in denial for several weeks but after a trip to New York where I gorged on pizza, bagels and, basically, bushels of gluten, I ended up in a bread coma. I went off gluten cold turkey, which is pretty much the only thing I can eat now.

My husband has been super helpful as I’ve transitioned to a life of wheat-less sadness. He chokes down gluten-free pizza and cookies without acting like I’m poisoning him (usually), but when I suggested making gluten-free onion rings, he clenched his jaw so tight his ears started bleeding. I heard him sobbing later in the bathroom.

Changing my own diet is one thing. Changing my family’s traditional Thanksgiving favorites is another. Everything about this holiday is a freakin’ gluten fest. You have dinner rolls, gravy, pie crust, carrot cake, Ritz crackers with spray cheese, and stuffing (which I don’t mind skipping because it’s a disgusting garbage of a food).

I experimented with gluten-free pumpkin muffins that had the consistency of ground up snails. Even my dog wouldn’t eat them. Well, he ate them because he’s a Lab and he eats everything; but he whined the whole time.

Researching gluten-free Thanksgiving Day recipes, I found a plethora of tasteless fare. Brussels sprouts in mustard sauce, quinoa stuffing with zucchini and cranberries, and a wheat-free, egg-free, dairy-free, taste-free pumpkin pie headlined my options. I tried making the organic, gluten-free, high-protein breadsticks. Yeah, they’re basically jerky.

And what do you call gluten-free brownies? Mud.

Why is gluten only found in foods that are delicious, like waffles and cinnamon rolls? It would be so much easier to avoid gluten if it was just in cottage cheese, foie gras or earthworms.

At least I live in a time where gluten-free products are available. Ten years ago, people going gluten-free could choose between kale chips or toasted particle board. Granted, most gluten-free products still taste like you’re chewing on a handful of toothpicks, but with new flours available, like amaranth, chickpea and cricket . . . never mind. It’s still terrible.blur-close-up-environment-289417

I could have gone my whole life without knowing things like kelp noodles existed. Which brings me back to Thanksgiving.

I realize the irony of me whining about what to eat on Thanksgiving—a day dedicated to gratitude and abundance. So as I’m sitting at the table, nibbling on dry turkey breast and jerky breadsticks, I promise to be grateful for all the things I CAN eat, like cabbage and grapefruit, and even lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Just not mixed together.

Originally published in Iron County Todayhttp://ironcountytoday.com/columns/life-laughter/breaking-bread/

Table Talk

Thanksgiving Turkey dinnerThanksgiving is a day of stress, even in the best of times, but Thanksgiving 2018 could take the cake. . . er . . pie. Dinner conversations have become landmines. Relationships are as strained as my jeans after five helpings of mashed potatoes. Families haven’t been this divided since the great Toilet Paper Orientation debate of 1954.

Here are just a few topics that could escalate your meal from a civil discussion to Grandpa throwing cranberry sauce into the ceiling fan: The national anthem–Kneeling v. standing; The Presidency–Trump v. a sane person; Women’s rights v. Rich White Men; Nazis v. Not Nazis; and the most contentious subject, Marvel v. DC.

Things are ugly, folks. People are tense.

There are marches and demonstrations covering every perceivable issue. Even asking someone their view on mayonnaise could spark a worldwide protest. So, what can we possibly talk about around the Thanksgiving table so we can still get presents on Christmas?

I gathered a group of unsuspecting family members to practice possible discussion topics. It didn’t go well.

Me to Grandson: Tell me about Fortnite.

Great Uncle Jack: What’s Fortnite?

Grandson: It’s an awesome video game!

Great Uncle Jack: That’s stupid, you namby-pamby! Do you know what my video game was? World War II!

So, I tried again.

Me: Elon Musk plans to take humans to the moon in 2023.

Second Cousin: The moon landing never happened. It’s a conspiracy to keep us docile.

Me: I don’t think it’s working.

Another effort.

Me: How about those sports?

Hubbie: Agents have ruined professional sports! Back in the day, athletes played the damn game. Now, it’s, “Oh, I need an extra $20 million before I can throw a pitch.”

Okay then. Next.

Me: What fun things should we do for Christmas?

Brother-in-law: We should stop pandering to the commercialism of a pagan holiday that has no foundation of truth. Might as well celebrate rocks.

I tried a different tactic.

Me: A delicious roast turkey sure sounds good.

Daughter: Do you know how turkeys are raised? It’s disgusting and inhuman.

Me: Turkeys aren’t human.

Daughter: You are dead to me.

I was almost out of ideas.

Me: What do you think about sweater vests?

Everyone: We hate them!

Well, that’s a start.

I’m worried most families will end up sitting quietly, heads down, creating volcanoes with the mashed potatoes and gravy, and making NO eye contact for the entirety of the meal. At least dessert shouldn’t be contentious. (Dessert: Hold my beer.)

There was a time when conversation was an art, a civilized form of speech. Someone started talking, then others respectfully chimed in with their opinions. Sometimes, discussions got heated, but it rarely became a knife fight. Or maybe I’ve just read to many Jane Austen novels where you had to actually pay attention to realize you’d been insulted.

Now everyone is insulted. All the time.

So. On Thanksgiving, let’s practice not being insulted. Let’s try hearing other people’s views without writing them out of the will. We don’t have to agree, but can we be kind?

And the correct answer is Marvel. It’s always Marvel.

Originally published in Iron County Today – http://ironcountytoday.com/columns/life-and-laughter-table-talk/