The Coffee with Cathy Guide to Everything — Holiday Management

When it comes to navigating the yearly ready-to-trip-you-up-and-drag-you-down maze that is The Holidays, forget everything you’re read advising you to “eat right, sleep well and continue your exercise routine (even a brisk walk outside will help!).” I mean, you read the same article every year and has that advice ever worked? Of course not. And why? Because a) nobody has the time to be all healthy and pro-active, b) nobody has the energy to fix a salad when there are eight dozen Candy Cane White Chocolate Mini Cheesecakes to finish and c) anyway ARE YOU *** KIDDING ME? Look, all of the holiday stress is in your mind. You cannot change the chaos. You cannot change the tightly packed schedules that have you in 14 different spots in a mere 24-hour period. You cannot change the last-minute panic, the all-night wrapping marathons, the tree disasters. Those things are going to happen. Over and over again. So how to deal? Instead of fighting it and complaining and moaning, change your strategy: Instead of letting the holidays be in control of your emotional welfare, woman up and take control yourself. After all, the holidays are fun. Remember fun? For most of us, that’s what this mid-winter break is supposed to be. It’s when we impose expectations and standards and must-do’s and must-haves on our celebrations that we start to feel cranky. So relax. And enjoy. I don’t know about you, but this is about the only time of year people leave presents at our front door, everything smells good, sparkles and sequins are approved daytime wear and you can eat Bourbon Balls with impunity. What’s not to like? And just in case you need some actual helpful advice:

  • Never ever use the word “tacky” in conjunction with Christmas sweaters. For those of us in our 50s who were around for the original Christmas Sweater Boom, it’s much too soon to relegate this trend to the “tacky” category. We probably still have a few stashed away in the back of our closets. You can make fun of our mom jeans, our rhinestoned sweatshirts and our Madonna hair, but step away from the Christmas sweaters.
  • Besides, as soon as you post a photo of your winning entry in the office Tacky Christmas Sweater contest, your best client/customer/patron will walk in with the same sweater on. You have been warned.
  • Whether hours spent with a cozy fireplace and comfy blanket figure large in your holiday plans or you’re going to be grateful for a few squeezed-in minutes of free time, celebrate the season by adding wintry books to your to-read list. Consider “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” by Peter Hoeg; Stieg Larsson‘s “The Girl Who …” books and any of the Inspector Wallender novels, by Henning Mankell. These Nordic mystery writers know how to create tight and compelling stories amid snow, ice and freezing temperatures — and when they’re not solving crimes, our detectives are pouring coffee and eating sandwiches. Doesn’t get much better.
  • In your holiday travels — even if it’s only to the neighbor’s house for a cookie swap — you may be faced with the Problem of Bad Coffee. It happens, even with people who listen to public radio and still have a Dennis Kucinich sticker on their Prius. Don’t compromise — you don’t have to drink Bad Coffee just because it’s the season of good tidings and joy. There is a solution. Eschew — politely, of course — the see-through beverage in the Mr. Coffee carafe. Then discretely remove the flask from your purse that’s full of your best cold brew, pour into one of your host’s coffee cups and proceed with add-in’s as you see fit. If you’re staying with someone (cough-cough my mother cough-cough) who is not a coffee drinker, then arrive prepared. A personal French press-tumbler is a good choice if you’re the only coffee fan, but consider bringing a more group-friendly method if others will be jealous.
  • Best present ever? A hot-lotion dispenser. Trust me.

Christmas Parties & the Coffee with Cathy ‘How To Do Everything’ Guide

 Or, how to be happy in your new house

Susan's coffee table is gorgeously decorated for the holidays. And see those papers? We actually read our assigned books and go over discussion questions and have some lively conversations. Over wine, of course. But still.

Susan’s coffee table is gorgeously decorated for the holidays. And see those papers? We actually read our assigned books and go over discussion questions and have some lively conversations. Over wine, of course. But still.

You know that friend you have who has been through so much yet still is a rock(ette) and everybody relies on her and she is cheerful and giving and loving despite every reason not to be and you want only good things for her always? My friend like that — let’s randomly call her ‘Susan’ for no reason whatsoever — is the DEAREST AND BEST person ever and I am so lucky she lets me be her friend. She recently bought and moved into her own house and because I am a bad friend who doesn’t deserve her, I hadn’t seen the new place until this week when she hosted a Christmas party for our four-woman book club. (We are small but extremely opinionated — or maybe that’s just me. The opinionated part, I mean.) She was beaming as she welcomed us in to her warm and cozy and festive oh-so-her home. Even if I didn’t know she lived there, I would have said she should — it fits her so well. She didn’t have to do a thing to it, paint-wise, and her furniture works perfectly, with plenty of space and traffic flow for family and friends as well as her own woman-cave for relaxing. She has such good taste in decorating — simple yet elegant with a big dash of creativity is the best way to describe her style. For instance, look at her china cabinet (below).

The clear glass centerpiece reflects the candlelight and the silver and white colors add to the festive wintry atmosphere.

The clear glass centerpiece reflects the candlelight and the silver and white colors add to the festive wintry atmosphere.

highboy

Susan adds personal touches to her china cabinet with a unique display of her Gail Pittman collection.

Love, love, love the way she propped up her square Gail Pittman plates in the back to look like inlaid tiles. Clever! (And remind me to tell you about some of our Gail Pittman adventures. You wouldn’t believe what folks will do for a matching dessert plate and espresso cup. And by “folks,” I mean me.) Anyway, for Christmas Susan used silver and pale blue and glittery white to create a magical wintry evening. She fed us yummy food and fun cranberry margaritas and we opened presents and talked about the book and laughed a whole big bunch. Doesn’t get much better than that, especially when you’ve got a hostess who is so happy to share her own home with her friends. Seems like that’s the way to do Christmas parties.

My Keen Observation Skills …

You know how you see something every day and really don’t pay attention? You drive blissfully by, say, a fast-food restaurant multiple times in the course of a week and it just sort of fades into the background andWendy's new look you couldn’t describe it to anybody beyond “It’s a building and it has a door and some windows and … ” That’s the relationship between me and the Wendy’s restaurant in Muscle Shoals, Ala. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in it (maybe a couple of times?) but it’s been a fixture on the daily commute and a navigational placeholder for years. You know — “Turn at the Wendy’s,” “go a couple of blocks pass the Wendy’s,” “it’s in that block behind the Wendy’s,” etc. And then the other day somebody said something about the new Wendy’s and I had no idea what she meant. “The new Wendy’s? In Muscle Shoals?? What are you talking about??? I pass by there every day and I haven’t noticed anything,” I (luckily) said silently in my head because I’ve learned through bitter experience to keep comments that make me look stupid to myself. Turns out that the old Wendy’s had been closed — which I vaguely was aware of — and then demolished and then this new Wendy’s rose from the ruins, in all its sleek and modern glory. Turns out it’s all part of a Pan to Modernize. Old-fashioned down-home folksy is out. (Tell that to the folks who gather around Jack’s fireplaces for their morning biscuits.) Minimal urban is in. Even Wendy herself got a style update. All I know is that this does NOT look like a Wendy’s to me. Sushi? Thai? Chinese? But not hamburgers. On the other hand, I obviously am not a reliable observer since I didn’t notice when it was nothing but an empty lot and some construction equipment, so what do I know?.

Lunch

DSCN2579No, this is not what I’m planning for lunch today. Because that would be silly. You don’t indulge in this much rich & yummy frosted baked goodness for your mid-day meal. These gems from Sweet Treats Bakery, in Tupelo, Miss., strictly are breakfast items. (Note No. 1: Actually, lunch today is a leftover half of the Mediterranean Veggie Flatbread Sandwich from City Hardware in downtown Florence, Ala., home of the only balcony dining on Court Street. Note No. 2: I wouldn’t actually eat ALL of this for breakfast. Some crumbs would remain. And Note No. 3: Both of these places are locally owned and locally managed eateries that serve fresh & flavorful food accompanied by friendly smiles and welcoming attitudes. Highly recommended — and that’s a completely unsolicited and un-paid-for recommendation.)

Friends (and Family) with Words

Here are some conversations I recently have heard, been part of, eavesdropped on and otherwise been amused/horrified/fascinated by:

1) I didn’t pay attention to the two sweet elderly white-haired women talking quietly in the local diner’s corner booth until one of them jabbed her fried-chicken leg in her companion’s face and said, loudly and emphatically, “Well, why should she even try when somebody’s always covering her butt?” She then took a bite out of the chicken leg and their conversation continued softly. Wish I could have heard the rest. I’m guessing the “she” in question is the two women’s baby sister who even years ago was everybody’s favorite … and still is.

2) A non-profit I work with hosts receptions for its corporate sponsors. One of my jobs is to liaison between the sponsors, who can invite whoever and how many ever folks they want, and the volunteers who cook and decorate for the party. The volunteer in charge of the food for this specific reception was in our office kitchen and asked me how many guests the sponsor was bringing.

“He told me it wouldn’t even be 100,” I said, proud I’d talked to the sponsor that morning and had a ready answer.

“Well, that doesn’t help us much,” the volunteer said, rolling her eyes at my incompetence. “‘Not 100′ could be 20 or 80.”

She was correct, of course. Anxious to redeem myself, I backtracked quickly. “I’ll check with him again. What’s the deadline for when you need an exact count?”

Busy counting napkins and cocktail plates, she shrugged. “Oh, it doesn’t really matter. We always cook for 50, no matter what.”

3) An Episcopal priest I know relayed the story of her 2-year-old daughter’s new book of Old Testament stories. My friend started out reading every word to her daughter but then, as bedtime got closer, began summarizing paragraphs with “And then God was sad because the people acted ugly.” (Just like putting grapes in your chicken salad and letting any part of your underwear show in public, “acting ugly” is something Southern children are taught not to do. Ever.) The little girl then got impatient with the reading pace and flipped through the rest of the book, turning pages and chanting, “They acted ugly. They acted ugly. They acted ugly.” Thousands of years and millions of words of Old Testament analysis boiled down to three words.

4) On a gorgeous spring day, I was playing Ninja-Turtle-Star-Wars-Pirates with our 5-year-old grandson in the backyard. I was the lookout on top of the slide in case Penguin attacked us (he does not like to mix up his food but gleefully combines his Super Hero fighters). However, lookouts need naps, too, so I sat on the bottom of the slide, leaned back and contemplated the perfectly blue spring sky. Breaking character for moment, he came up behind me. “Kacky. O, Kacky! I’ve got a dead slug I’m going to put in your hair,” he said, chuckling. “That is so cute,” I thought to myself. “How adorable that he’d pretend to do something so icky to tease me. What a sweetie.” That’s when I heard Older Daughter yelling, “STOP RIGHT THERE AND DO NOT PUT THAT DEAD SLUG IN KACKY’S HAIR!” He did warn me.

You Have to Buy a Beverage First, People!

free whipped topping

The added “with beverage purchase” rule cracks me up … because of course somebody asked or the free whipped topping WITHOUT a beverage purchase. I mean, free whipped topping would certainly liven up a trip to the service station when you’re paying $4 a gallon.

A Sweet Valentine’s Day

I love my husband. I love endless chocolate. I love Valentine’s Day, road Valentine's dessertstrips and the great state of Tennessee. Not to mention literacy and newspapers. So you know where husband JP and I had our Valentine’s Day date this year: at the “For the Love of Literacy” dessert tasting in Selmer, Tenn., where all of these favorite things converge into one can’t-miss extravaganza. The Independent Appeal newspaper, in Selmer, hosts this wildly popular annual Valentine’s event to benefit the McNairy County Literacy Council. It’s sugar & chocolate & all-things-yummy beyond your wildest high-fat-content Valentine's cakedreams. Businesses, churches, book clubs, other non-profits and both professional and amateur bakers bring out their best recipes to woo the judges for best-of titles and sway the crowd for people’s choice votes. It’s all chocolate, all evening and you’d better start slow or you’ll regret it later. JP and I have learned to be discriminating — Valentine cookiestwo cake pops instead of three, three pieces of fudge instead of four and only one trip back for more Strawberry Surprise or double-mocha espresso brownies. But it’s all for a good cause. I mean, that’s the ONLY reason I ate all those mini peanut-butter cupcakes and had to sample the tiramisu twice. I’m passionate about literacy like that. Also, I did pick up on some dessert trends, because I had to have some excuse for circling the room eight times I always am on the food-reporting beat for you. For example, classics such as the no-bake chocolate-oatmeal cookies seem to be making a comeback, items with organic and natural ingredients are on the rise and, as always, appearance and decorations are key. The things I do just to keep you all updated …

Life of Setting Cool Tables

Creative folks amaze me. I mean, how can they come up with ideas out of nowhere that just knock you over with adorableness? My creativity is limited to “Hey, I wonder what would happen if I put tiny chocolate chips in the cookie dough instead of the regular-sized ones???” and coming up with excuses when my husband calls me and he KNOWS I’m in T.J. Maxx yet again. That’s about all the creativity I’ve got.Thank goodness I have friends and Seared tuna with saladfamily who practically are oozing with creativity, so all I have to do is relax and enjoy. Take my four-woman book club. Three of our members prepare thoughtfully themed meals with fun decorations and appropriately chosen wine for our sort-of monthly meetings, and one of our members does not. Draw your own conclusions. Needless to say, book club was NOT at my house for our recent “Life of Pi” dinner and discussion. With her usual flair, our hostess went all green and tropical with the decor (loved the leafy chargers!) and served us delicious seared tuna, veering away from the book for a Mardi-Gras dessert of king cake and bread pudding. (Full disclosure: She had a friend bring back the king cake from a New Orleans bakery but was disappointed  because, she said, it tasted like a gas-station cinnamon roll. Luckily, gas-station cinnamon rolls are pretty much tops on my food list so I was happy.) As for the book, we all agreed that the writing was graceful and lyrical made us feel as if we were there with Pi and Richard Parker. On the other hand, we were confused about parts of the plot and what it all was supposed to mean. WERE we supposed to pick which story was real? WERE we supposed to question Pi’s sanity? CAN bananas (thank you, Gwen Stefani, for guaranteeing I always can spell “bananas”) truly float? And what’s with the person-eating island, anyway? Surely that had some allegorical/mythological/philosophical threads we were not picking up. We didn’t come to any conclusion but had a fun time, anyway. As always. And now I just realized that our next book — my recommended pick of “The Dressmaker,” by Kate Alcott — is about shipwrecks and lifeboats, too. But no tigers.

Keep (Small) Shopping

We’ve had Black Thursday Night Friday, where we spent all day fighting crowds and staking out parking spots at the mall. Coming up is Cyber Monday, where we hit multiple “submit order” buttons while watching out for the boss’s signature sneaky walk-arounds. But the best day of all is today: Small Business Saturday, sponsored by American Express and promoted by the Small Business Administration and The 3/50 Project. If your skin is dried out and your eyes are watering from all the florescent lighting you couldn’t get away from yesterday and your sinuses are protesting all the perfume samples sprayed your way, head to the nearest hometown downtown  this morning. You will find friendly local folks who sincerely are glad you stepped into their stores and will make you feel welcome and valued. You’ll meet your neighbors. You’ll talk to visitors. And you’ll find everything you need for a memorable holiday 2012. Look, I enjoy a mall crawl as much as anybody. Sometimes you just need a Cinnabon and The Gap and disinterested employees who are paid too little for too much work to care whether you buy anything or not. Nothing wrong with that, at all. The thing is that shopping downtown with your local retailers is a different experience — it’s somehow more satisfying, as if you’re doing something good and helpful.  That’s how I felt, anyway, when I spent my Black Friday wandering around my downtown of Corinth, Miss., where I spent a little bit of or maybe some or maybe a pretty good chunk found great gifts for lots of folks on my list and perhaps a whole big bunch a few things for myself. Highlights: The fun and funky decor and jewelry at the newly opened Baxter & Me and the wearable style and creative embellishments at women’s boutique Andi Grace. I also went to the bank, the dry cleaner’s, the alterations shop, a jewelry store for a couple of repairs, the library, the coffee shop and the museum; had conversations on sidewalks; waved and smiled to tons of folks; and enjoyed brownies made and sold by the young niece of one of the store owners — all in three or four hours and a couple of blocks from the house. And to prove my dedication to supporting the local economy, I’m showing you my shopping results — without revealing specific contents. Remember — no peeking until Dec. 25!

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Shopping!

Husband JP and I were lucky enough to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner with Older Daughter’s in-laws, who pretty much set the standard for Southern hospitality and generosity. Not to mention incredibly good food — melt-in-your-mouth smoked turkey, Older Daughter’s signature corn casserole, homemade sourdough rolls and that broccoli salad with onions and grapes I love but never make myself were only a few of the highlights, along with JP’s favorites of deviled eggs and green-bean casserole. After we rolled ourselves away from the table, it was time for after-dinner entertainment — which, predictably, seemed to split along gender lines. Those who were planning upcoming shopping trips —  this group seemed to be mostly women — settled in to scan the ads and make a schedule. Outside, another group — and this one was mostly men – tried to outdo each other with feats of strength, skill and endurance chopped firewood from a lovely old cherry tree and fixed a balky chainsaw. But then we regrouped for a late afternoon hike. And I got to take some banana pudding home! So my Thanksgiving started out with precious grandbaby hugs and ended with a bowl of leftover goodness. Hope yours was full of love and sweetness, too.