Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Card Gift

When I travel I like to pretend I am native to wherever I am visiting at that time. While I am terrible at lying, I am pretty good at pretending, which is entirely different. I went to Paris for a wedding this summer and for a week and a half I pretended I couldn't speak English. It's like a little secret life I can explore for a bit - like what if I just all of a sudden wasn't an American? Usually this just results in lots of people asking me for directions.

This idea of wanting badly to blend in to unfamiliar landscapes began as a child of transplanted parents. (NOT parents who have had transplants, just parents who moved to the Midwest as fully formed, East Coast adults.) And as transplants, my parents still have strong roots in their native city, Boston. They also sometimes have strong accents. When I was little, I thought that you had a few choices for how to describe the piece of furniture that holds your clothes. You could say dresser, bureau, chest of draws, OR chest of drawers. I thought these were all entirely separate options. This continued until third grade, when the following happened:

Nice Classmate #1: "I like your purple sweatshirt with the gold metal stars sewn on it. Where did you get it?"

Me: "I don't know, I found it in my draws."

Mean Classmate #2: "Your WHAT?? You're stupid. And your crewneck sweatshirt is ugly."

OK, so maybe it didn't happen quite like this, but that is what it felt like. And I did have a purple crewneck sweatshirt with little gold metal stars sewn on it and I wore it ALL THE TIME. But the point is that this is the point when I began to notice that my parents pronounced things differently than other people's parents. Up until that point I had reasoned that this accent was just how old people sounded. We visited Boston every summer and spent almost all of our time with my dad's side of the family. And they were all extremely old. So I thought, you must just develop this weird way of talking when you reach a certain age.

My dad calls the Boston accent the "food-falling-out-of-your-mouth" dialect. Which is a more appropriate way of explaining it than just taking the Rs out of words, because as you listen, you find all those missing Rs in the wrong places. Like my aunt Ider (Ida). Anyway, my grandmother used to quiz me on my best Boston accent by giving me the well-known prompt: "Go park your car in Harvard yard." Go ahead, give it a try. You might want to practice with some food halfway out of your mouth.

She would also tell me I was "such a cahd." I write this with an H because there is the slightest trace of an R in a true Boston accent. Not an actual R, but like you know it's there and you pay homage to it in your head before you say the word. Anyway, being a cahd includes being a joker, a goofball, a hoot to be around. And everytime I write thank you notes I think of this. Not that my thank you notes are sooo funny, (even though I wish they could be,) but that I have a giant stack of cards and all I can think of is my grandmother saying the word cahd.

I am currently in the midst of writing Christmas thank you cards, and I am excruciatingly late in doing so. By writing them this late into the new year, I have also added a few other cards that I need to get out to various people. Which made me think of how I sometimes use cards as a gift in and of themselves. Sometimes I make my own cards by drawing a design, a cartoon or a funny phrase. Sometimes I also then scan it into the computer and print and copy it at (where else?) Kinko's. But most of the time I buy cards. I buy lots and lots of cards.

One of my favorite places in the world is the paper store down the street from me. I love looking at letterpress cards, hand-drawn cards, collage cards, photo cards, all kinds of cards. (This is a reference to one of my favorite children's books about all kinds of transportation -- "Big boats, small boats, tug boats, steam boats, all kinds of boats." Anyone? Just me? Naturally.) I like to buy a new set of thank you cards after every one of my birthdays. I also always visit the gift shop of every museum I visit to buy a card of the works of art I loved the most. I buy cards from galleries for the same reason. I frame card photos or painted cards as presents or decorations in my own home, but mostly I save the cards for an occasion to give that particular picture to someone.

I found an Henri Matisse painting as a card one time that I gave to my mom, who loves Matisse. I found a Chicago skyline card to give to M. I found a dancing woman card to give to my friend A-C, who is a dancer. I have found lots of giraffe cards to give to my dad. I also usually buy four different types of Holiday cards to send to friends, and I spend an hour or so making lists of which person will receive which type of card. Mostly this is because I am so addicted to beautiful stationery that I feel as though I have to buy up as many versions as I can so I will "have" the designs as my own. Partly it is because some cards really call out to be sent to certain people.

My ground rules for Holiday cards are as follows:

1. They have to say "holiday season" or "holidays" or "winter," as opposed to "Christmas." I feel it is better form.

2. They can't just have white people on them. I have broken this rule before, but in the past few years I have been more strict about it. I usually go in favor of polar bears, dogs or my favorite, snowmen. (Which are white, but I think you know where I'm going with this.) But if I choose a card with people, I try to go for either diversity or under-represented cultures.

3. They have to be different enough from the rest of the cards on the shelf that I can't walk away from them or that I can't stop myself from smiling while looking at them.

4. This one is optional, but I do prefer that they come in a box with their own image printed on it so that I can use the box for holiday decorations later.

After I buy the cards I take a sheet of paper and write columns for each type of card, and then a numbered list under each column with as many numbers as there are cards in that particular box. Then I fill in the numbered lists with the names of intended recipients from my Excel file of Holiday Addresses. This year I had one box of cards with a dog poking out of a pet door onto the porch of a wintry, woodsy home. His snout was rested near a pair of work boots. So I chose the twelve people from my master list whom I felt would most appreciate this photo of a dog. Unless they would appreciate the skipping polar bear with the shopping bag labeled "Peace" even more...

But you get the holiday-themed picture.

Even if my address book does not know how much Type A planning went into my holiday cards, I know that they are successful gifts of their own accord. To pick out cards that include everyone, that make all their choices and lives feel appreciated, and to subtly pick up on little things that you know about them specifically is a lovely way to celebrate your friends for the holidays. It blends in with you and it's still from me. And all the work behind that is like that secret life I have while traveling - what if I just happened to love all of these things too? Except here it isn't even pretending.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Masterpiece Gift

In getting fired from the bar, the past two months have often felt like being thrown to the ground, or having the rug pulled out from under me, or other analogies that end in the mud. And partly I think this is wrapped up in the idea of failure. It is hard to explain the odd sensation of failing for me, especially in something at which I actually felt successful.

I didn't mean to overstay my welcome at the bar, as I clearly ended up doing. I finished my teaching commitment and needed some kind of income while I decided what came next. The bar was an easy way to make my teacher salary on three shifts a week, and while this in itself was a highly depressing commentary on how little we value educators in America, it freed me up to take on part-time work in various other fields. Some of this part-time work still includes independent contract work for two different teacher recruitment and training programs. For one, I interview applicants over the phone who want to teach in low income urban and rural communities. Mostly, these are people who are highly motivated and extremely intelligent. Sometimes, however, these are people who are not. A sample conversation from last week:

Me: "What do you think raising achievement levels in low performing schools will require of you to accomplish?"

Applicant #1: "Well, just to get them to trust me, show them that I care, love on them..."

Really? That might get you fired.

Applicants do have a chance to ask questions in this process, and the question that I got the most often in the 20 interviews I did last week was "what was the most difficult part of your first year teaching?" Which is kind of like asking someone who is drowning, "what is the hardest part of staying alive?" But, as the interviews progressed, it dawned on me that the warning we first year teachers received was also the best way to explain the difficulty of that first year: that first year would be the first time any of us would ever really FAIL at anything. And by all-caps FAIL, I mean land in the mud FAIL. I don't mean getting an F on a quiz, or bombing an audition. I mean, letting 28 students down who cannot afford to fall any further behind, while knowing that you are fully capable of not letting them down.

So in taking the job at the bar, I was also taking a break from that constant sense of not achieving enough. A break that allowed me to be very successful at something very easy. And then I somehow failed at that too.

Anyway, with this in mind, last night I went to a lecture on the idea of "masterpiece." The senior curator of 19th century sculpture at the Louvre, who let's be honest, is probably the closest thing to a real-life heroine that I could have, was in town and gave a lecture at my favorite place, the Alliance Française of Chicago. So this tiny, beautiful French woman who is internationally successful at her job in curating art for one of the largest and most important museums in the world, spoke about what constitutes a masterpiece, and how this definition varies from artist to artist, curator to curator, and generally cannot actually ever have a true definition. But, for her, she said masterpieces always showcase the skills of an artist. All of the skills. Everything the artist does well.

And this made me think of how often the most successful artists in the world have felt like complete and total losers. Imagine the level of FAIL you would have hanging over your head in trying to create a "masterpiece."Imagining this made me feel better. It also made me think of how much easier being successful is when there are no restrictions.

When I was about four or five years old, my mom bought an 8 X 10 inch canvas, some acrylic paints and a paintbrush and let me paint. I have no idea what I was thinking about as I painted, or if I intended it to look like something in particular. I do know that my mom put music on and told me my work was beautiful. The finished product made the perfect Father's Day present from us to my dad, the artist. My dad paints with acrylics and lots of colors, and this painting was several things at once to him: family support for his art, flattery in the form of imitation, and true creative expression. It was also a patchwork of blobs, but it was everything that I did well. It was a masterpiece.

The best part of this gift is not that it is a masterpiece. The best part is how it reflected the success of my dad to become a success in its own right. And this is what I am trying to recapture as I climb out of the mud.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Muppet Gift

I am a Muppet freak. I am obsessed with all things Muppet. I have a giant poster in my bedroom closet that features all the recurring characters from The Muppet Show. It is in the closet as a secret surprise for me, as other people seem to find this obsession disturbing. I'll admit, arriving at a friend's apartment to find huge, felt, monster faces smiling down at you might be a little off-putting.

While M has fostered my love of puppet creatures, even buying me a book called Street Gang, about the development and history of Sesame Street (which I highly recommend,) he seems to find my breaking into Muppet-fueled songs slightly odd. Luckily, my brother, G, shares this habit with me. Between the two of us, we have associated over 20 songs with the Muppets and Muppets alone, often mistaking the vocals originated by famous people like Nat King Cole for tunes crafted by Jim Henson and company. For example, apparently "Tenderly" is a real song. Not a short, loud rant by a crazed Animal.

In August, M and I went to the wedding of one of my college friends, and she danced with her dad to "Time in a Bottle." And it was sung by Jim Croce, who I am fairly certain, was never a Muppet. I was shocked. That classic song, "Something's Happening Here," that features prominently in the Vietnam portion of Forrest Gump apparently does not have construction worker sounds at the end. In the Muppet version, the song is being sung by woodland creatures, before their habitat is torn down by bulldozers, and so the end is drowned out by "Hey, get out of the way!" and lots of shouting. This is not included in the Buffalo Springfield version.

Short of going through all of the songs G and I grew to love on our Muppet Show audio tapes, and the eventual confusion this caused for our knowledge of music history, I can't explain the depth of our relationship to the goofy felt creatures. To us, these are not just children's playthings, or a craze that we experienced as kids. To us, they still exist in a very real way. We had three Muppet Show tapes that we wore out listening to mostly in the car to and from Boston. We grew up as Midwestern kids of East coast adults. Almost every summer we traveled to Boston to visit family. And we took this trip by car. How my parents sat through 20 hours one way of Muppet tapes every year is beyond me, but in these repeated sessions, G and I absorbed every line, every note and every snide comment from our fuzzy friends. To the point that now we reference them as if they are classmates, or friends we catch up with every so often. If I were to mention someone named Lydia, I guarantee you my brother would launch into "Lydia, oh Lydia, say have you met Lydia, Lydia the TA-ah-too-ed lady."

For Christmas a couple of years ago, G bought me a DVD box set of the first season of the Muppet Show, which I watch more often than I care to admit. Having spent most of our childhood hearing these songs and skits without watching them, these DVDs have been fascinating for both G and I. We have shared how we thought a certain song was performed by different Muppet, and sometimes we each had different Muppets in mind for the same sequence. Similar to the way your imagination works in reading a book and creating the setting and pictures in your head, hearing theater stimulates a different creative sense in a way that television cannot provide. This is the genius of marketing Muppets in audio form - it further pushes children's creativity.

The reason I mention all of this is that The Muppet Show is almost impossible to find in audio form currently. As my brother and I wore out our tapes and haven't even been able to find them in a million years, I have been looking for a way to get a CD of our favorite Muppet-y songs as a present. Last year, for Christmas, I found a compilation CD of the best of The Muppet Show and ordered it online from Borders, to be picked up in store. It doesn't have everything, but it does have "Mr. Bass Man," which is his favorite. I decided to pair this with our Christmas tradition, "Merry Christmas from Sesame Street," which we listen to every year, like we are 6 yrs. old. It is cheesy and lame, but it reminds me of little kid Christmases and how these voices were very much my friends for a long time. Hearing Prairie Dawn say, "Welcome, oh welcome to our lit-tle play," is like curling up in a blanket when you are very sleepy.

Anyway, all we have of this amazing Muppet-related holiday concert is a record that is falling out of its sleeve. We have listened to it so many times that the grooves have become trenches and it sounds like it was recorded at the dawn of radio. But apparently, a CD version of this does not exist. Neither do tapes, or anything that would bring this recording into at least 1988. Maybe this is due to the fact that the Children's Television Workshop has undergone a lot of changes in the past ten years, and that they release things very slowly and carefully. Or maybe it is because the idea of religious diversity has taken on a new importance since 1980 and the powers that be do not want to draw attention to a purely Christmas-themed album. Whatever the reason, its controversy or its politics, this record is non-existent in the world of music sales. So I turned to the Internet. Where I found a lovely fan site, listing all the tracks to "Merry Christmas from Sesame Street," for FREE. I downloaded them and made my own CD. I also downloaded the picture from the front of the album and printed it to use as the wrapping paper.

The best part of this gift is that it keeps the love my brother and I have for Muppets secure in that it keeps our mutual appreciation current. At Christmas this year, G and I broke into a rendition of "Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear," which we were told again, was not designed for Fozzie and Scooter, but originated from somewhere else entirely. We were yet again surprised, but not daunted. Give us even a veiled reference and we will break into song anew.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Project Gift

I have been very angry. It's a weird wiring system that I have, that when I am sad, I get frustrated, and when I am angry, I cry. So I have been very angry for almost two months. And so, I have been crying altogether too much. I feel picked apart and put upon and just generally that things are out of control. Let me rephrase: things are out of MY control.

There are lots of things about class systems that do not make sense to me. Most of all, why it is necessary to continually punish the very people who need the most help. This makes me a Socialist, you say? Why, yes. Yes it does. I do feel that there is a responsibility, as humans, to watch out for other people. To make sure everyone has a equal starting point. This does not mean I house homeless people in my apartment or that I do not buy new shoes in favor of donating money to charity. I am not a purist. I simply think that there are some things we should all be entitled to as citizens of a responsible country. Like quality education. And health care. And protection against the assumption that because you do not have very much money, you must be a moron.

I don't think I am a moron. In fact. I'm pretty sure that I am an anti-moron. I seem to be in the minority on this, however. My credit card apparently thinks I am a Grade A Imbecile because I think that raising the interest rate to an ungodly amount makes the opposite of sense. The unemployment office thinks that I am profoundly stupid for thinking that they intended to pay me the amount of money that I was actually making at my job, and not the amount of money on which they arbitrarily think I should be able to live. All of a sudden, I have met an inordinate amount of people who find me to be massively dumb.

I am trying to see this as karma that I am paying for in advance. I am hoping that I have a windfall coming to me and that for the universe to balance its karmic ledger, it just has to suck for me for a while. I am ignoring the possibility that I did something really awful, because I just cannot think of anything that measures up.

So under the assumption that I didn't do anything wrong, I also cannot fix it. Short of yelling into the phone, "STOP TREATING ME LIKE A SECOND CLASS PERSON. I AM REALLY SMART," there is not a lot of recourse. And yelling generally indicates some crazy anyway.

This lack of control and inability to fix my life has led to two realizations over the past two months.

1.) I am sick of crying.

2.) I am using projects as an outlet to gain control.

Mostly my projects of late have consisted of cooking and baking. Baking in particular has always been a source of satisfaction for me in times of chaos. I love taking separate ingredients to create something entirely different in shape, form and texture. I like the bowls and the wooden spoons and the act of mixing. I like putting on an apron and the yummy smells and standing in the kitchen for hours. Plus, following recipes means there is structure and if you read well enough, failure is rare.

This is why many of my gifts this season have included food. My most recent project, though has been my Christmas gift for my mom. This project, while food-related, is not edible. It is a calendar of sorts, detailing the freshest ingredient for each month of the year.

I have mentioned my obsession with Bon Appétit before, but I'm not sure I fully conveyed how much I rely on this perfect little publication. Last year, my friend L gave me a subscription to BA (as they call THEMSELVES, I didn't make this up,) for Christmas. L and I have exchanged several cookbooks and recipes and general food advice for years, but this may be the single best present anyone has ever given me. When I receive my latest BA edition, this is what I do: I read the magazine cover to cover. I bookmark every page that contains a recipe that I would like to try. I go back through the bookmarked pages with two different colors of Post-Its. I place a purple Post-It on all the pages with recipes that I would like to try this month for M and I. I place a blue Post-It on all the pages with recipes that I would like to try this month to give as gifts or bring to parties. I make a list of ingredients to buy at the store to make these recipes in order of how I will make them. Does it surprise you that my life feels out of control?

Also in BA is a section called "At The Market," in which they identify one ingredient "at its seasonal peak" and what to do with it. They show pictures of it, they list how to pick the freshest version and they include three or four recipes for it. A few months ago, I told my mom that I made Striped Sea Bass with roasted fennel and potatoes, and how it was amazing. I also mentioned how I had never even had fennel before. My mom said she had lately been going to the local organic market to try new vegetables for the first time. Like turnips. And so my project began forming itself in my head.

I decided to take the At The Market sections and turn them into some kind of calendar. But, as I get overwhelmed trying to make all the recipes I want to make each month, I decided not to include dates or weeks on the calendar so she can reuse it for as many season as she wants. I knew that if I copied the recipes, they needed to be separate so she could move around the kitchen with the recipe in hand or take it to the store to shop for ingredients. And, I knew that the print in the magazine was too small to make a useful calendar. So, I decided to plan for legal-size cardstock.

I started by taking black Post-Its and marking each At The Market section for each month. In looking at the pictures, I knew they wouldn't photocopy well, so I decided to draw each ingredient myself. I took out my sketch book, propped up one BA at a time against the arm of my couch, and drew a version of each vegetable and fruit in black ink. I wrote the name of the food and the name of the month where it belonged beside the picture. Then, I took the assorted magazines and photocopied all the pages I needed at Kinko's. I used plain white copy paper and literally cut and pasted each month's picture and text. I cut out the recipes and formatted each on an index card.

I searched for library pockets everywhere and had to default back to the teacher store, because apparently only teachers know the value of paper pockets that are self-adhesive. (Seriously, these are the most versatile office-related products you could ever own.) I went back to Kinko's and copied each month's page onto legal-size cardstock by enlarging my original pages by 120%. The only large cardstock they had was white. So, I copied the index cards onto multicolored cardstock. The library pockets I bought had stripes on them in five different colors, so I chose those five colors of cardstock and copied each month's recipes on an alternating color. I used the paper cutter at Kinko's for so long that I removed three layers of clothing. I left the large sheets of cardstock with my friends at Kinko's to have them bind the sheets at the top.

Finally, I picked up the bound calendar, affixed each library pocket to the bottom right corner of each sheet, slid each month's recipe cards in each pocket, and wrapped the whole thing. (Not all the cards fit, as my "formatting" was a little shoddy, so I had to do some trimming before that step was complete.) I found some mini kitchen tools at Crate and Barrel, like a powdered sugar spoon and a bamboo pot scraper, and a pretty recycled glass jar to put the tools in. All in all, this gift cost very little money. I was, however, basically living at Kinko's.

Anyway, my mom loved it. I know because she cried. The funny part is that she gave ME a calendar for Christmas -- made of photos she took in France two years ago. (This a common event in my family. We all give each other the same things.)

The best part about this gift is not just that it gave me something to do, something to control. Or that it made me feel smart and useful. (Although it DID.) The best part is that I was able to use a gift that I LOVE to create a new gift that my mom loves. It's like gift karma.

The Host/Hostess Gift

Last year, my friend, A (I am starting to realize that my friends all have the same initials, so this pattern may have to come to an end,) made chocolate covered pretzels. She made them with little round pretzels, long stick pretzels and twisty pretzels. She made them with dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate. She made them with sprinkles, drizzles and candies. There were so many delicious pretzel combinations that they covered all the counters of the apartment shared by her boyfriend J, and my boyfriend, M. When we asked her, a.) what prompted this pretzel blitz and b.) if we could have some, she replied that they were hostess gifts for Christmas. And YES.

This was the first time I had ever heard the term "Hostess Gift." I know the basics, like when invited to a party, you should bring something with you. Or when you head to dinner at someone's house, you can't go wrong with a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers. (Well you CAN go wrong with either, but usually not at the same house.) What I didn't know is the practice of giving these tokens to the person hosting the get-together actually had a name. And, what's more, that making something entirely different for holiday-themed parties and events was common practice. I had, in fact, followed this procedure since I was little, but as my family did not host a lot of parties, had no idea this was a national phenomenon.

For the past few years, my default Host/Hostess Gift for the holiday season is my mom's recipe for caramel corn. This is my default present because it is my mom's default present too. Every Christmas my mom makes a ton of caramel corn to bring to friends and neighbors. And she makes enough that we can snack on it in the house, too. Eating caramel corn while it is still hot and melty is the absolute best. Now imagine my surprise, when opening this screen to type these words, I found my mom's EXACT recipe listed on my favorite food-related blog as the perfect thing to make this season. So I won't bother repeating the same ideas about how lovely and crunchy and gooey and salty-sweet the caramel corn is. You should read Orangette for that. I will suggest, however, that you try my mom's recipe with walnuts, as hers is written, instead of the peanuts listed there.

The thing about caramel corn that makes it especially great for Host/Hostess Gifts is that it is fairly easy and rather inexpensive to make, and you can make a lot at once. Most people I know have a glut of parties to go to in the month of December. Because caramel corn does not store for an extended period of time without going chewy, I usually make it in batches. So this year, I made a different batch each weekend to bring to that weekend's assorted get-togethers.

We brought caramel corn out to Iowa for a weekend stay with friends. The trip was to see Handel's "The Messiah," performed in part by one of our friends. But in seeing the show, we got to stay with our friends B and D, who have absolutely the most adorable daughter in the entire world. She is so smart and charismatic and beautiful that it makes me NOT want to have kids. Because they could never be that cute. Everyone assures me this is not true, but you haven't met this little girl. When we went to brunch, she wandered out of the room we were in, then ran back into the room with her arms raised overhead, grinning, and said, "Hellllooooo!"

We also brought caramel corn to M's godson's birthday party/Christmas party. As someone who does not like to share, and who makes her birthday an entire week-long event, I always think it must be hard to have a birthday while everyone else gets presents too. But Little M seemed entirely content with a party for the whole family. I was thoroughly impressed. But not one bit swayed to share for my own birthday.

And, we brought caramel corn to my favorite annual event, the "Elf" screening with A and J. A, of the pretzel factory, (and now her fiancé, J) hosts a holiday party every year where we watch Will Ferrell in yellow tights and eat things made from only the four main elf food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup.

Here's the thing about these holiday events -- last year I missed all of them. When at least one weekend night is used up working at a bar, you can only attend parties on the other of those nights. For one minute last week, I thought, I should try to pick up an extra shift this week so I have a little more money for Christmas presents. And then I remembered that I couldn't. That option to aid in my own financial situation has been cut off from me. Which made me sad. Kicked in the gut sad. But being able to go to all the parties I want takes the sting away. And in the end, I think bringing sticky sweets to the people I love is more important than being able to buy one extra present.