the other theo

There is no dark side of the moon really… as a matter of fact, it's all dark.

Category: The Holidays

Speeding To The Unknown Shore

As I settle in to my first full week back in harness at work, a lot of people are asking each other “Well, how were your holidays?”

My answer is invariably “good”.   Too often at this time of year, things are rush, rush, rush.  Despite the fact that little business actually gets done at this time of year, someone in my management chain decides that a milestone must be met before the year ends.   That creates a scenario where all the rushing to complete the perfunctory tasks for Christmas at home must compete with a deadline at work that could often be more realistically set for mid-to-late January (when it often gets hit anyway.)

That did not happen this year.  The fact that I am transitioning between two projects coupled with the fact that I have not gotten feedback that is blocking progress on a couple issues means that stress and urgency levels at work were lower as Christmas and the New Year approached.  As a child, Christmas is a thing that happens to you.  You cannot help but take it in, and you often wish that it doesn’t happen to you fast enough.  Christmas is a process for adults, making it happen for others.  If you don’t have time to step back and observe that process, it just races past and is something to be survived, not enjoyed.   The extra space in my schedule this year allowed me some enjoyment.

The season was not without irritations.   I wrote at the beginning of December that my weight was up and that I would need to be dedicated through the end of the year.   My spirit did not fail me in that, but my body did.  I developed soreness in my hips, especially on my right, that was aggravated by the motion of the elliptical trainer I primarily used to work out.   It seemed obvious that exhaustion and repetition were straining, not training.  The equally obvious response was to rest, worries about additional holiday weight gain be damned.   Weeks on, that approach proved effective; I am not able to push myself to the high level I ideally want to burn calories, but I can work out (more moderately) without damaging myself and start the process of getting back in better shape.  I’m now probably about 8-9 pounds above my current weight loss target, but I feel like the worst is behind me.

A key system in the house also decided to fail just as the year ended.   I’ve noticed for the last 2 years or so that the thermostat would just not turn the heat on sometimes.  In the past, I usually was able to reset the thing or change the batteries and it would start working again with enough fiddling.  We keep the house cooler at night and the heat went off in the evening of December 30th.   It did not come back on the following morning, December 31st.  Fortunately, I got a replacement thermostat a year or two ago.  I put off installing it because I was generally able to get the old one working.  This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I was a grump for a little while until I got the new one installed and discovered that it worked.   After that, it was all good and I could relax.

Christmas itself followed our regular pattern: Mass on Christmas Eve and dinner with family on Christmas Day.  We went to church with the Missus’ Dad not far from the apartment where he lives, about 15 miles away.  They roll up the sidewalks at about 7pm up there on Christmas Eve, as we discovered last year when it was nigh on impossible to find a place to eat after Vigil Mass that starts at 6pm.   We took that lesson to heart and got a couple pizzas before Mass started, and reheated them at my father-in-law’s apartment.  As I said to the Missus as we drove home, it went very easy.

The Peanut cleaned up on Christmas morning.  He got 4-5 boxes full of stuff from Santa that were taller than he is when stood up on their longest sides.   He got a tricycle, another vehicle called a Plasma Car, a Little People car track, two different tee ball sets, and large, complicated-to-assemble marble track.   He was surprisingly easy going about all this loot.   The Missus’ Dad joined us for the Great Unwrapping, and didn’t arrive until after 9:30am.   The Peanut was perfectly fine about waiting to open gifts.  That fact that made the Missus somewhat question his maternity, for whom an unopened gift can be a taunt that repeatedly whispers “open me… open me… open me” as soon as it is seen.

Once the Great Unwrapping completed, I made brunch with buttermilk pancakes, bacon, sausage, and mimosas made with some prosecco.

Dinner on Christmas Day took Julia Child as its inspiration.   It was Steak Au Poivre, garlic mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, and a salad, much of the recipes coming from Mastering The Art Of French Cooking.  It wasn’t tremendously high stakes cooking, but left me feeling fatigued at the end of the day anyway.   It all came out pretty well, even if I hadn’t made the steak or the potatoes in the better part of ten years.

We were joined by the Missus’ Cousin T. and her family for dinner.   We don’t get to see enough of the extended family at holiday times, and it was nice for them join us.   I did fail my guests in one small respect: the Missus recalled that T. had some food allergies, and believed that they were wheat-related.   That turned out be wrong.  T. has problems with dairy, and here I am cooking French-inflected food with tons of butter.   Oh well.  We still had a good time and T. found enough to eat.  Live and learn.

I spent the three days after Christmas not doing too much of anything in particular, except eating leftovers.  After that, went to work the first two days of the following week, and then was off until the first Monday of the New Year.

If Christmas was the holiday where I felt like I was rushing around to create the day for others, New Years was gloriously lazy.  I got some takeout Chinese food from a restaurant whose chief virtue is the short drive from our house and was in bed by 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve.  The following was fend for yourself breakfast, and a holiday party at the house of friends that afternoon.

I watched bits Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln over the break.  In it, Abraham Lincoln speaks of a dream where he is speeding on a ship toward an unknown shore.   I feel like I was on that ship for much of the year, what with the Peanut’s problems with talking, the associated issues with medical insurance, and the back and forth at work the culminated in some layoffs back in October and put the project I worked on for nearly two years in mothballs.   The speed of that ship began to slow as the holidays approached for reasons I mentioned above.  By that first weekend of 2015, that ship finally stopped and I felt centered in myself for the first time since I don’t know when.

I’ll take an end of year like that anytime.

ps.  For all my fretting about ornaments this year, we only damaged one and that was my fault.  I tried to reach behind the tree to clean a piece of dirty train track in the back and knocked this Santa loose from his hook.   He rolled over my shoulder, down my arm, and hit the floor just beyond the round area rug that generally protects our ornaments.

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Other Christmas Music

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All the Starbucks Christmas CD covers 1998-2014, except for 2000.

 

In addition to my recent rediscovery of the Robert Shaw Chorale, I’ve added substantially to my collection of Starbucks Christmas CDs this year.

I first encountered the anthology CDs of Christmas music that Starbucks sells in 1999 through someone I dated briefly.  I didn’t have much in the way of Christmas music in my collection at the time except the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack for Charlie Brown and a Christmas album by Harry Connick Jr.   A Merry Affair: Starbucks Swinging Songs of Red Velvet and Mistletoe Kisses was a nice compilation of jazzy carols by the likes of Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Hunter, and others that complimented my existing collection nicely.

Thinking it was a one off, I treasured the CD every December for several years but never bothered to think that there might be more. That changed in 2007 when I spotted Stockings By The Fire.  Seeing a similar formula to my 1999 purchase, I snapped that one up and the CD issued every year since.

I didn’t get the CDs for 1998 and 2001-2006 until this year.  Nearly all of them were available used online for 1 cent plus shipping.   That was a deal too good to pass up.   I haven’t gotten the 2000 CD yet because it took a while to track down the title: Hear Music Volume 3: Holly Days and Mistletoe Nights.

Now that I can look back on nearly 17 years of holiday music, certain trends become apparent.  Until I can find something older, it looks like A Merry Affair set the pattern that was used for most of a decade.  Starbucks’ Hi-Fidelity Holiday from 1998 is an oddly eclectic collection with tunes by Esquivel, Robbie Robertson, ‘Keb Mo, The Alarm, and Combustible Edison as well as a few by Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, and Bobby Darin.   With the exception of seven complementary tracks from the Cocteau Twins, the Beach Boys, Barbra Streisand, Sarah McLachlan, and Aimee Mann, the jazz/traditional vocalist-dominant approach lasted through at least the following seven CDs.  That started to change around to 2007 with the inclusion of tracks by Hem, Jack Johnson, Rufus Wainwright, A Fine Frenzy, and John Legend.   The following year saw tracks by KT Tunstall, Goldfrapp, and Beth Orton.    Making Merry in 2009 largely returned to the older formula for one year, but the lead off of John Lennon’s Happy Xmas next year stepped away again and stayed there through 2013.

Starbucks changed the formula entirely for 2014.   The anthology this year, Merry & Bright, is a collection of songs all produced by David Foster.   Some of the names like Andrea Bocelli have appeared on previous compilations, but this probably is the first CD since 1999 that doesn’t feature a track sung by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or Bing Crosby.

Ornaments

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The Missus and I loves us some blown glass Christmas ornaments.   For her, I believe it’s at least partially about finding better, more interesting ways to decorate for the holiday.  For me, it’s about my childhood; my Mom had some beautiful blown glass ornaments handed down from her parents when I was growing up.   A lot of them gradually broke as I got older (sadly, some with my “help”), but the memory of them lingered.

It’s a memory that I’ve been lucky enough to be able to recreate as an adult.   Fancy Christmas ornaments seemed to fall out of fashion through much of the 1970’s and 80’s, though I have no idea whether that’s due to changing tastes or Cold War tensions.   I had the good fortune to turn 20 about the time that the Berlin Wall fell.  That proved to be a boon for Christmas ornaments: former Eastern Bloc countries where they were traditionally made (East Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic) were loosed from atheistic Communism, suddenly opened to the United States and Western Europe, and needed to trade for hard currency.   It took a few years, but it’s been fairly easy get nice glass ornaments for 10 or more years now.

The Missus and I try to get a couple of them a year, generally when we travel or to commemorate events in our lives.   We have more than we can put on one tree unless it’s a large tree.   It certainly makes decorating the tree into an event.

Most years have been good regarding losses, but a few have been bad.  We have a few boxed assortments that are only half full now because the boxes fell and ornaments smashed.   The first year in our house was a bad one; we moved from an apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting to a house with hardwood floors in the living room and dining room.   We lost an ornament nearly every time one came loose from the tree, until I found a $25 circular area rug on eBay to put under the tree that’s saved many ornaments in the years since.

The arrival of the Peanut has forced us consciously think about what our ornament policy will be on a year to year basis.   We put up a protective fence around the tree for a couple years.   We refrained hanging too many nice ornaments on lower parts of the tree last year.

This brings me to the central paradox of Christmas ornaments: they must be used to be appreciated and using them always brings the risk of breakage.   Branches bend, trees can fall, and people knock into ornaments.   Putting up a Christmas tree is an inherently risky operation for glass ornaments.   To do otherwise is to treat them like a museum collection, and that defeats the point in my opinion.

I say all of this because of three things:

  1. We put up our Christmas tree yesterday.
  2. I only realized afterward that we put ornaments on the tree that we haven’t used in a few years because of their size and sentimental value without worrying too much about what might happen to them.
  3. The Peanut took a header into the side of the tree this morning when he leaned too far over the arm of the orange chair next to the tree (no ornaments broken — the rug did its work again.)

It should be an interesting Christmas season.

A Shaded Christmas Dog

Music is an important part of the Christmas season for me.   Be it the music of Christmas Mass, the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, or some 20th Century Christmas classic crooned by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or someone more contemporary, it’s music I only play for myself from the day after Thanksgiving until January 2nd.   That makes it special, and it’s a refuge during a month that seems to be nothing but busy with holiday hustle and bustle.

Lots of pop, rock, and country music artists like to do Christmas albums.   Too many of them end up sounding either sanitized or completely of their moment.  Nearly all of them cater to the secular Christmas motifs of the Northeast United States from the middle of the last century — snow, trees, fiery hearths, sledding, skating, roasted chestnuts, and the rest.   Very few (like A Christmas Cornucopia by Annie Lennox and A Winter’s Night by Sting) bother to even mine much of the large stockpile of older Christmas material beyond the most popular favorites.

So, I’ve leaned on some jazz-inflected compilation albums (primarily produced annually by Starbucks), a few individual albums by the likes of Mel Tormé, Harry Connick Jr., and Diana Krall, and some instrumental favorites like the aforementioned Peanuts soundtrack.

This year, I felt compelled to look for something different.   I wanted something more musical and less commercial (at least in the modern sense) and that dove deeper into the full range of Christmas material.  Somehow, I kept thinking back to an album in my Mother’s collection of vinyl:

rca_lsc-2139I’m not sure why.   I remembered what it is: four part a capella choral harmony.   Though it was not something I especially appreciated at Christmas as a child, it seemed something perfect for me now — quiet, accomplished, meditative, and truly classic (and rooted in the classical.)

But where to find this?   Doing a little research, I discovered that RCA vinyl aficionados call Living Stereo albums “shaded dogs” because of the darker backgrounds in their labels behind the RCA “His Master’s Voice” logo compared to regular RCA Red Seal labels.   This shaded dog had not been issued on its own since the mid-1960’s, despite selling quite well for years after its release.   At first, it seemed a dead end.

Further searching online yielded this possibility: 179672The similar format of the cover art suggested similarity (though the faces of the singing children suggest more parody than enjoyment), but what was it and what, exactly, was on it?   Availability at a number of online retailers also suggested that this was out print because it only could be found used, and generally for more than what one might pay for a new CD.

The solution ultimately came when I found a page for the CD at Arkiv Music.  It turns out that this is a 1994 BMG Classical Music Club compilation release of three classic Robert Shaw Chorale albums of Christmas music from the 1950’s and 1960’s:

  1. Christmas Hymns & Carols, Volume I (LSC-2139)
  2. Christmas Hymns & Carols, Volume II (LM-1711)
  3. Benjamin Britten: Ceremony of Carols/Rejoice in the Lamb/Festival Te Deum (LSC-2759)

Arkiv is re-issuing the recording with permission from RCA.  It is produced through an On Demand process by Arkiv that creates the CD and packaging as orders are placed.  Best of all, it’s a reasonable $20 for a double CD from Arkiv.    The producer of the re-issue even went so far as to include a lengthy review on the Arkiv and Amazon web sites discussing how the compilation was engineered and assembled in 1994.   Win!

I’ve had it for a couple days now, and I must say that it’s lighting up my Christmas season.  For fans of choral music and traditional carols (as well as Britten fans,) it’s definitely worth checking out.

 

Resolved

It was a tough Summer and Early Fall for my personal fitness and weight loss regime.   After a key breakthrough in early 2014 that dropped my weight between 15 and 20 lbs between January and May (down to the weight I had in my mid-20s), I fell off the proper diet wagon.   Especially in the evenings, I ate too much, and too much of the wrong stuff.

I almost made it to 47 pounds of weight loss at my lowest weight in 2014.  Within 6 weeks, I added on about 4 pounds and held there for about a month.   Two months later, I’d added another 4-5 pounds.

What I was eating felt so bad and so good at the same time.   I was clearly leaning on food for some kind of comfort or release.  At the same time, the sugar roller coaster was unnerving to ride.    Part of weight loss and better fitness is journey of growing repulsed at such extremes of feeling.

Finally, I had enough about 3 weeks ago.  I found the will to stop.   I’ve dropped a pound or two since then.

I am remembering a blogger friend who transformed her life and ran her first half marathon in 2014.   I need to hold the line through the holiday season.   I’m not sure where I want this to end up, but somewhere close to 45 pounds of weight loss sounds like a worthwhile goal, for now.

21 Days Later… How It All Came Out

I wrote a post just over three weeks ago describing the trepidation I felt about Thanksgiving this year, and what I planned to make.   That post prompted Auntie M. (sorority sister of the Missus) to offer to host at her place.  After some dithering and miscommunication for which I am very much at fault, we accepted her kind offer and agreed to bring the turkey and some Brussels sprouts to dinner.   I was rather tired rolling into 27-Nov, and preparing those two dishes was about all I could handle.   It was a tremendous relief to share the holiday load with others.

The turkey was a 9 pound Diestel Heidi’s Hens Organic Turkey, along with an extra leg I got in case there was additional demand for dark meat.   I removed the legs from the bird and braised them in red wine with sage, thyme, and rosemary.    I de-boned the breast, stuffed it with a mixture of ground turkey, ground pork, mild pork sausage, thyme, sage, parsley, and pistachio nuts to make a turkey roulade, cooked the roulade sous vide at 145 degrees F for about five hours, and finished it with a quick deep fry to give it some nice color.

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Cooked roulade loaded in a Dutch oven for transport.

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The braising liquid from the legs was strained and mixed with a butter and flour roux to make the gravy for both.

 

Both recipes turned out quite well.   Frying the roulade was the one slightly scary moment in the process.  We were about half an inch of away from a grease fire at one point.  Otherwise, it had a gorgeous color on the outside, and looked great in cross section:

IMG_1568At 145 degrees, the meat had a slightly pink color and was firm without being dry.    The legs were fall apart tender, and the gravy made from the braising liquid was complex and herbal, which made it debatable about whether to serve red or white wine with the turkey this year.

Here is how the white and dark meat were presented to guests:

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The Brussels sprouts were tossed in melted bacon fat, roasted, mixed with roasted pecans and bacon pieces, and then tossed with maple syrup and balsamic vinegar.  They were lovely:

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The Brussels sprouts were served mid-20th century Pyrex casserole dish with metal stand. Gotta love that retro kitsch!

Transporting the various bits posed a small problem until I remembered that our mid-sized SUV had anchor points in the back.   A couple bungee cords run through the side handles of a cooler created stable container that held everything securely and also kept everything warm.

Auntie M. set a lovely table:

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She also contributed some traditional (and not so traditional) Thanksgiving side dishes: tater tots, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole with fried onions, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and mashed potatoes.   Here is all the food loaded up on her sideboard (with me helping myself to some turkey):

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Auntie M., her  sister H., the Peanut, the Missus, the Missus’ Dad, and myself were in attendance.  In the end, a good time was had by all.   Thanks Auntie M.!

Twenty-One Days And Counting

I’m having trouble connecting with Thanksgiving this year.   It is three weeks away, and part of me wishes it was three months from now.

I don’t think it will be an especially big production this year.  It’s likely going to just be me, the Peanut, the Missus, and her Dad.  I’ll likely be working with recipes that I used last time around.   If recipes were poker, I think I’d have a pretty strong hand:

Turkey Roulade courtesy of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin or Turkey Porchetta from Serious Eats

Corn Bread Stuffing from Craig Claiborne (this is not the exact version of the recipe I have, but it’s close)

Cranberry Sauce With Pinot Noir from Epicurious

Mashed Sweet Potatoes from Cook’s Illustrated

A vegetable of some sort — looks like it was Brussels Sprouts last year.

Apple pie — I generally like to use apples from our tree, but drought claimed them all this all this year.

I’m just thinking about how tired I was the day after Thanksgiving last year… no make that 2-3 days.   I keep telling myself that if I start the prep earlier, I can do less on the day.   I need to order a turkey, or at least a turkey breast.   I should make turkey stock.

Of course, Thanksgiving is just the start of a whole month of holiday preparations.   Gifts need to be purchased.   Holiday goodies need to be baked.   A tree must be purchased and decorated.   Somewhere in there, I turn a year older.

This year, I just don’t feel up to it.   Or I can simplify the whole thing somehow.  It’s a delicious meal when I make it right.  It’s would be a shame to skip it, right?