Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Recap

I hope you all had a lovely holiday.  As far as ours went, I can't complain, although the weather was gross.  Call me crazy, but I prefer cold weather in the winter.  And if it MUST be freakishly warm, I'd rather it wasn't as damp and nasty as the bottom of a gym laundry hamper.  On Christmas morning, Jon (wearing his utility kilt and a tall cap that Brigid knit for him) had to climb out on the roof and fortify one of the chimneys against the driving rain.

We had a quiet Christmas Eve with just Jon, me, and all four kids.  Seamus made gnocchi, while Jon and I attended a drinks party at our neighbors.  After dinner, we opened our presents to each other and the ones that had arrived from grandparents and godparents.  For Jon, I took an antique wool pea coat that he'd bought at a vintage store when he was in high school and had it restored.  It was in such bad shape that the dry cleaners refused to touch it, but I took it to a little alterations shop in our neighborhood and they cleverly patched up the holes and made it nearly as good as new.  Jon had a necklace made for me with a silver buffalo pendant--to symbolize my beloved hometown.

Christmas morning was fraught with domestic disasters.  Just when I needed fresh, hot coffee for the whiskey cake I'd planned for that night's dessert, the capricious Italian coffee pot did that irritating thing where it boils furiously and produces only a trickle of thick, burned, (yet syrupy) coffee. The dough for the babka, which I'd planned for our breakfast, refused to rise, and I completely forgot that I was supposed to have a supply of freshly mashed potatoes on hand for the dinner rolls, which set me back even more.  To top all, when I started the sugared cranberries, which I wanted to serve as a pre-dinner snack for guests, I learned that it was a several-hours operation.  When will I learn to read the entire recipe before attempting a new dish? Later, I spilled an entire shaker of salt on the very expensive organic rib roast, as if Christmas itself were playing the world's oldest joke on me, and I discovered that one of my best dinner plates was cracked.

In the end, Jon fixed the coffee pot, Grace ironed the dinner napkins, Seamus helped with the various baking projects, and Brigid spray-painted the pears I wanted to use as a dinner table centerpiece.  The babka, somewhat flat, was finished by noon.  The cranberries, not fully dried, were still presentable by the time our guests arrived.  The roast was tender and perfectly rare, although very salty on its perimeter. The cake was delicious, and the rolls had their requisite dose of fluffy mashed potatoes.  We hosted my sister and her husband as well as a friend of ours and had an evening of laughter and fun.

I didn't take a lot of pictures, so have only these two lame ones to share.

My buffalo necklace

A peek at our table

Monday, December 14, 2015

Shiny and bright (sort of)

As far as I'm concerned, the raison d'etre of a Christmas tree is to be shiny, and, let's be frank, an evergreen tree is the opposite of shiny.  Pine trees are pretty depressing and tend to behave like a visual black hole.

This year, I decided I would really, really create the dainty, sparkly feather tree of my dreams.  A feather tree is an old-fashioned, artificial, spindly little tree with a bare trunk and sparse branches.  The original ones, which came from Germany in the 1800s, had feathers as branches. I made an attempt a few years ago, to prune our real tree down to feather tree proportions, but the tree itself was too bushy and for some reason, I waited until it was dark (WTF?) to start pruning.  I wish I had read An Urban Cottage's post about doing this before I started, but oh well.

Anyway, this year, Seamus and I looked through the assortment of trees at Snow's Garden Center until we identified the sparsest one they had.  It wasn't all that sparse and the lady who helped us pack it up clearly thought I was crazy when I told her I was planning to cut a bunch of branches off of it.

Back home, I held the tree upright with one hand, and sawed off branches with the other.  This was pretty awkward, especially as I got down to the base of the tree.  When I noticed how large the pile of pruned branches was, I chickened out.  I also felt sorry for the tree.  Ever since I read "The Fir Tree" by Hans Christian Andersen, I have imagined that Christmas trees have feelings. (For good mental health, avoid Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and if you're going to follow the link to the story, I suggest pre-medicating with prozac.  Or vodka.)

Anyhoo, once the tree was installed in the living room, we used Becky's method of applying the lights.  It makes a HUGE difference to wrap your lights around the trunk.  Doing this helps to mitigate the light-sucking properties of the evergreen and it gives your tree depth and delicacy.

Beginning to add lights.
I'm trying to do something different with the mantle this year.  I laid some of the pruned branches from the tree on it, with a gold ribbon.  It still needs something.  Candles, I guess.  There is nothing on the wall because we have never found the right piece of art for that space.

I would like to restore this Christmas cross stitch project I did nearly twenty years ago when the kids were babies. The pattern came from a library book. Now, it's in rough shape and I don't know what the best way to display it is.  I used to string them all on a strip of gold cording, but they would twist and it never looked right.

Well, I didn't achieve the feather tree look, but next year I'll be more successful.  I'm still very pleased with this year's tree.

My house is only half-decorated, and considering how busy and exhausted I've been lately, I think this is as far as it's going to get.  How's your Christmas decorating coming along?

Monday, December 07, 2015

Two Years Before the Mast

I love books about sailing and finally got around to reading Richard Henry Dana Jr's Two Years Before the Mast.  It has been rumbling around in my subconscious for ages and it did not disappoint. Richard Henry Dana Jr was born in 1815.  (He makes a brief appearance in The Education of Henry Adams, as a friend of Henry Adams' father.)  As a student at Harvard in the 1830's, he contracted the measles, and with it, an inflammation of the eyes.  As an attempt to restore his health, he signed on to serve as a common sailor on the merchant ship Pilgrim, bound for California by way of Cape Horn.

Hello there, sailor

The ship departed in August, 1834, and Dana's memoir of the voyage is a fascinating account of life aboard ship.  This was no soft version of sailing for a privileged boy.  Dana was truly a member of the crew and shared in all their hardships, which were considerable.  The mind boggles at how any human could survive the life he describes. No sailer ever got more than four hours of sleep at a time and was frequently roused from sleep when an "all hands on deck" situation arose, which was frequent.  The food was monotonous and unwholesome.  If a sudden movement of the ship caused you to drop your entire dinner, you just had to wait until the next meal was served.  The work was exceedingly dangerous and disagreeable, particularly in the region of Cape Horn when the sails and rigging were coated with ice and yet still needed to be manned with bare hands.  Worst of all, the captain of the Pilgrim was a monster.  There's a terrible chapter in which two sailors are mercilessly flogged for no particular reason other than the captain's pleasure.  (According to the Wikipedia article about Dana, he devoted his later law career to standing up for the working man, particularly sailors.)

At length, the Pilgrim arrives at Santa Barbara.  Dana and the crew spent many months sailing up and down the coast of California (to San Diego, Monterey, and San Francisco) collecting an enormous cargo of animals hides. Dana and the rest of the crew were responsible for curing the hides before loading, which is described as a tedious and difficult process.  It was interesting to see this glimpse of early California.  I had no idea that San Diego existed as a destination as long ago as 1834.

After what seems an endless time curing and loading the hides, Dana is finally bound for home.  The passage around the horn, in winter, was particularly bad.  The heavily-loaded ship lacked buoyancy, and they were under constant threat of tearing up the hull on icebergs.   Back home in Boston, Dana, his health restored, returned to Harvard and later became a lawyer and US senator.  His simple writing style and superior descriptive skills make Two Years Before the Mast an engaging book.  Recommended for anyone who is interested in American history or sailing or memoirs.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Lifetime Reading Plan

The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman (1966) is a list of classics with descriptions of each.  I read it several years ago and from it, selected a short list of books that I felt I ought to read in order to be able to consider myself well-read.  Of the 130-odd books that Fadiman recommended, these are the ones I added to my master list.

Herodotus--The Histories
Thucydides--The History of the Peloponnesian War
Marcus Aurelius--Meditations
D.H. Laurence--Sons and Lovers; Women in Love
Henry James--The Ambassadors
William Faulkner--The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; Light in August; Absalom! Absalom!; The Hamlet; The Town; The Mansion
Gogol--Dead Souls
Dostoyevsky--Crime and Punishment; The Brothers Karamazov
Tolstoy--War and Peace
Yeats--The Autobiography
James Boswell--The Life of Samuel Johnson
Henry Adams--The Education of Henry Adams

I wrote blog posts about several of these, and last week I finished the last one on the list, The Education of Henry Adams.

Well hello

Henry Adams was born in 1838, and was the great-grandson of President John Adams. The Education is a memoir of sorts, focused solely on life-experience as education.  It starts out charmingly.  Adams' three year old self assumed (adorably) that because his grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents, that he would become one too.  There follows a story of how his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, marched him to school on a day that he refused to go. Later, he attended Harvard and was private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, during his stint as minister to the Court of St. James during the American Civil War.  Here it gets murky and remains so for the rest of the book.  I really struggled and I'm not sure if I gained anything for the struggle.  For sure, I didn't comprehend most of what I read, and then, when I learned that Adams was a rabid anti-semite, I used that fact to justify skimming what I didn't want to read.

Adams claimed he was an 18th century man, living in the 19th century world.  He wrote The Education at the end of his life and from what I could glean from it, saw that he had mostly failed to learn from the educational opportunities that life presented to him.  I did like the final words of the last chapter:

Education had ended for all three, [Adams and two of his contemporaries, John Hay and Clarence King] and only beyond some remoter horizon could its values be fixed or renewed. Perhaps some day- say 1938, their centenary- they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see the mistakes of their own lives made clear in the light of the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.

Alas, we still do not have a world which those of a sensitive and timid nature can regard without a shudder.  If anything, things are worse than ever for those of us (and I definitely include myself in this group) who are of a sensitive and timid nature.

So that's another mini-reading project done.  Do I feel more well-read for having finished this list?  Perhaps.  These books were difficult and I  mostly felt like a failure for not comprehending them fully.  I think they have enriched my life in subtle ways that will continue to unfold.  For example, I was able to better appreciate the Yeats' exhibits at the Dublin Writers' Museum because I'd read his Autobiography; I still sometimes have a brief, inner laugh at the punchline of As I Lay Dying; I can look at a copy of Crime and Punishment and say, "Yeah, I've read that."