Monday, November 26, 2012

Holiday Decorations? Less is More...More or less

Simply Beautiful!!
Whoever first spoke the words “Less is more” had to be my age. Someone who after years and years of spending hours and days decorating every room in the house for the holidays, finally asked themselves “why?” I will admit to some degree that come December each year, my house looked like Christmas on steroids. Lights, garland, tinsel and holly everywhere. And let’s not forget those dreaded village scenes. Days of creating miniature ceramic towns where it was forever winter, forever wonderful…and now, forever packed away in the attic.

Today, my house is on a holiday trim-down, a diet, more or less. I have come to realize in my middle years that simple is better. Simple is elegance. Simple is easier. And I am lucky to come to this realization at a time in my life when any other any other way of of doing things would just cause exhaustion. I’m also tying this new way of thinking into the fact that this is an adult house now. No young children to dazzle with displays. We are hovering in between engagements, long-term commitments and grandchildren. On Santa’s radar, our house is in the no-fly zone. So, simplicity works! Don’t misunderstand though, I love Christmas and all that it stands for, I am just more likely to remember these days that what goes up, must come down.

More to point, I recently changed my profile picture on my Facebook account to a holiday photo. It was a picture of a tree from Terrain at Styer's, a beautiful landscape and nursery business in Pennsylvania. This tree, in the photo above, intrigued me. A small simple Fraser Fir that looks as if someone started to put lights on, got to a point and said “ah, that’s enough” and walked away. And even in its unfinished state, it is gorgeous. It's well...simple.

I started taking stock of my attic inventory. There were four large plastic containers each marked with decorations for various rooms (I am not including the trim-a-tree totes in this count). Anyway, as I rummaged through the containers, I realized that a lot of what was in them hadn't been put up in years, so trash bags were brought into play. Anything with fur or made of ceramic was disposed of. Then I gathered things I would sell at a yard sale I am planning to have this spring and boxed them up. When I was finished, four totes fit into two. Now we're on task.
So pretty, so simple, so inexpensive!
Hellooooo  Santa!!

I came back downstairs and took stock of each room. I am not a designer by any means. But even I can look at magazines and get ideas from those with real talent, and the one thing I've picked up on is the simple beauty of fresh greens. They are so fragrant. So naturally beautiful. So easy to throw out at the end of the season. No storage. 

Like most of us, my kitchen is where I spend a large amount of my time during the holidays. I will admit that in the past, more than once, I would have to move holiday decor to roll out the cookie dough. Not this year, lean and mean is my motto. My kitchen Santa, who once wore a red suite and moved his head from side to side to keep an eye on two young boys at the table, has been replaced by one dressed much more casually and bearing wine. Now that is a mature holiday kitchen!!

Over the next several days and weeks, there will be many, many blogs and posts by people who have the talent and the knowledge to make your home a spectacular holiday vision. I'm not one of them. But, I can tell you this. For die hard Christmas addicts like me, it takes more than a notion to scale down the decor, to throw out the old and faded, and to bring in the simplicity of nature. But once you do, you will be thrilled by your new holiday look. Give it a shot! I promise you, less is definitely more.

Photos by Jo Ann Phelps, ImageGoggle 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cottage Cheese for Thanksgiving?...Yes!!!

Can almost smell the turkey cooking!
Who else has cottage cheese on their Thanksgiving table? Come on, let me see a show of hands. There we go… no one else. But my table does and it is a very popular side dish. Let me explain how this came to be. Well actually, that may be a little difficult because the people that started this rather unconventional tradition are all gone now. But for as long as I can remember, there has been a delicious mixture of small curd cottage cheese, shredded sharp white cheddar and diced bell green pepper next to the turkey every Thanksgiving. And believe it or not, it is a popular item. 

Our family holiday table can range between 15 and 20 people, depending on the year, and I will hear several of them say "pass the cottage cheese please". Not something that is probably being said around most tables. But since I remember this concoction as a very small child, the oddity of it's presence wasn't brought to my attention till my sons and nephews started bringing guests to dinner. The look on their faces when they heard someone asked to pass the cottage cheese was priceless.

I think it is the irony of the dish that takes most people off guard. Thanksgiving is a day of feasting. Gravy, pies, heavy sauces and such. It probably is the only night of the year where on or about nine o'clock, someone still watching football will request a stuffing sandwich on a left over dinner roll with mayo and a diet coke. It is caloric ground zero. On the other hand, cottage cheese has long been associated with dieting. So you can see the gestational confusion here.

Now, over the years, my core family has divided into two areas, south and north. The northern transplants to Florida will migrate to my brothers house outside of Tampa. Those that have stayed north will gather at my house. We even have an exchange program going on. My sister's daughter moved to Florida a few years ago, her and her family now go to my brothers. That same brother's son, has moved to New York, so he now comes to my house. Sometime during the day, the phone will ring and the tables from the north and south will meet. By the way, they do not have the infamous Thanksgiving cottage cheese, but the former northerners who now live south will make sure there is, what I have learned recently is another rare dish on this day...coleslaw.

Pop's Creamy coleslaw!!
My father, who was always the cook in our family, made coleslaw every Thanksgiving. He also made it every time he made a roast beef for Sunday dinner. It is creamy and rather sweet, and is forever known in my family as "Pop's coleslaw". After we lost him, it took me a few holidays to get that great taste he created nailed down, but I believe now that I have.

At a gathering with friends recently, we were talking about Thanksgiving traditions and when I brought up coleslaw, the conversation came to a complete halt. "You make coleslaw for Thanksgiving?" was almost simultaneously asked. At that point, I didn't think it wise to bring up the cottage cheese thing.

"Would you like to try some cottage cheese?"
So, with a few days left to prepare the annual feast, I would like to hear from anyone else who also makes things that are traditional to them, but the rest of us? Maybe not so much. It would be fun to compare notes on this subject. Let's bring together our own individual versions of what makes this day so special for our families. Even if we end up thinking outside of the box. After all, the Indians and the Pilgrims managed to merge their culinary cultures to such success that it has been celebrated for hundreds of years since.  Although, both sides did show up armed so maybe it took much less convincing to have someone try something different. Come on! What is that one thing you make that is not on my table?

Photos by ImageGoggle

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Groom's Side, Part IV...How's It Working Out?

Our march towards June continues. There is much planning going on from all of those on both sides the aisle. The bride and groom are selecting registries, deciding on photographers, music, menus and such. The bridesmaids, I’m sure, are emailing and texting each other with secret planned events. With my one son being the groom, my other son being the best man, overheard conversations with other groomsmen regarding a party in April just scares me.

 Me? I’m sticking to my plan to lose enough weight (or, when possible, redistribute it to other places) to look good in a dress that my son insists I wear. I am proud to say that I have been faithful to my personal pledge. Monday through Friday I am at the gym at 7:00 a.m., doing a brisk one hour walk on the treadmill.

I am encouraged with the weight I have lost but will not reveal the total amount till next spring. I have set levels of weight loss that when achieved will then lead to the next level of difficulty. Example; lose so many pounds on the treadmill, and then onto the elliptical, next level, the stair climber (a piece of equipment that makes me want to go home and stick my head in an oven just by passing it). I go early because I usually find that my favorite treadmill is not being used. Don’t ask me how I found a “favorite” when the 25 of them are exactly alike, but I have. And so far, this is what I have learned:
  •  Treadmilling is boring. If you do not have good headphones to watch one of the 15 overhead TV’s or to listen to an iPod, forget it. There is no surviving walking in place for an hour without a distraction.
  •   If you want to slow down time, get on a treadmill. Trust me. I set it for 1 hour and it feels like three.
  •   On the other hand, I like when I get up to speed, walking briskly and safely (unlike outdoors where there is always the chance of getting attacked by a pit bull or hit by a car I didn’t hear coming because Adele was blasting in my ears). At this point, I can actually feel my legs strengthening. My breathing is controlled and my heart rate in check! I am mastering this!!
  •  …And then I hit the incline button and suddenly feel like I am pushing a Chevy that ran out of gas through the Lincoln Tunnel (something I actually did so I am familiar with the feeling – and by the way, people are not always as understanding as you might think).
  •   I've said this before, but never has there been such visible proof; I have short legs…long torso, but short legs. If someone next to me has the same pace setting on their treadmill as mine, my legs are moving twice as fast.
  •   Being on a treadmill allows you to people watch. There is a couple that I am guessing is around my age that comes in each morning and step on adjoining stair climbers. They are good at it. But a recent ladies room conversation informed me that they just bought into a 55 and older community designed for one-story living. Now they come here where they pay to simulate climbing stairs. Hmmm….
  •   Every morning there is a short, rather heavy set lady that comes into the gym about 15 minutes after me. God bless her, she is working that treadmill! But she is rather well endowed, probably in the double D range (I don’t have to go up that high on the bra rack so I don’t know what comes after that, could be higher) anyway; she does not seem to be aware that they sell sports bras to control the upper action. If she graduates from walking to jogging, she seriously could knock herself out.

Sadly only seen in pictures now...
I must admit, I started this mission to look better at my son’s wedding, but my motives have altered slightly. I like the way I am feeling lately and recognize the need to exceed my goals passed a one day event. There are many special days ahead and I want to be around to enjoy them all.

Also altered since the last "Groom's Side" post, is the Jersey coastline from the devastation heaped upon our shores by hurricane Sandy. Keeping in perspective that thousands of people have lost their homes and all belongings, it is still okay to be a little sad about losing the background of the wedding site, the old 59th St. Pier, in Ocean City. Long a place for photo ops and memories, the skeletal wooden columns held strong for many storms and hurricanes, but not against Sandy.
The Bride...see what I mean?

 However, the rock jetty and beach have held well against the storm and will still provide a beautiful wedding site. And besides, judging by all the buzz and questions (and, no, I haven't found it yet), I’m betting that my first appearance in over 30 years wearing a dress will provide much distraction for my family and friends...

...Right up until the bride shows up, and then all bets are off. 

Photos provided by ImageGoggle, Jo Ann Phelps, Trevor Phelps

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Devastation, Memories...And Heartbreak

The curious and stunned came to remember...
In the early pre-dawn hours, sitting in my warm kitchen with hot coffee and electrical power is probably something that I will never take for granted again. After spending a cold, blustery November Saturday delivering donations and touring some of the Jersey Shores severely damaged areas, the surreal scenery is weighing heavily on my mind.

My sister Betty had spent the last few days working social media sites asking for much needed clothing and food items that we could collect at a designated spot and transport to a coastal drop off site. The great people of Burlington County, along with Twitter and Facebook friends did not disappoint. Car after car met us on site bringing, canned goods, water, clothing, cereal, even dog food. We packed my big SUV without an inch to spare and headed east to one of Egg Harbor Townships fire departments (a large community on the mainland side of Atlantic City). Once there, we got into a line of cars and trucks that had done the very same thing; appeal to the goodness of their friends and neighbors and headed towards the shore.

Here lies the Jersey Shore - RIP
The “what else can I do” spirit of the volunteers emptying the cars, and that of those delivering, was nothing short of heartwarming. But then, the short ride into Atlantic City, over the Albany Ave. Bridge and onto Winchester Ave, where rows of homes got caught between the rising bay and the crushing ocean turned to nothing short of heartbreaking.

These are not multi-million dollar vacation homes; these are the row homes of casino workers, firemen, bus drivers and school employees...and most of the contents of their first floors were out on the curb saturated with sea water. Carpets, furniture, appliances, the very things that made a house a home on Sunday, rendered it inhabitable on Monday.

Traveling further down the road toward the inlet section, this usually bustling city had no traffic lights…or traffic. The casinos, which had to close because of mandatory evacuations a week before, had reopened hours earlier to the public, but the public wasn’t returning on this day. For a gambling town that has been struggling to hold onto its’ patronage since the opening of competing casinos in neighboring states, a forced week-long shut down, has to be devastating.

We kept going toward the inlet section because this is what I needed to see. A few years back, I worked in neighboring Absecon for a while. When time allowed, I would the take the mile ride on Rt. 30 into AC and have my lunch break up on the inlet boardwalk and sea watch. It was a stressful job and this was my release. This portion of the boardwalk, away from the casinos, restaurants, amusement piers, and upscale shopping malls, belonged to the people. It was where residents went to fish, to walk and socialize. It seemed that everybody knew everybody else. I went often enough that an occasional familiar face would smile and say “hey, what's for lunch today?”

My former favorite lunch spot.
I had seen video footage of the “1/4 mile portion of the AC boardwalk that was swallowed by Sandy” and had to see for myself if it was the section I became so fond of. It was. As we crossed over Atlantic Ave., beach sand had been plowed to the sides and straight ahead the beach was empty with nothing left but a few pilings and ocean. People were mulling around the smashed dunes and water’s edge. No socializing or friendly chatter, just a realization that a piece of their life had been claimed by a force so strong that cement columns were reduced to rubble. 

"My father and sons fished here almost every Saturday for the past several years" said one woman turning  her collar up to ward off the cold wind. "With everything else that's been damaged, this will probably be the last thing they fix."  And sadly, she's right. The casino workers, firemen, bus drivers and school employees will have to wait their turn in a very long line.

Red tag on door - "Uninhabitable"
Over another bridge and onto Brigantine Island led us to more devastation and amazement. Vicious winds whipped around the end of the island at the sea wall rendering million dollar homes tagged with red signs reading "inhabitable". Boats, once docked in marinas, now littered the streets, sometimes miles away from where they belonged.  

On the bay side, are year round residential communities where some homes looked untouched and others lost almost everything. Streets lined with indoor and outdoor furniture made some road impassable.

It goes without saying that the entire New Jersey coastline has forever been altered. It will take much time, money and effort to right the wrong that Sandy has inflicted on us. Some things may never be right again. Seaside Heights where I spent many Saturdays during my teen years, putting quarters down to spin the wheels or eating sausage and pepper sandwiches, is in ruins. It is hard to imagine where to even begin the cleanup. 

President comforts a Brigantine resident.
It is now one week later and I think of the thousands still in shelters, or living without power or heat on this cold November day. If you are reading this warm, dry and in your own home, then make the effort to help those that are not. Blankets, coats, underwear and food are in much need. Compassion is the first step toward getting our neighbors back into their homes and the first brick in rebuilding our shores. Step by step. Brick by brick. Board by board...we'll get there!

Photos by Jo Ann Phelps & ImageGoggle