Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Season's Eatings

I recently read that the average person gains about five pounds during the holiday season. So for once in my life, I guess I’m above average.

I can’t say that I was completely surprised to see the 9-lb. weight gain when I stepped on the scale yesterday. There actually were a few clues that had warned me in advance, such as my knee socks getting tighter and tighter until all of my toes went numb, or the front pockets of my jeans sticking out like elephant ears because I couldn’t squeeze my hands into them to tuck them in. And the name of the manufacturer on the snap on my jeans was permanently imprinted in my navel.

I really tried to eat wisely during the holidays. In fact, in preparation for my annual “season’s eatings” I even read articles with titles like, “How to Walk, Not Roll, Away from the Buffet Table,” and “Carrot Sticks…Not Just for Santa’s Reindeer!”

The articles gave loads of calorie-saving advice for the holiday weight-conscious. They advised, for example, to stand at the salad end of the buffet table instead of the dessert end, to avoid temptation, and to sip plain club soda with a twist of lemon instead of chugging eggnog. There also were several paragraphs dedicated to the “instead of” method. Eat a cracker instead of a dinner roll. Eat one cookie instead of a slice of cake. Suck on a piece of candy-cane instead of inhaling fudge or chocolates.

I don’t know who wrote those tips, but he or she must have just landed here from Jupiter. I mean, if I were the type of person who could eat “only one” of anything, I wouldn’t be reading diet tips in the first place.

The only way anyone ever would see me with only one cracker, one cookie and a carrot stick on my buffet plate would be if I’d already eaten a six-course meal two minutes before I arrived at the party. And as far as drinking plain club soda, well, I might consider drinking it if it had something a little more palatable added to it…like chocolate syrup and a scoop of ice cream.

Actually, I started off pretty well at the first party. I came out of the buffet line with only a slice of lean roast beef, a small serving of rice and a large portion of cooked carrots on my plate. And I washed it down with bottled water. Then after my meal digested, I returned to the buffet table and ate four slices of cherry-filled cake, three sugar cookies, a handful of cashews and a cup of hot chocolate topped with 450 mini marshmallows.

The next party I attended didn’t even have nutritious food. It was an all-dessert party. Many of the desserts were such unique delicacies, I just had to try them: potato candy, mincemeat cookies, stained-glass cookies, dump cake and chocolate peanut-butter balls. By the time I left there, I could feel cavities popping out in my teeth…and buttons popping off my pants.

A couple nights before Christmas, I actually ended up with a bad stomachache. Unfortunately, it was due to my own cooking. I wanted to make a two-layer white cake with chocolate frosting to have on hand for holiday guests. But for some reason, I couldn’t find my favorite cookbook anywhere. Desperate, I went to my computer and entered “white cake” under “search.”

About 3,450 cake recipes later, I finally found one that didn’t involve whipping egg whites until stiff. I have learned from past experience that I am completely incapable of making egg whites stiff…even if I doused them with spray-starch. So mercifully, the recipe I chose called for unbeaten egg whites.

The finished cake looked beautiful. The outside was golden and puffy, and a test-toothpick inserted into the center of it came out clean.

Well, all I can say is thank goodness I decided to sample a sliver of the cake before I frosted it. The texture of it was exactly like modeling clay. And for some reason, it tasted like bread…very chewy, doughy bread.

As I tried to get a ball of cake unstuck from the roof of my mouth, my husband came out to the kitchen and cut a slice of the cake for himself. I remained silent as I watched him take a big bite of it.

His eyes widened and his lips tightened. “I need a napkin,” he said to me. It came out sounding more like, “Uh neb a nabbin,” because his teeth were stuck together.

I handed him a napkin and he promptly spit the cake into it. The action was accompanied by a variety of “pah-tooie” sounds. Needless to say, I began to suspect that I probably shouldn’t serve the cake to guests…not unless they were unwelcome guests who had a tendency to talk too much.

So I searched the Internet for a sugar-cookie recipe. I found one called “Delilah’s Sugar Cookies” that seemed easy enough. The cookies came out delicious. They were light and neither too crisp nor too soft. I decorated them with a bit of icing and then tasted one. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect.

In fact, the cookie was so perfect, I ate seven more. And if that weren’t bad enough, I decided to taste the cake again, just in case it might magically have changed its consistency to moist-and-fluffy while it was sitting on the counter.

It still was like chewing a big wad of bubblegum. Nevertheless, I ate two pieces. They sank like bricks in my stomach.

Now that I think about it, maybe my nine-pound holiday weight-gain wasn’t due to overindulgence. Maybe it was caused by the cake hardening into a giant lump of concrete in my stomach.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

A hair-raising experience

I’ve heard that you should change your brand of shampoo a few times each year just to keep your hair on its toes, so to speak. In other words, if your hair starts to droop, it may be time to give it a shot of something new to perk it up.

Well, lately my hair has been so droopy, I look like a basset hound. And the more I wash it, the droopier it gets. No “oomph,” no style, it just hangs there like overcooked linguini. Even hours in curlers and a good dose of hairspray haven’t helped. The minute I set one foot outside in the wind (insert any other weather condition here), poof! I’m a basset hound again.

So I stood in the hair-care section of the supermarket the other night and cluelessly stared at 4 zillion bottles of shampoo until my eyeballs ached. There was shampoo for oily hair, dry hair, brittle hair, color-treated hair, frizzy hair, synthetic hair and thinning hair. There was volumizing shampoo (to make hair louder?), highlighting shampoo, shine-inducing shampoo, dandruff-eliminating shampoo, louse-killing shampoo, hair-growing shampoo and clarifying shampoo.

And that was only the top shelf.

Back when I was young, shampooing was pretty simple. Just about everyone used either Prell, Breck or Halo shampoo. They weren’t made for any specific hair problems. They were just plain, old-fashioned, get-out-the-dirt-and-gunk shampoos.

Halo was supposed to make your hair shine so much, it would look as if you had a glowing halo surrounding your head. Prell was so thick, the ads claimed that a pearl could be dropped into it and not sink. And Breck was famous for its Breck Girl ads, which featured gorgeous women with perfectly coiffed, gleaming hair. Not one of them had even the hint of (heaven forbid) a split end.

Personally, I always used Halo, even though it made my hair feel like a cactus. I never used Prell, but my friend Janet did, and her hair didn’t look much better than mine. I guess the fact that a pearl could float in the stuff didn’t matter a whole lot. I mean, a pearl really wasn’t all that heavy. If they had dropped a few lead fishing-sinkers into the shampoo, then I might have been impressed.

There were no fancy hair conditioners back then either, but there was something called Tame cream rinse that helped get rid of frizzies and snarls. Not too many people used it, though, because it was considered a luxury. Most of us just suffered from incredibly dry hair that formed so many knots, it got yanked out by the roots every time we tried to comb it.

Men didn’t have to worry about dry hair, though. The Elvis hairstyles that were popular back then required greasy stuff like Vaseline (if they were on a budget) or a special hair slicker like Brylcreem (if they wanted to splurge) to keep their curls and waves properly “swooped.” So the guys walked around with hair so greasy, you could see your reflection in it, while we girls looked as if we were auditioning for the part of the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.

And shampoo lasted a long time back then because most people shampooed only once a week. We were told that frequent shampooing robbed hair of its natural oils and would result in breakage and premature baldness. And frankly, it was little scary to picture myself looking like my grandfather.

Anyway, I ended up buying a couple new shampoos at the supermarket the other night. One was guaranteed to thicken hair, and the other said it would add loads of body and curl. Both sounded as if they would banish “limp” forever and give me something pretty close to a luxurious lion’s mane.

I tried the hair-thickening shampoo first. My hair ended up feeling as if I had washed it in a vat of glue. I couldn’t even get a comb through it. Things like dust and dog fur immediately clung to it. And I woke up the next morning looking as if I’d slept with my head in a lint trap.

So I tried the extra-body shampoo. My hair did look thicker…probably because it was full of static electricity. When I pulled my sweater up over my head to take it off that night, my hair stood straight up on end. But at least it wasn’t limp.

I figured that if I used a conditioner in combination with the extra-body shampoo, I could get rid of the static and still have body. So I went down to the local pharmacy and read the labels on 486 conditioners, then finally decided on one called “Smooth and Silky.”

It did make my hair smooth and silky…and perfectly straight. If I had covered my head with a sheet of brown cellophane, it would have looked about the same.

I momentarily toyed with idea of heading back to the pharmacy and buying the shampoo that grows hair, but I just couldn’t shake the thought that if I had to actually touch the stuff to use it, I might end up with hairy palms or knuckles.

So I am $15.86 poorer and still haven’t found a shampoo that makes my hair even remotely resemble the thick, flowing, spun-silk hair that all of the models have in those television ads.

Heck, I wonder if they still make Halo.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

It's a Wrap

I received a big box of Christmas gifts in the mail the other day. It was from our friends in New York…friends whose gifts always are so beautifully wrapped, they could make even Martha Stewart’s gifts look as if the family dog wrapped them.

I removed one gift that was the epitome of Christmas perfection in flocked green paper with dainty red bells all over it. The huge satin bow held a gold tinsel wreath. In the center of the wreath sat a small teddy bear wearing a Santa hat. The gift tag was gold with mother-of-pearl glitter on it, and was written in calligraphy. The other gifts in the box were even fancier.

I didn’t know whether to frame the packages and hang them on the wall, or put them underneath the tree.

To be honest, my idea of wrapping Christmas gifts involves slapping Dollar-Store paper and a tag on them. And if I run out of tags, I use permanent marker and just write the person’s name across the paper. Sometimes I don’t even use scissors. I just tear the paper with my hands or rip off a chunk with my teeth.

This, of course, has elicited such “subtle” comments such as, “You must have really been in a hurry when you wrapped!” or, “Who would have guessed that such an ugly package could contain such a lovely gift?” from our friends in New York.

My wrapping techniques (or lack of) also must be a source of embarrassment to my mother, who once worked as professional Christmas gift-wrapper in a Manchester department store. In fact, even after all these years, she still is affectionately known as “the lady who can wrap anything.”

Back when my mother worked as a gift wrapper, the store offered free gift-wrapping, no matter how small the purchase. So people took advantage of it. BIG advantage of it. My mother ended up wrapping everything from a box of paper clips to a round, tufted hassock that didn’t come in a box. She still refers to the hassock as her biggest gift-wrapping challenge (and ultimate success) ever.

And then there was the distinguished-looking man in a suit who handed her a stack of 12 pairs of lacy panties and asked her to wrap each one individually. “They’re gifts for my employees,” he said. To this day, my mom says she still wonders just what kind of “business” the guy ran.

One day, the gift-wrapping staff was short-handed, so I decided to help out my mother (and I use the term “help” loosely here). She gave me a crash course in gift wrapping and made it look easy enough for even someone like me to handle. With a mere glance at the box to be wrapped, she tore off exactly the right length of paper from the huge roll and wrapped the package in 20 seconds flat. When she was done, the wrapping didn’t have a single wrinkle or crease anywhere, and the corners were so sharp and crisp, you could have speared olives with them.

She also patiently demonstrated how to pull just enough ribbon off the spool to go completely around the package in an attractive kitty-corner design. And as a finishing touch, she even spiral-curled the ribbon by pressing her thumb against the edge of it and swiftly sliding it along the edge of her scissors.

Well, I tried, I really did. Not only did the gifts I wrapped have the lumpiest corners on earth, I couldn’t get the ribbon to stay where I put it. So I stuck tape all over it to hold it in place. That’s when I first discovered that “invisible” tape looked terrible on shiny paper. In fact, it sort of resembled something an ambulance attendant might wrap around you if you were bleeding to death.

And forget about curling the ribbon. When I slid it against the edge of the scissors, I nearly de-thumbed myself.

Still, I was determined to do my duty at the gift-wrapping counter. Believe me, it wasn’t easy. After struggling for 15 minutes to wrap an octagonal-shaped jewelry box that had more corners on it than a New York City intersection, I handed my masterpiece to the customer. He looked at it and frowned. “That looks terrible,” he said.

“Whatta ya want for free?” I snapped. “A museum piece?”

I learned that working as a gift wrapper, even for a short time, definitely affected my Christmas spirit in a Scrooge-like manner.

In fact, I found myself counting the minutes until my one-and-only day as a professional wrapper finally would come to an end. Before that day, I’d never even realized that there were enough hands and necks in the whole state of New Hampshire to wear all of the gloves and neckties I’d wrapped.

So now, thirty-three years later, I’m sitting here staring at the mountain of Christmas gifts I just bought…all of which need to be wrapped. Maybe I can sweet-talk my mom into wrapping the ones that are going to New York, so I finally can make a positive wrapping impression on our “Martha Stewart, Jr.” friends.

And then while my mother’s at it, maybe I can convince her to wrap all of her own gifts, too.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Truly Puzzling

One of my friends recently e-mailed me to excitedly tell me she was taking a class in pergamano and enjoying every minute of it. I had no clue what pergamano was, but I narrowed it down to either a class in Italian cooking or hand-to-hand combat.

I did some research on the Internet and found out that pergamano actually is the art of painting, perforating, cutting and embossing parchment to make it look like delicate lacework and flowers.

My friend’s enthusiasm made me realize that I haven’t done much in the way of hobbies since I got a computer. But then, I really wasn’t all that great at any of my hobbies when I did have them.

I can remember when I thought jigsaw puzzles might be fun. The problem was, I was terrible at making them. It would take me about a week to assemble just one corner of a puzzle’s border. My husband, on the other hand, could slap one together in about an hour. Whenever I struggled to make a puzzle, he would walk by the table, stop about three feet away and say, “See that green piece on your left over there? It’ll fit into that piece you’re holding.” And usually he was right.

One windy and rainy night, my husband and I began working together on a 10-milion-piece puzzle. He obviously was enjoying himself because he hummed a merry tune as he quickly pieced together an entire section…while I sat there pounding two pieces with my fist to try to force them to fit together. That’s when we suddenly had a power failure.

“Hallelujah!” I silently cheered, figuring I had been spared from a long evening of sitting and staring blankly at puzzle pieces.

“I’ll get the oil lamp,” my husband said.

If I thought trying to make a puzzle in good light was impossible, trying to make it by the light of an old oil-lamp was about as easy as doing it blindfolded. I couldn’t tell the difference between a goat’s head and a rock.

“Find all the pieces with straight edges and put them in this pile over here,” my husband instructed. “Then we’ll make the border.”

I was feeling my way through the puzzle pieces when our neighbor dropped by to see how we were coping with the power failure.

“Whatcha doing?” he asked, leaning over the table to get a closer look at our panoramic view-in-progress of the Swiss Alps. He reached out to point to a puzzle piece he thought might fit somewhere. When he did, his elbow accidentally knocked over the oil lamp.

To this day, I still don’t know why our kitchen didn’t go up in flames. But even though the kitchen was spared from disaster, the puzzle wasn’t quite so lucky. It ended up with oil all over it. The Swiss Alps looked as if the Exxon Valdez had crashed into them.

My husband lost interest in puzzles soon after that, so I decided to try a new hobby I’d read about in a magazine…eggshell mosaics. The instructions said to buy eggs with pure white shells, dye them different solid colors, then break them into small pieces and glue them together on a thin board to form a picture.

But did I begin with a simple project like an eggshell smiley face? Heck no. I decided to make a farmhouse with a pond, trees and mountains surrounding it…all out of tiny eggshell pieces.

So I bought eggs. Lots and lots of eggs. My husband and I ate omelets, scrambled eggs, deviled eggs, egg salad and angel-food cakes so often (because I didn’t want to waste any egg innards), we nearly grew feathers and clucked. But slowly, my mosaic began to take shape.

And two months later, when I finally finished my masterpiece, I was so proud of it, I entered it in the Deerfield Fair and actually won a blue ribbon.

And my cholesterol was over 300.

Now that I think about it, maybe the computer isn’t such a bad hobby after all.

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Old News Can Be Good News

I have a terrible habit that drives my husband crazy. Well, actually I have several habits that drive him crazy, but I’m pretty sure this one ranks right up there near the top of his list.

Ever since we’ve been married, I have subscribed to several newspapers. And for years, every morning after my husband left for work, I would relax with a cup of tea and read the papers. As time passed, however, and I began to go to bed later and later (and thus, sleep later and later), there no longer was a morning cup of tea. There was a noon cup of soup and a sandwich. And somehow, I never got into the habit of reading with lunch.

So the papers piled up.

At first, I simply hid the piles, telling myself that I would sit down some night, pour myself a cup of tea and read a few weeks’ worth of papers in one shot. But that never happened.

So the papers continued to pile up.

I hid them behind the sofa, in closets and under the beds. My husband never suspected they were there (because he never looks in closets, behind the sofa or under the beds). But one day, I think he began to sense that something wasn’t quite right.

“Why didn’t you tell me that Loretta passed away?” he asked me. “I met John today and asked him how his wife was, and he told me she’d died four months ago! I was so embarrassed! You read the obituaries every day, don’t you?”

“Um, I must have forgotten to mention Loretta,” I said.

“I sure hope there’s no one else you forgot to tell me about. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself like that again.”

“No, I don’t think there’s anyone,” I said, making a mental note to dig out all of the newspapers and if nothing else, read every obituary.

But for some reason, I didn’t. And the papers continued to pile up.

Last week, however, I was doing massive housecleaning in preparation for my annual Thanksgiving feast, and realized that all of the places where I usually hide the things that I don’t want my guests to see, already were occupied by stacks of newspapers.

So I spent three days skimming through newspapers and tossing them out so I could make room to hide other stuff in my hiding places.

It was a weird feeling reading about things that already had happened. One article, for example, was headlined, “Forecasters Predict Powerful Snowstorm Will Bypass NH.” Two days later, the headline was, “NH Digs out From Under 18 Inches of Snow.”

The hardest part was reading the “this week only” sale fliers, or grabbing the scissors to cut out a coupon, only to discover that it had expired eight months ago.

Last week, I once again unintentionally gave my husband a clue about my secret paper-hoarding habit.

“I really like these shoes,” he said as he was removing them to put on his slippers. “They’re so comfortable. I’d love to get another pair, but they’re so darned expensive.”

“I just read that they’re on sale for 20 percent off at Bob’s Stores,” I blurted out without thinking.

“Great!” he said. “When does the sale end?”

“Last July.”

Two nights before Thanksgiving, I was so busy flipping through more stacks of newspapers, I lost track of time. So I wasn’t even aware that my husband was home from work…until he walked in and caught me red-handed.

“Where on earth did all of these papers come from?” he asked. “What are you doing, secretly sponsoring a paper drive?”

My head popped up from behind a mountain of papers and I smiled sheepishly. “No, just catching up on my reading. I got a little behind.”

He picked up a paper from one of the piles and read the headline: “Polls Declare that Gore Will Beat Bush in 2000 Election.”

“Where have you been keeping these anyway?” he asked.

“Oh, here and there. Didn’t you notice that the house was a lot warmer last winter? Newspaper makes great insulation!”

“It also makes great kindling! If this place ever caught fire, people in Vermont would be able to see the flames!”

So I promised him that from now on I will TRY to read and dispose of my papers every day.

But first, there are some great sales on beachwear that I just have to rush off to…at Ames Department Store.

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Finding Mrs. Goodwitch?

I have always loved Halloween. In fact, when I was young, it ranked even higher than Christmas on my list of favorite holidays — mainly because it involved large quantities of stomachache-inducing free candy.

But one Halloween in particular, back when I was about 8, still stands out in my mind. It wasn’t because everyone handed out full-sized candy bars that year; it was because I finally got up the courage to meet the Witch Sisters.

I grew up on Manchester’s West Side, next door to West High School. Nestled among my block’s rows of apartment buildings was a conspicuously out-of-place mansion, complete with a tower and gables. It was dark and spooky looking, and — according to my grammar school’s most reliable sources — haunted.

Even spookier were the two elderly sisters who lived there. For some reason, they came out only after dark and hid in the shadows. They even mowed their lawn at night. This, of course, spurred rumors that they either were vampires or witches.

Every time I walked past the mansion, the lace curtains in one of the windows would move. I knew I was being watched, and it gave me the shivers. I was certain that the witches had singled me out because I was plump. After all, I reasoned, unlike Hansel and Gretel, I wouldn’t have to be fattened up for the kill.

So, even to this day, I still cannot explain why one Halloween night when I was in the third grade, I decided to go trick-or-treating at the mansion.

No lights were visible from within as I, along with my cousins Carla and Eddie, approached the house. It was obvious that the witches/vampires didn’t want to be disturbed by a bunch of kids begging for candy, but I wasn’t about to let that deter me. I took a deep breath, stood on my tiptoes, clasped the brass ring on the doorknocker and knocked hard. Long minutes passed before the door finally creaked open a crack.

“What do you want?” a shaky, very witchlike female voice asked. Only her nose was visible, but I was relieved to see that it wasn’t long and pointed, and it

didn’t have a wart on the end of it.

“Trick or treat!” I squeaked.

The door opened wider. The woman critically eyed the three of us, then invited us to step inside.

Fear made Carla, Eddie and me wedge together so tightly, we looked like a three-headed person as we entered the dark, musty mansion. Our hostess then fired questions at us about our names, schools, ages, hobbies.

We answered politely, nervously, all the while wondering why she was subjecting us to the third degree (Carla later said she’d thought it was to gather information for our obituaries).

As I answered the questions, I stared at the woman and couldn’t help but feel a great sense of disappointment. She was … well … ordinary looking. Her thin, wrinkled face and short gray hair did not even come close to the Medusa-like snakes and glowing red eyes I’d imagined she’d have. Even worse, she told us that she and her sister were retired grammar-school teachers. I’d hoped for something much more exciting, like cleaver-wielding butcher’s assistants.

“Well,” the woman finally said, sighing, “Seeing that you came all the way over here for a treat, I suppose it’s only polite to see if I can ‘dig up’ something for you.”

“If she grabs a shovel,” Carla whispered, “I’m outta here!” The woman disappeared into the other room and returned with three graham crackers. They were stale.

Then, very abruptly, she dismissed us.

Did I tell the kids at school that the witches were nothing but retired schoolteachers who looked normal and handed out stale graham crackers? Not exactly. Let’s just say that somehow, a rumor about snake-haired, glowing-eyed, cleaver-wielding witches who passed out poisoned apples to trick-or-treaters mysteriously made its way around my school the next day.