Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dealing with Holiday Stress

With less than a week to go before Christmas, it’s that time when the stress levels start to rise and every talk show and magazine focuses on how to survive the holiday family gatherings and office parties.  It seems the media has taken a season of love and goodwill and turned it into a major trauma event that we all supposedly dread and must be medicated to get through.

So with tongues in our cheeks and some help from family and friends, Stretch and I decided to pass along some tips on how to deal with holiday stress.
First of all, we’d like to thank our British friend Sonia for the following tip she shared on Facebook:

I confess I can’t resist doing this. Okay, to be honest, I don’t even wait until the roll is empty. Joe will tell you that whenever we’re out shopping together and I buy a roll of wrapping paper, he knows he’s going to get gently bopped on the head with it at some point as we’re walking around.  So maybe when you visit family you should bring along one of your empty rolls and keep it handy.

Along the same lines, the other day we also came across a reference to a British Christmas game called “Hot Cockles” that was popular 200 years ago. A child was blindfolded and then had to guess which of the other children hit him/her. It’s hard to imagine this was a popular parlor game even so many years ago. But hey, it might be helpful at a family gathering/office party when someone is whining or being obnoxious to think: “Hmm. What I wouldn’t give to grab a roll of wrapping paper and play Hot Cockles with him/her.” 
(I said Wrapping Paper, Stretch!)

Stretch says his friend Paul gave him another good idea with a story he told us about the Legend of the Christmas Spider. The legend says some spiders were delighted to find a real tree sitting inside the house they were living in, and they climbed into the branches and spun webs. When Santa arrived, he saw the happy spiders but also realized what the family’s reaction would be to all these webs covering their tree, so he did some magic and turned the webs into sparkly silver—and that was the origin of tinsel. 

Stretch says it made him think of the spider exhibit he saw at the American Museum of Natural History this year, and how some of the spiders might make a great ornament gift for certain people.

My cousin Mindy also passed along this gift idea: you know that very popular “Elf on a Shelf” fad that’s all the rage now? She reports that she’s discovered if you put two of these elves together, mayhem results along the lines of “don’t feed the gremlins after midnight.”

So there you have it! Several gift ideas and meditative thoughts to deal with the difficult people in your life this holiday season. And now that you’ve hopefully had a laugh, we’d like to end this blog with a toast to all our truly wonderful caring family and friends. We may bop you on the head with an empty (or full) wrapping paper roll if you happen to be close by at an opportune moment, but rest assured we love you and are very thankful to have you in our lives.

Stretch recently made a new friend, Jane, who provided just the perfect Christmas drink for our toast. It’s a German red wine heated in a pot with cinnamon stick, sugar and an optional orange peel and it’s called “Gluhwein” (literally “glow wine”).
Jane says she learned about this wine from her sister’s friend—and both her sister and her friend are nuns, so that makes this even more special at this time of year. They say the Gluhwein helps a person stay warm and avoid bad moods. So let’s make some Gluhwein and celebrate the special people in our lives while we’re imagining all these naughty ways to deal with holiday stress!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Twas the Week Before Christmas

(With profound apologies to Clement Moore)

Twas the week before Christmas and all through their penthouse,
Little bears are decorating, while I get the bills and grouse.

Their stockings are hung by their chimney with care,

And presents from friends can be seen everywhere.
(Thank you Debby, Judy, Karen, Mitzi, Paul!)

Their kitchen is full of baked goodies set out to cool

While they’re waiting for a bite, Stretch and Tiny play pool.

Some monkey pals are watching a holiday DVD

And the cousins are relaxing by my Mom’s Christmas tree

The greenhouse is filled with poinsettia plants

And Matisse’s “Christmas Eve” lends an air of romance

But lest you think these spoiled bears are a bit too greedy,
Rest assured that we haven’t forgotten the needy.

We interrupt this blog for a public service announcement:  We support The Breast Cancer Initiative Foundation started by my doctor, Karen Kostroff; Wounded Warriors; The Harry Chapin Food Bank at Long Island Cares; The Salvation Army.  We hope all of you take time to say a prayer for those less fortunate this holiday season and remember your favorite charities while doing your holiday planning.

And with the serious stuff taken care of, we’ll be back soon with more holiday reminiscing . . . including Stretch's decorated dining room, special Christmas Eve meal, and some other holiday trivia/memories.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Last Century Christmas Decorations

Packages have been arriving for Stretch lately. One from his friends Mitzi and Paul contained all the furnishings for a Christmas themed room.

Another package from his landscape designer Judy was filled with “themed” Christmas trees for his condo and gardens on my bookshelves. Seeing my expression as he pulled each exquisitely decorated tree from the box, he asked me, “Didn’t you have themed trees and Christmas furnishings for your house back in the last century?”

When I finished laughing, I pulled out the old photo album and said, “Let me tell you what our decorating was like back then.”

Ignoring the eye rolling and sigh I observed from the little furry fellow, I began:

One of my fondest memories is helping my Dad decorate the outside of our house with lights. This activity was far more challenging than any of the computer games people play today. The light strings had bulbs many times the size of today’s LED lights and when they were stored in the attic, monkeys crept in during the year and completely tangled the light strings in a series of challenging knots. If you were successful in untangling them, usually you would discover they didn’t light because if there were a few dead bulbs, the whole string went out.

One year my Mom for some reason decided to order a “NOEL” sign from the Sears catalog. Each letter of the word “NOEL” was separate and it also came with two sprigs of holly for either side.

Our house had an enclosed sun porch and my Dad decided the outside wall of the porch under the eaves would be the perfect spot for this sign. You’ve never experienced the thrill of holiday decorating until you’ve stood in the cold snow risking frostbite watching your Dad meticulously measuring and carefully calculating the distance between each piece so that the sign would be perfectly centered on the front of the house.

Stretch: So how did you decorate the tree in the penguin pond area in your backyard?

Me: We didn’t have a penguin pond in our backyard.

Stretch: Well, then what kind of themed trees did you put in your house?

Me: Trees? We had one Christmas tree! This was in the days before they started growing all the specially shaped full lush trees. Our next door neighbor had a landscaping business and we used to get our tree from his lot every year. Then we would get the boxes of ornaments out of the attic, sweep up all the glass ones that those marauding monkeys had broken, discard the bird ornaments whose nylon tails had been pulled out by said monkeys, and hang the survivors on the tree. Then my mother would drown the tree in tinsel in a futile effort to cover all the bare spots. And every year we thought it was the greatest tree ever.

Here’s a pic of my Dad and my older sister in front of one of our masterpieces:

Stretch: Oh my gosh! What a tree! I didn’t realize things were that bad. By the way, what’s with the pig and why was your sister wearing a coat? Didn’t you have heat?

Me: The pig was my sister’s present for me; that was during the time when I was fascinated by pigs after my Uncle Stanley introduced me to some piglets at a farm in Massachusetts. Remember, we did a blog on that. The coat was a present my sister received that year, I guess she wanted to show it off.

Stretch: You sure had some interesting Christmases back then!

Me: We sure did. And you know what? I’d give anything to relive one of those “last century” Christmases again, and I bet I’m not the only one who feels that way . . .

Stretch: I know just what you need! Come to my music conservatory and we’ll sing a few choruses of “Deck the Halls with Cows of Bali!”

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Christmas Songs

Recently I heard a report on one of the cable news networks that said vinyl records are making a big comeback; sales are said to be higher now than at any time in the past 15 years.  They outlined a bunch of technical reasons why vinyl sound quality is felt by many to be superior to all the later types of recordings. I don’t pretend to understand all the technical jargon, but I have to admit it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to tell my little buddy Stretch that at least one of the things from my “last century” culture is becoming popular again.

Stretch, puzzled by how something from the Stone Age could be considered better than his latest technical gadgets, decided to investigate. So he called his friend Debby and told her about a few of the old Christmas albums he’s heard me mention, and she told him that she was sure she could get him some copies in his size.

It all started out well for me. The first album we listened to was an Elvis recording. Stretch admits to liking Elvis, he’s even been to Graceland with us. We jived along with the King’s rendition of “Blue Christmas.”

Next we moved on to John Denver and the Muppets. Again, some very touching songs, and Stretch got a real chuckle out of the Muppets singing “Bring us some figgy pudding” while Miss Piggy freaks out because she thinks they’re saying “piggy pudding.” They reassure her that the pudding is made of figs . . . and bacon!

Then we got to the Chipmunks Christmas album. And after one round of them singing “Christmas, Christmas time is here” (you’re hearing it in your head, aren’t you?) Stretch was reaching for the ear plugs.

However, the worst was yet to come. Somehow, Debby had managed to include in Stretch’s collection a retro Beach Boys Christmas album.  As soon as I saw the cover, I feared the worst and my premonition was correct. The album contains, in my humble opinion, the worst Christmas song ever: “Santa’s Beard.”

The song tells how one of the Beach Boys takes his  5-year-old brother to see Santa. The little brat pulls the pillow out of Santa’s suit, yanks off his beard and yells at the guy that he isn’t the “real Santa.” As if the premise isn’t offensive enough, the chorus is one of those “ear worms” that once you hear it, you can’t get the awful thing out of your head. It keeps repeating these phrases over and over and over and over into what seems like infinity:  “Is that really Santa Clause, the real, real Santa?” “You’re not really Santa Claus, the real, real Santa!” “He’s not really Santa Claus, the real, real Santa.” My sister bought this album and tortured us with it incessantly the year it came out.

Just as I was reaching to pull the plug on Stretch’s stereo, he jumped in and told me that he had something that would take that terrible tune right out of my mind. He said Debby had also sent him a brand new vinyl recording, the latest release from a well-known recording company featuring a new century American icon.

Sorry Elvis, you may have been the King of the 20th century, but apparently the Emperor has taken over your throne in the 21st century. "Jingle Bears, Jingle Bears . . ."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks

After a week of being bombarded from every direction with ads for Thanksgiving sales events, I’m feeling more than a little nostalgic for those “last century” Thanksgiving celebrations I had as a kid. I couldn’t help comparing how different our celebrations were, while thinking of how many special people are no longer with us and how far I am from being the healthy, vibrant youth of those long ago holidays. Stretch asked me what I was thinking about and when I told him, he asked me what it was like in those olden days.

I explained:  On Thanksgiving morning, we watched the Macy’s parade on television while my Mom cooked our turkey dinner. When the turkey was ready, it was always my Mom who carved it.

Sometimes we used the one set of good china my grandmother had given my parents as a wedding gift. If the meal was just going to be our immediate family, the everyday dishes served us just as well.  We lived with my grandfather, and my Dad’s brother and two sisters were nearby, so family was always popping in and out during the day, along with some of the neighbors who were our other “aunts and uncles.” No stores were open that day; it was taken for granted that this was a day for family and friends and for giving thanks.

Stretch surprised me when he said this was one “last century” tradition that he thought sounded really nice, and maybe we should try to recreate that simpler time as best we could. He invited a couple of his bear cousins to join him and Tiny for their holiday feast, and I helped him set up his dining room with the centerpiece his friend Karen made him. Then they all settled in for a day of grateful feasting.

The Pumpkin Bisque Soup Course

Stretch gets ready to carve the turkey.

The Main Course—complete with green bean casserole!

Pumpkin and Apple pies for dessert.

As I watched the bear feast unfold, I started thinking about my blog and all the new friends that have come into my life through my stories about my adventures with my little mascot, and all the laughs I've shared with family over my reminiscing with Stretch. 
And suddenly I realized that even though things are vastly different today, I’m still so blessed. I don’t have to stand on line in the cold waiting to battle my way to some material gift that will probably be outdated by the time I drive home and wrap it. Stretch and I have dozens of the greatest “gifts” already. 

We’ll be thinking of all of you this holiday and remembering you in our prayers of Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Holiday Memories--The Sears Wish Book

Around the holiday season each year I guess I’ve mentioned to Stretch more than a few times about the old Sears “Wish Book” catalogs that we last century kids used to pore over hoping that we’d get at least a few of the toys/dolls/games that we circled and marked with stars and arrows and anything else we could think of to attract our parents’ attention when they flipped through the book.

Stretch came to me the other day and said that his friend Debby had sent him a copy of one of these catalogs and he couldn’t see what the big deal was. Did I really want one of these primitive computer-type machines and this weird-looking camera when I was a kid? I patiently explained that the book he got from Debby was actually a “century before last” catalog, not the ones I had as a kid.

To clear up the matter, I searched the Web and found a great site called where some nice folks have scanned copies of old Sears Wish Books in PDF format for us baby boomers to browse and enjoy. With a big thanks to them, I was able to show Stretch some of the fun items I enjoyed as a kid.

Stretch: So what kind of video/computer games did you have?

Me: Well, we had something called “Board Games.” Like this Barbie game I used to love to play with my cousins Melanie and Tess. Remember? Mel and I played this again when we visited her a few years ago.

Stretch: Oh yeah. I've actually been trying to purge that memory of you guys in the prom gowns after the game . . . Well did you have any realistic three dimensional games?

Me: Sure. There were these Disneykins/Tinykins. Gosh, Tess and I used to create all kinds of scenes and activities with these figures.

Stretch: So how about DVDs. Did you ever get DVDs for Christmas?
Me: Well, we had something a little different called a Viewmaster.

Stretch gave me one of those looks.

Me: But look, I did have something that was really exciting. My Dad bought me this telescope when I was about 9 or 10. We used to take it outside or set it up in the window when it was too cold to go outside. You could see the moon really clearly, the rings of Saturn, and great views of some of the constellations. My Dad loved anything having to do with space and he passed that fascination on to me.

Stretch: So, did you ever spot the constellation “Stretch” when you were looking through that telescope?
Me:  No, my life was a lot simpler and less “stretchful” in those days.
….to be continued