Still Life, With Cats

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They descended in clusters of twos and threes, or one at a time, entering the door with a gust of cold air, as I tried desperately to simultaneously greet them and distract / catch a very determined Sherman before he could make good his great escape. They came laden with boxes, or bags, or great long cookie sheets, loaded with goodies pulled only recently from the oven.

At first we all gathered in the kitchen, everyone chattering at once and somehow still managing to follow most of the conversation threads, as we filled our mugs with egg nog, with coffee or hot chocolate or tea. Sherman took breaks in between trying to escape to investigate thoroughly every purse, bag or box that entered the house. The occasional cry of ‘stop the cat!’ started to become a common refrain.

Eventually we migrated to the dining room, still chattering, and assembled ourselves in a motley assortment of regular chairs, folding chairs, and a few of the smaller chairs pulled in from the living room. The table was completely covered with various bins of cookies. People started to pass them around, and we all took one of each, which still ended up being a lot of cookies. Several people wondered, ruefully, why they had even bothered to eat dinner, as we all nibbled and tasted, but it didn’t stop a single one of us from finishing all the cookies on our plate.

We drew numbers and in order, examined the table of possibilities – which one to open; which one to steal from someone else instead? Rosie sat on the piano in order to look pitiful and possibly garner attention, or even crumbs, and Nutmeg lounged in the cat bed in the living room, pretending she wasn’t paying any attention to any of us anyway. Sherman, meanwhile, prowled underneath the table and pounced on discarded tissue paper, or dove into un-watched gift bags. The rest of the cats, unnerved by the volume and the numbers, hid downstairs, or else peered cautiously around corners and then retreated somewhere else.

Too soon, someone noticed the clock – how did it get to be so late? And then there was the great cookie distribution – a roomful of women, filling tiny paper sacks with cookies. Who didn’t get the gingerbread yet? Wait, I don’t have any of the lemon ones! Who wants more of the shortbread?

And then they left, in ones and twos, arms loaded with just as many cookies as they had arrived with, but this time of different varieties. We hugged our goodbyes, me with Sherman tucked under one arm to allow them to leave unaccompanied. The house descended into silence again, and the cats crept slowly out, noses twitching.

And now there are all sorts of cookies, where there once was only gingerbread men, bearing all sorts of flavors – cranberries, white chocolate macadamia nuts, lemon, anise, peanut butter and more. I sip another mug of homemade hot chocolate, reluctant yet to go to bed. There is time for one more cookie, I think. Just one more.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

Dozens of little men

I got this recipe from my mother, who likely got it from her mother. The directions are pretty sparse, and consist simply of a list of ingredients, the baking temperature and time, and a rough approximation of total number of cookies made per recipe.

When I was younger I used to continue my family tradition of making all sorts of different types of cookies. But these days, now that we’re older and (until recently) both worked in tiny offices so there weren’t as many people to foist cookies onto, I usually only make a few treats. This is the one cookie that gets made in our house nearly every year (sometimes the only one).

Gingerbread Men

1 cup white sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup molasses
1 cup sour cream or buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
5 teaspoons ginger
Pinch of salt
Flour (to make dough stiff enough to roll – about 4 – 6 cups)

Bake at 350 degrees (F) for about 10 minutes. Makes about 50 men.

– – –

Here is the thing about these cookies. The amount of flour listed is NEVER enough. And it always makes a whole lot more than you are counting on. Also, you need to remember to have raisins and red hots on hand, because that is what you use for the eyes and the nose. You have to have made rolled, cut cookies before so you have some idea of the relative thickness of dough you’re aiming for (I have no idea; I just roll it out until it feels about right, which I realize isn’t the remotest bit helpful to someone who might never have done this but…that’s the best I can tell you).

The best thing about these cookies is that they are actually better the next day, once they’ve cooled and the ginger has had a chance to really come to the foreground.

Some people, I suspect, would decorate them once they’re out of the oven – give them little icing smiles and put candies on them for buttons and other adornments. But I never bother with that. I like my cookies plain (have never been that much of a fan of icing anyway – it’s far too sweet for me).

I baked an entire batch tonight. Most of them have been put into tiny bags, for a cookie exchange later this week. But as I mentioned above, this recipe always makes more than you think. So there are a few – just enough – left to nibble here and there. And the house smells deliciously like sugar and ginger and butter and Christmas.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.


I didn’t intend to get up at 5 this morning. But the mechanical whine of the tow truck in the street woke me up, and once I was awake, my hands also woke up, and proceeded to remind me why it is usually considered a very bad idea to try to knit an extremely large project (the details of which I am contractually not allowed to share) out of certain types of yarn in a very short period of time. So instead of trying to fall back asleep, instead I got up and took some ibuprofin to make the hands stop screaming at me, and then I decided as long as I was awake anyway, I might as well finish the thing, so I sat down with some coffee (necessary) and some cats (not necessary, but you try telling them that) and two hours later, the last end was woven in, and I was done. Of course, my original plan had been to finish it this weekend anyway, so as to get it shipped off to where it needs to go and out of my hair with plenty of time to spare. I just hadn’t counted on all the extra work I’ve put into it over the past 36 hours.

Any other weekend I might have been able to just climb back into bed, but not today. I had just enough time to go take a shower and get dressed and scrounge up my usual black performance attire and stuff it into a bag (having learned that attempting to put on black concert attire in a house with six cats is an exercise in futility, massive fuzz, and usually a small amount of swearing), and then dash off to Dixon for the first cantata performance of the day. I zipped in and changed (I am very good and changing quickly when it comes to concert attire) and had time to spare, to chat and catch up with people I only see once a year or less now.

The cantata went well – the director always picks awesome cantata scores, so it’s always a lot of fun to sing – and then I said my goodbyes and changed back into my street clothes and headed back home.

I had grand plans that today I was going to try to get all the baking done that I need to have done for this coming week, but when I got home I realized that we didn’t have everything that I needed. I thought, for a very brief moment, of trying to get to the grocery store and pick up everything and then come home and see if I could somehow mix up the dough, roll out and bake roughly 5 dozen cookies. But it was only a brief thought. So instead of stressing myself out with baking (like I’ve been stressing myself out with knitting the past few days), we decided to go out and get lunch. We went to a new-to-us place downtown and ate brunch food with a lot of bacon, and then we came back home, and while Richard very nicely went off to the grocery store, list in hand, I stayed home and I and a few of the cats took a much-needed nap.

Then it was back to Dixon for the evening performance of the cantata. And my favorite part of that was that the handbell choir performed as well. I love handbell choirs, and they were absolutely terrific. Between the five of them, they were juggling something like 30 bells, and it was obvious they were all having a whole lot of fun.

So now I am back home. The cantata is done. The test knit is done. We curled up on the couches in the living room and watched the latest installment of “The Next Iron Chef” and I did not knit a single stitch. It was wonderful.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.


Yesterday, after I went for the run, I tackled a whole list of other chores. I wrapped all the presents for my little sister and her family, and packed them into a box, and drove off to the post office to pop that into the mail to them. Amusingly, I packed their presents into the same box in which my sister mailed me ours – it arrived yesterday morning just as I was about to get started with the wrapping, and it turned out to be exactly the right size I needed. Some of the wadded newspaper she packed inside ended up on the floor for the cats; the rest went right back into the box before I shipped it back to them.

I also peeled a few dozen apples and cored and sliced them and then crammed them into the crockpot to make apple butter. A pile of apple pieces so large that I can barely get the lid onto the crockpot will eventually simmer down into a thick paste of a bit less than half the volume.

I had fully intended to can the apple butter this morning, but yesterday afternoon I sat down with all the pieces for a test knit I’ve been working on, and as I started putting them together, I realized that, even though I *did* knit a gauge swatch, and I have been checking and measuring gauge all along, somehow the knitting gremlins got involved and everything was very much the wrong size. Because – and this is something a lot of knitters learn – gauge swatches lie. Always. Every. Single. Damn. Time.

Panic set in. Swearing followed shortly thereafter. I set it aside and thought maybe if I checked it later it might all be a bad dream. I checked it later. Still all wrong. More swearing.

And then at that point I realized there was really only one thing left to do. So I turned off the crockpot and put the mostly-finished apple butter in the refrigerator to deal with at some point in the near future. And then I sat down and gritted my teeth and I ripped out fully three weeks worth of knitting, down to the very last stitch, and started over.

I knit all Friday evening, until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more. And then I got up this morning and I knit some more. I took a few hours of break to head off to practice for the Christmas cantata, but then I came back home and kept on knitting. I went down a needle size. I measured obsessively. I checked and double-checked, and as pieces came off the needles, I measured and triple-checked again, and this time things looked like they were supposed to look. We finally caught up on season 7 of Supernatural, and a few episodes from season 5 of Charmed, and I kept on knitting. I had other things I really wanted to do today – baking cookies and doing laundry and maybe finally tackling the Christmas cards and annual wrap-up letter, but ah well. Those will all keep. They will have to keep.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.


I got up this morning and even though I really, really did not want to, I went for a run. Granted, I went for a run after I had already lounged around and read half a book online and caught up on all my RSS feeds and Holidailies reading, but the important thing is that I went for the damn run at all. And more importantly, that I am going to keep on getting up and going for runs – at least in the short term, until the 5K in January is over, and then likely I will grimly sign up for another one, just to have a reason to continue to force myself to keep doing this thing.

It has been a little over a month since I last went running (and for future reference, when I refer to ‘going for a run’, it is actually me going for a ‘slow jog’). It is not exactly my favorite activity, but then pretty much no exercise-related thing rates high on my list of favorite things to do. If only knitting, or baking, or canning, or reading burned more calories, I would be in the very best shape. But even though I harbor an extreme dislike of the whole jogging/running thing, back in September and October I actually made it through the entire 9 week Couch to 5K program. And all because of zombies.

You see, a few years back, I heard of the Zombie Run somewhere over on the east coast (Boston, maybe? Who the heck knows), where it was a 5K but there were zombies, and I thought that looked like a whole heck of a lot of fun. And I said to myself, hey, if one of those ever happens in my area, I ought to sign up and take part!

And then this summer I stumbled across a Facebook post about this run, and I remembered that promise I had made to myself, lo, those many years ago, and I signed up. Not as a zombie, mind you. As a runner. And I am SO not a runner. Plus I convinced a bunch of friends to also sign up (some as zombies and some as runners), because if one is going to go through pain, one should never do it alone.

But I downloaded the C25K program onto my phone and I forced myself to get up three times a week, and oh it was hell for the first few weeks. But then I got to the week where I ran for ten minutes straight and while there wasn’t that mythical runner’s high, I did feel pretty awesome about that particular accomplishment, considering that only a few weeks prior, simply running for a full minute straight was pretty awful. And by the end I was jogging along (slowly, oh so very slowly) for the full 30 minutes, and while it was never enjoyable, at least I wasn’t collapsing into a heap in the middle of the road, so yay for that.

Then run day came. We gathered in the middle of our particular pack of runners. They fired the starting gun, and we took off. And they tossed giant handfuls of some kind of pink powder into the air as we went running past. I suspect it was supposed to look a bit like blood. But I managed to inhale a bit of it, and then had to do an immediate sprint to try to duck around the first crowd of zombies who were trying to steal our ‘lives’ (flags).

Do you know what you never do during the Couch to 5K program?

Sprinting, that’s what.

So…yeah. I tried really hard to run, at various points along the rest of the route. And I did at least walk the entire thing. But the combination of the sprint plus inhaling whatever the heck that powder was, did me in. By the time I was about halfway through the run, I was having a hard time catching my breath. By the time I got home afterwards, I was wheezing, and coughing every time I tried to breathe more than shallow. This, my friends, is what is called an attack of exercise-induced asthma. It is also not fun.

Years ago, a doctor told me I have asthma. I am not entirely sure *why* he told me that, as I’ve never had an issue with it (maybe he figured it was the reason why I was allergic to the world – who the heck knows), but he gave me an inhaler to use. I only ever used it when exposed to some of the things that made my allergies flare up so bad I couldn’t breathe (exposure to critters of the rodent / rabbit variety). But since I went on the shots regimen, I haven’t had an issue with that anymore. I stopped carrying allergy pills and an inhaler around with me a few years back.

Luckily I live with an asthmatic, so he tossed me one of his extra inhalers as I came in the door. After a few puffs of that I could breathe normally again, although the medication made me all kinds of jittery for a few hours afterward.

But anyway. Back to the running. After the zombie run was over, I told myself, hey, running isn’t all that bad. Maybe I can keep on doing it. But the problem is, without having the deadline of a run to prepare for, my willpower was shot. Plus November was full of Nanowrimo, so an entire month went by and no running was done.

My friend and I signed up for another 5K in January – this time without zombies, or stupid pink powder, or any of that crazy sprinting crap. It’s going to be an ordinary 5K, where we can shuffle along at our snail-like pace.

So I am back to going running. It’s not fun, and I wish I was doing a bazillion things other than running the entire time I am outside, but at least I am doing it. Because they say exercise is good for you, and unless I manage to stumble and break something (and bear in mind we are talking about the woman who managed to snap a bone in her foot walking barefoot down a carpeted hall, so don’t think it can’t happen), it’s something that I am going to try to keep on doing because it doesn’t require any equipment, and it doesn’t require any skill, and it counts as exercise.

But next time we do a 5K, I am going to bring an inhaler with me. Just in case.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

Fry lady

I decided that, in honor of Hanukkah this year, I would make latkes.

I decided this mainly because a friend was talking about making them and it occurred to me that I am not sure I have ever *had* a latke, and really, how can you go wrong with a dish that involves potatoes and frying, but seeing as it is currently the middle of Hanukkah, that seemed a good time to try them out.

I did my usual recipe search on Google (all hail Google) and found a few different options. Richard went and bought potatoes and onions because we didn’t have either in the house, and I broke out the food processor and turned 3 large potatoes and 1 small sweet potato that’s been lurking in the drawer for weeks and really needed to be used, and half an onion, into something that ended up looking an awful lot like very lumpy orange sherbet. It was actually kind of….disturbing. And that is being very kind.

Then I added an egg and some flour and some baking powder and a little salt and I stirred it all together and it sat there in the bowl looking like creepy melted sherbet while I heated up a pan of oil, and then I dumped in the first glob and learned my very first Latke Lesson: make them small, because large ones will splatter oil ALL OVER THE KITCHEN. In my defense, I have never made these before – in fact, I cannot honestly recall the last time I tried to deep-fry *anything* – and the recipe did say to dump in 1/3 cup of batter at a time (serves me right for paying attention to the recipe, apparently), but that was all manner of exciting there for a while.

Eventually, however, I started getting the hang of this whole ‘frying’ thing, and I put in much smaller little globs of creepy orange sherbet goo, and added more oil to keep the pan at the proper level of sizzling + splattering (because why waste any opportunity to make even MORE of a mess in the kitchen!).

Once the first batch was done, we stood at the kitchen counter and we each tried our very first latke (well, it was *my* first latke; Richard thinks maybe he has had them once before). And oh my. Those are really, really good. A little chewy, and a little crispy, and just all around awesome. Plus, once fried, the crusty brown exterior totally disguised the fact that the inside still looked a bit like we had tried to deep fry orange sherbet.

We ate our latkes with sour cream and with dollops of homemade apple butter on top. They were absolutely delicious.

We will not speak of the current state of the kitchen, however. Or of the smell of fried things that hangs in the air all over the house. Sometimes it is just better to pretend.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

Over and over

At about 7 this morning, a herd of elephants went rampaging through the house over my head, thundering around and crashing into things. This may make no sense until I explain that we live in a roughly 100-year-old high-water bungalow style house that, at some point in the past was raised even higher, so the main living space is on the second floor (as is the front door), and the bedrooms are on the lower level. We also have no carpeting anywhere in the house (a combination of six cats + allergies + we much prefer the look of wood even without the first two issues), so activity on the upper level can often be heard down below.  Completely unrelated (of course – ha), it is always astounding to me how much noise an animal who weighs less than 15 pounds can make when they put their minds to it.

Richard can sleep through anything. Alas, I lost that ability shortly after I left college. So I decided to take advantage of the fact that I was now wide awake, and went upstairs to try to make some significant headway on a particular knitting project.

However, today was apparently one of those days where I was incapable of either counting, or reading a chart correctly. I finished up a sizable piece of knitting this morning, and then I went off to the monthly lace knitting group meeting, where I hit the wall in terms of chart reading (let’s just say I would be *done* with this lace piece by now if I hadn’t had to keep ripping back and redoing the same damn three rows, and the fact that I finished the meeting further ahead than when I started is only due to my ability to knit extremely fast). And then when I got back home I picked up my yarn and needles for the project I was working on this morning and discovered that actually I had done it all wrong, and needed to rip it all out and start again. Grumble.

But the day was not entirely lost. It is not as if I have to have either of these projects done tomorrow. I got to sit on the couch under an afghan and a cat for several hours today, doing something I love, and then go hang out with a bunch of awesome people and do more of it (minus the afghan and the cat, but with bonus added chai). And then this evening we went out to dinner to a new-to-us ramen place downtown with some friends, and we sat there and slurped noodles and talked about life, the universe, and everything including cats (okay, a lot of it was about cats, but that is how we roll), and we finished the evening with house-made mochi and black sesame ice cream and an agreement that we definitely have to go back there again. Soon.

And then Richard and I came home and watched The Next Iron Chef, where the drama of this week, where one of our least favorite chefs was booted off, almost (but not quite) made up for the drama of last week where our very favorite chef was eliminated (sob), and I plugged away on the thing I screwed up on this morning, and this time it all worked just fine and there was no more ripping out to do.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.

That time of year

November is over; has been over for hey, over a week now, but there was still one more thing to do when it comes to Nanowrimo – namely, the TGIO party.

Since Richard is one of the Municipal Liaisons for the Sacramento region, we usually host the TGIO party. Most of the time, at least in the more recent years, I haven’t been able to attend because 1) it is usually in the evening, and 2) it is usually the weekend of Vox Musica’s Christmas concert, so most years my contribution to the party has been to help get the house cleaned up, occasionally remember to bake something if I have the time, and then scurry off to perform in the Vox concert and miss the actual gathering completely.

This year, however, the first weekend of December started on the 1st of the month, which was a little early to try to do a party, considering everyone was more likely going to spend that weekend trying to recover from the month prior, plus there were other time constraints. So we all put our heads together and decided to make it this weekend. And because this is also apparently the Weekend Everyone Schedules Their Holiday Parties and we (Richard and I, at least) already had other plans for the evening, we also decided to make it during the day.

So this morning I got up and made a double-batch of scones, primarily because it seemed like a good morning for scones, and also because I knew they would be a tasty addition to the party table and we did some quick tidying around the house (which mostly consists of rounding up all the bazillion cat toys, empty boxes and paper bags that are left out for the cats because there are no spoiled cats in *this* house, not a single one) and stuffing them into a closet out of sight). People starting arriving at about 11, and eventually there were enough of us to fill the living room and spill into the dining room.

(As an aside, we always do these parties potluck, mainly because it’s easy and less stress on whoever happens to be hosting, and it is always amusing to see which way the food skews. Some events there is a fairly equal distribution of healthy (veggie trays, fruits, that sort of thing) versus unhealthy (which we all cheerfully refer to as the ‘death’ side of the table – namely items of the baked or chocolate variety). This time the selection skewed pretty heavily toward the ‘death’ side of the equation, despite the fact that some of the group made valiant an argument that the spinach in the spinach dip actually counted as a vegetable.)

Anyway. It was fun. Mostly everyone just sat around and talked about all sorts of things – the IRC channel, trying to get word count, whether anyone had done Camp Nano before (and what they thought about it), the annoying stupidity of acronyms like YOLO (look it up), and all manner of other things that involved a lot of laughing.

After that was over, and everyone left, then Richard and I did the post-party clean-up and released the cats from where they’d been locked up downstairs (mainly to keep Sherman from running out the door, and Rosemary from jumping up on the table to steal food and/or shamelessly begging for food from everyone there). Then it was off to come up with some suitable gifts for the white elephant exchange at the next social gathering in our agenda, try to make a dent in the mountain of laundry, and oh yeah, sneak in a quick nap (or at least make an attempt, no matter how futile.

This evening we headed off to one of those aforementioned holiday shindigs, at the home of some friends. It was a wonderful evening. Lots of people, lots of chatter, delicious food, silly party games, and just a good time over all. We hugged our goodbyes and walked out into air so cold you could see your breath in front of your face, and then headed home to turn on the lights on the tree and curl up under afghans and pet the cats, and reflect that oh, it has been a lovely day.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.


I had this silly idea that once November was over, things would get a bit calmer.

November was, of course, Nanowrimo month, so we were out nearly every night and every weekend attending write-ins, or else hunkered down in a coffee shop somewhere, typing furiously away on our laptops, chasing the all mighty word count. It was all kinds of fun, especially the write-ins where there would be crowds of us, all silently typing away, occasionally giggling because we were also socializing with each other; we were just doing it on an IRC channel set up specifically for our region.

November also was crunch time for making sure I had all the music for our first concert down, so mixed in with the write-ins there was also rehearsal time and a sectional here and there, and hours spent hunched over the piano at home, picking out the notes and trying to drill the more difficult parts into my head.

There was knitting, too, since there is always knitting, but it had to take a back seat to the rest of the month. Much like everything else always does in November.

But November is over now, and as of the first weekend of December, so is the concert. And yet I do not feel any less busy. Granted there is no more music I need to be learning, and no more novel looming over my head, but there are knitting projects that have looming deadlines, and a massive editing project I volunteered to do, and we are careening quickly into the season of parties and socializing; of baking and decorating and trying to figure out what to get everyone on the gift list, and what to write in the annual yearly recap letter.

So maybe once Christmas is over, things will get a bit calmer. Except for the fact that rehearsals for the next concert start up soon, and I told a friend I would do a 5K run with her in January (no, I do not know what I was thinking either), and I really need to take advantage of the cooler weather to try my hand at making a few more wheels of cheese, and hey, if there’s a free weekend, maybe we could finally tackle the wasteland that is the backyard, and…and….yeah.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.