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Speak Softly and Carry a Big Peppermint Stick, or, How to Survive the Holiday Season


photo courtesy Getty Images

photo courtesy Getty Images

It’s the holiday season. Christmas trees on the tops of cars. Shoppers bustling through the stores, peppermint mochas in hand. Squeezing into that little black dress for the holiday party next weekend. It is indeed a wonderful (albeit Spanx-ridden time). But if you’re like me, there are moments when it all seems a little overwhelming. When trying to balance the spirit of goodwill with the holiday to-do list seems almost impossible. Yesterday, I was trying to get a little Christmas shopping done at BroadwayPlaza, the ringing of Salvation Army bells in my ears. I was looking through the window of the Kate Spade store (pardon the drool) when a woman (you know who you are, my dear) literally pushed me into the wall with her shopping bags and muttered “move it” as she passed. And as initially irate as I was, I recognized in her that frantic holiday feeling I get sometimes – that feeling that everything has to be absolutely perfect and Martha Stewart-like in order for it to be a happy holiday at all.

I knew how she felt – shopping bags askew, gift list a mile long, cookies to bake, school holiday parties to plan – and I realized that I, too, could be just like her. Forgetting what the season is all about and becoming mired down in the details. But not this year. No, this year I’m going to approach the holidays with a little less zeal and a little more Zen – and here’s how you can too.

1)      You don’t have to cook everything

Here’s a little secret. When it comes to food, most of the time people can’t tell if something is homemade or store-bought. Certain things, yes. Like chocolate chip cookies, for example. There is literally nothing in the entire world like a homemade Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie. Except maybe two Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookies. But typically, there’s not a whole lot of sense behind driving yourselves bonkers making puff pastry from scratch or chopping basil for 3 days to craft homemade pesto. Now, I’m not saying you should never go all out and cook every single thing from scratch. I committed to doing it for a month this year (don’t ask) like some sort of crazed pioneer woman. And, while there were fleeting moments of blissful domesticity, honestly, I couldn’t wait until the month was over.  For some reason, when the holidays come around, there’s this sense that if you didn’t make it, you’re going to ruin the entire holiday season. I can’t tell you how many women at dinner parties feel compelled to confess that they’ve “cheated” on the dinner by buying certain dishes. That’s not cheating. That’s mitigating insanity. And I’m all for it. So for yourHoliday party this year, lay down your apple corers and pasta makers, pry your clenched fingers from the rolling pins and juicers and do yourself a favor. Hop on down to Trader Joe’s and treat yourself to some frozen appetizers, pop them in the oven and, when everyone asks how you could have possibly made such delightful delicacies, smile and proudly tell them you bought them in the freezer aisle. Cause that’s how you roll.

2)      Your presents don’t have to look perfect

Now, if you know me at all, you know that I’m obsessed with paper. I’m the crazy lady who strolls through the container store admiring the wrapping paper for fun. And for many years, I succumbed to my inner demons and worked my fingers to the bone creating “the perfectly wrapped present.” A lot of this is genetic, since my mother is the quintessential present wrapper. Her gifts are like pieces of fine art – gorgeous papers, exquisitely tied ribbons – and my DNA is programmed to follow in her scotch-taped footsteps. But last year when I found myself covered in paper cuts and muttering under my breath with each package, I realized that I was only doing this to maintain some sort of image. Do my children care if the ribbon picks up a subtle accent color in the wrapping paper? Do they really mind if the corners aren’t creased perfectly as they tear through each present like little hurricanes? No. What’s more, why, oh, why didn’t I allow those nice teenagers at Barnes & Noble to wrap my presents for me? This year, I’m taking a deep breath and when someone offers me free gift wrap, I’m going to say “Of course!” and watch them as I sip my non-fat peppermint mocha in peace.

3)      You don’t have to decorate every square inch of your house

Now, I truly need to take a dose of my own medicine on this one. Every year I am compulsive about filling every nook and cranny of my home with Christmas decorations. The tube sock snowman my son made in kindergarten? Right here! The oversized German woodcutter nutcracker? Over there! Enough lights on the tree to illuminate a small village? Of course! And I do it because I think my children can’t survive without living inside a replica of Santa’s workshop. But it’s not necessary. Yes, there are certain decorations with lovely sentimental value, like pickle ornaments and stockings my husband’s grandmother made, but overall if you find yourself going crazy as each plastic storage box of decorations is emptied, then take a break from the madness. Decide with decorations you adore and which ones you just put up because you’ve gotten into the habit of it. This year I left a lot of decorations in the box, like the paper mache Santa from our old neighbor. Because, honestly, the paper mache Santa from our old neighbor belongs in the box.

4)      You can stop and smell the fruitcake

Finally, the best advice I can give during this busy holiday season is to take a moment and enjoy it. Before our wedding, a dear friend told gave us a piece of sage wisdom – to, at some point during the reception, just stand quietly and take it all in. Reflect on the fact that all of your friends and family are there to celebrate you and remember what the day is truly for. The same advice works wonders for the holiday season. Take a minute. Smell the fruitcake. Sit in your living room next to a nice fire, listening to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sing “Baby it’s Cold Outside”. Put on your pajamas and watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with your kids. Meet a friend for coffee and laugh. Just take a few moments for yourself. Remember all that makes this season wonderful and give your loved ones an extra squeeze from me. For that is worth more than homemade pesto anyday.

*Originally published December 2010 Walnut Creek Patch

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The Best Holiday Music for Every Occasion


It’s that time again! Time to dust off your Christmas CDs, tapes and albums, create new holiday playlists on your iPods and browse the music sections at your favorite music store for the perfect jingle. (Incidentally, I think I’m dating myself by referring to Christmas “albums,” but I do still have my parents’ “Christmas with Ray Conniff” on vinyl.) For me, there is always a perfect album for every special Christmas moment – and here are a few of my favorites:

For listening with your children

A Christmas Together: John Denver and the Muppets

Best Track: “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

Second Best: “A Baby Just Like You” Not only does this album feature the irreplaceable John Denver singing some of the most beautiful carols of the season, it highlights all of your favorite Muppet characters: Miss Piggy, Kermit, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo … even Animal makes an appearance on “Little Saint Nick.” For me, the highlight of the album is “The Twelve Days of Christmas” if for no other reason than you get to hear Miss Piggy’s warbly soprano on “five golden rings.” For those of us who grew up with the Muppets, it’ll be a walk down memory lane. And for those too young to remember, it’s a timeless introduction to the wonder of Jim Henson.

For a retro holiday cocktail party

Christmas Album: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

Best Track: “My Favorite Things”

Second Best: “Winter Wonderland”

In 1962, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass debuted with a new sound – trumpets and beats and a distinctive Latin flair. Their aptly titled “Christmas Album” is the perfect mix of holiday favorites and retro brilliance. Imagine a Mad Men holiday party with margaritas. My favorite track is Alpert’s rendition of The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things.” You can’t help but smile and swing your hips. And be sure to listen to “Winter Wonderland.” It makes me think of Mary Tyler Moore in the snow.

For motivation while wrapping presents

A Very Special Christmas Vol. 1: Various Artists

Best Track: “Christmas in Hollis” by Run DMC

Second Best: “Merry Christmas Baby” by Bruce Springsteen

What were you doing during the holidays in 1987? If you’re anything like me, you were listening to the fabulous compilation album, A Very Special Christmas Vol. 1. This benefit collection features such greats as The Pretenders singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and Stevie Nicks’ haunting version of “Silent Night.” But the best has to be Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” Honestly, you hear those first chords and the beat behind, and you’ll be wrapping presents with renewed rhythm and swagger. And don’t miss Bruce Springsteen’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” The Boss has outdone himself.

For sitting by the fire with your sweetie

Christmas Songs: Diana Krall

Best Track: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”

Second Best: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

There’s just something about Diana Krall. Her voice is deep and rich and just makes you feel sultry and cool. Her Christmas Songs album is a fantastic accompaniment to sitting by the fireplace, maybe even with someone cute. There’s something remarkably simple about her singing – no bells and whistles – just a beautiful voice and a little piano and snare drum. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” has never sounded so good.

For those moments when a little country is needed

Now That’s What I Call a Country Christmas: Various Artists

Best Track: “Silent Night” by Johnny Cash

Second Best: “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives

This album is a veritable goldmine of country greats: Brad Paisley, George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn – just to name a few. Where else can you find Johnny Cash singing “Silent Night” and Daruis Rucker (yes, Hootie) belting out “Winter Wonderland”? With 29 songs to choose from, you’re sure to find something to get those boots tapping. And don’t miss Burl Ives singing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” from the 1964 television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

For those of you who wanted to be in an a cappella group in college (or just like in Glee)

Holiday Spirits: Straight No Chaser

Best Track: “12 Days of Christmas Live”

Second Best: “This Christmas”

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a cappella. And, yes, I watch Glee. But my adoration for this accompaniment-less genre really started in college when “The Mendicants” (one of the myriad a cappella groups on campus) came to sing at my freshman dorm and I swooned. Since then, I’ve kept up my love for all things harmonic – especially Indiana University’s own Straight No Chaser. If you haven’t heard them, maybe you’ve seen them on YouTube – their video of “The 12 Days of Christmas” has more than 8 million hits and you can see why. Their melodies and personalities are infectious and you’ll love how 80s band Toto makes a seamless appearance during those twelve days.

For no reason other than it’s wonderful

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Vince Guaraldi Trio

Best Track: “O Tannenbaum”

Second Best: “Linus and Lucy”

Who could forget Charlie Brown and his poor little Christmas tree – so small and forlorn? The long-running television special is still a favorite of mine and my boys look forward to it all year long. I think one of the secrets to its longevity is the soundtrack – masterfully composed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This album, with its jazzy bass guitar and soulful piano, is a wonderful addition to any holiday collection – with the added benefit of the Peanut’s theme song, “Linus and Lucy.” You’ll be-bop right along to the music in spite of yourself.

I could go on. Willie Nelson and Norah Jones singing “Baby, it’s Cold Outside”…Frank Sinatra singing “Jingle Bells”…Johnny Mathis singing “Sleigh Ride”… Sara Bareilles singing “Winter Song”…and, especially, The Weepies singing “All That I Want”…much like Nick and Norah, I have an infinite playlist. And I’m always looking for something new. I’d love to hear your holiday favorites…for every occasion!

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Museum Masters: Paul Klee, or Secret Code Artwork


Paul Klee, for me, is one of those artists who just grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. His work is so striking, so original and so multifaceted that it was with great excitement that I taught my most recent Museum Masters class about him!

Known best as a surrealist/expressionist, Paul Klee (pronounced “clay”) was born in Switzerland to a wonderfully musical family. As a child, Klee struggled with which road to take: become a musician like his parents? or become an artist? Despite his talents with the violin, Klee ultimately (and to our great collective benefit) began to study to become an artist in Germany. Here are a few other fun facts about Paul Klee:

  • Klee’s beloved grandmother gave him a box of chalk when he was a child and he loved to draw with it
  • Klee attended the Munich Academy in Germany to study to be an artist, although he didn’t think he was a good enough painter at the time.
  • In the beginning, all of Klee’s works were colorless. He mostly drew pen-and-ink pieces, some using only one line!
  • After traveling to Tunisia and seeing all the amazing colors there, he immediately began to incorporate bright colors into his pieces, and never looked back!
  • Klee created more than 9,000 works of art during his lifetime
  • Klee worked with both his right and left hands, although he preferred using his left hand for drawing and his right hand for writing

Best known for his colorful abstract pieces, Klee loved to incorporate shapes and vivid hues into his pieces and thought of his own art as poetry through imagery. Here are a few of my favorites!

Castle and Sun
(this always makes me think of the Small World ride at Disneyland!)

WI (In Memoriam)

The Goldfish
(needless to say, the kids went crazy for this one…)

After looking at a wide variety of Klee’s most famous pieces, the children were tasked with creating their own work of abstract art inspired by this talented artist. The children wrote their names in large letters (the letters must reach from the top to the bottom of the paper) with one color of oil pastel. Then, they colored around each letter to create an abstract effect. The children loved the fact that, as they colored, their names all but disappeared into the artwork. They all decided that we should call these “secret code” artwork – and I wholeheartedly agree!

Here are a few of these amazing pieces:


And here are some fun things you can do at home!

  • There is a lovely children’s book inspired by Paul Klee’s artwork entitled “The Cat and the Bird” by Geraldine Elschner. It’s definitely worth checking out at your local library or bookstore!
  • Test your skills at a one-line drawing a la Paul Klee. Draw a complete picture without lifting your pen from the paper once. It’s definitely challenging – and a fun activity for kids and parents to share!

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