Sunday, November 29, 2009

Trees and Tarts

This is Danny cutting down the Magic Tree (I love this picture!).

Here's me and Danny in front of the tree. Not sure why the white balance is so off...but we're clearly doing our best Cullins impersonations here. And yes. Danny's getting a haircut soon. Until then, he's rocking the surfer look.

This is our Magic Tree in our mostly tidy, recently vacummed living room. Why is the tree magic?

1.) The needles are soft and pliable, and don't pull off in your hand.

2.) The tree drinks water.

3.) The tree gives off a strong evergreen scent.

4.) The needles have not clogged our vacuum.

5.) The branches are evenly spaced.

6.) Essentially, it's not DOA.

Granted, the trunk is shaped a bit like a banana. But, it is from nature. It's supposed to be irregular. And from the front, you can't tell at all.

I feel like I've learned more about tree buying this year. We really checked out the needles, including the ones along the trunk, before settling on this one. I don't think we did last year, because our previous tree pretty much flatlined the second it set trunk in our home.

In other news, we had a wonderful Thanksgiving with our families. Danny's parents came down to Eugene from Lincoln City, and we all enjoyed the holiday together. My baking came together well - after admiring the recipes for tarts in my favorite dessert cookbook, I finally bought a tart pan and made a pear tart with almond cream, and a brown butter tart studded with cranberries. Both turned out very well; in the future, I think I'll add lemon zest to the pear tart and more cranberries for the brown butter tart.

The brown butter tart is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. I'm a fan of recipes that are deceptively simple, versatile, and can be made ahead! The original recipe calls for raspberries.

~ Cranberry Brown Butter Tart ~

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (I use Pepperage Farms), thawed
11 tb. salted butter
3 eggs
1 c. sugar
3 1/2 tb. flour
1 1/2 tb. vanilla
1/4 - 1/3 c. cranberries, or 1 c. fresh raspberries

Powdered sugar for dusting.

1. Heat oven to 350.
2. Roll out dough a bit on a floured pastry cloth (anything else is an exercise in frustration). Fit dough into a 9-inch tart pan, trim off at the top. Refrigerate.
3. Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until golden brown.
4. Whisk eggs, sugar, and flour together.
5. Whisk in butter and vanilla, slowly.
6. If you're using raspberries, put the raspberries in the tart crust and pour the batter over the top. If you're using cranberries, pour the batter in and add the cranberries (otherwise, they'll just roll to the edges. You may want to be fancy and put the berries in some sort of pattern.
7. Bake for 45-50 minutes. The tart will probably crack across the top, and that's okay.
8. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Dust with powdered sugar.

Tip: to remove the tart rim, I stick the tart over a slightly smaller pot or bowl, then gently work the rim off, pressing down. This tart is kind of rustic looking, so don't worry too much if you biff an edge. Try very hard not to let the batter go over the puff pastry crust when you pour it, though, or the rim will be harder to remove.

Adapted from the original recipe in Mary Englebreit's Sweet Treats book.

P.S. We saw The Blind Side on Friday night, and enjoyed it very much. Perfect family viewing for the holidays. The sequence in the Big & Tall store shows that in her own way, Sandra Bullock's LeAnn Tuohy is very much a kindred spirit, despite her Beth Moore-esque hair. Looking forward to The Fantastic Mr. Fox and An Education next.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Holiday Shopping, Part II

I really love finding gifts for people. Gifting tends to be one of my love languages. I don't usually gift other than Christmas and birthdays, but when I do, a LOT of thought goes in to it.

The kinds of gifts I give vary per person, but the response I'm after is always the same - lit eyes, a smile, interest. I've had my hits and misses, but I always like to try.

For example, we gave my nephew potatoes for Christmas last year. Yes, we got him books too, but when he and I had talked earlier (he was eight at the time), he told me he wanted potatoes. So I gave him potatoes in a gift sack, with ribbon tied around each potato. He sat there, on my in-laws' couch, and proceeded to take the ribbon off each one. It still makes me happy thinking about it.

Finding Christmas gifts, though, can be overwhelming. So here are some thoughts from me about keeping life as (relatively) simple as possible during the holiday season...

1. Make a list of everyone you're giving to. Write what you're giving - or thinking about giving - to that person next to each name. Save this list for next year. Sure, you'll remember some of these gifts, but I never remember what color of earrings I've already made for my sister, and I hate asking. Keeping a master list of the finals solves everything.

2. Keep your recipient in mind. You might think something's the greatest item ever, but if your gift-ee doesn't think so, it's not a good gift. And don't choose just because you want to borrow it later. Make sure it's something the recipient will actually like.

3. Consider a theme. Two years ago, I knit hats for my brothers-in-law and nephew, and hat and scarf sets for my sister and niece (in case you're wondering why my own brother didn't get a hat, it was because he was going to Africa in a matter of weeks, and a woolen cap didn't seem all that practical. Oh, and Danny already had a hat). Last year with the book I scaled back and we did a book Christmas for most everyone. It was really handy, because we did the bulk of our shopping on Amazon and More on bargain shopping in a bit...

4. Shop year-round. Okay, saying that in November this isn't so practical, but Christmas will return next year. Generally, I'm too tired from the holidays to consider shopping until later, but one of these years I'll actually buy yarn and knit far ahead of time.

5. Shop online - the deals are there. We found really great products for great deals the year we did our book Christmas. And last year, I found superwash merino yarn for Danny's (as yet unfinished) sweater online at a really great price. The rule to online Christmas shopping is to do it early. We had a close call last year for one item, which almost didn't arrive on time. It was stressful!

When buying books, DVDs, CDs, that sort of thing online, condition is everything. I'm all for finding good deals, but for a gift, don't buy used. It's like pulling a book off your shelf and wrapping it. A dinged, cracked case or dented cover sends the wrong message. Visible dust is a no-no. I have no issue with remainder marks on books (black marker line on the top or bottom of the pages), since you can buy books new from bookstores like that.

If you buy a book that's marked new by the seller and it arrives obviously not new (and I've had this happen a couple times), by all means notify the seller. Most of the time they're horrified and send you another, gratis. This is another reason to order early, so you've got all the time in the world.

6. Speaking of damaged goods, re-gift with care. Anything you re-gift shouldn't look re-gifted. And if you're re-gifting, it should be the kind of thing you'd give the recipient anyway. Obviously, this does not hold true for White Elephant Gifts, which are my favorite way to discard odd gifts with style. Just try to take things that could potentially be enjoyed by someone at the party. This is why you invite people with a sense of humor...

7. Try to finish all of your shopping at least two weeks before Christmas. I'm not saying that to make people's lives harder, it's just that entering into places of retail in those last two weeks is like stepping into the Fire Swamp. On purpose. The crowds, the lines, the lack of parking, why do that to yourself?? Also, stores get picked over at this point.

8. Shop TJ Maxx, Ross, and Marshall's. Again, the deals are there. This kind of shopping you have to do with an open mind. What I like about these stores is that you can find really nice, high quality items marked way down. Cashmere is suddenly affordable (TJ stocks a lot of cashmere in the winter, btw). These stores get VERY picked over in the weeks before Christmas, so hit them early. Look for leather gloves, scarves, glassware, bath and spa items, hats, blankets, runners - walk through the whole store, you don't know where a good find is hiding. Check Costco, too, for books, clothes, and food gifts.

9. Rules for happy shopping still apply, especially if you have children with you! Make sure everyone goes potty/ gets a diaper change before you leave. Stay hydrated, bring snacks. You might opt for stores with easily accessible public restrooms.

10. If you're shopping alone, and you hate lines, you might try my sanity trick - take a library book in your purse. Library book, because you're clearly not shoplifting. Having something to do in line can make all the difference! You may look a little nutters, but at least you're happy by the time you reach the register.

A note on After Christmas Sales:

1. Case the joint ahead of time. This is a particularly good idea for stores like Target.
2. Only buy items if they're truly a good deal. Honestly, this is the only time I buy Christmas decorations.
3. This is also a good time to stock up on gift wrap, gift bags, gift tags, ribbon that sort of thing.

And most importantly -

4. Store all of your After Christmas Sale Loot in one place, near your Christmas stuff. If you can't find it come December next year, that's kind of sad.

Not that it has anything to do with shopping, but I'm also intending to wrap as I go this year. Last year's last-minute wrapping was almost as much fun as invasive dentistry. If you're buying items one at a time, you might consider wrapping them immediately afterward.

My gift shopping starts tomorrow. Now I have to decide when the Christmas music is coming out...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Holiday Shopping, Part I

The holidays approacheth. With them, a lot of shopping for all sorts of reasons.

There's shopping for yourself, preparing for holiday events - you may have realized your formal wear has seen better days, or your warm sweaters looking the worse for wear.

There's shopping for others in the way of Christmas gifts. There's also grocery shopping...but I don't like to talk about that.

Part I is going to focus on shopping for yourself. I've had a few conversations over the last few months involving shopping, and hearing from women who hate to shop.

Now, I love shopping. Sometimes. Sometimes, it's stressful. Driving from store to store, trying on things that don't fit, putting out a lot of effort for no return. But there are things you can do to prevent the stressful from happening...

Happy Tips for Successful Shopping:

In stores:

1. If you're going out to stores, plan ahead the ones you're going to visit. If they have websites, you might take a few moments to get an idea for what they have in stock. Look at the styles, the prices, what they offer. If you find something on the website that you like, call the store to see if they actually have it before you drive out. You'll probably have read them the item number, but it beats driving all the way there and striking out.

2. When picking out clothes to try on, always grab items in multiple sizes. I read recently that there can be as much as an 8-inch difference in the waist of the same size of pants. The tag means nothing, so start with your usual size and consider grabbing both one size up and one size down. That way, you can keep trying on clothes without having to get dressed, hunt for the other size, and find your room taken/clothes put away when you get back. Sure, in smaller stores the sales girls will run and fetch for you, but start off prepared and everyone runs around less. Also, the sales girls will go AWOL on occasion.

3. When trying on clothes, start with the largest size and move down. I say this for a few reasons. First, larger items are easier to get off if they don't work. Second, it's a lot kinder to your ego to swim in your clothes, then size down until something fits you perfectly. Remember, size tags are just a number.

4. Look for clothes that aren't exactly like the ones in your closet. If you have a lot of red, try orange. Realize that if you like a garment, it might be because you already own something similar. Don't buy repeat garments unless you're planning on replacing/retiring the one you already have (I say "retire" because I have a white sweater that I wore on our first date, and while it's too short in the torso and sleeves, I can't bear to truly part with it!).

5. Keep the time of year in mind. Now is not the time to look for a swimsuit in a store. However, evening wear is everywhere, and if you're a tough fit or have something specific in mind, this is the time to look. If you're feeling thrifty or like to plan ahead, remember that a lot of the evening wear stock will go on sale in January and February.

6. When purchasing something to wear during the holiday season, don't pick something too Christmas-y. Look for something that can be comfortable worn for events from November through February. There's no use spending the money if you can only wear a garment one month out of the year. Look for details that make things special - beading, chiffon ruffles, satin trims.

7. Purchase clothes that fit you now. If you're planning on losing weight, fine, just have the garment taken in later.

8. Be kind to yourself. Use the bathroom before you leave. Drink water. Consider taking a snack or stopping for one. If you're tired, dehydrated, and starving at the end, it's no wonder you hate shopping!

9. If you find a basic item you like and fits you well, consider buying it in multiple colors - I'm talking chinos, tees, basic sweaters, that sort of thing.

10. If money isn't a concern, consider buying two pairs of pants at a time. Have one hemmed for flats and the other for heels. Technically, trouser and bootcut pants should never be more than an inch off the floor. The longer your pants, the longer your legs look.

11. If you're open-minded about what you're looking for, do check stores like TJ Maxx, Ross, or Marshall's. I could write a whole blog about the wondrous finds I've discovered behind those doors. If you're hitting several stores, start with one of these first, while your energy's fresh.

12. Take someone with you, if you can. As second opinion (one that doesn't earn a commission) is a happy thing.

Shopping online or from catalogs:

1. Online and catalog shopping is a good idea if you're a special size - tall, petite, or plus, or if you live in an area without a lot of shopping options.

2. I've come to the conclusion that if you're not sure about the size when ordering, order multiple sizes. A lot of websites have item reviews, and will tell you if a garment is running true to size or not. While I hate shelling out extra money just to try things on, I really hate ordering a garment and having it not fit, then paying to ship it back. I figure if you're going to pay for return shipping, you might as well increase your chances of something working for you. A lot of companies will offer free shipping if you order a certain amount - if you're ordering in multiples, you stand a better chance of getting free shipping more often!

3. Even if you've worn a size for forever at a certain store, be aware that things can change. Gap tops are running HUGE these days. I tried on a slew of dresses at J. Crew this last summer and found one size to work for me, ordered a dress in that size, and found it small. I was able to have it let out, but it was a pain.

4. Pay attention to the measurements listed, particularly for length. Everything looks longer on a mannequin.

5. Be realistic when measuring yourself. It's often best to ask someone to help, if you can. Some stores, such as Nordstrom, will tell you how the sizing for that brand runs.

6. Be very, very careful buying final sale items online. There are good deals to be had, but if it doesn't work, you're pretty much stuck with gifting it or selling it on ebay.

7. Watch for in-store sales online. Handy tip.

That's all I've got for now. Check back in later for ideas to make gift shopping easier!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Brothers Bloom: Belated Thoughts

I didn't write a lot about films this summer. I wrote about Up. We saw a lot of movies - Harry Potter, The Proposal, Cheri, The Time Traveler's Wife...a lot of movies, but for some reason, I didn't feel the need to write about them.

Except for The Brothers Bloom. I sat in the theater and heard myself preparing the review even as Danny and I watched.

It's not a great film. It won't be nominated for anything come February. But of all the films we saw during the summer, I think I enjoyed this one the most. For all of its faults, it's ambitious; while it doesn't fully succeed, it's a joy to watch it try.

The film stars Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody. I've liked Ruffalo since The Last Castle and, honestly, since 13 Going on 30 (I just love when he looks at Jennifer Garner and says, believably, "We're not friends anymore, Jenna," like he's revisiting his high school days all over again). Brody was superb in The Pianist, with his huge sad eyes. They work well for him here.

They are two brothers. One named Stephen, the other, Bloom. That they're called "The Brothers Bloom" is a bit of a mystery, but whatever. We meet them as children, drifting from foster home to foster home in a decidedly Tom and Huck sort of existence. There, Stephen discovers his knack for conning, with Bloom wishing that, maybe, it were real.

Their adult lives proceed in the same fashion. Stephen (as described in the best line of the movie) "writes his cons they way dead Russians write novels, with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism..." He scripts Bloom as the brooding anti-hero. The more elaborate the con, the happier Stephen is.

Stephen is dating Bang Bang, whom he describes as their fifth Beetle. Bang Bang doesn't speak much. Her non-speech is so effective that when she does talk, it's a bit of a disappointment. There's a Marx Brothers sensibility to a lot of the film - Bang Bang is a more elegant version of Harpo. She carries a blowtorch instead of a horn, and she's not afraid to use it.

The other female character is Penelope. Rachel Weisz plays her somewhere between eccentric and certifiable. A wealthy recluse, she is a collector of hobbies. Stephen writes her as Bloom's love interest. Whether or not Bloom is interested is besides the point.

Rian Johnson also directed Brick, a noir-esque whodunit set in a high school with characters who'd watched a lot of Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney movies. It was an homage to the genre.

Likewise, The Brothers Bloom is an homage to the caper film, as loving if not as successful as The Sting, which Johnson lists as an inspiration.

Brothers drips with literary references. Stephen and Bloom walk around a somewhat modern world dressed like characters in mid-nineteenth century novel, and not just because they're based on characters from James Joyce's Ulysses. Their approach to the con is all about style.

The weakest part of the film is probably Weisz's Penelope, who seems the sort of person who really should not be allowed to cross the street without adult supervision. There is also a sequence on the train which makes no logical sense.

Like I said, it's not a great movie, but it tries hard. Johnson is good at creating films with familiar parts made fresh. I'm looking to his next film - even if the journey doesn't reach the intended destination, at least it's a fun ride.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Grammar Matters

With the rise of facebook, twitter, and blogging I read a lot of...unedited prose. And I'm good with that, most of the time. There are several blogs I love to follow, several people I'm perpetually amused by.

I just want to change their grammar.

So to take a break from the monotony of "No, I'm not contagious but I still have a concerning-sounding cough"-type prose, I thought I'd take a minute to share my top 10 (or so) grammatical beefs.

1. Your vs. You're. Drives. Me. Crazy. I see it much more often than I should. Whenever you're writing either, take a moment to say, "can this sentence be said properly if I say 'you are'." Because if it can, you may need to make a change.

2. Yay/Yea/Yeah/Ya confusion. This one's a biggie, so we'll take a minute to define each one.

Yay: Interchangeable with "Hooray." A spoken/written cheer.
Yea: A sign of affirmation. "Yea" is the opposite of "nay."
Yeah: informal form of "yes." While not a cheer, is often more emphatic than yes (oh, yeah!)
Ya: even more informal form of "yes." I would discourage this one.

3. Their/There/They're. An oldy but goody. I see less of this one than the your/you're issue. Maybe that's a sign of progress.

4. O/Oh confusion. It happens. "O" on its lonesome can be short for "of," as in, "bowl o' goodness," when telling time (four o' clock), or when praising God (O Magnify the Lord). "Oh," on the other hand, (according to the Encarta Dictionary) is used to express or introduce a strong emotion or response, used to show thought, or attract attention.

5. Its/It's. Another oldy but goody. Again, see it less than #1. Or maybe it just bothers me less.

6. Farther/Further. Farther is distance. 'Cause it starts with "far." Further deals with non-physical things: "Push the concept further, see where it will take you."

7. Non-plussed. Pronounced "Non-pluhst." Means baffled. Most people think it means unfazed. They're wrong.

8. Texting language. You've seen in. Ur instead of your. R instead of are. There is no reason for this. Because a.) you should be able to spell all of these words correctly, having exited from grade school, and b.) the shorted forms arose from lazy texters, but now we have smarter texting functions on cell phones (have for a few years now), so go ahead. Splurge. Spell the whole word. I dare you.

9. Than/Then. Than is used in comparison (fall is wetter than winter). Then is not. Got it?

10. Gender-neutral pronoun issues. This one's a bit trickier to explain, but we've all seen it. "If your volunteer is late, sometimes you need to show them grace." Okay...there's only one volunteer. The trouble with English is that we don't have a proper singular gender-neutral pronoun. If you try to say "it," it makes your volunteer sound somehow inhuman. Writing he/she, him/her is too cluttered. Just pick a gender. You may appear sexist depending on which pronoun you choose, but at least you'll be accurate.

Okay. There are other problems out there, but these are the ones that bug me most when it comes to grammar.

Here's the thing. The internet's big, people. You write something, and most likely, more people will see it than you think. So go ahead. Make a good impression. Spell things correctly. Most browsers these days have automatic spell checkers. If you see the red squiggly line, consider it a sign of a problem, not a decoration. Write things correctly. You never know when it might be useful to look like you know what you're doing.

Coming at some point in the future: Words I hate, words I love. I've been working on that post for a LONG time. This may come as a surprise, but I have strong feelings about certain words...and words in general.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

When I don't have the piggy flu, I'm going to...

1. Make a green wool pencil skirt. Finally.

2. Wear my gray slacks and cashmere hoodie in public.

3. Go out in public.

4. Watch Bright Star, though the showings at the Bijou are fairly inconvenient.

5. See if I can talk Danny into a recipe I found in November's Real Simple, which involves Brie, mushrooms, and arugula. Or maybe not.

6. Go to the library.

7. Pay my library fines.

8. Try a new recipe, one that Danny will be excited about (don't know which, yet, but thinking positively).

9. Watch Men Who Stare at Goats, which is releasing Friday.

10. Clean my house. Oh, heavens. It's like a cave of sickness and disease.

11. Properly grocery shop. *Cringe*.

12. Bake something. Because I can.

13. Get a proper influenza shot, because I'm not doing this again.

14. Catch up on writing.

15. Consider giving Sara piggy flu.

16. Have mercy, partially because keeping her home for seven days would make for dull prose.

17. HOPEFULLY get to shop with my sister for homecoming jewelry.

18. Ooh, open that bottle of Pinot Gris that's been in the fridge.

19. Wake up in the morning and do something other than cough and hack.

20. Christmas shop. I've never started this late.

21. Get to spend time with my sweet husband while neither of us are sick!