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Six Christmas decorating styles to avoid

Dan Van OssOne of the unspoken rules of home ownership (such as “never shovel your snow into your neighbor’s open car window”) is that you must decorate your yard every holiday season. For most of us, this consists of tastefully hanging a string of icicle lights over the garage door while sacrificing a few extremities to the sub-zero weather. However, some of you may be tempted to take it to the next level this year, so I’m providing a helpful guide to six types of decoration styles you may want to avoid in order to keep your neighbors and save your marriage.


These decorators just throw up a bunch of random multi-colored LED lights they just got on sale at Target on the nearest pine tree, then stick their traditional rotating mechanical Laughing Santa in the yard and call it good. There ARE bowl games to watch, after all.

However, to mangle Sir Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, “‘Tis better to not have brought down the property values of your neighborhood than ever to have decorated at all.” Do not emulate them.

Meticulous Decoration Extroverts

These people spend all fall poring through Christmas design catalogs looking for just the right shade of blue twinkling stars to match the hand-made Austrian icicle lights they got last year. Each wreath and bow are meticulously placed to accent the overall theme of “See? I Should Have Been An Interior Decorator Instead Of A Bank Teller.” They are usually women paired with slump-shouldered husbands with depleted credit cards and a little too much attention to the liquor cabinet.

Historically Inaccurate Junk Lovers

Most of their decorations have been collected from yard sales in July which are then stuffed into the garage attic. They consist of singing beavers with candy canes, 18th-century carolers with colors so faded they look like anemic ghosts, animated Santas from the ’70s so broken down they look like they’re frantically beating their reindeer, placed next to puzzling Flintstones-themed manger scenes with half the bulbs missing and Bam-Bam as baby Jesus.

Vomitous Eye-Abusing All-Out Holiday Extravaganza

These are the rare neighbors who have made a career out of annoying everyone else on the block by going all out. Their main goal is to get on the local news and say, with a tear in their eye, how special it is to them that people enjoy all of their hard work because their daddy, who was an electrician and started all of this, couldn’t help this year because a 400-pound plaster Abominable Snow Monster fell off the truck onto his bad leg he hurt the year before when he fell off the roof inflating the Dancing Hula Santa.

Tradition or Die!

Forget these garish “LED” light monstrosities. Give us the old days when Christmas bulbs were the size of kumquats and your resulting electric bill made you eat bologna sandwiches all January. These folks will either be your kindly old grandparent neighbors who have been lovingly replacing the same 30 bulbs for 50 years, or the hipster couple who just moved in and like to blare their vintage vinyl “Andy Williams Christmas Album” while decorating their Earth-Mother Holiday Topiary with free-range tinsel and beeswax candles.

The Inflators

These citizens have decided to utilize the latest advances in inflatable decorations to turn their front yards into a discombobulated, puffed-up holiday horror for four weeks. Watch as Rudolph does vain battle against a snowman having a seizure. Marvel, as you never knew Yoda was one of the Wise Men. Expect to get little sleep as their yard will sound like two scared jumbo jets fighting with their tails tied together.

If you happen to fall into one of these categories, I apologize. Just be ready for my exciting life-size inflatable Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria on Columbus Day.

— Dan Van Oss

Dan Van Oss is the curator of the Dubious Knowledge Institute, and divides his creative time between writing, music recording and performance, painting and photography. He lives in the Iowa City, Iowa, area with his wife Nancy, three beautiful step-daughters and a Golden Retriever named Jack.

The haircut

My child has inherited, through genetic lottery, my hair.Leslie Kendall Dye

When she was born, the first thing my husband exclaimed was ‘”She has your hair!” She was wet and red and childbirth is, of course, quite startling, but somehow the texture of her hair managed to penetrate his dizziness — so astonishingly like that of the woman he loves that it offered proof in a way that my swollen belly and expulsion of a fetus could not — that she was, indeed, our daughter.

My hair is a problem. It is curly. Sort of. It is curly every other Tuesday or when it rains or if it is cut by a talented stylist or if I hang upside down while drying it and apply some sort of thickening wax. Otherwise, it is fairly limp, refusing to be straight but lacking the robustness of more determinedly curly tresses. I wrestle with hair that will never be a halo of Keri Russell fairy curls and will never fall in cascades like silky Angelina Jolie locks either.

Now that my child has this hair, I have forgiven it. If my child has it, it must be beautiful. She makes everything work.


Through the subtleties of physics and barometric pressure, my toddler’s hair has gone from silky coils to an unmanageable poof as the weather has turned from humid to dry. It requires much brushing and manipulating and the use of many bobby pins to tame it. Compulsive as I am, I happily brush her hair while she watches “Madeline” each morning and eats cinnamon raisin toast.

There’s such sensual pleasure in grooming our babies.

The oxytocin flows.

But we keep running out of bobby pins. Just as one strand is secured, another slips past the grip of a ponytail holder.

Last night, my husband, who is no hair expert, asked me what had happened. He confided that he was unable to manage pigtails anymore.

“Why does her hair keep slipping out?” he asked me, helpless and confused. “Where are her curls?”

I didn’t have time to explain that his beloved child’s hair suffers from multiple personality disorder. I went to get the scissors.

My daughter is nearly three. She loves watching the scene in Dirty Dancing where Frances leans her head into the water and it cascades, wet and clinging, down her back.

She has told me that she doesn’t want a hair trim because “Frances’s hair reaches the water.”

I am no match for this logic, so eloquent and accurate in its emotional urgency.

I grappled with boundaries last night. Who cares if her hair is a mess when we wander out to jump in puddles?

On the other hand, it needs a trim. Her hair has been looking sad and sloppy.

Knowing from experience what lopping off an inch can do for this hair of ours I felt I owed it to her to — what?

Go against her wishes?

Neck deep in bath bubbles and making potions with glassware, my daughter didn’t notice I was trimming her hair.

Then she looked up at me.

“Mommy, are you cutting my hair?”

“Yes,” I said.

My heart sank. My stomach lurched. I waited for screaming and tears.

She went back to singing “I am Sixteen, You are Seventeen” from The Sound of Music.

Wow. I didn’t dare exhale. Surely it was coming. The reaction was coming.

After the bath, I spread out a towel and we proceeded with our nightly ritual. We put on The Aristocats and I rubbed her feet. I finished her hair cut. I combed each baby lock and snipped with precision. We listened to Maurice Chevalier sing the title song — “which pets’ address is the finest in Paris? Which pets possess the longest pedigree?” The hand-drawn cats with the pencil marks left in to convey the look of early 20th-century Paris danced across the screen.

I watched her curls spring back to life.

I quickly disposed of the paper towel on which I’d placed each lost lock and then asked my cherub if she wanted to see. She assessed her Shirley Temple bob in the mirror above my vanity.

“I like it!” she screamed. She jumped on the bed, flattening our already worn quilt.

My heart soared. Could I possibly be the best mother in the world? Just for tonight?

No, I could not.

She vacillated. She mused. She studied her hair. She thought.

Her baby doll, she told me an hour later, hated her hair cut. I told her that the doll was envious because she had no hair of her own. I told her that her new hair was like Madeline’s. It was a bob. It was Parisian.

She looked at me.

“I don’t think so, Mommy. Maybe you shouldn’t have cut it.”

Guilt is like a rash: it itches the more you scratch it. I scratched all night.

This morning I put barrettes in her hair. Her waves bounced on each side of her delicate head. She put on her play clothes and as we were walking out the door, she shouted, “Mommy! Lift me up!”

I held her up to the mirror.

“This Friday is my birthday and I have a new hairdo!”

At nap time, she told her Madeline doll that her red yarn hair was getting too long.

“Don’t you want a bob?” She asked her. “You’ll look just like me.”

Oh, kid. You got my hair, but your daddy’s élan.

Or maybe it’s her stylist. I’ve got to get her name; she works wonders.

— Leslie Kendall Dye

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress and dancer in Manhattan. She was a nanny for years before having her own child. Her work has been featured on Mamalode, The Huffington Post, Nanny Magazine, Tipsy Lit, Mamapedia, Project Underblog, Off The Shelf and others. You can find her typing her weird little essays into when she is not trying to get her toddler to bed before 11 p.m.

Tips for taking great holiday photos

hm christmas columnReprinted with permission from Record Publishing Co. This piece first appeared in the Aurora Advocate on Dec. 17, 2014.

After years of dread-filled, awful, mismatched, unhappy holiday card-taking sessions, I thought perhaps a few simple tips would help others avoid my numerous mistakes.

Tip 1: Hire a professional photographer.

Each December, I think the tripod and a timer are the answer to my picture-taking prayers. Except for the fact that the tripod usually sinks into the wet grass, mud and/or snow.

And once that happens, everyone in the frame is tilted to the side like the photographer has had a few too many holiday-enhanced eggnogs. Not to mention that every time I run to the camera, set the timer and run back, the dog follows me.

By the time the shutter clicks, I am wrestling the dog back into position while everyone else’s mouths are wide open yelling at him and me, and no one is looking straight ahead, or smiling. Except the dog, who I swear is laughing at us.

Tip 2: Hire professional actors as stand-ins.

This step would not only save time, but also sanity.

For example, if we hired actors, fake Stephanie would not be grinding her teeth with an unnatural smile plastered across her face while muttering under her breath about Santa skipping the house and donating all the gifts to charity. (That threat doesn’t work so well these days.)

Heck, the actors don’t even need to come to Aurora for the picture. I’m perfectly fine pretending the “Fellensteins” took a trip to Los Angeles or New York City or even Paris.

Tip 3: Never include the dog, cats, turtle, goats, chickens or partridge in a pear tree.

I think I’ve explained that in Tip 1. I will only add that the year we featured the goats, they ate the Christmas wreath behind us. Luckily it was all caught on film.

Tip 4: Buy lots of clothes all year in a variety of hues.

I love the cards I get with the families in matching outfits. The kids look adorable, and the parents use complementary colors and jewelry to create a warm, fuzzy tableau.

The first snag is I have a total of two Christmas-card worthy outfits. Seriously. Just ask my co-workers. I wear the same thing every day. The second problem is that my kids refuse to wear matching outfits, or even stand next to each other.

Tip 5: Plan ahead.

This pretty much gets to the heart of the problem. I don’t actually start planning for the Christmas card picture until about 13 minutes before I expect everyone to be gathered around the pine tree outside in matching outfits.

“We are taking the Christmas card picture in 10 minutes,” I yell.

“Seriously?! No one else’s mom does this,” someone says from the living room.

“Who said that? Do you want Santa to start taking back some gifts?! I can still call him,” I yell. “I want everyone in green. Remember how cute Uncle Joe’s picture was last year?”

“Why doesn’t Dad have to do this?” someone else asks.

“What do you mean?! He’d better be outside in something green,” I say. “Someone grab a chicken.”

Clearly I have not learned from previous years’ mistakes.

Even the dog refuses to leave the back porch. As soon as he sees the tripod, some post-traumatic, picture-taking stress seizes him, and he’s rooted to the doormat.

So there you have it. Start planning now. Hire some actors, a photographer and get rid of the chickens. Or you could just mail out that fake picture that comes complimentary in new picture frames.

Of course, there’s always my approach — 13 minutes is plenty of time to pull something together.

Works for me.

— Stephanie Fellenstein

Stephanie Fellenstein is the editor of Hudson Monthly magazine in Hudson, Ohio, and regularly contributes columns to Record Publishing Co. weekly newspapers.

Date night disaster,
Gigi needs patience

Anne BardsleyMy daughter and her family live 10 hours away. When I visit, I encourage her and her husband to go out on date night. This visit, I volunteered to watch the girls overnight. It seemed so simple. Riley (1) has an early bedtime. Kaylee (3) is in bed by nine. I planned to put them in bed and enjoy a quiet night watching a movie. My daughter even suggested skipping tubby time because they had a very long one the night before.

My daughter asked Kaylee to babysit me and she’d pay her in donut holes in the morning. What a cute idea, right? No! She really thought she was babysitting me!

We were watching a Mickey Christmas show when Kaylee shouted, “Gigi, we missed tubby time!” Before I could shush her, Riley started stripping off her clothes and running towards the bathroom. It was 10 minutes before her scheduled bedtime. This was not good. Her diaper was half off as I plunked her on my knee only to discover an unpleasant brown surprise on my knee.

Needless to say, we did tubby time. Riley splashed an inch of water on the floor. Three towels later, the floor was dry. Kaylee poured water all over Riley’s head and emptied the lavender baby wash into the tub. Bubbles began to fill the tub. I could barely find them in the damn tub.

While I yanked Riley out and de-bubbled her in the sink, Kaylee disappeared back into the fog of bubbles. Within a few minutes, Riley was in her purple jammies and ready to snooze. I thought.

I ran back to find Kaylee completely covered in bubbles from head to toe. I turned on the shower which helped de-bubble her, but the bubbles at her knees started to expand. I grabbed her slippery, giggling body out of the tub. As she got her jammies on, I mentioned it was her sister’s bedtime. Riley was now emptying a full box of multi-color blocks in the living room. She danced and shrieked as she did this. This was not a tired child. “Bedtime, girls,” I sang, as they ignored me.

Kaylee scolded me, “Gigi, you need to practice some patience!” as she stuck her neck out and waved her arms at me. Within seconds, she noticed pine needles under the tree and immediately had the grand idea to start a collection. She plucked pine needles, one by one, carefully stretching under the tree. Before long, she had a few hundred needles. I had no idea what she was going to do with them, but Mommy would be home in the morning and figure something crafty to do with them.

At 8:30 I gave Riley her bottle and rocked her in her room, hoping she’d go fast asleep. Silly me! She drank, smiled, giggled and danced in my arms. I hummed a song and she hummed along. This was still not a tired child. I, on the other hand, could barely keep my eyes open.  I must have closed my eyes for a wink of a second. When I startled myself awake, she was running down the hall screaming with joy.

At 8:45 I decided I should try bedtime again.

At 9:00 I knew I was in trouble. The only tired person in the room was me.

At 9:15 Maggie, their puppy, was stealing dolls and chewing on their heads.

At 9:30 I put my pajamas on and had a glass of wine and sang Mickey songs.

At 9:45 I tried to rock Riley again. She pinched my nose and giggled more.

At 10:00 I was delirious. I had flashbacks of my kids never sleeping at that age.

At 10:30 I decided to take both of them into my daughter’s room and we’d have a sleepover, the three of us.

Riley was in the middle with her bottle, Kaylee and I were bookends. At first I thought I’d solved it. We are all going to sleep finally!! I was wrong. Every time they’d glance at each other, hysterics broke out. I tried to be stern, but I kept laughing. The sound of their cackling was contagious.

Kaylee scolded me again. “Gigi this is not working!” She threw her covers off.

At 10:45 nothing was funny to me anymore!

At 11:00 Kaylee suggested I practice that patience crap again and I snapped. “It is almost tomorrow. You two have to go to sleep!”

“Calm down, Gigi! It will be alright.” She tried to calm me.

“No! No! No! It’s not alright! It’s very late and we need to sleep. Gigi is getting old and grumpy now.”

She started preaching again, “Gigi, you just need to calm down. This is not working!” For the love! She was like a mini-minister!

I was ready to hang myself like elf on a shelf from the ceiling fan!

Finally, all is quiet. I take a deep breath and look at their sleeping faces and whisper, “Thank God!”

The next morning everyone slept late. I made waffles and fruit for breakfast. We were propped on the sofa chilling when we heard a strange noise. “Errr….errrrr…errrk CRASH.”  I watched it in slow motion, speechless. The entire flipping Christmas tree just toppled over, including the base with a big circle of wood attached. Everything. Ornaments, lights, the whole damn thing went belly up.

Kaylee sprung into action scooping up all the fallen pine needles. She looked like a gold miner. I’ve never seen such determination.

For some reason this hit my funny bone. I could not stop laughing. It was like watching a ridiculous movie and I was the star.

When my daughter and son-in-law returned home, Kaylee collected her babysitting fee. I was prepared to tell them all went well (except for the tree laying in the middle of the room), but Kaylee spilled the beans. “Gigi needs to practice patience and calm down.” I snarled at her.

“What time did they go to bed?” she asked. Oh hell! There it was… the dreaded question!

“Oh, just a little later than usual,” I lied.

Kaylee piped in, “It was almost tomorrow. I had to tell Gigi to calm down. She has no patience.” Seriously, she ratted me out right in front of me!

My daughter looked at me and said, “Well, we had a great time. Maybe if you get more of that patience stuff and learn to calm down, Gigi, we can do this again.”

“I’d love to,” I told her and I really meant it.

— Anne Bradley

Anne Bardsley, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is the author of How I Earned My Wrinkles, a collection of humorous and sentimental stories about marriage, motherhood and menopause. She lives in a menopausal world with a husband who gives her wrinkles. When people ask her age, she sometimes tells them her bra size. “36-C,” she says, “was a wonderful age.”

Because I said so

Tracy BucknerI was standing in line at Dunkin Donuts behind a mother and her pre-school son, Thomas. They were discussing the family dinner plans. Thomas, like most kids today, was under the impression that his voted counted. Oh, I thought to myself, this should be interesting.

Mother: We will discuss what we are having for dinner when we get home and can include your sister in our decision.
Thomas: Jessica got to pick dinner last night; it’s my turn to pick dinner.
Mother: Yes, that’s true, but we will discuss it as a family so everyone is happy.

And there is the first mistake…the discussion and subsequent negotiation over dinner plans made between a 40-something-year-old and her 5-year-old son.

When I was growing up, my mother gave me two choices when it came to dinner: TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT. My happiness didn’t come into play. If I had friends over, she never asked if they wanted curly macaroni or flat, crusts on or off, or this….which I swear one of my friends asked….do you want the napkin folded in a square or a triangle? If my mother had ever asked me how I wanted my napkin folded, I would have run out of the room screaming, thinking an alien had taken over her body.

One thing has become abundantly clear to me. From the time children are in pre-school, they are seasoned negotiators. We foster it. We allow it. I never negotiated with my parents. Their way or the highway? You betcha.

I didn’t learn how to negotiate until I was married.

Do you ever remember asking your parents “why” when they told you to do something? WHY? My mother would say. Now, let’s repeat all together people of my generation…WHY? BECAUSE I SAID SO! No negotiating, no family consensus,  no family hug. If my face showed that I wasn’t happy about the decision, I would be told again, folks. Let’s repeat together, “STOP CRYING OR I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT.”

I remember actually asking my kids what time was fair for a curfew. Are you kidding me? My mother, who always sits on my right shoulder, was frantically whispering, “Who is the parent here?” While growing up, my curfew was never up for negotiation. Was yours? There was one choice only: be home by the designated time or, or else. No negotiation or consensus necessary. Was I happy? No. Did my parents care if I was happy? No. Was I home by the designated time? No. But that’s a different article.

When did we get to the point we are today where everyone needs to be happy or you feel like you have failed as a parent? Kids today don’t know what it’s like to be unhappy. They barely ever hear the word NO and they feel they deserve the last word, or a word, in the ever-present family negotiations.

Nothing was discussed with me or my siblings and guess what? We had awesome childhoods! We had plenty of our own decisions — kid decisions. Like, would I ride my bike to school or walk? Would my brother play baseball or soccer? Would my sister play with Sandy or Doreen after school? We weren’t asked our opinion on dinner, on where we went on vacation, or what color should our next car be. We heard the word no and lived with it. We expected it. And if you asked me to name one adjective to describe my childhood, it would be the word HAPPY with a capital H.

We were better off and better prepared for life’s disappointments.

So, if I could have interrupted that mom, I would have told her that her child isn’t quite a lawyer ye, that she can actually say no.

And that when she got home, she should use another line from my awesome, happy and filled-with-the-word NO childhood: “SOMEDAY, WHEN YOU ARE MY AGE, YOU WILL UNDERSTAND.



— Tracy Buckner

Tracy Buckner contributes periodically to the Observer Tribune Newspaper of Chester, N.J., and blogs for the New Jersey Hills Newspaper, serving Madison, Chatham and Chester, N.J. She enjoys writing about the slow decline and vows to go down kicking and screaming. You can see read other pieces and sign up to follow her on her blog.

La! la! la! I can’t hear you!

Darla RichterToday at breakfast my 11-year-old son informed me he had good news and bad news. Not only was he finally allowed to bring his recorder home from music class but he was going to take his first puberty class at school.

I’m still trying to figure out which was the good news.

Later that afternoon after he slid into the backseat of the minivan and played a few notes of “Hot Cross Buns,” I immediately began plotting how and when his recorder would meet a tragic fate. As soon as we came to the first stop sign it was clear I wouldn’t have to wait very long for the “when” part.

“Hey Mom!” he yelled, in between rapid huffing and puffing and what sounded like a mockingbird having an asthma attack. “Guess how puberty went today!”

There was that word again. Instantly, my mind seized up. **DANGER! DANGER! RED ALERT!** Abandon all innocence! Kiss it goodbye! It’s all over now!

I tried a distraction tactic. “Hey, how ’bout you play some more music? You take requests? Know ‘Smoke on the Water’?”

“I SAID guess how puberty went, Mom!”

“Guess how you and Bert went?”

“No! Puberty!”

“Phew, a birdie? Yes.”


“What? I can’t hear you.”


Worst chant ever in the history of the world.

“Oh yeah? So how did that…uh…go?” I asked and held my breath.

“Terrifying,” he sighed from the backseat. “Absolutely terrifying.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

“Okay, ” I said. “That’s okay. It’s good we’re talking about this. This is what I’m here for. We need to communicate because it’s healthy. Yeah. Very healthy. Sooooo very healthy….” Now it was my turn to sigh.

“So today we found out about uteruses! All girls have one,” he said.


“And the uterus gets really big when the baby grows.”

“Yes, it does. Big uterus. Yep, indeed. Big big uterus.”


“So…” I peered into the rearview mirror. “Any other questions that you have for me? Because I would be…” I slowly dragged my hand down my face and took a deep breath. “Because I would be happy to answer any y’know…” I cringed as a few more gray hairs sprouted on my head “…any questions you may have. About where babies come from. They told you right?”


“The teacher told you how the baby gets inside the uterus?”

“I don’t think so. I must have blocked that part out. Maybe she’ll tell us tomorrow.”

“Hmm…well, tell you what. You can tell your father all about what you find out in puberty class tomorrow and he’ll answer any questions you might have, and I’ll listen to you play “Hot Cross Buns” as much as you like the rest of the day. Deal?”

“Okay,” he said and the car was once again filled with the Devil’s elevator music.

Sometimes being a mom requires making the tough choices.

Actually, this was an easy one.

I think.

Ask me again tomorrow after my first puberty class is over.

— Darla Richter

Darla Richter is a writer, blogger and mother of two. She lives in the deep woods of Maine, loves to laugh uproariously and makes a mean grilled cheese sandwich. She’s middle-aged, and her eyesight is failing at an alarming rate. Her ridiculously popular blog She’s a Maineiac is a WordPress Featured Family Blog and was Freshly Pressed five times. She also won third place in a baton competition in the fourth grade. Please visit her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

Gadget graveyard

Liane CarterThere’s a graveyard in my basement.

The lower level of my house is the final resting place for dead and discarded kitchen appliances: those innovative, time-saving, cunning devices you buy in a flurry of anticipation and eagerness, convinced they’ll transform you into a domestic goddess.

My basement shelves are stacked with gimmicky gadgets that no longer work, never worked, or never even made it out of their boxes. In my defense, many of these items were gifts. But if you want to chart three decades of culinary trends, well hey, come on down!

I present you the forensic evidence: the Zojirushi bread machine. The fondue set. The panini press. The pasta maker. The Crock-Pot, s’more set, smoothie shaker, Salton hot tray, Big City Slider Station, yogurt kit, electric carving knife, George Foreman grill, ice cream maker, food vacuum sealer, wine aerator,  Bialetti espresso pot, coffee bean burr grinder, Excalibur food dehydrator (to make what? beef jerky?) and three — count ‘em, three — cappuccino machines.

Best of all?

The blow torch for caramelizing crème brûlée.

“Who’s going to use that?” my husband demanded.

“I will,” I lied.

But wait! There’s more! as Ron Popeil used to say. You remember Ron, king of the infomercial. He gave us the Veg-o-matic, the Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler, the Showtime Rotisserie and the immortal  phrase, “Set it and forget it!” You know his gadgets. The ones that Slice! And Dice! And have a million and one uses! The cuter the name, the less functional.

Yet even my sensible husband has fallen prey to a manic sales pitch. “I bought Ginsu knifes,” he confesses.

I console him. “No worries. I ordered a Salad Chopper.”

Bought with such zeal and high hopes, only to be consigned months later to the abyss of our windowless basement. Why did I succumb? What inner kitchenista was I channeling? Betty White in her role as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens? Top Chef? Did I see myself as a braless earth mother in Birkenstocks, baking sheets of cookies to serve with milk from the cow in the backyard?  Or as Nigella Lawson, stirring up sensual, simmering reduction sauces?

Kitchen gadgets have sex appeal. They’re all shiny and new. You think they’ll change your life, and of course they rarely do (though I still swear by my Cuisinart Smart Stick Immersion Hand Blender.) They’re just countertop candy. More affordable that a midlife Ferrari, but in the end? Kitchen porn that teases but doesn’t deliver.

Because, really: what’s the sense in having a gadget that chops everything in half a minute, when you then have to spend the next 20 disassembling, hand washing and reassembling it?

Last night we finally hauled out the never-used Panini Press still in its original packaging  and checked the directions.  “Practical hints: it is recommended to adapt cooking according to your own taste.” Duh. It also advised, “Apply a thin coat of oil to the heating plates.” To a nonstick grill? But oil it I did. That sucker really heated up. It was smoking. Made pretty nifty grill marks too. It took five minutes to eat our fancy sandwiches, and four hours before the thing cooled down enough to clean.

“It would be a heck of a lot easier to clean if they’d designed it to remove the grill plates,” my husband grumbled. “How are you supposed to get rid of the soap when it says you can’t submerge the unit? I’ve been over this thing with a wet rag three times!”

“How do restaurants clean their grills?”

“They don’t.”

“Maybe it’s like a wok?”

“It doesn’t get that hot.”

“Au contraire.” I offered my blistered finger as evidence.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to toast the sandwiches next time?” he asked.

Back to the basement it goes. Rest in Peace, Panini Press. We hardly knew ye.

— Liane Kupferberg Carter

Journalist Liane Kupferberg Carter’s work has been published in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Parents, Babble, Huffington Post, Literary Mama, Humor Times, Grown & Flown and Better After 50.

Christmas letter 2014

Jerry-Zezima1-219x300Since I am in the holiday spirit (and, having just consumed a mug of hot toddy, a glass of eggnog and a nip of cheer, the holiday spirits are in me), I have once again decided to follow in that great tradition of boring everyone silly by writing a Christmas letter.

That is why I am pleased as punch (which I also drank) to present the following chronicle of the Zezima family, which includes Jerry, the patriarch; Sue, the matriarch; Katie and Lauren, the childriarchs; Dave and Guillaume, the sons-in-lawiarch; and Chloe, the granddaughteriarch.

Dear friends:

It sure has been an exciting 2014 for the Zezimas!

The highlights of the year were two big birthdays: Jerry turned 60 and Chloe, who already is smarter and more mature than her Poppie, turned 1.

Jerry thinks this is the best time of life because, at 60, you can still do everything you have always done, but if there is something you don’t want to do, you can pull the age card. That’s why he finally hired a landscaper. Now he has time to do stuff that keeps him young, like playing with Chloe.

Since his mind (or what’s left of it) is perpetually immature, Jerry won Punderdome 3000, a pun contest in which he beat out 16 other — and much younger — contestants. The champ received a fondue maker, which he gave to Sue because, as he explained, “It was the least I could fondue.”

And even though his body is perpetually pathetic, Jerry tried to recapture his youth by playing baseball, which he hadn’t done in half a century, and golf, which he had never done. After being put on steroids for a throat infection, Jerry went to a batting cage to see if he could become a home run king like other steroid users. Unfortunately, mighty Jerry struck out. Then he went to a golf course to take a lesson on the driving range. His efforts were, not surprisingly, below par, meaning he will never win the Masters. “If you want a green jacket,” the club pro told him, “you may have to buy it yourself.”

Jerry had a brush with the law when he received an $80 ticket after being caught by a red-light camera making an illegal right turn. He fought the charge in traffic court but lost because, the judge said, he didn’t come to “a full and complete stop.” Those are the brakes.

Jerry managed to avoid further trouble when he drove Lauren and Chloe to Washington, D.C., to spend the weekend with Katie and Dave. Sue flew down the next day. Katie and Dave, who earlier this year moved to the nation’s capital, also work there, Katie as a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, Dave as an editor for the American Public Media radio show “Marketplace.”

Washington was the site of the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Jerry, incredibly, was elected president. He didn’t meet the U.S. president or any members of Congress, who were busy with the important work of fighting with each other, proving that they, too, are less mature than Chloe. But Jerry did get a ride around town from a cabbie who was on his first day on the job. The cabbie got lost, but at least he didn’t get a ticket.

After returning home, Jerry got a new car because his old car was 10 years old and had 206,000 miles on it. The car also needed new rear brakes (he should have used that as an excuse in traffic court) and didn’t have air-conditioning for the last three years. Jerry is so excited about the air-conditioning in his new car that he turns it on every day, even when the temperature dips below freezing, just to make up for lost time.

On the health front, Jerry had a kidney stone. Over the years, he has had to number them, like Super Bowls. The latest one was Kidney Stone IV. This, too, did pass.

The greatest medical challenge was faced by Guillaume, who at 32 was diagnosed with lymphoma. All through his treatment, he has shown dignity, grace, determination, courage and good humor. So has Lauren, who has undertaken the often uncredited but important role of caregiver with boundless love and energy. It’s uncommon for a young person to have this disease, but awareness, research and financial support can help find a cure. And for Guillaume, the outlook is great: The latest scan was clean. No signs of cancer. It’s a true blessing at a blessed time of year.

That’s the news from here. Merry Christmas with love, laughter and gratitude from the Zezimas.

— Jerry Zezima

Jerry Zezima, who served on the faculty at the 2010 EBWW, writes a humor column for the Stamford Advocate that is nationally syndicated through the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and regularly appears in the Huffington Post. He’s written two books, Leave it to Boomer and The Empty Nest Chronicles. He has won five humor-writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month twice. He is currently president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Reflections of Erma