Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Christmas Eve in all the years of my marriage until the last few were always stressful for me. As an Episcopalian, I always look forward to the wonderful Midnight Mass at my parish church. The music was glorious, both from our wonderful tracker organ to our choir of over 40 well-trained voices. The church was decorated beautifully, and everyone was in a good mood, as we began with 1/2 an hour of carols. The church was packed, and it was standing room only.

However, Barbara is as Norwegian as one can be, considering she was born in Southern California. Celebrating Christmas Eve with feasting and distribution of gifts is an important part of her culture. For weeks before the event, she would be building up a supply of Norwegian food, including for many years some Lutefisk - cod preserved in lye. This requires soaking for several days, to eliminate the flavor of the lye. Barbara would complain that one could not obtain decent Lutefisk, even at Nordic House, where she did most of her shopping. There were many other Nordic items on her shopping list: Pickled herring, fishballs, lox on flatbread, gjetost (sweet, dark goat cheese), Jarlsberg cheese, and pressed lamb. She would also buy a huge box of Best Norwegian chocolates.

We would start the evening with egg nog, and move onto red wine. Barbara would always make delicious Norwegian meatballs, and (in addition to a salad with all the trimmings)and a lime jello, with cream cheese and pineapple. A favorite of son, Brian.We would then exchange gifts. There were usually 15-20 people present.

At some point, Santa (one of our sons) would appear, and distribute gifts to the kids. To avoid the need to purchase and wrap gifts for all the adults, we would draw names, so that each person could make a single gift, subject to a maximum prize, $50 until inflation encouraged us to increase it to $75. (We still practice this approach to gift-giving, there is no minimum value of the gift.Then would come dessert - pecan pie, pumpkin pie, julekake (a Norwegian lighter version of heavy fruit cake), all served with whipped cream.We always sang carols, usually unaccompanied, and everyone was having a fine time - and then I had to leave to be in time for less intimate carols and Holy Eucharist, just when I was wanting to stay with my loved ones. Something had to give, and a few years ago I learned to wait until the 11AM Christmas Day service, allowing me to stay at our house until all the guests had left, before going to bed.

Some years ago, Brian and Marlene began offering their home for Christmas Eve. They also introduced us to an additional "gift-exchange". One chooses some unwanted item, and wraps it up. All the wrapped gifts are then set out, and we all draw a number from a hat. No. 1 chooses first, and unwraps the gift. So it's identity is clear to all. No. 2 then has a choice of choosing another gift - or taking away the first gift from No. 1. As each number is called in turn, the same process is followed. As more "white elephants" are revealed, the taking of someone else's choice becomes more popular. No gift can change hands more than twice. This year, I first selected an emergency flashlight and a red triangle, to be used behind a disabled vehicle to warn upcoming traffic. But that choice was not to last: another player took it from me, requiring me to find a replacement. I was lucky: from the shape of the package, I correctly guessed that it contained a pound of See's candy, which I managed to hold onto until the end of the game.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Indoor games

At this time of year, my memory reminds me of the joy I had as a child with indoor games. I learned the classics, checkers/drafts and chess. I also learned how to play poker in my early teens, although often without stakes, or with minimal ones. (Except in the rare instances when the odds were in my favor, gambling never held any charm for this tightwad.)

I also used to enjoy contract bridge, it's older cousin (auction bridge), and it's primitive ancestor, whist. "Snap" and "Beggar-my-neighbor" were other enjoyable past times in the early years.

I was particularly entranced by board games Dover Patrol, in which two players position their fleets, made up of small cards with the type of vessel visible only on one side, were a lot of fun, as were the military version (L' Attaque) and an aviation one, the name of which I have forgotten, were also favorites. Then there was a combined version known as Try Tactics.

I attended a wonderful British-style Prep school (from age 8 or thereabouts until 13). All boys enjoyed a "hobby hour" every weekday evening. One could go to the library and read the paper, or read a book, but also it was permissible to play a board game. Well over 70 years ago, the best game of all appeared on the scene: Monopoly. There was a British version, in which the cheapest properties were in the East end of London, and the most expensive were Park Lane and Mayfair. One problem with that wonderful game (essentially "stolen" from it's forgotten inventor by Parker Bros.) was that it was almost impossible to finish a game in one session.

There were two moderately successful spin offs from Monopoly.Totopoly was a horse racing game, and Bulls and Bears was, as it's name implies, based on stock exchange transactions.

When I wasn't playing games of that sort, I always had my trains to play with. These were Hornby "Gauge 0" trains, originally clockwork, but later electrified. I was allowed to turn the loft over our three-car garage into a semi-permanent railroad layout.

At children's parties, and with the gathered family over Christmas, our favorite game was a form of "Charades". Our version was known as "Dumb Crambo". The first team would send a representative to the "secret" gathering of the rival team, in a far corner of the room. The representative would be given a word, and she or he would then try to act out the word in dumb show. The remaining members of the first team would try to guess the answer and call it out. Sometimes this was quite easy: If one observed the actor miming the action of sawing, and then of riding and perhaps whipping an animal, one knew it was "Sawhorse". Imagine trying to act out a phrase like "moral hazard"! It seems to me that young people of today are more likely to watch TV than engage actively in indoor games at their parties.

However, we now have a granddaughter, who entertains children at their birthday parties.
In my time, we would hire a professional conjurer. Justine performs as a "fairy", but she also performs some "magic" tricks.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What ever happened to noon?

I usually attend church at 10am on Sunday Mornings. I also like to give thanks in church on Thanksgiving Day. When I entered church on the 4th Thursday in November, 2009, I was disappointed, but not really surprised, to see that the time of the special service that day was printed on the bulletin as "12 PM". AGH!

No, I don't really expect younger folk to know any Latin, but I would expect them to understand that "AM" means "before noon" and that "PM" means "after noon". I have even seen 12 midnight shown as both "AM" and "PM". Yecch!

These solecisms would not be necessary if we adopted the 24 hour clock, which many of us learned in the Armed Forces. There is no ambiguity when one reads that dinner is served at 18:30. However, I despair of the English-speaking world adapting to the 24 hour clock within the foreseeable future. My sweetheart, who changed her name (admittedly with some reluctance) some forty years ago still occasionally asks me to interpret time, using the 24 hour clock.

These thoughts lead me to wonder why the USA is slow to measure distances in kilometers, etc. The metric system was, after all, long adopted for our currency, whereas until some time after I left the UK in 1957, we still measured our money in Pounds, Shillings, and Pence.

(The quaint term "Guinea", which used to be one pound and one shilling, is probably still in use in high-priced British establishment; however, if that is the case I really don't know whether that is pound 1.05, or something else.)

When I was growing up, the alternative to Fahrenheit was known as "Centigrade". That is, of course, now widely known as "Celsius". This system is widely known throughout the world, but we still stick to Fahrenheit in this country.

European regulations made it mandatory to scrap the names for traditional British weights and measures. I was glad to read quite recently that it is still permitted to order a pint of beer in a pub, but gone are the pounds and ounces of my childhood. At sea, a ship's speed is still measured in knots, where one knot represents one nautical mile per hour. This measurement is likely to remain, for navigational reasons with which I will not try to explain here.

On a slightly different topic, I well remember that when I took my car from England by ferry to the continent, I needed to change light bulbs for the headlamps, because in Britain we had to "keep left", and when we dipped out headlamps, the light shone on the left hand verge - which would have directed it towards oncoming traffic when driving on the right.

I believe that, at the end of WWII, when Petrol (gasoline) was strictly rationed, we missed great opportunity to change over to driving on the right side of the road. This would have been before we spent billions on the motorway system. In contrast, the Swedes made the switch, after due notice, in the middle of the night, with little or no major problems.

Monday, December 7, 2009


The quotation marks indicate that I am not really thinking about the ubiquitous ingredient for salads, but I think that I should start there. I guess that my favorite lettuce is a crisp Romaine, especially when it is part of a Cesar salad. According to Wikipedia, this is the same as what is known as "Cos" lettuce in the UK. The word "Cos" is usually suggested to come from the Greek island of Cos. This lettuce is reputed to have reached western Europe via Rome, which is why we call it "Romaine". In this country, French Culinary terms are viewed with favor, although no one seems to understand that an "entrée" is supposed to be an item at the start of a meal, not the main dish.

Another lettuce that I enjoy is known as "Butter lettuce". It certainly doesn't taste like butter to me, but it apparently gets it's name because it is allegedly so tender that it "melts in the mouth". An alternative name for this variety is "Bibb" lettuce, this lettuce is named after a 19th century grower, named "John Bibb". He developed this lettuce from "Boston" lettuce, which is similar but has wider leaves.

Then there are red leaf and green leaf lettuces. I think there was a distinctive name for this type of lettuce in the UK, but I have forgotten it.

I seldom never drive across the country these days, and I am rarely driven long distances these days. I do recall that when stopping for a meal in what are sometimes disparagingly called the "fly over states", one would always find salad made with Iceberg lettuce. Apparently it gets it's name because of the cool and crisp leaves, but to me it would be better known as "Cabbage lettuce". It is certainly compact and usually cheap. In our wasteful society, it is often used as a carrier for some other food, and it is usually left on the plate.

Enough about real lettuce. I seldom come across a sense I recall from B movies: "lettuce" was slang for money. Such as "greenbacks" a more familiar term for US currency.

By now, I have simmered down a bit from my frustration with what I once heard a friend describe as "lettuce". This usage refers to the custom of inserting loose leaf paper into programs. These are usually unwanted solicitations. Such an item was included in the program of a Berkeley Symphony concert we attended last week. It is always tempting to litter the auditorium floor with such unwanted inserts. However, I am not ready to indulge in such near-vandalism, despite being sorely tempted.

The church I attend offers a "bulletin" each week, essentially an order of service, with appropriate announcements and other information. Unfortunately, these totally acceptable four page or eight page documents are often disfigured with "lettuce". Yesterday, there was a single sheet of paper with canticles we were to sing; a single sheet of paper advertising a performance of an early English play; a form to volunteer to bring poinsettias and wreaths for seasonal decoration of the church; and a single page listing of those who would be functioning liturgically that day, with the regular list of clergy and vestry on the reverse side. I am happy to say that a friend and I managed to tote all this "stuff" out of the church to a suitable recycling bin.

And then there are the Sunday newspapers... Sometimes, as last weekend, a first distribution arrives on Saturday evening. Especially near Christmas, there are about two dozen separate advertisements. One is tempted to chuck them all straight into recycling, but the publisher cannily includes a copy of a magazine, largely featuring the rich and famous, plus the comic section with this bundle of rubbish. I am sure that there must be some poor souls who have the time and energy to sort through the pile of ads, clipping coupons which they may or may not attempt to redeem.

If that were not enough, when the news sections of the paper arrive on Sunday mornings, there is always a four page insert of even more advertising!

Perhaps this would be considered snobbish, but I would cheerfully pay a small sum each week to avoid receiving this "lettuce".