The Thought Does Count

In A Designer’s Guide to Gift Giving, Steve Selzer exhorts readers to try and give their best gift ever. And I’m not taking about love, world peace, charity, good deeds, and that kind of touchy-feely crap. I’m talking about stuff that comes gift-wrapped. Read his article to spare me from setting forth the five requirements here.
I’ve already told you enough about horrible gifts.
Today I’m going to share the gifts that I’ve received as an adult that meet Selzer’s standards. Not all were given at Christmas; some were birthday and hostess gifts. And they all were gifts that I didn’t know that I wanted until I opened them up.

Perfex pepper mill
The completest-set ever of the top-of-the-line at the time Cuisinart professional cookware
French press
Top-of-the-line salad spinner
Pink elbow-length leather reinforced gardening gloves
Palette of eye shadow where the worst color was turquoise.
Etch-a-Sketch
Injinji socks
Lady Gaga perfume. The donor admitted that she was intrigued by the bottle design, the gift box, and the idea of black perfume. Now that’s something I’d never buy myself, but I have to own up to using the entire bottle and enjoying it. And  praying that no one would ask the name of the fragrance, even if it did smell good.
Tweezerman gold glitter set in a gold leather case

Vegetable seeds

Gucci loafers

A plane ticket to Managua. I didn’t even know that I wanted to go to Nicaragua, and it turned out to be a great adventure
A vintage black mammy doll
A black Muñecas Minas doll from Mineral de Pozos

Coin purses, Fendi and Dooney and Bourke
A Mizraim Cárdenas lithograph
A Juan Torres painting
It’s hard to buy books for others, but here are three that came as gifts and remain remembered:
Very Special People

Cocaine Papers by Sigmund Freud

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

(I cringe when I pick up books at a book sale which have been engraved “Happy Father’s Day from your loving son.” And which appear to be otherwise perfectly good books. And it’s even sadder when you know the recipient and feel that the recipient should’ve held on to them.)

This week I’m getting my load of Christmas load of shit, literally, from the cock-raising neighbor. And I’m thankful. He knows exactly what I want.

Yes, it is the thought that counts. Giving money or a gift certificate is the easy way out, because it doesn’t require thought. And while money is always appreciated and always fits, it’s seldom remembered.

Kissing Baby Jesus

I will never be cool. I’ve never kissed a woman, other than in the most forced greeting, and even then I make great efforts to avoid doing so. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but it’s just not my style. But an effort to be polite, I bowed and kissed Baby Jesus. It was agonizing.

Not all Christmases are festive and joyous or even as picturesque as something Noman Rockwell could’ve dreamed up. Some are spent in lonely bars. Some are spent with odd lots of relatives and a police presence. Others are spent looking for Chinese restaurants. And some are simply awful.

There was Christmas Day in Iowa City, dining at Denny’s. The bar exam review course would start the next day, and for the next ten days I would be the sole occupant of the FIJI house with Mother Guy’s blessing. For at least a couple of decades, she was housemother to the fraternity of every important male at the University of Iowa.

More than a few Christmas spent aloft on a plane, fleeing flyover country.

Christmas Eve at the Villa Montana, more than any place else during my adult life.

Christmas Day volunteering as a Candy Striper.

A Christmas Day drive to the countryside beyond San Miguel del Monte and ending up at Paseo Altozano.

Christmas in Buenos Aires, heralded by fireworks and a complete and total absence of traffic, not a taxi cab in sight.

Christmas Eve in Florence, successfully scoring a simple black doll over my mother’s entreaties to opt for something fancier.

The awful ones have their place, if for no reason other than to be memorialized in blogs like this. And here’s mine, which is far more dreadful than the Czar of Tzurumutaro could ever contemplate.

A few days before Christmas, more than a decade back, I found myself an unwilling guest at a neighbor’s Christmas Eve dinner. I’d armed myself ahead of time with a tale of other plans, but the sly old lady, whose own kids had the foresight to leave town, was a step ahead of me, telling me that the rest of my family, which amounted only to a sister and her husband, had already accepted. I did not know at the time that she’d already pulled that trick on them. We were trapped.

Christmas Eve started off with mass at 9 p.m., seemingly quicker and more cheerful than usual, with the padre starting off with a hearty “Buenas Noches” and ending with aguinaldos of cookies and candies for everyone.

We came armed with a Costco pecan pie and Ensalada Navideña, and it was a good thing we did. The culinary offerings awaiting us amounted to macaroni with ham and pineapple and a single pollo rostizado. And this was not a poor family.

The holiday feast over, we were invited to admire the nativity scene which extended along the entire side of the room and around the corner, replete with giraffes and elephants and zebras. Maybe even dinosaurs and a statue of Benito Juarez. As the clock struck midnight, and with great ceremony, the hostess presented the infant Jesus surrounded by candy, not for a bris, given that eight days had yet to pass after his birth, but for adoration and besos. He travels around the table from one guest to another, which didn’t take long, given that there was a total of six humans at the table. I am last, my sib and sib-in-law rolling their eyes and laughing under their breath, but I have not a clue of what awaits. And then he’s handed over to me. Never mind that I had not the first clue what to do with him. “You’re the madrina, and you’re supposed to place him in the nacimiento,” I was instructed. Oh.

Not only am I supposed to kiss Baby Jesus, I’ve been tapped to lovingly place him in the cradle.

Now, I know it’s a tradition, but it struck me then, and it still does today, as just downright creepy. Not the idea of blessing their Christ child, but asking me to do the honors. What were these people thinking?

Meanwhile, gunfire pierced the night air, and we casually tried to identify the kind of weapon used. Mostly .22s, we figured. I would’ve gladly placed myself directly in the line of fire if it would’ve meant avoiding that episode of kissing baby Jesus. Walking home, some of the other neighbors were sitting outside warming themselves in the fogatas in the street, inviting us to join them for a tequilito. I could’ve used several before what will always be remembered as the saddest, most horrific Christmas Eve in my life.

Lesson learned: even if you have zero plans, make up some. And engrave them in stone.

Boku for Christmas

Babs has her Christmas list, and Felipe has his Christmas wish list. Ben Stein has his perfect Christmas gift. Calypso has his unique gift idea. I got mine this morning.

Gallinaza-como-fertilizante

Barrels of shit.  Gallinaza. Mierda. Chicken crap.

A neighbor who raises fighting cocks and borrows (and returns) my ladders always delivers, just in time for Christmas, barrels of his poultry’s best. And we make it last the entire year, carefully doling it among the gardens.  It’s the best fertilizer.

In years gone by, I’ve received some great and memorable gifts. Some that were both, some that were memorable for not being great, and I’m sure some that were great but unremembered. A first class plane ticket, pukka and not the non-revenue kind from miles. Plane tickets that weren’t first class. A complete set of Cuisinart professional cookware.  A Burberry coat. French luggage. Gucci loafers. Books.  Amazon.com gift certificates. A juice extractor. Cashmere sweaters. Anything tied up with great packaging from Gump’s. A Perfex pepper mill. A Dooney & Burke purse. A Ralph Lauren flannel nightgown. Gelt. An oil painting.  A NordicTrack treadmill. Satin sheets. Etch A Sketch. A gold ring. Perfume. Two toy pistols in a double holster. A ballet tutu. A black doll I picked out at a fancy doll shop somewhere in Italy. License plates for my car. Ugly clothing I wouldn’t be caught dead in. A dreadful yellow nightgown. The traditional socks and soap. The iPad I bought myself last year.

But somehow nothing compares to the gift my neighbor gives me each year. It’s the right thing for the girl who has everything.

Have you ever noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff? – George Carlin.

(Boku is Turkish for shit.)

Dreaming of Sugar Plum Fairies from Spain

1880-Turron-Alicante-300-gr (2)

The Guadalupe Reyes Marathon is just not the same without an abundant assortment of turrón imported from Spain.  Let me ‘splain. The Christmas season in Mexico officially begins with  Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the 12th of December, and finishes with Día de los Reyes Magos on January 6. Nothing will get accomplished during this time frame. Actually, the holiday starts even earlier, Costco revealing its Christmas treasures in August, followed by El Buen Fin, which is Mexico’s version of Black Friday and CyberMonday, preceding the country’s non-celebration of Estadounidense Thanksgiving. [Note to self: install a footnote plug-in.]

There are fewer fresh Christmas trees in Morelia this year than in years past. Costco only had a few, and Superama a grand total of five.  Walmart at Altozano was live tree-free. My Christmas tree comes in a box, an original silver Evergleam, grown in the forests of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, during the second term of the Eisenhower Administration. It’s so beautiful that we could leave it up all year round, topped off with a Doberman angel , handcrafted by nimble Orvis elves. Hand-blown glass ornaments came from Tlapujahua, by way of Rincones de  Michoacan.

My tree is an heirloom one, purchased by my grandmother during the one year she didn’t have the florist make up a Christmas tree in something like all-turquoise flocked pine with matching ornaments, and then have the florist haul everything away after New Year’s to prevent her descendants from inheriting Christmas ornaments. My grandparents were always the first in town to have whatever was the newest and latest, so they used that tree once and hid it in a storage closet until more than two decades would elapse. By then, I’d opened my law office, and she suggested it might look good in the waiting room, instructing me that it should be decorated in ornaments of a single color. So, the tree got put up a time or two in the office, and then it found itself shipped to Mexico to my mother, who was living here at the time, who declared it too ugly for words, shoving it back into the bodega, where it would remain for another decade or so. Each year, I would take it lovingly from the original box, the branches removed with care from the original paper sleeves, and erect it with the red and pink ornaments. Friends who drop by are rendered speechless by the sight of this tree, but I know that deep down, they’re just envious. This tree has seen more holidays than my grandmother ever intended, but I think it’s beautiful in that 1959 pink Cadillac with fins kind of way.

[Footnote time:  The Aluminum Specialty Company would become Mirro, maker of pressure cookers, which has since gone on to greener pastures.]

And my decorating skills stop there. Holiday décor’s not nearly as important as what’s on the shelves to fill our bellies during the holidays. In times gone past, you just knew the season really had arrived by the odor of sides of bacalao, making the uninitiated wonder what had died at the supermarket display table. Now, most of the genuine Norwegian salt cod is tidily and hygienically packaged.

Maybe you can live without bacalao. I love making bacalao a la vizcaína,  but friends approach it with the relish they reserve for okra, so it’s a private thing.

In a land where more than a few boys named Jesus are born every day of the week, we’re driven by sweets. After all, Coca-Cola is the national sponsor of all respectable public Christmas décor here.  When we’re not worshipping Coca-Cola in this country, we’re paying homage to our Spanish motherland. Everything that comes from Spain is just a notch above. It’s our England.

You can’t have Christmas without sweets, and that means turrón imported from Spain. Up until a year or so ago, easily 30 minutes could be spent just picking which boxes of  turrón would grace the season’s  sweets table – chestnut truffles, pistachio, fruit and nut, walnuts. The crunchy, the fudgy, the nougaty, and the crumbly. Andalucian pine nuts given the Jordan almond treatment. Almendras rellenas. Creamy almond and honey Jijona turrón.  El Lobo Alicante turrón. 1880 yema tostada turrón. Peladillas (almonds given the Jordan almond treatment). 1880 Alicante crunchy almond turrón. Dark chocolate almond turrón. Even though the traditional ingredients were honey, sugar, and egg white, the concept extended to all Spanish candies available at Christmas.

Living in the candy capital of Mexico isn’t enough. Ates, Checolines, coconut-stuffed limes, and Morelianas (cajeta sandwiched between communion wafers)  aren’t enough. There was a time when U.S.-branded candy bars – Milky Way, Almond Joy, and oreo-studded Hershey bars, were rare around these parts. We have to make do with Carlos V. We could always depend upon Christmas to bring out the best of Spanish turrón – and to fill the larder with the post-Guadalupe Reyes sales.

This year appears to be marked by a turrón shortage. Costco had a measly three-pack, Walmart had none, and Superama, known for carrying no less than nine kinds of flavored sesame seeds (including green bamboo-smoked) had a paltry end-of-the-aisle display of only a few choices. And if that wasn’t enough, the prices were double what they were last year. Some nerve! The most expensive box was going for $299 MXN ($23 USD).

Meanwhile, marrons glaces, imported from Italy, are going for $130 MXN (that’s $10 USD) for a 454-gram box, cheaper than ever. There are supplies of German and French sweets. And, more abundant than ever, Estadounidense Christmas candy. If that damned ribbon candy ever hits the shelves, I’m packing up and heading south.

No matter what changes, we’ll always have firecrackers and guns shot off into the night sky for the holidays. And that’s reason enough to be thankful for living in Mexico.