Happy New Year!

I hope you and yours have had a slow and meaningful Christmas season. If things didn’t quite turn out like you’d planned, fear not, there’s never a bad time to start slowing life down. As you know, one way I slow my own life down is to blog only seasonally. But I will miss you all terribly until next Christmas. I’ve really enjoyed your Facebook postings and the insights you’ve shared this year. Slow Christmas is about a group project, and you have really gotten into the spirit. So rest up and get ready for a marvelous 2014!

Rock Creek Park in snow, 2009. Photo: Incorrigible Curmudgeon

Rock Creek Park in snow, 2009. Photo: Incorrigible Curmudgeon

A Word on Window Shopping

Pasargad Galleries display Christmas 2013

This Christmas display near my bus stop features a penguin family (bottom right), jungle animals, and a teddy bear chandelier. Whimsical feels like an understatement.

About this time of year, my Slow Christmas resolve crumbles and I’m sorely tempted to channel all the holiday cheer and good humor I feel into buying things. The fuzzy fox ornament at the boutique I passed the other day was quite possibly the cutest thing I’d ever seen, and after all, what’s $14 in the grand scheme of things?

But when I can take a step back, it’s not really the buying that gives me a rush. It’s the visual feast that is walking down a dark sidewalk past lighted shop windows. The good news is you can enjoy the greenery, the ribbons, the sheer physical beauty without buying anything. All it takes is a little practice.

Recently, we had an unexpected “snow” day that turned out to be more drama than ground cover. So the spouse and I took a long walk in the late afternoon. We saw a number of excellent dogs out walking with their owners who were liberated from work. We saw a truly amazing window display in an oriental rug shop, complete with a stuffed penguin family walking on clouds, suspended from the ceiling with ribbons. When we got cold, we picked up a hot drink and kept walking.

There was a moment where we went into a boutique with all sorts of charming things, from fedoras to pretty dresses to a miniscule stuffed sheep with a quizzical look on his face. I wanted it all, everything in the store. The truth is, commercialism does not just come in the shape of the Merry Christmas USB seat cushion warmer or the ugly Christmas sweater bought solely for one theme party. Commercialism can be classy and well appointed too. I give you exhibit A: this Welcome to Merryville video from Anthropologie. It’s downright charming. I can almost forget that it too is selling me stuff.

But that’s the beauty of window shopping. Think of it as methadone for your Christmas consumer itch. You can watch the charming Anthropologie video, you can wander through the boutique with the plush animals, the scarves, the vintage tie clips, the rose-shaped earrings. You can stick your nose in jewelry store windows with ruby rings artfully balanced on pine cones encrusted with snow. You don’t even have to feel guilty about it. As long as you don’t take it home with you. That’s the only rule. Because once it leaves the shop window, you will find that it loses its magic. Since only 1% of all the stuff in the consumer market is still in use six months after it’s bought, the odds are stacked against your new find. But if it stays unpurchased, you have 100% satisfaction guaranteed, and no chance of remorse. What could be better than that?

So the next time you’re feeling the itch, grab a dear friend or relative and a hot beverage, and set out for a nice round of window shopping. Leave your credit card at home if it helps. If you’re feeling the urge to procure, run don’t walk out of that store. It takes practice, but soon you’ll only be buying the things you know for certain will be the 1% that you’ll really use.

Slow Parenting

Still from The Snowman

The Snowman (1982)

Maybe it’s because my generation’s parenting culture can be a bit obsessive, but there have been a spate of recent books with the message for parents to just chill out. They tend to be in line with the Slow Christmas ethos, arguing that our stuff addiction is part of the problem. Some link the preponderance of attention disorders to the overwhelming amount of choices that children are facing right now. All of them have in common a call for sanity. Now, I wouldn’t recommend buying one of these books for your most over-achieving parent friends for Christmas, because that would be passive aggressive. But if you’re looking for some sane, Slow Christmas-style parenting advice, these authors are a great place to start.

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, by Jim John Payne, M.Ed. with Lisa M. Ross

In this book, Kim John Payne, a therapist and educator by training, recounts the threat to healthy childhood posed by too much information, too much speed, too much stuff, and too little calming rhythm and routine. His central thesis:  “Our society — with its pressures of “too much” — is waging an undeclared war on childhood.”  There’s a lot about the book that resonates with the Slow Christmas mission to spend less money and spend more time. On slowing down:

If, as a society, we are embracing speed, it is partially because we are swimming in anxiety. Fed this concern and that worry,  we’re running as fast as we can to avoid problems and sidestep danger.  We address parenting with the same anxious gaze, rushing from this “enrichment opportunity” to that, sensing hidden germs and new hazards, all while doing our level best to provide our children with every advantage now known or soon to be invented. This book is not about hidden dangers, quick fixes, or limited-time opportunities; it is about the long haul. The big picture: a reverence for childhood.

The book is not just a screed against modern society; there are some great concrete recommendations about how to get back to basics with your kids. On opting out of excessive consumption, he argues that overloading children with stuff gives them too many choices. Children are very busy developing in their first ten years, neurally, socially, physically, and they need the bandwidth for that development. When we overwhelm them with stuff, they learn that all this stuff belongs to them. But since there are so many things, none of them can have real value. So it must be something else they’re missing. Thus begins an unquenchable desire for more, which makes them hold out for whatever they don’t have. Payne recommends giving away most of their toys, storing some of them in a toy library, and keeping just ten toys, or the amount of toys a kid can put away in five minutes, out at a time.

In his decades of making this shift with parents, and with his own kids, a strange and kind of shocking thing happens:  the kids don’t really notice. Or once their rooms are freed from the clutter, they see a toy they haven’t noticed for a while and get absorbed in playing with it. But how do you know which toys to get rid of and which to keep? Payne explains the difference between “fixed” toys, which don’t allow for much creativity, and toys that engage a child in a hundred different make-believe games. If a toy “does everything” already, there’s not much a child can do to manipulate or change it or imagine with it. Toys should allow for a million different uses — real kitchen or garden tools, blocks and spools of string, colorful cloth, and clothespins, even a repurposed cardboard box. These are the toys that kids tend to be drawn to, time and time again. When the cousins would gather at Grammy and Grandpa’s house, our game was to take apart the old sectional couch upstairs and make cars and houses and forts out of it. It became something new each visit.

The one part of Payne’s book I’m still trying to wrap my head around is the need to limit your child’s exposure to the adult world, especially adult conversation about current events. As a youngest child, I was always privy to conversations above my age level. When my older sisters went to see The Breakfast Club in theaters, six year old me went along. Perhaps because I wasn’t naturally anxious in temperament, I’m not convinced this did me harm. It probably made me more cynical about politics and human behavior at an early age. But it also gave me a wicked array of cuss words to impress my classmates.

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, by Lenore Skenazy

It all started when Lenore Skenazy let her nine year old son ride the New York subway home by himself and wrote a column about it. Responses to the column came fast and furious:  she was dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” by the Today Show, Fox News, and MSNBC. In this book, she tells her side of the story. She calls on parents and the broader society to distinguish between the level of risk encountered walking the New York streets and the much higher levels of risk children have encountered in past centuries. Our parental worries are often lacking an evidence base, since New York City’s crime rate at the time ranked about on par with Boise, Idaho.

Skenazy contends that the biggest risk our children face today is a life that contains no choices and no independence. The book, and the blog that accompanies it, cover helicopter parenting trends and provide helpful suggestions for how to avoid raising a Little Lord Fauntleroy who can’t cut his own food. She is an entertaining writer and it’s definitely worth a read if you’re in need of a parenting reality check. Fair warning — her approach is less clinical and more political than Kim Payne’s, so expect more humor and insight than sympathy and therapeutic wisdom. All in all, a good contribution.

Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, by Carl Honoré

Honoré is a friend to Slow Christmas and a journalist whose first wake up call to slow living came when he was tempted to buy 60 second versions of the classic bedtime stories to speed up reading to his son at night. Horrified by the impulse, he started doing research on the culture of speed and what could be done about it, resulting in the excellent 2005 book In Praise of Slowness. In Under Pressure, Honoré takes on parenting. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Honoré is an excellent writer and I’m excited to check it out.

The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, by Tom Hodgkinson

I haven’t read this one yet, but the general idea is that kids need freedom from consumer culture and sky-high parental expectations so they can explore and be themselves. Hodgkinson has a 21 point manifesto, which includes such gems as “We try not to interfere”, “An idle parent is a thrifty parent”, “We reject the inner Puritan”, and “We embrace responsibility”. It’ll be interesting to see how he recommends applying these in daily life. Apparently, Tom Hodgkinson lives on a farm in Devon, England with his kids, so it’s probably easy for him to say. All the same, it’s nice to see another voice in the chorus to chill out.

Anyone read other slow parenting books lately?

The Secret to Pie

Pumpkin pie

You can roll out leftover dough and cut shapes using a sharp knife.

Happy (holi) days are here again! It’s ever so nice to be back in Slow Christmas land. I’ve missed you all, and can’t wait to hear what you’ve been up to. But first, a word about pie. Thanksgiving is coming up, and we’re all a bit tempted to cave to the holiday rush and go out and buy our Thanksgiving pies. But there’s nothing like the gratitude people feel for homemade pies. And it’s just the kind of project that will help you slow down and get in the spirit of Thanksgiving, especially if you can recruit your favorite sous chef and make an event of it. And if you’re worried they won’t turn out well or taste like they’re supposed to, you shouldn’t be. I’ve got a secret — well, two actually. Apple and pumpkin pie are not as hard as they look, and you can take a lot of the guesswork and risk out of baking them. Ditto pie crust, which once you know how easy it is you’ll be embarrassed you ever bought. Read on.

Apple pie filling

12-13 apples, peeled, cored and sliced (use the sour varieties like Stayman Winesap or Granny Smith, ideally more than one type to ensure juiciness and texture)
1 stick butter
handful brown sugar
handful white sugar
a pinch cinnamon
2 tbps flour
a dash of salt

Apple pie

The kitties were a special request one year.

The best way to ensure that your apple pie is filled with nice thick juice and doesn’t dry out is just to saute the apples beforehand. Melt the butter in a large pot or Dutch oven. Toss in your apples and saute for 5-10 minutes until they just barely start to turn translucent and release their juices. Add the rest of the ingredients, and stir for another 3-5 minutes. Just when you start to recognize that pie filling texture, but before the apples are fully translucent and cooked through, take the pot off the heat and let it cool for 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently to release all the excess steam. Once the apples are warm but no longer hot, dump them into your pie crust and place the top crust over it, sealing the edges. You don’t want to use a lattice crust for apple pie because it may dry out — a full top crust is best. Be sure to poke a few vents in the top of your pie, so the pressure has somewhere to escape rather than out the sides. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30-45 minutes, pretty soon after it’s assembled so that the crust doesn’t melt and separate.

Pumpkin pie filling

Organic PumpkinI know what you’re thinking — that I’m going to insist you make your pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin. Fear not, pumpkin from a can is perfectly fine, especially when you can find the organic stuff. My general feeling on the subject is that using fresh pumpkin is like using all fresh tomatoes for pasta sauce, when tomato paste has a concentrated flavor that’s actually really good.

The real secret to your pie tasting homemade and fresh is simple: you just halve the amount of spice called for in your favorite pumpkin pie recipe. It tastes more homemade and more like, well, pumpkin. And don’t worry about your relatives rebelling — the spices that remain will be plenty to give it that distinctive pumpkin pie flavor.

Pie crust

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pie plate
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons ice water, roughly

Cut each stick of butter into several chunks.  Place the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl and mix to combine.  Add the chilled butter.  Using a hand mixer or a food processor, incorporate the butter into the flour mixture.  The mixture should resemble coarse meal with small pieces of butter, no bigger than small peas, remaining visible.  Drizzle 2 tablespoons ice water over the flour-butter mixture, and blend.  Repeat with an additional 2 tablespoons water.  At this point, you may have to add more water. When a handful of dough squeezed together just holds its shape, you’ve added enough; if the dough is still crumbly, continue incorporating water, 1 tablespoon at a time, checking the consistency after each additional tablespoon. I often find it’s about 7 tablespoons until I get something that sticks together but isn’t too wet, but it’ll depend a bit on your flour. If you accidentally overdo the water, it’s easily fixed — just toss in a little more flour.

Divide into two pieces (the one that’ll be your bottom crust can be slightly larger than the other), roll them into balls, and place on two separate sheets of plastic wrap.  Flatten them a little and form 2 disks. You can wrap and refrigerate for up to a half hour if they’ve gotten sticky.  Lightly dust a clean, dry work surface with flour.  Place the dough in the center of the work surface and dust the dough as well as the rolling pin with flour.  Position the rolling pin on the center of the disk and begin rolling the dough away from you.  Give the disk a quarter turn, and roll again.  Continue turning and rolling until the disk is at least a couple inches wider than your pan.  Turning the dough as you roll will prevent it from sticking to the work surface, but you can also dust more flour underneath it on whenever it starts to stick.  Lightly butter your pie plate.  To minimize stretching when moving the dough, try rolling it around the pin, lifting it up, and unrolling it over the buttered pie plate.  Using your fingers, gently smoosh the dough into place.  Trim any excess dough with a paring knife, or kitchen shears, leaving a 1-inch overhang; then fold dough under to reinforce the edge.

Note: you can use half white flour and half whole wheat without suffering on texture at all. But if this is your first time making pie crust (fear not: this recipe is designed for you) I’d use mostly white flour as it’s the easiest. As you get more confident, you can add whole wheat. A little whole wheat in the crust is especially nice with pumpkin pie.

Yield: 2 (8-10 inch) crusts

My miracle on 34th Street

I thought it might be good to share one last dose of Christmas cheer before we usher in the new year. On New Year’s Day, my sister gave me her Christmas present. I visited her in Baltimore where she lives and she and my brother-in-law and I set out for a walk at dusk. She said she wanted to show me something. When we were nearby, she had me close my eyes and guided me the rest of the way. When I opened my eyes, this is what I saw:

Baltimore 34th Street NatGeo

Apparently, Baltimore’s 34th Street has been lighting up every house on one block since 1947. They even string lights above the street, connecting the houses and creating a canopy of light. I am usually the first to opine that we guzzle too much energy at Christmas, but this street does an amazing public service. This one hardly does it justice: you can check out more pictures here. Thousands of people come each year to see the lights and bask in their glow. These families work with their neighbors to put on a show for the rest of us out of the kindness of their hearts. Not every house needs a light display when a block like this can carry the torch for all of us. It couldn’t be more lovely, or more Slow Christmas.

It was the perfect present. I was feeling a sense of January foreboding, and not ready for the break from routine to end. I was in a decidedly un-magical place. But when I opened my eyes, I forgot all about the foreboding and the to-do-ing. It was freezing out, but I felt surrounded by beauty, cheer, and goodwill. And best of all was the feeling that my sister really “got” me. Even when scheduling got tricky, she didn’t take no for an answer, because she knew I would love it. And she was right. In a sense, it was my very own miracle on 34th Street.

And with that, Happy New Year to all! Let’s keep Slow Christmas in our hearts all year long with these 3 steps:

1. When you notice your mind racing and making lists, stop. Take ten slow breaths in a row, counting all the way to five as you inhale, taking another 5 to exhale. This is almost a cliché at this point, but believe me when I tell you, there’s a reason it’s become one.  Deep breaths actually send signals to your brain that trigger an “everything is okay now” response in your body.  This gives you an opportunity to slow down and take stock.

2. Ask yourself, is this a situation where my need for speed is legitimate, i.e. am I being pursued by bears? As the original fast American would be the first to tell you, there are some things worth breaking a sweat for:

Paul Revere galloping on horseback

Paul Revere galloping, 1775

But, if you find that you’re rushing and you feel frantic, you may want to do a spot-check on your priorities. Your friends and loved ones will understand if you can’t make it to every social engagement, be on every committee, or make the perfect meal. There are times when perfect isn’t good enough, and good enough is just great.

3.Take a look at your to-do list.  Cross 2 things off. Go on, do it.  Then, see if anyone notices that you didn’t do them this year. It’s a hard lesson to swallow for those of us who pay attention to detail, or have a perfectionist streak. But if you’re serious about slowing down your year, you have to prioritize.  Frankly, some errands are just more important than others.

In which the spouse and I make New Orleans-style Pralines

The spouse stirs constantly.

The spouse stirs constantly.

When I was little, my mom’s one Christmas rite was to make pralines for friends and family. She would outfit each of us with a spoon, and the minute they reached the right consistency, we’d drop thick spoonfuls onto wax paper. These were not those chintzy French pralines that are just some nuts covered in sugar: these were New Orleans style pralines. Little piles of pecans covered in a fudge-like substance made from sugar and buttermilk. They are incredibly simple to make and wildly tasty. The only drawback is their uncanny resistance to fake dog poop. Seriously, they are not pretty. I’ve made batches that come out looking like fried oysters, but that’s the best case scenario. But if you can look beyond aesthetics, these are a candy well worth the making.

So last night, the spouse and I decided to make them in honor of this happy childhood memory. We’re giving them in glass tupperware with a cheerful red lid instead of the ubiquitous Christmas-themed tins. I love those Christmas tins, but they can only be used once a year and they’re a pain in the ass to store in the offseason. This way your friends and family get a durable and pretty container to take lunches in all year round. Who knows, maybe they’ll even think of you when spooning leftover spaghetti into it…

New Orleans-style Pralines

4 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
3-4 dashes salt
2 1/2 cups whole pecan halves
4 1/2 tsp butter
3 tbsp vanilla
candy thermometer (they have multiple uses, and they’re fairly cheap)

There are essentially two steps. First, combine the first 4 ingredients in a large wide pot. Cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring constantly so the bottom doesn’t crust up. Continue cooking over low heat until the candy thermometer when submerged registers around 234 degrees. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes.

Stir in nuts, butter and vanilla, and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture starts losing its shine (around 6 minutes). Drop in spoonfuls onto wax paper IMMEDIATELY. Get helpers if you can. But it’s no big deal if the last ones are a little crumbly, they’ll still taste good. And looks were never what draws us to these anyway. Let stand 20 minutes so they set. The recipe makes about 50-60 pralines if you include 2-3 nuts in each.

Turd's Eye View.

Turd’s Eye View.

And with that, Merry Christmas all! Slow Christmas is going offline for the holiday, but I hope that you all enjoy yourselves and your loved ones. See you in a few days.

Advice column: “Does liking stuff run counter to Slow Christmas?”

Greetings all. I’d like to take a moment to answer this note from a loyal reader. I’ve never used Slow Christmas as an advice column before, and there’s a distinct possibility I have no idea what I’m talking about. But when has that ever stopped me before? Here goes…

Dear Slow Christmas,

I like this idea, but I feel torn by the “#buynothing” part. I like doing non-material things (e.g. my annual cookie bake), but I get a lot of joy out of giving people things. I like the idea of making handmade gifts, but my crafty abilities only go so far. Plus, sometimes people want something that I cannot make. This taps into a larger issue I have of whether liking “things” (i.e., material goods) is necessarily bad. I, for instance, love spending time with my family. But I also really like cool shoes. Does liking “stuff” run counter to the idea of Slow Christmas? Is it OK so long as the stuff doesn’t replace/outweigh the “non-stuff” (e.g., non-material goods)?

- Seeking the OK to Spend

Dear SOS,

I don’t think it’s wrong to get joy out of things. If anything, it’s the sheer amount of things at Christmas that gets in the way of the joy. The average American will spend $854 on Christmas presents this year, and buy 23 presents. With this much stuff, you can’t appreciate any single thing well. Recently, when I see kids plow through the enormous pile of presents under the tree and finish opening it all, they just look bored and disappointed. This is a terrible thing to do to a  child. And it’s not great for us grownups either. Each year, we’re less responsive, so the haul has to be bigger and better, which usually means more expensive and impressive. Selfishly, we’ve got to start putting our relationships first, not stuff, because the stuff isn’t making us happier.

But there’s another principle that’s harder: on a practical level, we simply can’t keep buying as many gifts as we have been. We have to consume less. Why? For starters, often excessive gifting doesn’t actually make the receiver happy. When the present is not what the receiver wants, they feel touched by the thought we put into it and guilty that it’s not what they want, so they either display it somewhere prominent or hide it in a closet until the next spring cleaning. Our friends and relatives gladly do this because they love us, but make no mistake, it is a burden.

We’ve always thought of this as fairly harmless (who doesn’t make a Goodwill run after Christmas?)  But the trouble is, the planet has stopped being able to absorb our trash. And stuff becomes trash at a frightening pace: only 1% of all the stuff in the consumer market is still being used six months after it’s bought. And if you think about it, how many of our errands are basically carting new stuff in and old stuff out? Or repairing, insuring and protecting the stuff we have? We have got to find a way to celebrate the holidays that’s not so Fall of Rome.

This doesn’t mean you have to stop exchanging gifts. But it does mean being more deliberate about what kind of gift. Don’t give one that you’re not sure they’ll like, or that may not last, or that has a really specialized purpose they won’t use often, or is an upgrade of an old thing that the receiver still thinks is perfectly serviceable.  Like it or not, these things have a higher chance of ending up in a closet, then Goodwill, and eventually the landfill.

Economists call this deadweight loss, which happens when people buying a product have more marginal cost than marginal benefit in doing so. Christmas gifts are like bridesmaids dresses: most brides think their bridesmaid dresses are the exception to the unflattering rule, and most bridesmaids ditch their bridesmaids dresses pretty quickly. You do the math. Good intentions are important, but they don’t let us off the hook.

If you get someone an experience gift or a donation, or cook their favorite food, there’s still a possibility that won’t like it. But you won’t have consumed so much in the process. I call it the Landfill Rule. If it’s something that could end up in the trash some day, make damn sure it’s exactly what they need, and if you can’t without blowing the surprise, don’t get it. Or if there’s something else they might like just as much that won’t end up in a landfill, like taking them bowling, train yourself to start giving that gift instead. If you miss the element of surprise, give them a surprise experience gift, or a Christmas scavenger hunt complete with cleverly-hidden clues.

If you need to explain yourself to family members who’ve noticed a change in your gift-giving patterns, here are some fun resources. I wouldn’t buy them as Christmas presents for reluctant family members, but they are helpful for borrowing arguments:

  • For the spiritually inclined or nature-lovers, Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday is a great little book. In it, he talks about his congregation in the Adirondacks, and their effort to reduce spending at Christmas while building meaningful giving traditions, from singing carols to dropping boxes of cookies at friends’ doorsteps. McKibben’s own family has a practice, borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi, of scattering seeds and nuts in a field on Christmas day, so hungry winter wildlife can enjoy a feast day just as we do.
  • For the rationalists in your family, check out Joel Waldfogel’s Scroogenomics: Why you shouldn’t buy presents for the holidays. He estimates that US holiday gift-giving destroys about $13 billion worth of value each year:  basically, all that stuff that goes into the closet. Last year, NPR’s Planet Money did an interesting experiment with children to demonstrate the concept: they gave each student in a classroom some candy. Even though the candy was free, the kid who got the Mike ‘n Ikes rated them a zero in value because he doesn’t like them. He rated it equal to not having any candy at all, but somebody still had to produce it and buy it. Two kids told stories from their real lives about getting a Power Ranger or a Barbie for Christmas from their parents, which they felt too old for or didn’t like, but they didn’t want to be ungrateful.

Good luck, SOS. Just keep reminding yourself what Christmas is all about: spending time with family and friends, being generous in our judgments when they make us crazy, and slowing down our lives for just a little bit. Let me know how it goes!

Whos down in Whoville

“But this…this sound wasn’t sad. Why…this sound sounded glad. Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing, without any presents at all! He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming, it came! Somehow or other… it came just the same.”    – How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1966