Sunday, 26 February 2017

"You have great hair. Can I see your tits?"

Why, sure, strange man on the Internet viewing my online dating profile, I'd be delighted to send you nude pics.  Would you like a blow job as well?

Where do men get their sense of entitlement?

This recent post in my opera group inspired an outpouring of similar screenshots and tales from other women:
A female barrister posted a reply to a man mistaking LinkedIn for PornHub and it went viral.

I respond to about one out of 50 messages I get on the online dating site I am using.  Guys I don't respond to sometimes message me angrily with some charming variation on "Fine, don't answer, you stuck-up cunt, guess I ain't good enough for you, well, fuck you, bitch."  Gosh, missed a gem there.  My loss I didn't take him up on his request to send more pics.

Apparently, when a woman posts a photo on the Internet—whether a professional headshot along with sound clips by a singer, a suited and suitably dour LinkedIn pic, or just your bog standard profile photo on Twitter or your blog (no, I don't have one here, but that's less to avoid the creepers than because this blog is deliberately anonymous to keep me at least nominally employable)—she is inviting men to make unsolicited comments on her appearance, request more photos, and excoriate her as a lesbianfeministmisandrist (or is that redundant?) if she doesn't respond, or responds negatively.  And I haven't even gotten into the dick pic phenomenon.

Actually, since what I want to know here is why men feel this sense of entitlement, the dick pic thing is instructive.  A journalist actually conducted an (admittedly informal, unscientific) survey of men who sent unsolicited dick pics to learn their motivation.  Were they just trolling, attempting to annoy and get a rise out of random women?  Did they actually think the women would want the photos, that some positive contact might result?  In some cases, it was the former: “I think that 'lashing out' towards women on online dating sites, whether harmless annoyance or genuine harassment, is caused by being ignored so thoroughly by so many women. After a while, women on these sites aren't people with feelings; they're just thousands of profiles who all seem to dislike you for completely unknown reasons."

But for the vast majority, it was the latter: "Anais Nin once said, 'We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.' I would be over the moon if some woman sent me a picture of any nudity whatsoever, so I assume that women feel the same way.”

I suspect that is also part of the reason for the inappropriate compliments on professional photos.  Men aren't known for their empathy; women tend to be better at seeing the world from another's viewpoint.  A man wouldn't mind getting unsolicited nude photos, or having strange women tell him he looks hot in his professional headshot.  He wouldn't see it as threatening, nor as denigrating his professional abilities or trivialising his worth in any way.  So, it simply doesn't occur to him that women might view it differently.

But that's only part of the story.  There is also an overriding sense of entitlement that seems to be pervasive amongst men of all races, classes, and cultures.  Cat calls and online harassment are its most benign manifestation; it is exhibited throughout the world via rape and the subjugation of women.

Where does it come from, this sense of entitlement?  It seems to have been an indelible part of the male psyche since the dawn of recorded history.  Was it an evolutionary adaptation that tracked with some useful traits for survival?  Confidence may be sexy, but entitlement is a turn-off.  Yet, entitlement is rooted in narcissism, and some amount of selfishness is undoubtedly linked with an instinct for self-preservation.

Entitlement also manifests outside of the battle of the sexes, in behaviours like cutting in line, road rage, cheating on tests, stealing, etc.  And women are certainly not immune—I have a shocking sense of entitlement in certain areas of life, and I don't know anyone of either sex who doesn't.  But what mitigates it in dealing with other people is empathy.  A lack of empathy is at the root of an obnoxious sense of entitlement.  Men, stereotypically, do not develop empathy.  Is that nature or nurture?  The jury is still out on that, but it seems to be a little of both.

Digging for the cause might help us find a solution.  In the meantime, occasionally a creeper gets what's coming to him:

Saturday, 18 February 2017

What forges a connection?

“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” 
― Milan KunderaThe Unbearable Lightness of Being

Before Facebook, there were email lists (via Yahoo! Groups and other hosts) to connect with other horse-crazy lunatics people who shared your interests or profession.  I subscribed to groups for opera singers and early music lovers, knitters, Alaskan Malamute owners, political scientists, with subgroups for environmental policy and constitutional law, and, of course, a group dedicated to Friesians.

The Friesian list was global but it was started by a Friesian breeder in Australia so the list had a high proportion of Aussies.  I joined in 1997, which was 16 years before I had a Friesian of my own.  I lived vicariously through the experiences of other listees, as did other members who were Friesian-less.

List members would come and go, and ugly spats occasionally ensued, but a core of frequent contributors grew to share off-topic personal info – marriages, divorces, babies, moves, job changes, accidents, cancers, etc. – in addition to all the Friesian talk.  One U.S. listee even took her honeymoon in Oz so she could meet list members there.  Questions from newbies about caring for those long, thick manes and tails (it's a full-time job) and keeping black coats from getting sunbleached (not possible unless you only let your horse outside at night), came up so often some list members compiled FAQs.  The best posts were about someone finally living their Friesian dream, or going on their first Friesian ride, with the obligatory photos sporting the "Friesian grin".  Worst were the panicked colic posts, when we waited with our hearts in our mouths for news, which was always bad – Friesians rarely survive colic.

People would also post about the illnesses and deaths of their non-equine family members – dogs, parents, etc.  The problem with a large global list was that there was always someone celebrating a joyous event – the purchase of their first Friesian, the birth of their first foal, a first premie award at keuring – at the same time someone else was experiencing the death of a beloved Friesian or other personal tragedy.  It was an emotional roller coaster.  Some days, I could not face the list, knowing that my emotions would be buffeted by events out of my control, happening to people and horses I had never met.

Oh, I did meet some people.  I've met most list members in New England, and their Friesians.  I experienced my first Friesian ride (yes, I posted the inevitable Friesian grin photo) thanks to a list member, and the memorial portraits of my dogs are by list members, one in NH and one in Oz.  The artist in NH used to have a booth at Equine Affaire, in which she hired me to work each year.  I've made friends, both equine and human, thanks to the list.

Once we all started connecting on Facebook, the list petered out.  It still exists, but posts are rare.  Most conversation has moved to Fb, either on personal pages or in the various Friesian groups.  It's easier to connect on Fb but more diffuse as there are dozens of Friesian groups and none replicates the environment of the list, which felt closed and close-knit, even though there could have been any number of lurkers, just like on Fb.

I mention this because last month a list member in Oregon had her barn roof collapse under the weight of unaccustomed snow, killing 5 of her 6 horses.  I don't know how she and her daughter are coping with such a devastating loss.  I followed the disaster on Fb, cringing at the photos in helpless horror.  I found my heart going out to someone I barely know, have never met in real life, and probably never will.

Members are diverse; the only thing we have in common is a love of Friesians.  There are a lot of right-wingers.  This wasn't as apparent on the list, when things like politics and religion were almost never discussed.  But everyone's views are on display on Facebook.  Horse owners are often rural people in red states, with pick-up trucks and without a college education.  It's to be expected they'd be guns'n'god types but the recent election tested some online friendships.  Listees who are gay saw "marriage is between one man and one woman" posts from other members, views that would never have been apparent on the list.  Can liking the same horse breed overcome these sorts of differences in an increasingly polarised climate?  The list member whose barn roof collapsed had recently un-friended me.  I have no idea what I said to offend her, but I can only assume it's linked to the election—my anti-Trump posts have been frequent and scathing.

Of course, the bigger picture window into other's lives afforded by Fb also shows how good some people are.  One listee has turned out to be one of the nicest, most kind-hearted and deserving-of-all-good things people I have ever known.  She is in Oz, so it's unlikely I will ever meet her, unless the plane ride gets a lot shorter and the wildlife gets a lot less homicidal.

They have bad brush fires in Australia, just like in southern California.  Every year as the fires rage in both places, listees in those locales are expected to check in and let everyone know they're ok.  Yesterday the super kind listee told us the nearest fires to her were moving slowly in another direction and local authorities had assured everyone that there was no need to prepare to evacuate.

Next post she is explaining that wind picked up, shifted direction, and the fire is at her property line.  She got her kids, her dogs, and as many of her chickens as she could and evacuated with only the clothes on her back.  She had a hauler coming to evac her two Friesians and she wondered why it wasn't arriving.  As she was forced to flee, she passed a road block – on the only road to her place – through which the police would not let the trailer pass.

Needless to say, she spent a sleepless night in the evacuation centre with her family, practically puking from the fear and horror of imagining the great loves of her life being barbequed alive.

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” 
― Walt WhitmanSong of Myself

She posted this Thursday night and my dreams were haunted by fears for her horses and chickens left behind.  I couldn't grab my phone fast enough when I woke up Friday morning.  The news reported that 15 houses had burned to the ground and the smoke was too thick to speculate about animals.  Finally, a neighbour got through and was able to inform her that her house was still standing, albeit with burn marks on the brick and the downspouts melted.  Every fence and outbuilding and piece of vegetation on the property was burned to the ground.  The chicken coop and yard were just ashes, along with her favourite rooster, Charlie, three younger cockerels, some beloved hens, and 12 baby chicks.  Her hay shed was toast, along with all her hay, feed, and tack and equipment for her horses.

The only thing standing was the fence to the horse pasture, because it was made of steel.  And moving slowly on burned feet and with pained lungs, looking like ghostly apparitions through the haze, came the two pieces of her heart she'd been forced to leave behind.  Every patch of ground, every tree and bush in their field was charred and smoking.  I can't imagine how terrified they must have been.  No-one knows how they survived.  I can only assume they stood in the pond in the middle of their pasture.
When she posted that photo, sent to her by her neighbour, I was at the gym, on a bike, waiting for class to start.  But I cried—tears of relief for the horses, and of sadness for the chickens.  I have not met this woman and I probably never will.  But I cared deeply that these horses survived; I've heard so much about them for the last 20 years, I feel like I know them.  I felt her wrenching fear for their fate all night.  I don't particularly want to; I can't take on the weight of everyone else's troubles in the world, especially when there is nothing I can do but worry helplessly.

"To perceive is to suffer" - Aristotle

I can't say why the Friesian list has become so much tighter than other online groups.  I can't say why I care about animals, and to some extent people, I've never met.  (There have certainly been scammers on the list, people who were not who they portrayed themselves to be.  I never fell for them—my innate distrustfulness and shrewdness come in handy sometimes.)  But it seems to be human nature to put yourself in others' shoes and imagine how you'd feel if it were your babies in that fire.  This isn't a political post but it makes the callousness of the right more galling, the lack of empathy.  And it sure as hell makes me wish my little fuzzy guy wasn't so far away so I could hug him now.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Valentine's Day is the kick in the arse some relationships need

It's hip to hate on V-Day.  All the cool couples scorn it.  It's passé, a cheesy Hallmark holiday to sell overpriced roses and waxy chocolate, an obligatory sex day even if it falls on a work night and your back hurts from shovelling all that snow.  Besides, if you need a greeting card company to remind you to express affection to your partner, your relationship has problems ain't no annual blow job gonna fix.
Take note, guys: Most women would rather have a dozen orgasms than a dozen roses.

All men hate Valentine's Day.  At least, I have yet to meet one who doesn't.  My ex refused to even acknowledge its existence.  Despite having had two long-term relationships in my adult life, the only Valentine's Day gift I've ever received was from a high school boyfriend who gave me chocolate-covered strawberries.  Strawberries are not exactly in season in Chicago in February, so they probably tasted like Styrofoam but, at 16, I thought it was pretty sweet a boy had gone to Godiva to get me something.  (30 years later, he now hates V-Day, too.)
"Sex tonight?  Aw, sorry, honey, I can't.
I have to clip my toenails & do my taxes."

Guys give the same reason for rejecting the holiday:  Forced displays of affection are meaningless.  I agree.  For the couple getting each other generic gifts, like the cliché of the executive who has his secretary order a dozen roses for his wife every year, it is meaningless.  But, even if you choose not to celebrate it, there is a lesson couples can take from V-Day, if you apply a little perspective to the holiday.  I first wrote a defence of Valentine's Day 14 years ago, the gist of which was:  No, you cannot feel emotions on command, nor should you.  Yes, you and your partner should have sexy romantic fun time and give each other random gifts throughout the year.  But life gets in the way.  Couples with the best of intentions to make time for each other, to keep the romance alive, to have other than perfunctory weekly sex, don't.  Responsibilities, from work to kids to housework, family, friends, hobbies, binge-watching Netflix, sleeping, take priority.  You may even feel guilty taking time for yourselves as a couple—spending money on dinner out or a babysitter, or staying up late to fuck.  Valentine's Day isn’t going to repair a broken relationship.  It's not going to reawaken sexual desire or feelings of warmth and affection, but if they're there, just pushed onto a backburner, it is an excuse to make your relationship a priority, guilt-free.  You can go out for dinner and agree not to talk about the kids or the mildew problem in the basement, hold hands and flirt like when you were dating, schedule a hot tub and massage and then go home and fuck without worrying about being tired in the morning.

This unisex card has the perfect message.
In that way, it's not so much forcing you to feel emotions based on the calendar as providing an excuse to express ones that are already there.  If the day itself doesn't work for you — maybe a kid is sick or one of you has a major work deadline or it's just too cheesy — use it as a reminder to schedule that time at the first opportunity.  If you find you don't want to, that's a red flag.  You don't have to celebrate or acknowledge V-Day at all but if the thought of having any kind of a date night leaves you cold, the relationship may be dead and you just didn't notice.  It may be possible to resuscitate it or it may be time to move on.  Either way, don't hit snooze and ignore the wake-up call.
Any holiday can be made political if you try hard enough.
Shy about expressing your desires?
Make some of these.
I used to write a sex advice column in the persona of a dominatrix.  For a completely unserious lark, the column received a lot of serious questions.  By far the most common one was "I'd like to try <insert sexual activity> but I'm afraid to ask my partner."  V-Day, or its personalised substitute, if you prefer to use your birthday, anniversary, Arbor Day, etc., provides an excuse to kick a routine sex life up a notch.  If you don't feel comfortable straight-up asking for what you want, you can pen it as a fantasy, draw a picture, make coupons, or, if all else fails, there's always alcohol and handcuffs.

(That last was a joke – not suggesting anything non-consensual.)

If you agree as a couple to ignore Valentine's Day, that's your prerogative.  But in my experience it's usually the guy who wants to disregard it and the woman goes along because she has no counterargument and she wants to seem cool and not sappy or needy.  Ladies, here's your response.  Gentlemen, bear in mind that this is the one holiday that is guaranteed to get you laid.  How can you not dig that?
If you're not sore for the next few days, you need to 'celebrate the holiday' again.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

No Moo? No Problem!

I considered titling this blog post "Compelling reasons to visit the best local ice cream shop even if you don't do dairy–and even if you don't do ice cream" but that seemed a bit unwieldy.

As we are in so many other ways, we are spoiled for choice for local ice cream in the Valley.  There are soft serve ice cream stands open in summer, farm stores and shops open year round, and local brands sold in grocery stores so you can pick up a pint with your regular shopping.  I could write a post on each of them – and I just might.  If blogging about ice cream paid the bills, I'd definitely have my dream job.

I'm going to begin with Herrell's, for three reasons.  One, they are the best and we might as well start at the top!  Two, they have just completed a major renovation of their shop.  There was a soft opening end of October and the official grand reopening is coming up on Sunday, January 22, Noon-2:00pm.  Third, they have sold wonderful baked goods since the 1980s, not just as an also-ran to their ice cream, but delicious enough to stand on their own merits, and their newly renovated shop gives them enough space to display their entire line of baked treats at once and not have to rotate them.  In fact, I should do two posts on Herrell's, this one on their baked goods, and another featuring their unique ice cream.

Most ice cream shops have cookies, brownies, sometimes pies, to serve à la mode.  A few even bake them themselves.  But you probably wouldn't think to go there, rather than a proper bakery, if you were craving a chocolate chip cookie.  With Herrell's, you should.   For over 25 years, they have been putting as much effort into perfecting yummy baked goods as they have into their ice cream, with equally superior results.

Ice cream may be my favourite food, but baked goods are a close second and, as an intrepid baker myself, I am extremely picky and judgmental about every cookie and brownie I buy.  I'm lucky not to have any food sensitivities but it seems that everyone I know is either avoiding gluten or eggs or dairy (or all three!).  I have attempted to bake to accommodate various dietary restrictions, and it is always a trial to get the flavour, texture, and appearance up to par with the traditional version.  Herrell's has embraced this challenge.  Since 1993, they have sold Herrell's No-Moo dairy-free cookies and brownies.  Some products in their No-Moo line have eggs, some are vegan, and some are gluten-free.  That may sound complicated outside of the Valley, but it is necessary to cater to a variety of dietary restrictions and choices here.  It also means that, whatever your personal dietary needs, you can find a treat at Herrell's that you can enjoy, whether you decide to top it with No-Moo ice cream or devour it on its own.

Over the years, I've tried all of Herrell's baked goods, mostly à la mode at first, but I eventually found myself gravitating to Herrell's when I was just after a cookie or brownie (or, better yet, for those of us who don't want to have to choose, a brookie) because theirs were better than the ones at other local bakeries.  If they were out of the traditional version, I've always been happy to get the No-Moo version instead because they were just as tasty.  That was noteworthy to me.  There has been a tremendous improvement in dairy-free, egg-free and gluten-free products in recent years, but you still wouldn't normally eat them unless you had to.  I truly shit you not when I say that at Herrell's, it doesn't make a difference.

Purely in the interest of conscientious research, of course, I ate my way through some of the Herrell's
No-Moo line, along with the traditional products for comparative purposes, to see if my anecdotal impression over the years about taste held up to further scrutiny.  (Yeah, yeah, I admit it: It was an excuse to eat lots of cookies and brownies.  You got a better research idea??)

First up, the classic chocolate chip cookie.  The No-Moo version is heavy and dense – nothing worse than picking up a light cookie – and almost molten in the centre.  It's not overly sweet, which is rare in a cookie I haven't made myself.  I don't think there is anyone on earth pickier about chocolate chip cookies than I am and these meet my high standards.

One day, I decided to take a chance on the No Moo potato chip cookie.  I imagined any cookie with potato chips in it would be crunchy and greasy and salty and I was just sceptical about that.  I was wrong; it's nothing like that at all.  It is chocolatey, with lots of tiny chips, not salty, and the potato chips are ground finely enough that they add texture but not crunch.  Just try it.

The final No Moo vegan cookie I tried was the chocolate walnut flourless.  It's made with egg whites, like a meringue, so it's gluten-free but not vegan, but it is delicious, with the slightly shiny exterior and rich interior characteristic of flourless cookies.

The last No Moo vegan treat I've sampled is the vegan black bean brownie.  Using black beans in vegan brownies to replicate texture normally created by the eggs has been a thing for awhile.  I've even tried it, with minor success.  But I was never very enthused about it.  After tasting Herrell's version, I am officially a convert.  They have great texture and flavour, with gooey chocolate chips that melt in each bite.  You would never know they were vegan or black bean if no-one told you.  Get one warmed up with ice cream on it and you will be in heaven.

Herrell's was in the vanguard with non-dairy ice cream, and also with non-dairy baked goods.  Sounds a bit odd but it actually makes sense: If you make delicious ice cream and baked goods, you want everyone to be able to enjoy them.  The taste and texture of food products for people with various food intolerances has improved exponentially, but Herrell's was doing it before it was cool, and they've put a lot of research into achieving superior flavour and texture.  If you live in the area, or are visiting, go to Herrell's.  I personally guarantee your foodgasm—and no-one is paying me to say that, I speak from personal experience and enthusiasm.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Perfect Tree

One of my strongest Xmas memories (aside from listening to Truman Capote recite his Xmas Memory—as a child, I thought it was a woman speaking) is picking out a Xmas tree with my mother.  It always seemed like we chose the coldest night possible for this, but that was undoubtedly a matter of perception.  In my OCD way, I would have to examine every tree of suitable height on the lot before narrowing it down to the top contenders and finally making that important decision.  I never thought about the cost but I realise now it was significant to my mother.  The tree lot guys would come out of their warming trailer, smelling of beer, and offer to tie the tree to our non-existent car.  We'd each hoist an end and carry it however many blocks (the lots moved around from year to year) home, and up the stairs to our third floor apartment.  In my memory, there is always snow.  In reality, there would likely not have been.

One year, my mother decided she wanted a train to go around the tree.  She bought a large square board with a track nailed to it, in the centre of which we placed the tree stand, and began to collect Dept. 56 village components.  It was to be a Victorian English village, although the only train she could find from the period was American.  This was an anachronism only we would notice.  Amongst the minute plastic figures that one could purchase to people the village were, to our surprise, a set of nudes meant to be artist models.  Of course, we bought this & reposed them on balconies and in doorways.  You'd have to look closely at the village to notice them so I expect most guests never knew what a debauched little town it was.

After I moved away, my mother stopped celebrating Xmas.  But I didn't.  I had to be creative when I was away from the rituals and traditions, and especially the decorations, of my childhood, but I have managed to honour the facets of the season that resonate with me wherever I have lived.

Food is a crucial element.  In some countries, I have not been able to make the same treats I made at home (marshmallow fluff for fudge was not to be had in Russia or Italy or even the UK), but I learned to make saffron buns in Sweden, mince pies in Edinburgh, and king cakes in Paris.  I became a devotee of Chocolate Kimberleys in Ireland and panettone in Florence.

Music is equally as important, and I have been lucky to find live Xmas music most places I have lived.  I've been to midnight mass at Notre Dame on Xmas Eve, and seen the Nutcracker performed by a Russian ballet.  At first, I had tapes of the Xmas albums I listened to as a child.  Later, I got them on CD.  Now, I can stream endless Xmas music online.  My most rigid Xmas rule is that I listen only to Xmas music from Thanksgiving to Epiphany.  Each year, I have difficulty letting go of it come January 7th.  Like finishing up the last of the eggnog (I write this on January 18th with enough for one more eggnog latte, two if I skimp, and don't ask me how much eggnog ice cream I have stashed in the freezer), I have to make the music last a bit longer, knowing I won't get to enjoy it again until next Thanksgiving.  I've yet to be able to go cold turkey; I usually start to gradually incorporate non-Xmas music into my listening until I've weaned myself off it entirely.  When I was a kid singing in choir, we'd start rehearsing Xmas music in November, giving me an early taste that I felt privileged to have.  I realise it wouldn't be special if one listened to it all year, but it's hard to confine my favourite music to such a short period of time, one reason I am so rigid about not listening to any other type of music during that Thanksgiving-Epiphany interval.  My ex, who was Jewish, hated this ritual, but that's what headphones are for.  The big point of contention was in the car.  He'd want to listen to the Ramones, I'd want Bach's Xmas Oratorio, and we'd fight.  Next partner is going to have to acquiesce or fuck off; this is not negotiable.

Light is another reason Xmas is my favourite time of year.  Holiday lights are so heartening.  My family has a genetic tendency to depression and the dark, cold winter days are challenging.  Sun and exercise and warmth work brain chemical magic to lift my mood and they are absent in winter.  I always think Xmas comes too early.  The lights cheer me – I take them in greedily like vital nourishment – but most people take them down after New Year's.  Of course I know the history of why Xmas is celebrated near the winter solstice, but this is just the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere, with 2-3 months of cold, dark misery to endure after the Xmas lights are packed away.  We need to move Xmas to sometime around the end of February, to give us something to look forward to.  I call my lights "winter lights" rather than "holiday lights", and leave them up for the duration.  It helps—a little.

Wherever I have lived, I have made a point of buying Xmas lights.  In Russia, it turned out the lights available were not made for Russian outlets but a friend had her husband, an electrician, adapt them.  Of course I gave them to her when I left.  I love celebrating Xmas in Sweden because they take the lights very seriously.  Every street, every window, is cosily lit, warm and inviting.   It cheers me up just to think about it.

Decorations are the final component of Xmas.   Once I left home, I had to improvise what I could not afford to buy.  As a student, I strung my dorm room with lights (and illegal cranberry and pine-scented candles), and decorated my door wreath with juniper, holly, roses, and white sprigs of baby's breath standing in for snow.  Now I have all of the family ornaments and decorations, which have the most sentimental value of all my possessions.  I care for them lovingly, and treasure each antique ornament.  My favourite are the wax ornaments purchased from an Austrian bakery on the Northwest side of Chicago.  I also love the garlands, made from glass beads salvaged from a Czech factory destroyed in WWII.  I could go on but realise no-one else is likely to share my passionate love affair with my Xmas decorations.  Oh, but there is one more thing I have to mention:  I have an envelope full of Xmas cards I received or purchased years ago that I tape to the walls.  My favourite is a card from my friend Fred, a classmate in Italy, and I have some Swedish ones I also adore.  They're all outdoor scenes, with animals or gnomes, but not kitschy.  I also have some with renaissance or Pre-Raph angels and illuminated manuscripts.  They have no monetary value but they are significant treasures.

This is the first time I have lived in a house, extending my decorating sphere to the outdoors, with lights for the porch and a garland wrapped with lights for the mailbox post.  (The latter met with an accident last year about a month before I would have taken them down.  I hope this year's have better luck.)  I am limited by a lack of outdoor outlets to lights that are battery-operated, which are weaker and require a safe, dry place to stash the battery packs.  There is a house down the street that employs the see-them-from-orbit style of outdoor lights.  That's not my taste.  Across the street is a house with New England window candles and white lights on their porch and wreath.  Much classier.  If I had outlets to work with, that's more what I'd be going for.

Of course the decorating centrepiece is the tree.  I felt very grown-up the first year I had my own tree.  I didn't yet have the family ornaments, and had to improvise with straw ornaments from Sweden and pine cones and more baby's breath.  I even made a popcorn-and-cranberry garland once.  Candy canes and decorated cookies, with holes poked in the top before baking, can also be pressed into service for the tree.

At first, I got trees from a lot, albeit now tying them on top of the car for the trip home.  These were perfect, symmetrical, elegant trees, as if they were drawn by an artist for an idyllic Xmas scene.  I had one some years ago that will go down in history at the Best Tree Ever.  But, as a city girl now living in the country, I was naturally drawn to the opportunity to cut my own fresh tree.  So, I started going to a tree farm.  It is unfortunately situated on the side of a hill, so all the trees have a bad side, but they are all balsams, my traditional type from childhood, and the nice family that owns it uses a sustainable stump culture method.  It's also a lovely drive to get there.  In recent years this farm has started to bring fresh cut trees down to my local co-op on the first Saturday in December.  For practical reasons, I have started to get my tree there rather than making the journey to cut one on my own.  The selection is poor.  I'm surrounded here by many lots with perfect trees, cut before Thanksgiving, shipped down from Canada, and sold at a premium.  I tell myself I can't afford those trees, that they're not as fresh, they're not local, but it's really become a question of loyalty.  The woman from the tree farm expects me each year, has trees in mind for me, and appreciates that I always show her a photo of last year's decorated tree.  This year, I almost had to tell her I couldn't find one that would do.  It was the sorriest selection of Charlie Brown trees I had ever seen.  Each year I tell myself that once it's decorated, it will look fine, but this year I wasn't so sure.  You can be the judge:

You might have noticed that my rundown of Xmas necessities did not mention people.  Each year my parents ask me to come home for Xmas or, when I was with my ex, he wanted me to go with him to visit his (Jewish) family.  I feel guilty, but I've had to turn them both down.  No-one else's Xmas is Xmas-y enough for me.  I need the lights, the music, the food, the eggnog, the warmth, above all the control of the Xmas environment.  I prefer to host Xmas rather than visit.  &, this is where I have to take an unpopular stand:  I'd rather spend Xmas alone, in my warm house, watching Rankin-Bass Xmas specials and curling up on the sofa in front of the tree for my annual reading of "A Xmas Carol" than be with family or friends in their cold, non-Xmasy homes.

I'm sorry; this is what Xmas is about to me.  If people want to come visit, I love to have people to cook for and play games and music with.  Most years, no-one sees my tree but me.  Most years, I make a traditional Xmas feast, with all the trimmings, for myself.  I have many pet peeves but the peeviest, the one that makes me apoplectic with rage (ok, I guess that takes it beyond pet peeve status) is when people, and this happens every fucking year, tell me I shouldn't bother to have a tree if I am the only one to see it nor spend all of Xmas day cooking a feast just for myself.  There seems to be some unspoken obligation not to do much for the holidays if one is alone.  I don't understand that.  Never have, never will.  I love to have guests during the holiday season.  When I have enough local friends available, I host a Xmas party to decorate anatomically-correct gingerbread people.  I make fondue and mulled wine and bake lots of cookies.  But if everyone's busy with their own families and it happens that I am the only one to see my tree or taste the Xmas turkey and cranberry sauce, why the hell should I have less or do without because I am alone?  I don't get it, and I annually tell people who express surprise that I would have something outrageous like my own fucking Xmas tree or actual Xmas dinner to go fuck themselves.
Now January proceeds apace.  I can leave the lights up, I can still cue up Purcell's "Behold, I Bring You Glad Tidings" on Spotify, but I have to face the fact that it is now time to take down the tree and put away the decorations.  I'll do it this weekend.  I always dread it, but with the inauguration and Bishop leaving, it's already going to be a depressing weekend.  The holiday season has this buoyant the-usual-rules-are-suspended feel to it that can't last long by its very nature but leaves me bereft, always wondering how I will drag myself through the rest of winter.  I don't know what other people do.  How do they keep their spirits up?  I love the silence of snow, and the cosiness of winter, curling up on the sofa with knitting and a mug of tea or hot chocolate or mulled wine, but I also find it in many ways interminable and dispiriting.  I always need something to look forward to, and winter, once the holidays are over, does not provide that.  It's a time for discipline, New Year's resolutions for self-improvement that always involve diets and exercise and sacrifice, a time to get back to work.  Now you see why Xmas needs to be moved to the end of February.  I can't be the only one who needs something to look forward to other than mud and tax season.