2012 in Review

Here it is - my annual review of the year that was.  Like most years that have come before, it was a year of highs (the Olympics) and lows (renewed fighting between Israel and Palestine), of celebrations (Obama's re-election) and disasters (Hurricane Sandy), of hope (elections in Egypt) and despair (the Sandy Hook shooting).

I prepare this review every year as a record for my family, but have started sharing it here.  The info is pulled from all over the internet but edited by me, so yes, there's a certain amount of bias.  But you can't beat the convenience of having all this information gathered in one place!

News Stories of the Year

  1. 2012 presidential election. After months of relentless campaigning, Obama bested Romney in the November election. The victory appeared to come as a surprise to the Republicans who, despite polling to the contrary, seemed to expect a Romney victory. The Obama victory appeared to be a mandate for sensible tax reform (more taxes on the wealthy) and continued slow but steady economic recovery. Meanwhile, Congress remains divided, with Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans the House. Anyone else find it ironic that after the most expensive election in history – and the first in which 25% of all funds were contributed by anonymous sources and SuperPACs – almost nothing changed? Like all presidential elections, this one featured plenty of silliness. Here are some of the lowlights of the campaign: 
    1. 47% - Romney’s estimate of the number of voters who automatically wouldn’t vote for him because they rely on the government to give them “stuff.” The things candidates will say to a room full of supporters, when they don’t realize they’re being surreptitiously filmed by cameraphone!
    2. You Didn’t Build That – Taken out of context, the quote seemed to suggest Obama was dissing entrepreneurs.
    3. Romney’s Binder Full of Women – In context, the remark was understandable; taken out of context, the possibilities proved too much for late-show comics to resist
    4. The Empty Chair. Clint Eastwood seemed the perfect speaker for the Republican National Convention – until he spent all 20 minutes railing at an empty chair that was apparently meant to represent President Obama. Republicans dubbed the performance “eccentric"; Democrats resorted to generally less flattering adverbs
    5. However, there was at least one moment of grace: I think the whole nation was in awe of the citizens of New York and New Jersey who – despite being surrounded by death, devastation, and massive power outages – somehow managed to open and run enough polling places (often powered by generators and lit by candle-light) to ensure that all citizens were able to participate in the electoral process
  2. Economic Recovery. The economy continued on a path of slow but steady recovery, with unemployment falling below 8% for first time in 3+ years.
  3. State Amendments. 3 states approved gay marriage, and 2 approved legalization of marijuana. It’s a new world.
  4. The Looming “Fiscal Cliff.” Unable to reach a debt ceiling compromise in spring, Congress punted, creating a device whereby huge economic penalties would kick in by the end of the year if a compromise was not reached. Sometimes you have to wonder what we’re paying these guys for.
  5. Dismantling of the "Occupy" movement. In this case, “dismantling” is meant literally as well as figurative as various local governments, fed up with tent cities in their municipal parks, required “Occupiers” to move on. Deprived of their physical loci, they never did manage to establish a virtual loci, and their influence on politics has been dwindling ever since. Looks like the 99% are going to need to start looking for a new champion.
  6. Supreme Court Upholds Obamacare. Though the decision was based on a narrow consideration, the Supreme Court ruled that the tax clause of the Constitution does allow the federal government to force citizens to purchase health care.
  7. Hurricane Sandy decimates the East Coast. Dubbed “Frankenstorm” by the media, the storm – part nor-easter, part hurricane - lived up to its moniker, causing billions in damage and over 85 deaths. New York and New Jersey were particularly brutalized, bearing the brunt of 100mph winds, 26’+ waves and a 15'+ storm surge.
  8. 2012 Olympic Games in London. Headlines included the U.S. girls gymnastics team earning a gold medal, Michael Phelps winning more medals than any other athlete in Olympic history, and a uniquely eccentric Opening Ceremony featuring pretty much every British icon imaginable, from Sherlock Holmes to Harry Potter to Mr. Bean.
  9. The Mayan Apocalypse that wasn't. The world did not end on 12/21/12, in spite of dire predictions to the contrary.  However, we did get some funny commercials out of it.
  10. Oil Prices Decline. Gas prices declined through the second half of the year as U.S. production increased. Indeed, some consultants are now predicting that the U.S. will soon surpass the Middle East in domestic oil production.
  11. No Troops in Iran. Early on the morning of Dec. 18, 2011, after nine years, 4,487 troops killed, more than 32,000 wounded and some $800 billion spent, the last 400 American troops in Iraq rolled into Kuwait, and literally shut the gate behind them. 2012 was the first year since 2003 without any American troops in Iraq, and the country, which for most of the decade dominated the headlines, was largely forgotten.
  12. Mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado theater. 12 people died and 58 were wounded in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history
  13. Mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A horrified nation stood by as a disturbed gunman slaughtered over 25 staff members and students. Though the aftermath is still unfolding, looks like the incident may give rise to the first serious U.S. debate about gun control in decades.
International News Stories of the Year
  1. Kim Jong Eun succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, as leader of North Korea
  2. Over 40,000 people perished in Syrian as the result of a brutal civil war
  3. The celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee (the 60thAnniversary of her coronation) took place throughout the year in various Commonwealth countries, ensuring plenty of Royal news for months. But the crowning event was the Diamond Jubilee Pageant in London, during which the Queen and the Royal family led a flotilla of more than 1,000 boats down the Thames.
  4. Egyptians elected their first president, who then promptly attempted to wrest power away from people, leading to yet more revolts in the streets.  The promise of Arab Spring faded fast in 2012, but is not entirely extinguished.
  5. New hostilities erupted between Israel and Gaza, culminating in days of shelling.
  6. In Libya, four Americans were killed in an attack on the Benghazi consulate.  The resulting furor centered on the extent to which Washington DC tried to conceal from the media lapses in security at the embassy
  7. China unveiled its first aircraft carrier, as the country officially surpassed the U.S. as world's largest trading partner
  8. EU continues to struggle. Greeks rioted against austerity, and anti-immigrant groups harking back to the continent’s fascist past drew energy from the despair. Spain, Portugal and Italy struggled to right themselves and offer a way forward to an emerging generation that has never tasted opportunity.
  9. Kony 2012, a video created for you-tube that went almost instantly viral, brought attention to the plight of Ugandans under the hands of guerrilla leader Joseph Kony, who has abducted more than 60,000 children and converted them into foot soldiers in his Lord’s Resistance Army.
  10. In October, U.S. homeowners banded together to file a class action against Bank of America, Citigroup, UBC, and other large banking institutes, accusing the banks of falsely inflating LIBOR rates in order to increase homeowners’ mortgage rates over the course of 10 years. Forbes estimates that the banks earned hundreds of millions, if not billions, off the rate manipulation; the banks deny the allegations
People Who Had a Good 2012
  1. Adele. The 21 year old torch singer swept pretty much every music award imaginable.
  2. Abraham Lincoln. First there was "Team of Rivals," Doris Kearn Goodwin's new Lincoln bio. Then came the movies: "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer" and "Lincoln." Theaters were definitely more friendly to our 32nd pres in 2012 than in past years!
  3. Nate Silver, the New York Times polling guru who drew the ire of conservatives during the campaign for his prediction that President Barack Obama would win the 2012 Electoral College, only to be vindicated when the election results almost exactly tallied with his predictions.
  4. Skydiver Felix Baumgartner, who jumped from more than 39,000 meters above New Mexico, breaking the speed of sound and a height record held since 1960.
  5. Boy Bands. They’re back, with One Direction leading the charge.
  6. Jeremy Lin, the unlikely semi-savior of yet another hapless New York Knicks season. Lin, an undrafted point guard out of Harvard, was almost released by the Knicks until coach Mike D’Antoni rolled the dice and let the 23-year-old play: Lin erupted for 25 points, five rebounds and seven assists. America does love an underdog.
People Who Had a Bad 2012
  1. General George Petraeus, master of the Iraq/Afghan “surge” strategy and potential 2016 presidential candidate, who was forced to resign in wake of sex scandal.
  2. Penn State Asst Coach Jerry Sandusky, who was indicted on multiple counts of child abuse. Meanwhile, Coach Joe Paterno (blamed for not taking appropriate action) was fired and his wins vacated; he died within months of the humiliation.
  3. Lance Armstrong, who was found guilty of steroid use and his 7 Tour de France victories vacated
  4. Karl Rove, whose evident shock at Romney's loss on election night became the stuff of viral legend
  5. Todd Akin, the Missouri senate candidate whose comments on “legitimate rape” became the target of criticism and mockery.
  6. Donald Trump, whose antics during the presidential campaign – questioning Obama’s citizenship, “considering” a presidential run, offering a $5M bounty to Obama if he would publish his college transcripts - proved once and for all that he really is a crackpot.
  7. Secret Service agents, for getting caught partying with prostitutes on a junket in Columbia. Bet it’s hard running alongside those cars when you’re hung over.
  8. George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed an unarmed African-American teen, igniting a racial firestorm that dominated news coverage for weeks.
  9. Rush Limbaugh, who revealed the limits of his intellectual repertoire by resorting to invectives (“slut,” and “bitch” among them) to berate a female college student who had the temerity to testify before Congress in support of mandatory insurance coverage of contraception.
  10. Chick fil-a, whose owner dared to air his support of “traditional marriage.” His comments set off a series of protests and counterprotests — Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was helmed by former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, while Same-Sex Kiss Day was supported by LGBT activists — that had everyone from citizens to mayors and even the Muppets picking sides.
  11. Twinkies. After a prolonged strike by the company’s bakers, Hostess announced that it would shut down its snack business entirely. Farewell, fruit pies; so long, ho hos; arrivaderci, weird pink snowball things covered with coconut!
Notable Deaths
  1. Whitney Houston, Donna Summer, Andy Williams (singers)
  2. Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride (astronauts)
  3. Dave Brubek (jazz pianist)
  4. Art Ginsberg (“Mr. Food”)
  5. Phyllis Diller (comedian)
  6. Thomas Kincade, LeRoy Neiman (artist/painter)
  7. Marvin Hamlish (composer & conductor)
  8. Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, Maurice Sendak (author)
  9. Dick Clark (television personality)
  10. Charles Durning, Jack Klugman, Ernest Borgnine, Andy Griffith (actor)
  11. Senator George McGovern, Senator Arlan Specter, Senator Daniel Inouye (politicians)
  12. Rev. Sun Myung Moon (head of Unification Church)
  13. Norman Schwartkopf (US Army)
Sports News
  1. 2012 Olympics (see above)
  2. Giants vs. Patriots in Superbowl. Super Bowl XLVI pitted the New York Giants against the New England Patriots; by the time the commercials were over, the Giants had bested the Patriots 21-17.  In addition to winning their fourth Super Bowl in team history, the Giants set a new record for the lowest regular season record (9–7, win percentage of 56.3%) by a Super Bowl champion. The Patriots entered the game with an AFC-best 13–3 regular season record, and were also seeking their fourth Super Bowl win. The game was a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, in which New York won, 17–14, spoiling New England's perfect 2007 season.
  3. Giants vs. Detroit in World Series. Everyone loves a comeback, and the Giants delivered. Down 1-3 against 2011 champion St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs, they wound up taking the series all the way, finally defeating the Cardinals with a decisive 9-0 victory in Game 7. From there, the Giants headed to the World Series, where they shut out Detroit in four quick games to claim the team’s second championship title in three years.
  4. NFL replacement referees. After failing to reach an agreement with the union representing NFL referees, the league decided to field replacements for the first three weeks of the season.  The results would have been laughable if they weren't so infuriating, as the results of more than one game were impacted by bad calls and an uneven understanding of the official rule book.
  5. "Bountygate."  A group of New Orleans Saints players pooled their money to reward anyone who successfully inflicted injuries on opposing players.  The NFL - "shocked, shocked! to find that gambling is going on in here!" (to paraphrase Capt Renault in Casablanca) - promptly fined the organization and suspended the worst offenders. 
  6. Ordinarily I’d add a token mention of hockey at this point, but since over half the season was sacrificed to a player lockout, I don’t feel like they really earned a mention this year.
  7. I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but had to be withdrawn from the Belmont, ending all hope that he would be the first triple crown winner since Affirmed managed the feat in 1978.
Television News
  1. Top Television Shows: Breaking Bad, The Good Wife, Mad Men, Parks & Recreation, Parenthood, Game of Thrones, Girls, Homeland, Louie
  2. Still Popular: Big Bang Theory, Downton Abbey, Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Raising Hope
  3. Shows that jumped the shark in 2012: Glee, 2 ½ Men, The Office, How I Met Your Mother
  4. Worst Television Shows: Smash, Alcatraz, Anger Management, Mob Doctor, The Newsroom, Kim & Kourtney Take New York (good lord … someone please put an end to the Kardashian family’s 15 minutes of fame!)
  5. In some ways it was hard to notice the regularly scheduled programming this year because of the outrageous glut of political ads. In some markets, networks scrambled to carve out even more commercial time to sell to superPACs panting for slots. 
  6. Though temporarily buoyed by election coverage, analysts continue to record precipitous drop-offs in the number of viewers tuning in to evening news programs, as 20-somethings increasingly relied on online/digital sources for the latest news 
  7. Best Superbowl commercial: a tie between Clint Eastwood’s homage to Detroit and the car industry (“Halftime in America”) and that dog that ate the cat and then tried to bribe the witnesses with Doritos.
Movie News
  1. Most popular movies of the year (based on ticket sales): The Dark Knight Rises, Marvel’s The Avengers, Hunger Games, Twilight Saga-Breaking Dawn II, Skyfall, Spiderman, Brave, Ted
  2. Best movies of the year: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Skyfall, Frankenweenie, Zero Dark Thirty, Anna Karinina, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Argo, Lincoln, The Dark Knight Rises, Silver Lining Playbook, Deep Blue Sea, Django, Looper, Holy Motors, The Masters
  3. Movies based on books: Anna Karenina, Life of Pi, The Hobbit, Hunger Games, Twilight Breaking Dawn II, The Lorax, The Bourne Legacy, Diary of a Wimpy Kid-Dog Days, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer
  4. Best documentary: Ken Burns' Dust Bowl (of course)
  5. Worst movies of the year: The Lorax; Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer; John Carter of Mars, Snow White and the Huntsman, Magic Mike, Red Dawn
Entertainment News (Music, Books, etc.)
  1. The Hunger Games continued to dominate both book sales and movie theaters
  2. Anyone not reading one of the Hunger Games books was probably reading 50 Shades of Grey, the first in a trilogy of erotic bondage tales … though few of them would willingly admit to it.
  3. Most listened to songs (according to Facebook): Fun’s “We Are Young,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.”
  4. On Broadway, top shows were Clybourne Park, Other Desert Cities, Peter and the Starcatcher, Venus in Fur, Leap of Faith, Newsies, Nice Work if you Can Get It, Once, Bonnie & Clyde, One Man Two Guvnors, and lots of revivals (Porgy & Bess, Evita, Death of a Salesman, etc.)
  5. Top video games of the year: Halo 4, Assassins Creed III, Guild Wars II
  6. Honey Boo Boo, the adorable tot with the grotesque mother, dominated reality TV
  7. Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes announced that they are divorcing. What a shock.
  8. Oh … and Kate Middleton, Prince William’s wife, is preggers.
Memes of the Year
  1. Texts from Hilary. A photo of Hilary Clinton texting proved the perfect opportunity for wonks/wonkets to get their snarky on.
  2. Impossibly photogenic guy. Photo of a good-looking young guy running a marathon.
  3. McKayla is Not Impressed. A picture of McKayla Maroney’s scowl at the Olympics as she accepted the silver (not gold) medal for women’s vault
  4. “Gangnam Style," a music video featuring the infectious, meme-ready dance moves of a little-known South Korean rapper named Psy, became the most-watched video in YouTube history in 2012
  5. First world problems. Photo of a comfortable white woman complaining about rich white people problems
  6. The Most Interesting Man in the World (“I Don’t Always … But When I Do ….”) This meme began on TV as an advertising gimmick for Dos Ecces before going viral on the web.
  7. Condescending Willy Wonka. Willy Wonka condescends to listen to your complaints.
  8. Boromir. “One does not simply …."
  9. Eastwooding/Invisible Obama. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s eccentric performance at the Republican National Convention, empty chairs began popping up all over the internet.
  10. Grumpy Cat. No description needed.
  11. YOLO. “You only live once.” Think Carpe Diem for the generation that never saw Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.
Technology News
  1. iPhone 5. Bigger screen + the ability to take panoramic pictures = more long lines at Apple stores
  2. Galaxy Note. If the iPhone has a competitor, this is probably it.
  3. After years of eschewing hardware, Microsoft finally entered the fray with the Surface Tablet, a sleek little tablet PC good enough to be taken seriously
  4. Kindle/Nook. Upgrades have turned these into iPad stand-ins that just happen to also work as book readers
  5. SOPA. In the beginning, movie/music executives backed the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). But supporters of internet “freedom” were appalled at SOPA’s potential to block access to offshore websites that might host illegal content, and Google even blacked out their logo in protest. Ultimately, Congress shelved the legislation as too hot to handle, thus depriving millions of middle-schoolers of their go-to topic for persuasive essay assignments.
  6. Nintendo introduced the Wii U. It’s key innovation is its GamePad, a game controller with a built-in 6.2” touchscreen. 
  7. Instagram. The wildly popular photo-sharing app expanded from the iPhone to Android this year, adding legions of new users and a seemingly non-stop flood of new photos.
Science/Environmental News
  1. Scientists at Cern, the particle physics lab near Geneva, apparently proved the existence of the Higgs-Boson particle (aka “The God Particle”). It was an answer to one of the most basic but bedeviling questions imaginable: Where does mass come from?
  2. After over a year of travel through space, NASA’s Curiosity rover finally landed on the surface of Mars and began transmitting spectacular images back to Earth.
  3. Meanwhile, Earth-based scopes discovering an Earth-sized exoplanet in our neighbouring star system, α Centauri, a mere 1.34 parsecs (4.4 light years) away.
  4. In October, SpaceX sent its capsule Dragon on the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station. The craft has been so successful that the company, based in Hawthorne, California, is even considering a trip to Mars.
  5. After two decades of drilling, a Russian team broke through 3.8 kilometres of Antarctic ice in February to reach Lake Vostok, a huge subglacial lake isolated for millions of years. Alas, early sample analysis has not found any signs of the life many scientists hoped the lake might host.
  6. In the wake of the disastrous 2011 earthquake and tsunami that almost resulted in the meltdown of a nuclear power plan, Japan is now considering going entirely nuclear-free
  7. The United States proposed rules for the booming shale-gas fracking industry, which have enabled the US electric-power industry to shift 10% of its generating capacity from coal to gas. Still to be resolved: is fracking linked to mysterious earthquakes that tend to occur in close proximity to fracking operations?
  8. Got Global Warming? The summer’s dramatic melt of sea ice in the Arctic set a record that exceeded the predictions of climate models, as the U.S. faced its most extensive drought in half a century. Even Richard Muller, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkely, a MacArthur fellow and co-founder of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project – but perhaps better known as one of the most prominent global warming skeptics over the past decade – changed his tune, concluding that global warming is real and greenhouse-gas emissions from human activity are the main cause.
  9. In September, a consortium of some 440 scientists released 30 papers from the ENCODE project (the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements), estimating that at least 20% of the genome can influence gene expression. Other ambitious projects to crunch big biological data included the first results from an effort to map the circuit wiring of the entire mouse brain, and a project to track gene activity in some 900 anatomical parts of the human brain.
  10. The US Food and Drug Administration approved two weight-loss drugs — Belviq (lorcaserin) and Qsymia (phentermine plus topiramate) — the first since 1999. The agency also gave a green light to Truvada, the first drug designed to prevent HIV infection.
  11. After being ignored as useless genetic garbage, the vast 98% of the human genome that does not code for genes finally has a purpose. Scientists announced that these supposedly  insignificant portions of DNA are the true genetic masterminds - metabolic switches that regulate how and when genes function as well as how prolifically genes churn out their respective proteins. Scientists are already exploiting the newly discovered trove of biological information and pursuing new ways of controlling, and possibly even curing, diseases with the flick of a genetic switch.
  12. From 30% to 90% of honeybee colonies have collapsed worldwide since 2006, with the figure standing at 50% in the U.S. After considering disease, infestations by competing insects and other variables, investigators at the Harvard School of Public Health announced that the pesticide imidacloprid appears to play a big role in the mass melissacide.
  13. Remember that mysterious blue eyeball? The one in the picture that kept popping up on local news broadcasts and on the internet? Turns out it wasn't a relic of some unknown, ancient species; it came from an ordinary swordfish
Food News: 2012 was the year of seaweed, salted caramel, and healthy chips; meanwhile, organic foods remained popular despite studies that appeared to show no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic products.

Education News: Looks like No Child Left Behind will be left to die of neglect, replaced by waivers demanding that states adopt tough teacher accountability standards and "Common Core Standards."  This was too much for Chicago teachers, who went on strike demanding fair wages, fair treatment, and fair evaluation procedures. (Those who branded teachers as  "union thugs" earlier in the year might wish to consider that it was those same teachers who gave their lives protecting other people's children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Just saying.) 

Quote of the Year. "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world." – Fred Rogers (of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”)


Book Look - The Science of Sherlock Holmes, by E.J.Wagner

For years now, I've wondered how much of the forensics science described in the Sherlock Holmes canon was factual. Given the currency of shows like CSI, it can be difficult to imagine that as early as the 1880s (when the Holmes stories were being penned) police were already utilizing trace evidence to solve crimes.

Turns out I'm not the only one wondering! The author, E.J. Wagner, combines his skills as a historian and his credentials as a Holmes fan to map the Sherlock Holmes stories against actual Victorian crimefighting techniques.

Devoting a chapter each to poisons, fingerprints, footprints, handwriting evidence, insect evidence, disguise, ballistics, dust/fiber analysis, blood evidence, how crime scenes were processed, and the science of autopsies, Wallace describes the methods that were actually being utilized at the time, gives examples of each in the Holmes canon, and then regales the reader with scores of real-life cases from the Victorian era in which the techniques were employed.

Though he's writing about science, Wagner's prose is breezy, his tone light, and his scientific descriptions highly accessible. Nor is a knowledge of the Holmes stories a prerequisite, as the author is diligent in ensuring that all quotes from the stories are accompanied by a sufficiently detailed description of context.

There's really something for everyone here. Historians will appreciate the opportunity to learn more about not-often-addressed aspects of the Victorian era. Fans of true & fictional crime will delight in the author's engrossing tales of notorious Victorian crimes (a combination of the usual "Victorian greatest hits of crime" - Lizzie Bordon, Jack the Ripper, Madame Lafarge, Dr. Crippen, etc. - enhanced by scores of lesser known but equally engrossing tales). And Sherlockians will relish the opportunity to learn more about how police methods influenced the Holmes tales ... and, even more fascinating, how the Holmes tales influenced police methods.

This is one book that deserves more attention than it has apparently gotten. Highly recommended!


It's Beginning to Taste a Lot Like Christmas!

Christmas is a multi-sensory experience: Christmas lights blinking, bells jingling, the smell of clove and evergreen in the air ... mmmmm!  And then there are the foods that we associate with the holiday season:  cinnamon and peppermint, chocolate and eggnog, savory roasts with a side of pudding ... oh, my!  Probably doesn't matter what country or culture you come from: food is an indispensible part of the season.

Attached is my list of foods that are traditionally and/or sentimentally associated with the holidays.  Either they feature prominantly in Christmas literature, rate a mention in Christmas carols, or are indelibly linked with the season.  I freely admit that this list is Eurocentric, but since Europe gave us St. Nikolas and Christmas trees, I figure that's only fair.  Enjoy the list ... just don't drool on your keyboard as you read!
  1. Roast goose (alt: pheasant, duck).  What's the first thing Scrooge does after waking up on Christmas morning?  That's right ... he sends an urchin off to buy him the biggest goose in the window!  Roast goose was the traditional Christmas dish back in Dickens' day, and - by the way - also plays a feature role in the Sherlock Holmes holiday tale, The Blue Carbuncle
  2. Oysters (alt: oyster stew).  Many 18th and 19th century accounts of Christmas festivities make special mention of oysters and oyster stew.  Why?  Back in the day Catholics considered it bad form to eat meat the day before religious festivals like Christmas, so seafood was the only alternative, and oysters were one of the few types of seafood still plentiful (and affordable) in winter.
  3. Mincemeat pie.  According to the food historians, mincemeat pie dates back to Medieval times. At that time, this recipe did, indeed, include meat. It also often contained dried fruits, sugar, and spices. The distinction between mincemeat and mince was drawn in the mid-nineteenth century when meat began disappearing from the recipe, leaving the fruit, nut, sugar, spice, and suet product we know today. Late 19th century cookbooks contain several recipes for both mincemeat and mince, some containing meat, others not.
  4. Sweetmeats/nuts (alt: roasted chestnuts).  The term "sweetmeats" hints at the tradition behind that bowl of mixed, shelled nuts your aunt used to leave out on the mantle every December.  For thousands of years, nuts have been considered an exotic delicacy.  Kind of makes you appreciate why people made a big deal out of their nutcrackers.
  5. Stollen/bishop's bread/fruitcake.  Possibly the most reviled holiday treat, which is really unfair.  Believe it or not, back in the 18th century fruitcakes were so associated with wealth and decadence that they were briefly outlawed as an example of "sinful excess". Sure, everyone's probably had at least one bad experience with fruitcake, but don't knock it until you've tried the genuine article, homemade from an old family recipe, stuffed with lightly preserved fruits, sweetmeats, honey, and a generous portion of brandy ... yum!
  6. Buche de Noel/yule logs.  Not actual yule logs - those big trees maneuvered into fireplaces and ignited in honor of Christmas or Twelth Night.  What I'm referring to are those thin layers of cake topped with rich cream, then rolled into logs and frosted to resemble their namesake.  You don't see them in the grocery stores like you used to, but plenty of specialty bakeries still sell them. 
  7. Plum pudding. Christmas pudding has its origins in medieval England, and is sometimes known as plum pudding ("plum" being the old English word for raisins - go figure) or figgy pudding, as in "Now bring us some figgy pudding/ Now bring us some figgy pudding/ Now bring us some figgy pudding/ And put it right here!"
  8. Gingerbread.  We have the Germans to thank for this ubiquitous holiday food.  Since the middle ages Germans have observed the custom of creating gingerbread shapes to celebrate various seasons, and in the 19th century the custom of shaping gingerbread into lebkuchen - little gingerbread houses, began. 
  9. Cookies.  Though names and recipes vary, every family seems to do some version of shortbread, and I nurse a special place in my heart for cookie-press cookies with little dabs of jelly in the middle that were practically ubiquitous in the '70s.
  10. Candy canes.  The first historical reference to the familiar cane shape goes back to 1600s, when priests used to hand out sugar-sticks twisted into canes meant to represent a shepherd's staff.  Later, they were used to decorate Christmas trees.  These days they come in all kinds of colors, but everyone knows the red and white ones are the only ones that genuinely taste like Christmas.
  11. Ribbon candy.  I'm not sure how or when ribbon candy came to be so associated with the holidays (though the elegance of the treat and its resemblance to actual ribbon perhaps explains it) ... all I know is that my grandmother always had a bowl filled with ribbon candy for snacking during the holiday season.
  12. Eggnog (alt: posset).  Historians argue over whether the origins of this beverage stretch back to colonial times ("egg and grog" was a popular drink made with rum), or even further back, deriving from hot milk possets popular in medieval England.  All I know is that anything that combines egg, cream, sugar and booze can't be a bad thing. 
  13. Wassail (alt: mulled cider, mulled wine).  The word "wassail" comes from the Old English "Waes hael" — that is, "Good Health!" - and starts popping up in carols as far back as the 5th century, making wassail one of the more ancient and traditional of holiday foods on this list.
  14. Christmas punch (alt: hot buttered rum).  A beverage so traditional, even Charles Dickens had his own recipe - which, in case you're wondering, called for "the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin ... a double-handfull [sic] of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy — if it not be a large claret-glass, say two."


Book Look - Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh

Am slowly working my way through the Waugh canon but wish it hadn't taken me so long to get around to Scoop. Finished the book a couple of days ago and I'm still smiling over the final 15 pages.

In this outing Waugh takes a break from heavy social commentary (war, politics, social mores) to take on a much broader mark: the fourth estate. Unrest is brewing in the African country of Ishmaelia; British tabloids scamble to deploy their best foreign correspondents to cover the efray. Alas, through a series of blunders and misunderstandings, the Beast ends up deploying the author of their "pastoral living" column. Regular readers of Waugh will recognize William Bolt's type: steadfast and unflappable in the face of mounting chaos. Thrust into the heart of a forgotten African country, surrounded by a cast of socially/ethically/intellectually compromised foreign correspondents, and laden with an entire train-car full of wholly ridiculous luggage (including a "rather overfurnished tent, three months' rations, a collapsible canoe, a jointed flagstaff and Union Jack, and hand-pump and sterilizing plant, an astrolabe, six suites of tropical linen and a sou'wester, a camp operating table and set of surgical instruments, a portable humidor, and a Christmas hamper complete with a Santa Claus costume and a tripod mistletoe stand"), Bolt weathers a series of increasingly absurd predictaments without ever compromising his dignity.

There's not much subtlety here: the majority of characters are little more than grotesques and much of the humor is broad farce. But it's extraordinarily witty and hugely amusing farce: I laughed aloud so often, people actually began to move away from me on the metro. (A added boon during rush hour!)

Yes, Waugh's treatment of Africans is racist and irreverent - but then again, so is his treatment of his fellow countrymen, so critical reviewers might consider lightening up. The racism is no more than an honest representation of the paternalistic attitude of Britain towards "uncivilized lands" at this time in history; and, besides, all's fair in love, war, and satire.

Scoop is brisk, broad, and fun, fun, fun! Definitely a book I'll be picking up again one day.


Superpowers I'd Like to Have

I've been thinking about superpowers.  Specifically, I've been thinking about overrrated superpowers.  Stopping bullets with your chest?  How many times is that going to come up in your life, unless maybe you've chosen a career in the military?  Leaping tall buildings?  What's the big deal, when you can just drive around them?  Flying? Yes - being able to get somewhere fast would be awesome, but not if it means arriving with bad hair and bugs in my teeth.  And forget invisibility - that's really only helpful if you're a criminal or if you're being hunted by Sauron.

Not unexpectedly, this got me thinking about superpowers that would actually be useful.  Here's my list thus far:
  1. Whine suppression.  Everytime someone whines, I snap my fingers and - poof!  They automatically become reasonable.  This power would be equally useful when dealing with toddlers and politicians.
  2. Calorie zapping.  Zapping the calories out of food in a way that doesn't effect taste = coolest superpower ever!  
  3. Teleportation.  I keep waiting for science to invent teleporters like the ones on Star Trek, but they're taking their sweet time about it.  In the meantime, I'll accept the ability to teleport myself to any location, instanteously.  Goodbye, airports; farewell, traffic!
  4. Biblioportation.  The ability to transplant myself into any book plot that I choose, to interact with the characters and stay for as long as I like.  I'm pretty sure I could win Mr. Darcy away from Elizabeth, and I've always had a secret longing to attend Mr. Fezziwig's Christmas party!
  5. Mosquito repellation.  With a wave of my mighty superswatter (think Thor's hammer but swishier), all mosquitos would flee before me.
  6. Time generation.  The ability to invent extra hours of the day so I could catch up on everything I have to do, then everything I WANT to do, and still get a full night's sleep.
  7. Quickread.  The ability to zip through a book without sacrificing any of the meaning, language, nuance or metaphor.  Some - including myself - would argue that lingering amidst the pages of a great book is one of life's pleasures.  Which is why I wouldn't want to use this superpower all the time, but barring superpowers, I'm not sure how else I'm ever going to make it through my collection of unread books before I die, especially when I just keep adding to the collection with the breezy confidence of a vampire or possibly the last Highlander.
  8. Auto-sort.  I zap papers or accumulated debris with a wand and poof!  Everything returns to its designated place.  No more cleaning!
  9. Bullshit detector.  The ability to tell when someone is lying. A "must-have" superpower for single women, tax collectors and police officers, but there's a dark side (don't all the best superpowers have a dark side?): the superpower would have to be disabled during election seasons to avoid the real possibility of psychic implosion.  
  10. Thesuria.  When writing or speaking, the ability to always be able to lay my hands on exactly the word I am looking for. 
  11. Hippie-ray.  I'd use this to inflict peace and love on passing crazies, forcing them to stop yelling and start coming up with peaceful solutions to their problems. 
If the cosmos suddenly decided to grant you the superpower of your choice, what would it be?


10+ Fictional Characters With Autism

I love that autistic characters are starting to show up in popular culture.  When my son was first diagnosed with high functioning autism, almost 20 years ago, we had to explain the disability to family and friends.  Now just about everyone is familiar with the condition, either through news reports, awareness campaigns (World Autism Awareness Day, that "puzzle piece" ribbon), TV/film (Rain Man), and/or literature (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Al Capone Does My Shirts).

My intent here is to point out that while the diagnosis "high functioning autism" may be relatively new, these quirky individuals have been appearing as archetypes in our cultural imagination for decades, and continue to so. 

Here's my list of fictional characters who aren't specifically identified as autistic, but whose pattern of behaviour and talents beg the armchair diagnosis.  My son, for one, loves the idea that he and his hero Sherlock Holmes may have something in common!
  1. Sherlock Holmes (various short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).  It's all there: the brilliance, the hyper-rationality, the obsessive interests (54 separate types of tobacco ash - really?), the eccentric eating/sleeping patterns, the awkward social skills, etc.  Arthur Conan Doyle has been quoted as stating that he based the character of Sherlock Holmes on Dr. John Bell, one of his university professors.  Whose betting Dr. Bell was probably somewhere on the spectrum  himself?  Some would even argue that Doyle has given us not just one autistic character but a set of them: Sherlock's misanthropic brother Mycroft demonstrates many of the same characteristics as his brother, to which he adds an abhorrance for social conversation, which is very aspie-ish.
  2. Dr. House (Hugh Laurie), House (television show).  Almost unfair to include this as a separate entry, since the character of House is clearly modelled after Sherlock Holmes.  He even has his own Watson, not-so-cleverly renamed "Wilson."  The House character is much more anti-social than Holmes, but everything else - the  brilliance, the hyper-rationality, the obsessive interests, the eccentric eating/sleeping patterns - tallies.
  3. Dr. Temperence Brennan, Bones (television show).  Yes, she's been given a troubled childhood and other psychologically damaging events to explain her eccentricities.  But none of that explains her hyper-rationality, her inability to detect the subcontext of language, her social isolation, or her obsessive interest in such an odd field.  Just to seal the deal, the writers have given her a Watson too, this time in the form of a female, her best friend Angela Montenegro. 
  4. Dr. Spencer Reid, Criminal Minds (television show).  There's little ambiguity here - this "super genious" with poor social skills fulfills most aspie stereotypes.  He doesn't have one Watson so much as a team of them, all politely correcting him when he interprets something too literally or accidentally says something insensitive.  If only the real world were as tolerant.
  5. Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Big Bang Theory (television show).  Like Dr. House, another character clearly written to conform to the "obnoxious aspie" stereotype - hyper-intelligent, self-obsessed, thoughtless and socially obtuse.  What I like about the Sheldon character, though, is that he's played for laughs.  As the mother of an aspie son, I can assure you autism often is quite funny - as when I overheard my son respond to a female classmate who called him on the phone: "What do you mean, you don't have any question to ask? Then why are you calling me?" Tell me that that couldn't have been lifted straight out of the script of an episode of this show!
  6. Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (fiction).  A character that captures the darker side of autism, Wonka's obsession with chocolate, his eccentric behaviour, and his self-imposed isolation come off as vaguely creepy.  Add to that his poor social skills, his love of systems/patterns, and his moral inflexibility (aspies do have a tendency to the world in black and white), and he's definitely a candidate. 
  7. Captain Nemo (fiction).  Another obsessive personality not known for his moral inflexibility, possessing a misanthropy so pronounced that he actually builds his own submarine in order to escape from civilization.
  8. Ignatius Reilly, Confederacy of Dunces (fiction). Proving that not all aspie characters are super-geniuses is Ignatius Reilly, a failed hot dog vendor who lives with his mother.  Pompous, misanthropic, hyperlexic, a slave to sensory sensativities, utterly devoid of social skills, and obsessed by a sixth century martyr named Boethius, his interactions with the "real world" are - in the vein of Don Quixote - comically/tragically inept.
  9. Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (fiction). Like Dr. Temperence Brennan in Bones, the author provides Salander with a horrific childhood which certainly suffices to explain many of her ... shall we say, eccentricities.  But her photographic memory, her deep social introversion, her moral inflexibility, and her brilliant hacking skills suggest that she falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. 
  10. Nero Wolfe (various novels by Rex Stout).  This massively fat detective is brilliant, self-absorbed, eccentric, obsessive (his collection of orchids is said to number over 10,000), wedded to routine, doesn't like to be touched, and never leaves his home if he can help it.  His Watson, by the way,  is an investigator by the name of Archie Goodman.   
  11. Batman (comic books).  Though the character has undergone many iterations and re-imaginings over the years, aspects of his character that haven't changed are his brilliance, his awkward social skills, his social isolation, and his inflexible moral code, all of which are autistic-like.  He has a Watson too ... have you figured out who it is?  Nope - not Robin; it's Alfred Pennyman, his butler.   
  12. Dr. Egon Spengler, Ghostbusters (movie). With degrees in parapsychology, physics, and nuclear engineering, his geekiness is unchallenged.  But what earns him a spot on this list is his pendantic speaking style, his extreme literalness, and his complete obtuseness with respect to social interactions.
  13. Dr. Spock, Star Trek (television show).  Okay, okay - I get that he's a Vulcan, a race that has denounced emotion.  Whicu may explain his social awkwardness, his lack of semantic/pragmatic language, and his adherence to logic, but doesn't explain his engineering brilliance, his photographic memory, or why he talks like a computer. 


Book Look - The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

It’s going to be challenging to write this review because I'm not sure through which “lens” I should approach the task. As a life-long reader with a penchant for challenging fiction, should I review Book Thief as a work of adult literature; or, in my role as a middle school English teacher, should I address its merits as a tool for teaching literature to teens? As it happens, this book wholly succeeds on both levels.

The key is that Book Thief possesses much more depth than usually found in literature marketed to teens. The characters are complex and deeply realized. The text is stuffed with imagery, personification, extended metaphors/allegories (Max’s stories), irony (the use of Mein Kampf in aiding Max's escape), and symbolism (those books!!). Finally, the author’s voice is vivid, lyric, and utterly compelling. Speaking of which …

Much has been made of the author’s choice of Death as the narrator. I gather from an interview with the author that this was largely fortuitous; certainly it was fortunate! Any story about Nazi Germany can’t end well, but by personifying Death, making him (it?) almost compassionate, the deaths become a little less horrific. A group of Jewish prisoners leaping to their death from a precipice is ghastly – but somehow the idea that Death is there, deliberately catching their souls before they land, makes it more bearable. Zusak’s use of foreshadowing is similarly cunning: by planting clues in section/chapter titles and in Death’s off-hand remarks about shocks/horrors to come, the author provides readers a chance to emotionally prepare for them, so that they are (almost) endurable. I contrast this with works like Schindlers List, which are so unrelentingly horrific that they are almost impossible to read. In contrast, Zusak has found a way to present horrific events without compelling us to run away from them.

Another benefit is that this device allows the author to utilize a narrative voice entirely unbound by preconceived notions. Because, face it, is there any period of history about which Americans possess more preconceived notions than Nazi Germany? But by utilizing a narrator whose perspective is entirely bereft of emotion (not to mention cliché), the author allows us to experience even the most familiar elements of his tale – from ideas as innocuous as weather to themes as vast as morality – in ways that fresh, stripped of subliminal baggage, and provocative.

Thanks to all of the above, Book Thief accomplishes what few books about Nazi Germany accomplish, spinning a tale that challenges stereotypes; that presents rather than judges; that depicts humiliation without stripping its characters of dignity; and that forces us to abandon our pre-packaged "mental newsreels" of Nazi Germany in order to replace the images with real faces, real lives, real emotions, real epiphanies, and real understanding.


A Thousand Words: Halloween Tree

From "The Halloween Tree" by Ray Bradbury, illustrations by Joe Mugnaini. My favorite creepy Ray Bradbury tale!


40+ Unique Scrapbook Embellishments

One of the aspects of scrapbooking that I enjoy most is identifying out-of-the ordinary materials to use as embellishments.  I love walking through toy stores, office supply stores, dollar stores, garden stores, even hardware stores, looking for unusual items to include in my layouts. 

Following are some of my favorite unique scrapbook embellishments.  About all they have in common is that they're flat and they're *not* acid-free, so be sure to mount them on acid-free papers or take other precautions as necessary to protect your photos and ephemera.
  1. Wood cutouts & trim.  Most craft stores have a section devoted to wood cutouts.  Our local Michael's features cutouts in at least 30 shapes, which change seasonally, plus a year-round supply of squares, circles, stars, and other basic shapes.  I love coloring them with inks/chalks and they look great stamped.  If you can't find the shape you want, buy balsa and create your own.  By the way, some wood trims are also flat and can be used for scrapbooking.
  2. Cork.  I've just now started to see cork sheets show up in the scrapbooking sections of local stores.  Before, I usually found them hiding out in office supply stores.  These sheets make wonderful backgrounds, but are also effective embellishments when cut into shapes.
  3. Felt.  I tend to think of felt as a nursery-school supply, but these days it comes in pre-cut, page-sized sheets in a variety of colors and embossed/imprinted textures.
  4. Yarn.  I've discovered that for the price of one of those small packages of coordinating fibers, you can buy a whole ball of yarn.  I like the yarns that change colors every few feet (providing a choice of shades), and am especially partial to the furry/sparkly varieties.
  5. Sequins.  Speaking of sparkly, save yourself the expense of faux gemstones and take advantage of sequins.  They come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes. 
  6. Dried flowers/plants/grasses.  I've become a huge fan of embellishing my pages with bits of dried foliage.  Sometimes I use items from my yard; more often, I use flattened clippings of baby's breath or other dried foliage sold for floral arrangements.  By the way, some stores even offer dried moss, which I've used in several layouts to add a bit of rustic green.
  7. Playing cards.  I have a deck of cards that I periodically rob for scrapbooking projects.  Sometimes I use them as "literal" embellishments - for a layout on our trip to Vegas, for example; other times, I use them more "figuratively," as when I used the queen of hearts for a display about my neice modeling her prom dress
  8. Game cards/pieces.  Don't throw those old board games away without looting the accessories!  Monopoly money/deeds, scrabble tiles, and cards can all be repurposed as embellishments.  (I've used a bunch of Community Chest cards from an old Monopoly game in a variety of layouts, including the "Get out of jail free" card for a spread about the time my adorable, beloved son emptied the contents of his beanbag chair all over his room.)
  9. Children's activity books.  Another item worth looting before you throw them away, childrens' activity books often have stickers, pictures and accessories (colorforms, velcro people, etc.) that can be reused.
  10. Fringe.  Possibly my affection for fringe stems from my youth in the 60s - whatever the root cause, it does perk up a scrapbook page!
  11. Plastic carpet latch-hook framing.  This comes in a variety of sizes and resembles a checkerboard pattern with spaces in between the intersecting strands of plastic.  I've used it to simulate lattice, as a cool background for an "all boy" layout, and as a frame upon which I attached pictures and other embellishments. 
  12. Chalkboards/chalkboard paint.  Chalkboard paper has begun popping up in local craft stores, which is cool.  But if you scrounge around the dollhouse accessories section of your craft store, you will likely find small, framed chalkboards that look great with a variety of different scrapbooking styles.  Just use regular chalk to add journaling, graffiti, titles, etc.
  13. Dollhouse accessories.  Speaking of dollhouse accessories, don't neglect to peruse this section of your local craft store for unique embellishments.  I've used a variety of off-beat items in my layouts, from dollhouse-sized kitchen utensils to dollhouse rugs, books/newspapers, school supplies, and "artwork"
  14. Jewelry. Now that jewelry-making has become mainstream, a variety of stores have stocked up on beautiful metal embellishments meant to be used for pins, earrings, broaches, and necklaces, but that work equally well as scrapbook embellishments.  I've even used jewelry chain in some of my layouts.  (The trick is to hit the "clearance" aisle and think out-of-the-box.)
  15. Stamps.  I'm not sure people actually engage in stamp-collecting any more, but I've been robbing my childhood collection for years now to add pizazz to my scrapbook pages.  My stamp collection includes lots of birds, animals, profiles, monumnets, nature scenes - designs that suit a vareity fo layouts.
  16. Confetti. Look for novelty confetti in the party section of any store.  These days it comes in shapes suitable for a variety of seasons and occassions (musical notes, birthday cakes, graduation caps, etc.).  I like to lay the confetti out on a piece of wax paper, spray the sides facing up with adhesive, then lay my paper over top, pressing down firmly so that the confetti adheres - thus ensuring that the confetti retains that natural scattered appearance (rather than looking arranged).
  17. Novelty buttons.  Using buttons in layouts isn't new news, but what I don't see a lot of is people using novelty buttons.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out the sewing section of your local craft store - you'll find buttons in the shape of flowers, bugs, baseballs ... pretty much anything you can imagine!  The kinds with holes are naturally flat, but the ones that attach via plastic loops can be used if you don't mind taking the time to remove the loops with a pair of small wirecutters.
  18. Iron-on patches.  While you're in the sewing section, check out the supply of iron-on patches.  These are a relatively inexpensive way to add great color and texture to your layout.
  19. Mosaic tiles.  Most craft stores stock small tiles meant for mosaic-work.  Some of these are large and fat, but others are small and slender - perfect for adding color and texture to your layout. 
  20. Washers.  I love raiding my husband's workshop for scrapbooking supplies!  Washers are my go-to accessory - I like to line them up along the side of a page or along the top/bottom of photos.
  21. Postcards.  When on vacation, I always buy up a bunch of postcards with the idea of using them as scrapbook embellishments later.  "Kitchy" postcards and those that include maps of your destination work particularly well.  These days I often find them in shapes, which can be fun.
  22. Store-bought cards.  Holiday cards are a great source for high-quality graphics, and these days they often come pre-embellished with raised elements, fur, glitter, or other elements.  Simply trim the picture and add it to your layout!  I recycle birthday and Christmas cards in this fashion, though sometimes - if I'm looking for a hard-to-find turkey picture for Thanksgiving or just the right bunny picture for Easter - I'll actually go to Hallmark in hopes of finding exactly what I want.
  23. Decals/bumperstickers.  Those gel decals that are sold for holidays work well as scrapbook embellishments, as do decals intended for your car's bumper.  The ubiquitious "OBX" decal sold in every gift store in the Outer Banks proved the perfect embellishment for my layout on our family trip to the beach resort, and I've used our excess "honor roll" high school bumper stickers for high school layouts.
  24. Seed packets.  I love seed packet artwork!  It isn't just for layouts about gardening - I've used seed packets as elements on pages devoted to parks, spring, and my nieces.
  25. Flower/garden markers.  Garden stores sell a variety of stakes meant to be labelled and stuck into the ground so you don't forget what you've planted in each row.  I've found them in shiny steel, black, and wood - all of which have come in handy for scrapbooking.  They're particularly good for labeling.
  26. Popsicle sticks.  I've used them as frames, as title bars above pictures, and as caption bars below them.  Just treat the sticks first with some kind of sealant if you plan to write on them, as inks will run on untreated wood.
  27. Novelty paper clips.  The big chain office supply stores carry a variety of novelty paper clips, which rarely seem to sell so they always end up in the "clearance" aisle, where I scoop them up for a song.  I've got paper clips in the shapes of red/white/blue stars, pastel flowers, orange pumpkins, and green Christmas trees ... not to mention clips in a variety of metals and basic shapes (squares, ovals, spirals).  Such a simple way to add interest to a layout.
  28. Leather.  I originally bought leather cording for a boy scout project, then realized how great it would look on scrapbook pages about scouting.  It looks especially great laced through eyelets. 
  29. Tissue paper.  They sell tissue paper in such a variety of gorgeous colors and patterns these days, it's a shame to waste it all on wrapping gifts.  I've used tissue paper to add color to an Easter spread, to suggest flowers in a spread devoted to spring, and to create a cool "stained glass" effect for a Christmas layout
  30. Foam.  Most craft stores sell flat sheets of craft foam in a variety of colors and patterns, which is cool, but what usually draws my eye are the foam cut-out shapes sold for craft projects.  My local craft store rotates these in and out by season, offering Christmas/snowflake shapes in winter, flower/Easter shapes in spring, luau/fish shapes in summer, and pumpkin/fall leaf shapes in fall.  Sometimes I use them as-is; other times, I glam them up by adding inks, glitter, and/or outlining.
  31. Maps.  I love using maps in layouts!  Not necessarily standard roadmaps, but the sorts of maps you find in atlases or on paper restaurant placemats.  Nothing instantly communicates "travel" like a picture frame made of geography.
  32. Gift tags.  Don't know why I've got this down towards the bottom of the list, because gift tags are one of my go-to embellishments. During the Christmas season, practically every stores stocks them and often the designs are eyecatching.  I like to use four of them at a time and group them in rows or squares on the page. 
  33. Burlap.  I love the rugged, natural look of burlap, which makes it a perfect embellishment for pages devoted to camping, scouting, or other manly themes. 
  34. Origami papers & shapes.  Origami paper comes in a variety of unusual patterns, so can be used unfolded to add color/texture to a page.  But why stop there?  Flattened fish, cranes and other origami animals make eye-catching embellishments - the challenge, of course, is figuring out how to create them!
  35. Googly eyes.  Nothing adds fun to a layout that googly eyes!  Sometimes I add them to papercut animals to add a bit of whimsy.  They also work well on black paper for Halloween layouts (group them in twos, as if creatures are staring out from the darkness).  My favorite effect was when I used a bunch of them to matte a Halloween photo ... impossible not to smile at the finished product!
  36. Feathers.  Nothing brightens a page like gaudily colored feathers!  I've used yellow "chick" feathers to brighten up an Easter spread, purple/pink "boa" feathers to add texture to a princess spread, and green feathers to jolly up a St. Patrick's Day homage.
  37. Refrigerator magnets. They are often quite cute/clever, and flat enough to add fun to a layout without adding bulk.
  38. Lace.  Real lace (in the form of trim or doilies) adds delicacy to vintage layouts, and lacy hearts are a perfect pick for Valentines Day spreads.
  39. Sand.  Fill vellum envelopes with sand from your family beach trip, or create designs with glue and then pour sand overtop.  I love the texture and authenticity of adding sand borders to pictures of our summer vacations at the shore.
  40. Store frequent shopper/gift cards.  I don't know why they even give you the cards - they look you up by phone number once you're in the store!  Freeing up your frequent shopper cards to act as embellishments.  For instance, I used a Best Buy card to add interest to a page about our sons' video game addiction, and a used-up Starbucks gift card to embellish a page devoted to my husband's Starbucks obsession!
  41. Brown paper shopping bags.  I love cutting shapes out of the unprinted parts of the bag - the brown kraft paper lends a neat, rustic sort of texture to layout pages.
What unique embellishments have you employed in your scrapbook layouts? I'm always looking for new ideas!


Libraries in the Movies

Today's list combines two of my favorite things, books and movies.  Libraries don't often show up in movies, but when they do, they often make for great cinema.  Following are some of my favorite library moments from the movies:
  1. Beauty and the Beast.  I wouldn't have thought twice about marrying the Beast if it meant gaining access to that amazing library ...!
  2. Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Few people have seen this film adaptation of one of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, which is a shame because the scene in the town library where Mr. Dark, the hauntingly evil Illustrated Man, vies for Jason Robard's soul is seriously chilling.
  3. Ghostbusters.  It was this movie - specifically, the genuinely hilarious scene in which the boys "bust" the ghost of a librarian - that introduced me to the wonder that is the New York City Public Library.
  4. Shawshank Redemption.  Appropriately, the prison library is where Andy flees to escape the inhumanity and injustice of his imprisonment.  (The symbolism isn't exactly subtle.)
  5. Music Man.  A whole, gorgeous dance number erupts in the town library when charming fraudster Harold Hill comes a'callin' to woo the town's librarian. 
  6. The Mummy/The Mummy Returns.  True, libraries play bit roles in both these features, but they make my top 10 anyway because they feature a female librarian kicking butt, which there just isn't enough of in film.
  7. Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Before Richard Gere seduced Julia Rogers with opera in Pretty Woman, George Peppard was seducing Audrey Hepburn with books in this Hollywood classic.
  8. Inkheart.  In this adaptation of a childrens' book, a girl learns that her father has the ability to liberate fictional characters from their books.  If only I could figure out a way to liberate Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice ...!
  9. National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  You knew a whole movie about a book was going to have to make this list, but that cool chase scene in the Library of Congress definitely seals the deal.
  10. The Name of the Rose.  The quintessential movie about libraries, as the whole plot revolves around the power of the written word to shape human discourse.  
Honorable Mentions:
  1. The Breakfast Club.  Though the whole movie takes place in a library, I'm exiling it from my top 10 because the library doesn't actually have anything to do with the plot.  I still remember thinking the first time I saw the movie: why are you guys just sitting there sulking when you're surrounded by BOOKS?
  2. Cue montage* of characters studying or researching in libraries, featuring: Sean Astin's deperate attempt to get admitted to Notre Dame in Rudy; a rapidly ailing Tom Hanks researching gay rights in Philadelphia; Russell Crow in A Beautiful Mind, desperately clinging to sanity among the stacks at the Princeton library; Harry Potter in the library at Hogwarts, frantically researching ways to breathe underwater in time for Triwizard Tournament; Matt Damon, armed with his a public library education, smacking down that jerk from Harvard in Good Will Hunting; and (of course) Kevin Bacon reading from The Book at that town meeting in Footloose.  (*Feel free to choose your own background music for the montage, but Gonna Fly Now from Rocky definitely accompanies my version.)


The Ultimate Christmas To Do List

Some time ago I compiled a list of fun things to do at Christmas.  Which makes for fun browsing, but it was never meant to be a comprehensive "To Do" list ... more of a reminder not to let the holidays get in the way of - well - the holidays!

In honor of there being 100 days until Christmas, I thought this year I'd compile the ultimate, the penultimate, the Christmas to-do list of all Christmas to-do lists. 

I've consulted over 30 online Christmas to-do lists - to include lists compiled by such seriously overachieving magazines as DIY, Southern Living, and Martha Stewart's Living - in order to gather and consolidate all of them into one master list, which I've posted here. 

If that doesn't qualify this as the ULTIMATE Christmas list, then I'm not sure what does!
  1. Prepare
    1. Create a budget & start saving. Nothing ruins the holiday season like having to worry about money. So start thinking now - before the craziness sets in - about what you can really afford, and how you're going to allot the money you have.  Remember that Christmas isn't about how you spend your money, it's about how you spend your time.
    2. Plan your holiday travels. Are you planning to spend the holiday with family in another city or state? Or is this the year you're finally going to see Christmas in New York? The earlier you plan/book any holiday travel (flights, hotels, cars, restaurant reservations), the better the rates you'll lock in ... and the less stress you'll have when the holidays roll around. 
    3. Buy tickets.  If you're going to attend any popular holiday events - The Nutcracker, holiday performances, Hallelujah Chorus sing-alongs, etc. - purchase your tickets now.  When compiling your list of theaters, don't leave out local high school, community center, church, and community symphony/choir/band performances - often these local organizations put on lovely holiday shows!  If you happen to live near our nation's capital, you may want to click here for a list of 25+ ways to celebrate the holidays in Washington D.C.
    4. Assemble your ideas. You've spent all year planning for Christmas, haven't you? Buying magazines stuffed with holiday menus and decorating ideas, pinning scrumptious recipes and adorable craft projects on Pinterest .... Take time now to look through your collection and pick a few that you would really like to do this year ... just don't overdo it!
    5. Initiate (& wrap up) craft projects. Homemade gifts and decorations are a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday, but the last thing you want is to get so behind on your Christmas crafting that you have to miss out on holiday fun to finish what you've started. So take time now to plan and start your holiday projects, with an eye towards finishing everything by the beginning of December.  Click here for a list of 90+ ideas for homemade gifts, or here for a list of great gift basket ideas.
    6. Prepare/print out your to do lists.  This to-do list is a good start, but it's not meant to stand in for your own list.  Use these entries as reminders of the sorts of things you'll want to include on your own personalized list.
    7. Set up your family holiday calendar.  Set aside a calendar and start planning out your holiday season. Of course you'll want to include parties, family events, work events, shows/concerts, craft fairs, church events, and whatnot - but don't neglect to add to your calender important deadlines too: "last date for internet shopping", "finish mailing cards by this date", "finish mailing packages by this date", etc.  You'll save yourself loads of stress if you use your calendar not just for dates, but also for planning, building in time to make sure you can get everything done without rushing. 
    8. Clean your space.  Take time now to declutter your house in preparation for the holidays: store summer clothes/coats, clear away old papers/magazines/detritus, etc.   Are you going to be hosting any guests this holiday season?  Take the time now to prep your guest room, deep-clean your guest bath, and purchase any necessary supplies (extra guest towels, pillows, scented soaps, etc.).   
    9. Assemble Your Supplies. Pull all your holiday things down from the attic and start pre-deploying.  Now's the time to inventory your wrapping supplies and make sure you've got what you need; to think about new decorations you want to acquire; and to repair/replace broken decorations. Take advantage of the fact that stores offer the best selections of wrapping paper, lights, holiday dishwear, holiday linens, and ornaments right after Halloween; inventories dwindle quickly after that.  (Stores don't restock these items; once they're gone, they're gone!)  While you're at it, be sure to wash/iron your holiday linens so they'll be ready to go when you need them.
    10. Gather Addresses.  If you'll be sending out Christmas cards, start updating your list and gathering addresses. This always takes longer than you think it's going to take, and is something you definitely don't want to be messing with later, when things start getting rushed.
    11. Consult the family.  Above all, don't get so wrapped up in your own Christmas planning that you forget the holiday is a family event.  Consult the other members of your family and ask them what they are looking forward to this holiday season. I'll never forget my college student son calling home the week before winter break, exhaused and homesick: "You know what I'm looking forward to most? Lighting a fire in the fireplace and watching football with dad and my uncles."  I didn't even have that on my list - but it sure has been there ever since.
  2. Christmas Cards
    1. Capture your family on film.  Even if you aren't one of the 90% of folks that have switched from traditional Christmas cards to holiday photo cards, you'll still want to avail yourself of this annual excuse to gather the family together for a photo.  In years to come, your annual Christmas photos will serve as an irreplacable family timeline, documenting changes, additions and losses.
    2. Compose your family update.  Call me old-fashioned, but I do enjoy a nice, newsy Christmas letter tucked into the Christmas cards we receive.  Think about it - why are you even bothering to communicate with these people unless you care about what they've been getting up to?  Presumably, they care about what you've been up to as well.  Your newsletter doesn't have to be boring: consider laying out your year as a series of multiple choice questions (with at least one goofy answer per question), or as a true/false quiz, or put the whole thing in rhyme. Be creative!
    3. Make your list & assemble addresses. It's easy to agonize over who to include/not include on your Christmas card list.  Do you keep sending cards to Great Aunt Sue, even though she hasn't reciprocated in the last 5 years?  I recommend taking a moment to think about why you're sending out cards.  If it's just an item on your checklist, or something you do out of guilt, then by all means keep your list short.  If, on the other hand, cards are a way of maintaining contact with people who have been important to you in the past, then maintain a generous list: after all, cards are cheap, but you only get so many great aunts/college roommates/childhood friends in one lifetime, and once you lose touch with them, they're often gone forever.  
    4. Pick out (or make) your cards.  Take the time to pick cards that represent your personality and/or values.  If you've do it right, the people who open your cards won't even have to read the signature; they'll know it's you!
    5. Address & mail your cards.  Labels printed on your computer are tacky, unless your extended family numbers in the 100s. Also tacky: sending out photo cards without bothering to sign them by hand: that pre-printed "Merry Christmas from the Hendersons!" is just phoning it in.  And don't forget the Christmas stamps.
  3. Plan your gift giving
    1. Make your list of gift ideas.  Pretty much every list I consult emphasizes the importance of making a list of gift ideas before you start shopping.  Visiting stores hoping for "inspiration" is a guaranteed time-waster, and often leads to over-spending as well.  I like to think that the time and effort I devote to brainstorming thoughtful gift ideas is the real gift that I give.  Nothing is more pointless than giving gifts chosen because they're popular, convenient, practical, "gag", or because you'd like to get them yourself; conversely, nothing proves that you care about someone like giving them a gift that's chosen to exactly suit their wants/needs/desires.  (The person who buys me a $100 purse obviously hasn't tried to figure out who I am; but the person who buys me that hard-to-find Ray Bradbury paperback from a used book store sure has.)  Don't be afraid to ask people what they want. (Your kids need to start brainstorming for their Santa letters anyway!)  And don't be afraid to think "out of the box" - gifts can be services (a year of mowing!), subscriptions (magazines devoted to favorite interests/hobbies), or even experiences (theater tickets, classes, travel).  Click here for a list of more "beyond the box" gift ideas.  
    2. Complete homemade gifts.  Many homemade gifts can be assembled for pennies, in less time than it takes to drive to the local shopping mall.  Click here for a list of 90+ easy homemade gifts.
    3. Buy online.  Avail yourself of the infinite variety and convenience of online shopping.  It's like the world's largest shopping mall, with every specialty store imaginable.  I've picked up any number of wonderfully quirky gifts this way: Shakespeare bobbleheads, silk chemistry ties, literature-themed jewelry, Civil War uniforms, specialty magazine subscriptions, sports memorabilia, vintage movie posters ....  Plus, you'll discover that many merchants offer free shipping, which means you'll be saving not only time, but money - think of all the gas you'll save, not having to drive around! 
    4. Buy from local merchants & charities.  Kill two birds with one stone by directing your holiday dollars to stores and organizations that will put them to good use - creating jobs in your community, helping others. 
    5. Make shopping fun.  Shopping doesn't have to be a chore.  If you love the frenzy of Black Friday, by all means set your alarm for 4am and enjoy yourself.  If a more relaxed shopping experience is what you crave, then set aside an afternoon to wander your local mall.  And if you're lucky enough to live next to an old town or historic district, even better - festive holiday window displays and decorations are part of what makes this season special. 
    6. Wrap it all up.  Choose a quick/efficient approach, or allot sufficient time to give your creativity free reign - few things look as festive and lovely as exquisitely wrapped gifts. (I like to think of gift wrapping as a "mini craft" - my favorite kind of craft project because you get a lot of satisfaction from less than an hour's work!)  Be sure to mail your long-distance parcels well before the post office's "drop dead date" of Dec 22.
  4. Deck the halls 
    1. Purchase new/replacement decorations.  Now that you've taken an inventory of what you have, start looking for what you need. Don't wait to buy indispensable things like lights, hoping they'll go on sale; once the stores sell out of what they have, they don't restock. This includes any "annual" decorations (ex: White House Christmas ornaments) that you may collect.
    2. Decorate your interior.  Deploy the holiday decorations you have, but don't be afraid to try something new!  Check holiday magazines and Pinterest for inspiration.  It's amazing what you can do with inexpensive accessories like ribbon, candles, cheap ornaments, holiday paper, strings of lights, candy canes, popcorn, gingerbread, cranberries, cinnamon sticks, and other simple items.  If you really want to do it up this year, consider decorating your bathrooms (Christmas towels), bedrooms (Christmas sheets) and/or other non-traditional spaces in your house.
      1. Acquire & set up the tree.  Click here for some ideas on how to create a themed tree.
      2. Hang your stockings with care.  You don't need a fireplace; any wall will do 
      1. Decorate your mantle.  If you're lucky enough to have one, Christmas is a beautiful excuse to create something unique and beautiful.
      2. Don't forget the fauna.  Poinsettia, pinecones, acorns, twigs, evergreen boughs ... arranged artfully, these are some of the most beautiful decorations you'll find - plus, they make your house smell lovely. 
    3. Decorate your exterior.  Hang the lights & deploy those yard ornaments.  Put everything on a timer so you don't have to remember to turn them on and off every day.  While you're at it, why not spend a little time creating a unique door wreath?  Start with something store-bought and then decorate it to suit your tastes.  A great (and inexpensive) way to personalize your decorations every year. 
    4. Decorate your other spaces.  While you're at it, spread the Christmas cheer by hanging an ornament from the mirror of your car and setting up a little tree or draping a little garland at work.
    5. Smells of the season. Don't overlook the importance of aroma to the whole sensory experience that is Christmas.  Set a pot of popourri simmering on the stove, light a scented candle, or cut a vase of fresh evergreen to sit in your living room.
  5. Food, food, food
    1. Plan your holiday eating.  Christmas is not the time to start a new diet!  But neither should it be an excuse to wallow in excess.  Think now about how you'll regulate your holiday eating.
    2. Stock up the pantry.  Before things get too busy, anticipate your food needs and try to stock up: gingerbread house making kits, alcohol, specialty baking essentials (red & green m&ms, parchment paper), ingredients for quick meals.  Oh - and while you're at the store anyway, pick up batteries ... LOTS of batteries!
    3. Plan special meals.  One of the joys of the season is special meals with family and friends.  Some families have a traditional dinner Christmas Eve, others Christmas Day - but there's no reason you can't make as many meals as you want special and memorable.   Click here for a list of 12 traditional holiday menus representing a variety of regions and cuisines - sure to inspire you to create the perfect menus for your own festivities.  And be sure to reserve those hams and turkeys in advance, lest the stores run low!
    4. Create a seasonal tablescape.  You've got all those beautiful Christmas plates, linens, and decorative items; seems a waste to show them off only 1-2 nights a year! Consider creating a holiday tablescape that can be left out for the whole season. 
    5. Enjoy seasonal foods.  One of the many pleasures of the season is the foods available no other time of the year.  Don't let the season slip by without enjoying your favorites, from peppermint lattes to eggnog, wassail to plum pudding, fruitcake to candy canes.  Click here for a list of traditional holiday foods.
    6. Enjoy traditional foods.  Be sure to make time for foods that celebrate your family's heritage and cultural traditions. 
    7. Bake christmas cookies/candies.  Because it just isn't Christmas without the cookies.  Consider doughs that freeze, so you can cook up fresh batches throughout the season.
    8. Gingerbread!  The only food that gets its own checkbox, because Christmas just isn't Christmas without gingerbread houses, gingerbread men, and toasty gingerbread cake with lemon drizzle. 
  6. Take Time With Your Loved Ones 
    1. Observe traditions.  Every family has their own holiday traditions.  These may include special foods/dishes, decorations, ceremonies, events, travel, or family activities. Make a list of important traditions and then put them on the schedule.  In the craziness of the season, it's all too easy to forget to include the things that make the season important.
    2. Make Time for Santa.  If you have children, planning for Santa is a must.  Schedule time to write letters and post them (I hear Santa also enjoys an enclosed hand-drawn picture or two), to visit him (if desired), and to leave out milk/cookies on Christmas Eve.  (Don't forget to add carrots to your shopping list for the reindeer!)
    3. Read holiday stories.  Locate your holiday fiction and create time for reading.  I'm not just talking about "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and other tales meant for children; Charles Dickens wrote a whole bunch of Christmas stories, all of which serve as poignant reminders of the reason for the season.  Another option is to listen to old radio show versions of favorite Christmas stories - Campbell Playhouse's version of A Christmas Carol, Lux Radio Theater's version of It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street - and let stars like Orson Wells, Lawrence Olivier, and Jimmy Stewart do the reading for you.  (If these links don't work, simply Google the titles; copies are posted all over the web.)   
    4. Listen to holiday music.  Haul out your holiday CDs and make new acquisitions as desired.  If this is the year you've decided to go digital, be sure to load all your music onto your iPod and create playlists for the different moods of Christmas - music to party by, music to shop by, music to open presents by, music to watch your tree glowing in the dark by ....  Click here for a list of the most popular Christmas carols and songs.
    5. Watch holiday movies.  There are holiday movies to match every age and mood, from goofy to inspirational.  If you don't make time to watch them now, you'll have to wait a whole additional year!
    6. Make it together.  If possible, find time to create holiday spirit with family and friends.  Bake together, make together, decorate together ... because the memories that include loved ones are the memories that last.
    7. See holiday decorations.  A great way to entertain the whole family for free is to go forth in search of holiday decorations. Pile in the car and drive around the streets in your community,  Visit shopping malls to gape at the decorations there, or take in a holiday light show at a local park.  We like to rank the exterior decorations on a scale of 0 (aka "grinch") to 5 (aka "the full Santa"), with an automatic deduction of 1 point for net lights.
    8. Take time to play.   Back in the day, Christmas was all about games.  Back then they favored Blind Man's Bluff and 20 Questions, which are still fun today, don't get me wrong ... but feel free to update the tradition by hauling out board games from the closet, doing puzzles together, playing charades, going caroling, or hitting the ice skating rink.  The idea is to spend happy time together, for come January, when those bills start arriving, you may not be in the mood!
    9. Talk to each other.  No time of the year lends itself to the sharing of oral stories and traditions like Christmas.  It's important to make time to retell all the old stories; it's also worthwhile to make the effort to sit next to a family member you don't usually spend as much time with (especially older relatives) and coax them into sharing memories you may not have heard before. 
    10. Laugh!  I'm constantly taken aback at the dour look of people shopping, decorating, baking, etc. Stop taking the season so seriously!  Find the humor in even your least favorite traditions (like that single strand of Christmas lights that keeps going dead everytime you turn your back on it).  Listen to funny Christmas songs.  Watch goofy internet memes. (I'm particularly partial to "The 12 Gays of Christmas" and the silent monks doing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, but there are plenty of others out there.)  If necessary, force yourself to take a seat at the mall and laugh at the people who are even more frantic than you.  
    11. Spend romantic time with your spouse. Stop splitting up your chores long enough to take a horse-drawn carriage ride, share dinner at a nice restaurant with picture windows overlooking holiday decorations, or enjoy a furtive smooch under the mistletoe.
    12. Reach out to Family & Friend.  So you've bought your tickets to New Mexico to visit his family ... but what about all your other relatives? Spend time now thinking about how you'll reach out to all the members of your family this season.  For folks too far away to visit, consider cards, phone calls, etc.  For folks who live closer, get off your couch and visit! Doesn't have to be anything formal - prepare a tray of cookies and use it as an excuse to pay your respects, complement their decorations, and ooh/aah at their trees.  (I love seeing how other people decorate their trees - so often it's a dead-on reflection of the family's personality!)
    13. Exploit the internet.  The internet is good for more than online shopping.  Consider supplementing/replacing old holiday traditions with new traditions ... like maintaining a holiday blog, sending out online cards (maybe 12 of them, for the 12 days of Christmas!), and/or daily posts/tweets related to the season - charities you're donating to, top ten lists, funny internet memes ... whatever your family will find meaningful.
  7. Look the part
    1. Deck your Dermis. How frustrating is it to realize after the holidays that you've forgotten to wear that adorable green/black/red plaid skirt and sequined red sweater that you purchased specially for the purpose on sale last January?  Go through your waredrobe now and pull out all those outfits intended for the season.  (Yes, I mean those ugly holiday sweaters too!)  And don't forget to dig through your jewelry box for novelty earrings, bracelets, and earrings.
    2. Plan special outfits. Plan now for any special outfits you'll need over the course of the season.  Matching Santa hats for the annual family photo?  Formal outfits for the children for Midnight Mass?  Matching PJs for Christmas morning?  Buy what you need now, while stores still have plenty of selection in stock. (Don't even try finding a Santa hat the week before Christmas Eve!)
  8. Party! 
    1. Stock up on hostess gifts.  Don't get caught 30mins before a party, scrambling through your shelves in search of a suitable hostess gift!  Purchase and wrap them ahead of time; then all you have to worry about is where you put the extra batteries for your Christmas novelty sweater with the flashing red Rudolf nose.
    2. Plan for work-related holiday events.  Some companies ignore the season, others go full-Santa starting from the first day of December.  If you're affiliated with one of the latter, you'll need decorations for your workspace, homebaked goods for the cookie exchange, a special outfit for the company holiday party, and a selection of small gifts for the Secret Santa gift exchange.  Don't wait until the last minute - start your planning now!
    3. Plan for family/friend holiday events.  Many holiday parties/open houses/events are annual.  You know the invitation is coming, so why wait?  Start preparing for them now.
    4. Be the host.  Go ahead, host a gathering!  There's no better way to make sure everyone you care about is included in your holiday festivities.  Pick a party that suits your "mojo" - everything from an elaborate "Dickens Christmas" dinner party if you're the Martha Stewart type, to an "ugliest holiday sweater" if you're more the Simpsons type.  Click here for a list of unique Christmas party ideas.
  9. Celebrate with your commuity
    1. Attend local events. Every community, no matter how large or small, offers holiday festivities: parades, tree lightings, appearances by Santa, hayrides/sleighrides, concerts, performances (ex: Nutcracker), model train shows, sing-alongs, living nativities, light shows, etc.  Grab your calendar, hop online, and start making notes about events you may want to attend.  (Be sure to check local school and shopping-mall scheduled events as well.)
    2. Attend local craft shows.  There's something special about homemade foods/crafts at Christmas.  If you don't have time to make your own, plan on attending a local craft show or two.  Not only will you acquire one-of-a-kind items to keep or give as gifts, but you'll be supporting local merchants/organizations as well.
    3. Visit historical sites.  If you're lucky enough to live near a historic site or historic district, be sure to check out their plans for the holidays.  Often these sites offer unique holiday decorations and entertainments.   
  10. Give Thanks/Be Charitable
    1. Remember those less fortunate than you.  This is something you should be doing all year, but charities make it extra-easy during the holiday season.  So go ahead: slip a donation in the kettle, donate clothes/supplies to a local homeless shelter, help restock your local food bank. Scrooge would approve.
    2. Remember the children.  Donate to Toys for Tots, or pick a child from a local Angel Tree, or - better yet - do both
    3. Remember our servicemen/women.  Send packages, food, and/or cards of thanks.
    4. Remember service providers.  Figure out how to best and most appropriately acknowledge the support of your local firemen, police officers, paperboys, and waste workers.
    5. Don't forget the critters! In many parts of the U.S., winter is a harsh season for the animals.  Extend your charity to our furry friends: feed the birds, rabbits, and squirrels.
    6. Engage in random acts of kindness.  Nothing provides a "quick fix" of good feeling like doing something kind.  Some of my "go to" acts of kindness include leaving coupons for items next to the items themselves in the store, allowing people with 1-2 items to cut in front of me in line, helping people shovel snow from their cars in parking lots, and giving up my seat on the metro to people who look more worn out than me. Technically, you can't "plan" random acts of kindness - but you can start brainstorming ideas so that you are ready to avail yourself of opportunities when they present themselves.  (Click here for a list of 70+ Random Acts of Kindness!)
    7. Wish people a Merry Christmas.  It's a little thing, but small gestures have a way of paying themselves forward.  Your smile may end up cheering up more than just the person it was aimed at; it will certainly cheer you up!
  11. The Reason for the Season
    1. Participate in church activities.  Check your church's schedule and make a note of upcoming events: concerts, activities, special masses.  
    2. Visit a nativity.  Many churches and civic organizations sponsor nativity displays; some even offer "live" nativities, featuring living animals and human players.
    3. Celebrate the Birth of Christ.  Plan now for how your family will celebrate and Christ's birthday and give thanks for the blessings of the past year.
  12. Capture the memories
    1. Organize your photos and videos.  Once the season is over, you'll want to capture your memories before they start to fade.  Organize/print photos and photos into albums (paper or digital); consider ways to post your photos/videos online so that they can be shared with family and friends.  But your work isn't done yet; don't forget to annotate your photos so that you capture the unique moments and memories that made the holiday season special.
    2. Create a scrapbook.  Better yet, lump together photos, ticket stubs, invitations, programs, sheet music, Christmas cards/letters and other epherma from the holiday, add journaling, and create a holiday scrapbook.   Sure to be a family keepsake for generations to come.