Monday, December 10, 2018

What We're Writing: Hallie's parachute jumpsuit

  • HALLIE EPHRON: Fanfare! It's WHAT WE'RE WRITING WEEK! I go first with this  condensed excerpt from CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR (August 2019, Wm Morrow) which seems utterly appropriate after last week's take-down of fashion trends (thanks, Julia!) 

Background: Emily Harlow is a 30-something professional organizer. She's filming a ritualized (see Marie Kondo) clearing-out of her own closet, keeping only those items that spark joy, when she comes across turquoise jumpsuit that brings back memories. A decision looms... 

PS: I really did have a turquoise "parachute jumpsuit" which I loved. I wore it so many times that I wore out the seat. Here's the only picture I can find: a headless me wearing it at my daughter's 7th birthday party.

CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR by Hallie Ephron - first ever peek
What have you held onto even though you know you'll never wear it again... though fashion trends go around and come around, so you never know!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday Dinner: Couscous and Apple Cider Cake

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Two Sunday dinner recipes, since my couscous roasted veg dish is barely harder than popping a frozen pizza in. I've been eating a lot of couscous lately because 1) I love it and 2) it's even easier than pasta, which is really saying something. I had loads of winter veggies left over from the Thanksgiving shop (and the last CSA box) so I decided to use a bunch up. I also had walnut pieces left over, which made me think of a beautiful roast veg and walnut salad I had in California. The only thing I had to go out to buy was the Feta cheese.

Couscous with roasted winter vegetables

Cube assorted winter vegetables, toss in oil with some salt and pepper. I had two different squashes, onions, carrots, beets and brussel sprouts. Roast them until fork-tender.

Prepare couscous according to package directions. I cooked mine in chicken broth (also left over from Tgiving.)

When the veggies are done, toss them with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of walnut pieces and balsemic vinegar to taste. I was making enough to serve maybe two for dinner, and I used 2 tablespoons of vinegar.

Mix in the couscous, sprinkle with feta cheese. Eat quickly so you can get to the really good part of the meal: desert!

Joan Emerson (via Betty Crocker) provided us this recipe for Apple Cider Donut Cake, which made everyone drool in yesterday's comments section.

Mix together
1 box Super Moist™ yellow cake mix
3/4 cup apple cider
1/2 cup butter, melted
4 eggs
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Beat with electric mixer for two minutes.
Stir in 1 cup coarsely shredded peeled tart apples (2 medium)

Pour batter into greased and floured twelve-cup Bundt pan.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 35-40 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Cool in pan for twenty minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack.
Place a plate or waxed paper under the cooling rack.
Melt 3 tablespoons butter; mix together 1/4 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon.

Brush the cake with melted butter; use your hand to press sugar/cinnamon mixture up the side and over the top of the cake. Wait twenty minutes and repeat.

Cool cake completely; store loosely covered.

Sounds perfect for a cold winter night to me! How about you, dear readers? What are you cooking or eating today? 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

5 Things In My WIP

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Next week, we're bringing back one of our readers' favorite events: What We're Writing Week. That's right, gang, you're going to get exclusive peeks at the Jungle Reds as-yet-unpublished works, everything from excerpts of soon-to-be-out novels to paragraphs of first drafts that may never see the light of day. Exciting!

In honor of our upcoming event, and to whet your appetite, we're going to play a game (do a thing? Share a meme?) I've seen on Twitter, entitled, you guessed it - 5 Things in My WIP. Here's what you'll see in HID FROM OUR EYES:
1. Breastfeeding

2. County fair

3. Caterers

4. Russ getting sprayed with a hose during a fist fight

5. Forbidden Love

Of course there's forbidden love. What else do you expect from me?

Reds? Name your Five!

JENN McKINLAY: I'm working on next year's rom com THE CHRISTMAS KEEPER. My five things are:

1. Ugly Christmas sweaters
2. Orphaned baby elephants (yes, for real)
3. A romance bookstore
4. The Royal Order of George (long story)
5. Spiked eggnog

HALLIE EPHRON: I just wrapped up CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR -- pub date next August. My five things:
1. Yard sales

2. A locked storage unit

3. A MAD Magazine "What Me Worry" board game

4. A retired librarian

5. A stun gun


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Just got the big BRAVA for THE MURDER LIST!  Coming next August 20.              My five things:
1. Envy

2. A necklace

3. Snow

4. Choosing sides

5. Jury tampering?

(May I have forbidden love, too? It's not in there, but--oooh, wait. Yes it is! It totally is! It's actually the point. Whoa..)

JULIA: You get a forbidden love! And YOU get a forbidden love! And YOU get a forbidden love!

RHYS BOWEN: Just handed it my next Royal Spyness for next August. My five things:

2.Bed hopping
3. Polo
4.charging elephant

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh I can't wait to read every one of these!! I'm working on a women's fiction novel called THE HAPPINESS CONNECTION. Five things:

1. Yale Law School

2. a gargoyle

3. chocolate cake (you of course realize that's MY substitute for forbidden love)

4. a self-help happiness group

5. betrayal

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, just reading your list made me laugh. Can't wait to read everyone's WIPs!

 I promise mine does have a title, I'm just waiting on the final thumbs up from my publisher's sales and marketing folks. So until then, from Kincaid/James #18, five things:
1.a car crash



4.a break up!!!

JULIA: Okay, dear readers, if you're writing, tell us five things in your WIP! If not, let us know what elements intrigue you... and what's YOUR forbidden love? (Spoiler: mine is Reese's Peanut Butter Cup minis. So good. So bad.)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Wake Up Alone and Like It!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Friends, I have finally achieved Empty Nest. And a truly empty one it is; with Ross gone, it's just me and an eight-year-old cat manning the fort at chateau Hugo-Vidal. (Perhaps that ought to be manning the chateau at Fort Hugo-Vidal...)

The Smithie was out this past spring, moving in with her Very Tall Boyfriend, although her place was taken almost immediately by her friend Samantha, who lodged with me while she got up and running at her new Portland job and apartment-shopped. This took some time, mostly because the rental situation in our area closely resembles the Death Race scene in Mad Max Fury Road, with far too many contestants peeling ahead recklessly and doing anything to win.

Meanwhile, as you know, Youngest headed up north to the University of Maine in September, so although she's still "residing" at my house (honestly, tax agents who may be reading this blog!) I don't expect her to be here for more than a few weeks at a time from now on. She's already looking into a summer Kosovo. We have dear friends who are Serbian, so that's going to be an interesting conversation.

Samantha finally found a terrific, affordable, safe rental and moved out the week before Thanksgiving, which gave me a week to clean, cook, pick up Youngest, etc. etc. I was so busy, it wasn't until the guests had all departed and Youngest was back up in Orono that it really struck me - I'm all alone.

And I like it!

Let me tell you - there are some nifty advantages to living on one's own. First and foremost: it's insanely easy to keep the place clean. I was worried about this, because for the past 24 years I've struggled to keep the giant dust bunnies and ghostly fingerprint buildup at bay. I used to consider the house well cared for if three of the five downstairs room were not embarrassingly messy and you couldn't smell any cat pee or dog barf. I always had the sneaking suspicion that my family was making most of the mess, and now I have proof - I'm keeping 3000 square feet tidy and dust-free in less time than it used to take me to do one load of laundry.

Which is another delightful change.  For years and years, I did at least one wash a day. Every day, and of course, that didn't count special, tiny little loads when someone's team uniform or only remaining school shirt was dirty. (Catholic school. regulation shirts.) Now? I'm only limited by the amount of clean underwear in my drawer. It takes me three weeks to get full white, colored and dark loads, and yes, that included the sheets. Heck, I used to have a whole basket each week comprised solely of face cloths and towels (for some reason I've never ascertained, the Sailor used THREE facecloths every time he cleaned his face.)

Of course, this means I'm probably going to wind up tasing my children to keep up standards when they're all home for Christmas.  Needs must, I suppose.

Some other benefits? Last night I made myself pearl couscous with roasted winter vegetables, feta cheese and walnuts. Every one of those ingredients would have raised an objection from at least one of my offspring, and my dear Ross, a man who thought all salads should include steak, chicken or bacon, would have asked, "Where's the beef?"

Also, unhitched from the demands of after-school rehearsals, homework, and 9 to 5 work weeks, I'm eating earlier these days. I like prepping dinner while there's still natural light in the kitchen. On the plus side, it's supposed to be good for you to get the bulk of your calories in early and have time to digest. On the minus side, I'm clearly just one pair of sensible shoes away from the 5pm senior citizen all-you-can-eat buffet.

There are a few quasi-negative aspects. I talk to myself these days. A lot. I haven't started losing arguments to myself, so I guess I'm still okay. Per my kids' request, I carry my phone with me whenever I go outside to haul wood or shovel snow - in case I Fall Down and Can't Get Up. And when I get take-out pizza, I can't pretend I'm doing it as a delightful treat for the kids - I have to own the fact I have a craving for ham and pineapple and run with it.

How about you, dear readers? Ever experience the upside of solitude? Or, surrounded by kids, cats and dogs, do you ever dream of what you'd do if you were left home alone?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

We're Judging You, Fashion Trends of 2019

The winners of Gail Donovan's Finchosaurus are Kathy Reel and Traveler! You can contact Gail at gdonovankesich at!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Anyone who reads this blog knows the Reds, as a whole, do not follow trends. No matter the forecast or season, Lucy's going to wear comfortable shoes, Hank and Hallie are going to be in black, and my clothes will be bright. Jenn will show up in jeans, Debs in a nice scarf, and Rhys will exercise her right to wear white in February, old rules be damned!

So I present these fashion trends of 2019 - reported in several different women's magazines and blogs - not to see if we'll wear them, but as a naked opportunity  for snarking. Reds, what do you think of the following?

Bike shorts with Blazers    

JENN: No, thank you. Biker shorts are not attractive to begin with and pairing them with a blazer does not help in the least. It just makes you look like you spilled coffee on your skirt/pants and are hopelessly improvising.

HANK: They forgot their skirts! 

LUCY: I'm sorry, but bike shorts don't even look good on bikers. Just no...

DEBS: Oh, my gosh. What were they thinking? This wins the Hideous Award hands-down, especially #2. Sock and heels? And what's with the yellow visor? Vintage bank teller? 

JULIA: In case you want to take a spontaneous 15-mile bike ride while wearing 3 inch heels.

HALLIE: Remember girdles? This is reminding me, and not in a good way.

Boiler Suits
From The Evening Standard

JENN: I think I wore something like this to my brother's high school graduation in 1984. It was blue and white pinstripes and gave me a powerful wedgie. Pass. 

HANK: What is a boiler suit? What does that even mean? How is this in any way flattering or comfortable? If you can say, wow, that's kinda unattractive but SO comfortable, well, maybe, I'll just wear it at home. Or wow, that's so uncomfortable but I look like a million bucks, I might also consider. This one is 0 for 2.

DEBS: Jenn's right. Serious wedgie. Ouch just looking at them! Not to mention not drinking anything all day, unless they come with a potty flap...  And just...ugly. No one looks good in them, not even the twiglet models.

HALLIE: I think it's what you'd WEAR to repair a boiler. Or investigate a crime scene. 

LUCY: What they said...I had something like this years ago but it was sleeveless and flowered and I thought it was CUTE. It probably wasn't...but I kinda like the idea except so inconvenient for the ladies room...

JULIA: I have to confess, I had a fake-workman's jumpsuit like this back in the seventies. It was bright yellow and I looked like a pre-teen gas station attendant wearing it. I'm not seeing how this coexists with today's hydration trend.


JENN: This fashion makes me tired. Oh, yeah, because it looks like I should pull it up to my chin and fall asleep.   

HANK: I have seen patchwork things I kind of like. Maybe in 1965.  But I can't get my mother's voice out of my head. "Oh." She'd sneer. "They're using up their remnants and trying to convince you it's fashion."

DEBS: The first two look like horrible 80s country-style home decor run amok. Where are the chickens? #3, I have to admit I weirdly sort-of like. Although you'd have to be seven feet tall to wear it, and then where would you wear it? 

LUCY: The skirt I could wear. While kneading my whole wheat bread and listening to "Rollin' in my sweet baby's arms."

HALLIE: This makes as much sense to me as ripped jeans. I'm getting a headache looking at it.

JULIA: Now I SO want to see Lucy making hippie bread wearing this. Presumably the recipe is from the Moosewood Cookbook.

Bucket Hats

JENN: I always like hats even if you can bail a boat with them. This is my first thumbs up, especially for those pesky bad hair days.  

HANK:  These look silly. (I do like hats, from afar, since they never work for me because my head is too big. Seriously, I can rarely even get a one that'll go on.) Number 2 here looks especially absurd.

LUCY: These are good old-fashioned pith helmets. My father used to wear one to the beach. That should be all you need to know.

JULIA: Dad hat here, too. My dad had several he would wear when sailing. I'm pretty sure he picked this style because he didn't care if one of them went overboard.

DEBS: What is #2?? Safari hat with short suit with running shoes? You have to admit she's dressed for comfort. #3, ready for a sudden shower just on her head. #4 I like the hat without the dress. And I'd wear the dress, lounging around my house, or reading a book in a hammock in a rose garden. Walking down the street, nope.

HALLIE: This is the first thing I sort of like. And if you need to throw up from looking at all the other trends, you're carrying around a handy bucket.

 And finally: Big Shoulders

JENN: What? I can't hear you! The theme music to Dynasty is playing in a loud continuous loop in my head. Is big hair coming back, too? Time to invest in Aquanet!

 LUCY: I'm sorry, these were hideous when we wore them in the 80's and there's no way to improve on them. But...I did save a black pinstriped three piece gangster suit with big shoulders just in case. So I'll be ready...

HANK: Ah. ::ducking:: I love big shoulders. Love. Not dopey exaggerated big, and certainly not with tulle wings. But nice Katharine Hepburn shoulders? Yeah, they can work.  ((Can we mention that certain leggings are only meant to go UNDER things? And not to be worn alone? Just a personal tangential rant.)

DEBS: Oh, ack! I cannot say how much I despise big shoulders. I spent a decade ripping shoulder pads out of everything, and now they're going to inflict them on us again?? Noooo.  

HALLIE: Did you know you can repurpose shoulder pads as bra padding? Just saying. 

JULIA: I've been waiting for these to come back for TWENTY YEARS. In my head, I look like 1940's-era Barbara Stanwyck when wearing shoulder pads. Please don't puncture my fantasy bubble. 

How about you, dear readers? What's your take on the hot trends of 2019? And do you have any to share that aren't highlighted here?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Writing By Fridge Light: a guest blog by Gail Donovan

One lucky commentor will win a copy of Gail Donovan's new middle-grade novel, Finchosaurus!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's that time of year, and you need a Christmas gift or Hanukkah present for your child/grandkid/nephew/bff's sweet girl. I'm here to steer you right, by pointing you toward Gail Donovan's books. Gail is the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of In Memory of Gorfman T. Frog, What's Bugging Bailey Blecker, The Waffler, and her latest, Finchosaurus.

Gail writes for middle grade readers, that sometimes hard-to-please group between 7 and 12. I can personally attest to her powers, as she was one of Youngest's favorite authors when she was in that are range. However, Gail shares something in common with those of us who write for tiny tots, teens, or adults - finding The Idea; the one good enough to stake an entire book on.

With my newest middle-grade novel, Finchosaurus, just published, it’s time for me to start something new. Way past time. Unfortunately, I’m not the sort of writer with more ideas than I have time to execute. If you’re one of those people, I hate you. Just kidding. But I am jealous. Because my idea-creation mode is more the “pulling teeth” variety. 

That’s why I wasn’t about to let an idea escape, one recent night. I’d been trying to come up with a new character, but she wasn’t fully formed. So I set myself the task of thinking about her while I slept, hoping my nighttime brain could do what my daytime brain hadn’t. Hoping I would wake in the morning with an idea.

I woke up only a couple of hours later. Maybe the cat was making her weird “let me out” noises. But for whatever reason, I was awake, and I did have an idea. Good, I thought, I’ll write that down in the morning, and I drifted back to sleep.

I woke again. Same idea, with another twist. That could work, I thought, and went back to sleep. 

For the third time, I woke up. My brain: Do Not Forget. There’s the girl, there’s the twist. Me: Yes, I promise I’ll remember. Back to sleep, but not for long. Soon I was awake for the fourth time, knowing there was no way out: I had given my brain a job and my brain had done the job. Now it wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. Resigned, I got out of bed. Unfortunately, I seemed to have shed my pajamas during the night. I was stark naked.

I wanted to get the idea down on paper. I did not want to wake up any more than I had to by doing things like getting dressed, or turning on the lights, especially because the blinds were up, and we live in the city. 

That’s how I came to find myself crouching on the kitchen floor, scribbling notes by the light of the open fridge door. Writing just enough to convince my brain that it could let me sleep now. I don’t know if this idea will turn into a book, but I hope so. Because this character has persistence! She woke me up four times to say, Write about me! So, I’ll try. After all, it’s not every day—or night—I get an idea.

About Finchosaurus:

 Finch has trouble paying attention in school. He’s just too busy dreaming about uncovering a dinosaur fossil and naming a new species after himself—until he digs up a note in his fifth-grade class garden with the word HELP on it. He is determined to come to the aid of the mystery note-writer. But when the quest turns out to be harder than expected, Finch risks losing two things really important to him —his best friend Noah, and a field trip to Dinosaur State Park. Acclaimed author Gail Donovan gets inside the hearts and minds of fifth graders on this journey told with unexpected humor and impressive insight.

Gail Donovan is the author of middle-grade novels, including the recent release Finchosaurus and In Memory of Gorfman T. Frog, named to the New York Public Library 100 Books for Reading and Sharing list. She is also an author for the Rainbow Fish & Friends picture book series based on the bestselling books of Marcus Pfister. She is a Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award finalist and a PEN/New England Discovery. Donovan lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and two daughters, where, in addition to writing children’s books, she is a library assistant at the Portland Public Library.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Julia's Gratitude Journal

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Gratitude! It's everywhere! It was the cover theme on last month's Oprah magazine, and I listened to an jour-long show on NPR about how being grateful for the little things that give you pleasure has a measurable effect on lifting depression and calming anxiety.

Not the we're depressed or anxious! Ha ha! No! Not even about the manuscript for the next book STILL not being done! Hang on for a second while I shotgun a King-sized bag of M&Ms.

 Gratitude is also referred to as mindfulness, but gratitude doesn't sound so New Age-y. If mindfulness is your yoga instructor setting up an essential oil diffuser, Gratitude is your grandmother starching the linen napkins and reminding you to count your blessings. We did such a great job a couple month ago, let's all pitch in and think about what's lighting our candles (metaphorically speaking) as we walk into the darkest time of the year.

I'm going to put homemade chocolate chip cookies at the top of my list. I made a double batch the other day, and while I gave away about a third of them to the Smithie and her boyfriend Ishmael, I kept the rest of them for myself. All to myself! (Picture me laughing maniacally and rubbing my hands together.) They've last over a week so far - a major change from the days when the house was full and the cookies would vanish within 24 hours.

I'm also super grateful for Hallmark Christmas movies. You can fight me on this, artsy movie lovers. For me, there is nothing better after a long, busy day than stretching out beside the woodstove and watching a hard-charging corporate executive relocate to a small town, become a gingerbread-house baker, and fall in love with the boy next door who turns out to be a prince. It's like consuming McDonald's fries and a chocolate milkshake - you know it's not good for you, but it hits every pleasure center in your brain.

I got some delightful news a couple days ago that makes me very grateful: the Sailor is getting two weeks' leave and will be home over Christmas! I haven't sen him since his little sister's graduation in May. I may even let him have some of my chocolate chip cookies.

This definitely counts as a small thing that give me great pleasure: nail polish. Think about it - what else can you buy for around eight to ten bucks that lasts for months and lifts your spirits every time you put it on? Okay, a box of condoms, but what else besides that?

I've been mindful of polite drivers lately, as the summer construction season which tore up approximately 85% of the streets in Portland continues into the winter. It's nerve-frying to be stuck in stop-and-go lanes with weird merges and people trying to pull in and out to get to stores and offices. It's made even worse with snow and slush on the streets. which is why kindly drivers who wait their turn, gesture for you to go ahead, and signal their intentions well in advance make me smile. My friends in Massachusetts, I'm sorry you'll never know this kind of happiness.

In the "grateful for the absence of" category, I'm thankful for the continued good health of my kitty Neko. There's no reason for her not to be healthy - she eats moderate amounts of a balanced diet,
stays strictly indoors and is in the prime of life at eight-going-on-nine. It just that for several years the other pets were constantly going to the vets for skin allergies, hawk attacks (not even kidding) getting hit by a pickup and, of course, doggy cancer. I'm pretty sure my bills alone paid the salary and benefits of one full-time vet assistant. Now dear Louie has gone to the Great Dog Park in the sky, and Juno and her allergies are living with the Smithie. One yearly visit for feline leukemia shots is a pretty sweet deal.

Speaking of health, I'm deeply grateful for the ACA. I've just been reviewing my application for 2019, and I'm getting a BIGGER subsidy to help pay for good-quality health care for me and Youngest. Just for kicks and giggles I went on the insurance company's website and priced the same policy off the Marketplace. Oy vey. If it weren't for the ACA, my health insurance would probably be a bottle of vitamin C and some Band-Aids. Thanks, Obama!

So, I couldn't afford the non-marketplace insurance, but I did spring for some really nice sheets, and I'm so grateful when I snuggle down in them with my disease-free cat at my side. Higher thread count and better cotton is totally worth it, guys.

I'm grateful that the Smithie has done so well as a columnist for the Portland Press Herald that she and I will be doing our first mother daughter appearance together next Tuesday, December 11! It's a twice yearly program put on by the newspaper called "Maine Voices." It continues to amuse us to no end that people will be paying good money to hear us talk to each other. Hopefully, it won't sound like the third act of The Glass Menagerie.

Finally, as the holiday season gets into its full swing, I'm always grateful for Mariah Carey singing "All I Want for Christmas is You." Most modern Christmas songs drive me screaming up the chimney after I've heard them for the 100th time. (I actually heard the beginning of "Do They Know It's Christmas At All" yesterday and broke land speed records racing across the living room to change the station.) Not Mariah's classic. I could listen to her warm up her pipes every day for the next ten years, and it still makes me want to dance across the floor, waving my hands in the air and admiring my nail polish.


Monday, December 3, 2018

Deck the Halls With Instagrammable Holly

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's the first day after the start of Advent, the second day of Hanukkah, the third day of December. However you count it, the holiday season is upon us, and you know what that means: time to drag those cardboard boxes out of the basement/attic/garage/back of the closet and begin turning your house into a winter wonderland.
This year is the first time I'm 100% in charge of the decorating. As you might imagine, last year was pretty subdued, although even in the depth of grief I still felt a small burst of joy at the realization that I didn't have to put Ross's Santa's Marching Band on the mantle, where it would give me seasonal headaches with ear-splitting electronic music. It's staying in the attic again this year; kids, if you want it, come and get it.

For many years, once the Smithie was old enough, I put her in charge of the non-tree decorations, with the command, "Make it look like Christmas barfed all over the house." Let's face it, when you have three kids in high school and middle school in December, you are WAY too busy to do any holiday job you can reasonably delegate. Still, I've always enjoyed having the place done up, and every year I would buy new ornaments or wreaths or brush bottle trees on December 26th or 27th (also the best time to buy seasonal cards, btw.)

Over the years, a certain decorative rigidity set in, a combination of efficiency - it's quicker to put the same swags, balls and stockings up in the same spot as last year - and tradition. I managed to winnow out a few of the ugly decorations Ross received as presents from the parents of his students -

PUBLIC AFFAIRS ANNOUNCEMENT: Parents, your kids' teacher does NOT want another apple ornament for Christmas. Give him or her a gift card to Target or Walmart. Really.

- and to toss some of the oldest, dog-gnawed plastic balls that exclusively adorned our trees during the toddler years. But mostly, we kept bringing out the same decor season after season.

But this year is different. The Smithie doesn't live here any more. The Sailor is arriving on leave on the 15th, and Youngest finishes up the semester on the 21st. Essentially, I'm running a very, very cheap B&B, which means I can do it up however I want to. The freedom is staggering. I'm thinking of all aqua and red ornaments in the kitchen, and an exclusively gold and green theme in the parlor. The living room, home of the traditional red plaid everything? Olive and pink. MILLENNIAL pink! I'm going to take all those color-coordinated looks I see in HGTV Magazine and recreate them in my house. Yes, I know it's Basic White Mom, but it'll be fresh and pretty and new.

How about you, Reds? Are you going to be putting up decade-old decorations? Or are you going for novelty? Sentimental? Sophisticated? Or a mix?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, um, er. We got nothing. At all. But fantasy?  I'd adore plaid, I'd do the whole house in plaid if I could. Bows, and pillows and wreaths with, um, bows. OR-white! All all white and silver. With red bows. And candles. And candy canes.  Not gonna happen, though.  I do get several amaryllises. Amarylli?  But that's not decorating. That's scraping the bottom.
You're inspiring me, though.

LUCY BURDETTE: Since we're in Key West where we won't have a big tree, we're not putting up the hodge-podge collection of ornaments accumulated over the years. (My rule of thumb is anything growing mold can be secretly trashed. John is very sentimental about things the kids made in the ancient past LOL.)

 We'll do white lights on the balcony and Christmas pillows on the couch and I did buy a new Christmas cactus for the coffee table which is blooming nicely. Key West does such a good job of decorating with lights, that we don't need to go too crazy.

HALLIE EPHRON: When houses in our neighborhood go for sale, they're listed as in "St. Agatha's Parish" - as you might imagine, Christmas decorating is a big deal here. We love to drive around and look at other people's lights. I did buy an Amaryllis and have potted it, hoping it will be blooming when our kids and grandkids get here a few days before for Christmas. I'm going to Staples to get oak tag and markers and sequins so Franny and Jody can make some 'ornaments' for my glorious little Norfolk pine. We open presents Christmas morning and eat potato latkes for dinner.

Though I won't be decorating before everyone gets here, I will be making candy and cookies. Lots of chocolate-covered orange rind. Mandelbrot. And hopefully batches of Christmas cookies (I've been saving recipes including one for orange macaroons.)

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Last year I redid quite a bit of my Christmas decorations, including an entirely new and entirely Instagramable Christmas table! I loved it so much I'm doing exactly the same thing this year. I just sort of tidied up overall, less stuff, and threw out some of the rattiest things. We have a Santa collection that goes on the writing desk in the living room, and a display for the mantel, and needlepoint stockings. The best addition last year was the fabulous little battery powered lights for the table, the mantel, and the buffet. I'm sure you can get them lots of places, but ours were from Crate and Barrel.

Hallie, I wish we lived closed enough to share in your holiday bounty!

RHYS BOWEN:  we never do outside decorations. ( not quite British, you know, according to my husband). But I decorate living and dining rooms... Great big tree with ornaments limited to Angels, stars, hearts and glass balls, many from Europe.
In the fireplace are two large caroling bears from my dear friend who passed away. 

And I do host a big holiday lunch for friends so the table has to be perfect! I love decorating, put on Christmas music, light a fire and sip mulled wine.  John not at all interested and probably doesn't notice until he goes to the desk in the corner and finds a tree there instead!


JENN McKINLAY: The year before I turned forty, I went shopping for a fake tree because I felt environmentally terrible about cutting down real trees even if they came from a tree farm. I was immediately besotted by this gloriously dazzlingly brilliant white tree. My friend, Travis, happened by as I was staring and I asked his opinion. My mom who was buying the tree for me as a present was a hard no on the white tree. I asked Travis's opinion - he's an architect and a snappy dresser so I figured he wouldn't steer me wrong - and he said, "Sweetie, it's Christmas, go crazy!" 

So I did. I love that tree even though I have to wear sunglasses to look at it straight on. I put it up every year we're in town and I love, love, love it. Oh, and Hub does the outside lights on the house which are solar powered because that's how we roll!

JULIA: 'Gram-ready AND green! Yay, Jenn! How about you, dear readers? Do you do it up big? Or Charlie-Brown-Tree style? And when, oh when is Hallie going to write a cookbook for the rest of us?!?

For readers wondering: the first picture by my name, the tablescape by Debs and the two pictures illustrating Rhys's comments, ad of course Jenn's tree (with optional Hooligans) are from our own houses. All the rest are eye candy suggestions...

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Your Perfect Snow Day

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I know some of you have already had more snow than you wanted to see this early in the year!! But we just got some of our firewood delivered, a cold front came through last night, and I'm thinking about how nice it would be if it snowed and I could curl up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire, with a good book and some hot chocolate. (If I didn't have to work, but this is pretend.) 

Snow days are a big deal for us in north Texas so we always try to make the most of them--a couple of inches and we don't venture out of the house! We got snowed in on Christmas Day a few years ago and it was the best Christmas ever.

Unfortunately, there's no snow in our immediate future, but I can dream! The fire, the books, maybe some movies with my hubs. Cuddles with the dogs and the cats. Hot chocolate, yum, a special treat! Popcorn. A good soup staying warm on the stove. I'd even listen to "Let It Snow." PS the photo above is somebody's else cabin in Austria. I can only wish...

What's your dream snow day? (No shoveling allowed!)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  For  the past forty or so years, snow has meant I have to work grueling and freezing hours doing live shots as a reporter, eating granola bars and trying to keep my fingers warm. Now it's less likely, crossing (still warm) fingers. And I remember so well the very first day we had a huge storm and I thought--oh no! And then I realized: I can stay home! YAAY! 
So I'm easy:  my idea of a perfect snow day is when the power stays on, frankly.   When it's all pretty and snowy, that's great, but when you are freezing in the dark and fear to open the fridge so the food won;t spoil and you count the hours until your freezer self-defrosts, that's no fun.  So, yay. Electricity.

DEBS: Hank, our scary thing is ice. We seldom get enough snow to cause a power outage (although even half an inch can shut down our roads) but we get sleet and freezing rain. If enough ice coats the power lines, we're in big trouble. Hence, the newly delivered firewood. Always good to have, just in case.

RHYS BOWEN: Snow? Wait a minute--Oh, it's that white stuff that I see on top of mountains. But doesn't exist where I live, either in Northern California (unless I drive up to the Sierra to ski) or in Arizona. I have a confession. I don't like to be cold. I didn't mind when I still skied, which burns zillions of calories, but now that my pace is slower I'll look at snow from a distance. But I presume we'll have some rain days in Marin County where I've just arrived home for December. Rain days will probably involve putting on Christmas music and wrapping presents.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Rhys, I'm coming to stay with you in your Arizona guest house ALL WINTER. It's just the beginning of December, and I've already had to have my driveway plowed three times. I like a white Christmas, but a white week-before-Thanksgiving is a bit much.

That being said, I do love being cozy at home in a snowstorm (with Hank's caveat that the power stay on.) It's not quite a thrilling as it was when I had three schoolchildren and a teacher at home - then, snowdays felt like national holidays! It's the perfect opportunity to take things slow - no one is running any errands, you don't have to return local calls because no one's in any of the offices, and it's the perfect time to simmer stew for hours on top of the woodstove, which will come in handy if the power DOES go out!

HALLIE EPHRON: My ideal snow day is someone else shoveling my walk. The garden looks so beautiful with a gloppy wet snow clinging to everything. But it's a slippery dangerous mess and I do hate dealing with it. And being cold is not fun, either. First-world problems in an era when it's still cold enough to have snow. I'll stop complaining now.

JENN McKINLAY: Living in central AZ, this is not really a thing for me. But if I had a snow day, I would want a fire in the fireplace, soup in the crockpot and a loaf of bread in the oven, a pile of books by my elbow, and my family all safe and sound while making a ruckus bangoing in and out of the house for snowball fights, sledding, and, of course, building a snow family. Perfection.

HANK: WITH electricity, Jenn. Trust me. 

READERS, snowed in yet, wherever you are? Everyone okay out there? And the big questions--Hot chocolate, or mulled cider?

And just as a reminder that not every perfect snow day needs to be in a cabin in the woods, one of my favorite books.

And if you've never read THE SNOWY DAY, don't wait for snow, go do it now!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

What's On Your Radio

DEBORAH CROMBIE: One of the things that always strikes me in the UK is how different radio is from the US. Radio in the US has always seemed very age and genre segregated. Country music fans listen to their country station, rock music fans their rock station, old hippies like me, the Oldies station, etc, etc. And I have to admit that the only thing I listen to in the car or at home is usually NPR. (For which I am very grateful!) But I think this segregation encourages us to live in our own little bubbles.

In the UK, everyone listens to the radio. Most people have radios in their kitchens. And most people still listen to the four main BBC stations

Here's an example of the retro-type radios people tend to have in their kitchens (many are digital and bluetooth!)

BBC 1 skews a little younger music-wise. BBC 2 is the most mid-range--they play everything from oldies to the most current music. BBC 3 is mostly classical but they play jazz and other interesting stuff, too. All the stations have some news and talk programs, but  BBC 4 is all talk (don't even THINK about equating this with American talk radio!) There are plays and books and dramas written just for radio, news, current affairs, comedy, games, science documentaries, just about anything you can talk about, really.

I know we can get  a lot of varied programs like this now on podcasts, but that's not the same as having everyone sipping from the same cultural bowl, talking about the new band that debuted on Radio 1 or the latest Radio 4 drama over the water cooler.

I love the idea of radio being a way for us to be more connected, rather than less.

Reds and readers, do you still listen to the radio?

JENN McKINLAY: I love BBC radio and it's sad that we don't have something similar here. I am a hardcore NPR listener. In the car and I keep a radio on my desk that I flick on when the words won't flow and I need to hear other grownups thinking big things. Otherwise, I listen mostly to classic rock since the punk rock of my youth is now classic. When exactly did that happen???

HALLIE EPHRON: When I'm in the car I listen to NPR - we have two stations that are talk, though I get tired of listening to the voices of the same commentators over and over again - and one station that's classical music. I alternate. LOVE it when it's the weekend and I can hear Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me or Celtic music on A Celtic Sojourn. And when I'm home alone, cooking dinner, the radio is my companion. (Funny, I don't need it when Jerry's home.)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We listen to Celtic Sojourn too! And love Wait, Wait. And Fresh Air. There's a show on a local college station that's all Broadway music, and I love that, too. But when I am in the car, it is usually with Jonathan, so we don't listen to the radio. On road trips, it's Sirius with classical, or politics, or folk music, on, when I get my hands on the controls, I choose Broadway music, or oldies (Jenn, agreed!)  or Frank Sinatra channel. I get to hear new stuff, thank goodness, when I am in the car with my news photographers. So I remain a tiny bit--and I mean TINY--not completely out of it. Sunday mornings we listen to classical radio until Meet the Press is on.

Whoa. I remember when the radio was on ALL the time, my little transistor plugged into my ear. 

DEBS: I LOVE Wait, Wait!! I'll bet we all do. 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I do! Like the rest of you, I'm an NPR junkie, and listen to many of the shows on my local station, MPBN. I'm also grateful they introduced the wonderful Maine Public Classical last year, and that tends to be on all the time at my house. Interestingly, though I get most of my music from "the radio," several of the stations I love I tune into by streaming from my Alexa. It's wonderful that living out in the country, I can have any station I want crystal clear. I told you I love Alexa!

I also have certain types of music I enjoy listening to depending on what I'm up to. Housework - oldies on 100.9. Cooking and puttering in the kitchen - adult contemporary on 98.9, Country music in the car - we now have at least three stations in our area playing country.

LUCY BURDETTE: Hallie, I'm just like you--if John's not home and I'm cooking, I always turn on NPR. And that's what I listen to in the car too. Unfortunately in our building in Key West, the reception is AWFUL. You have to practically stand by the window holding the antennae to avoid static. My favorite show on Saturdays is the Moth radio hour (storytelling) and on Sundays, love the baroque music.

RHYS BOWEN: As one who started out working for BBC radio, I regret that only NPR comes close in the US. I worked in radio drama and our plays got as much rehearsal as a TV plays. The most distinguished actors in England were in our casts. And the first piece of writing I sold was a radio play. But also comedy, quiz shows, talk on the arts. I only listen to radio when I'm driving. Usually NPR.

DEBS: Rhys, I love that your first piece of professional drama was a radio play. Don't you miss those here?

I manage to keep up with what's current a little bit because I watch The Voice. Thinking about it, maybe that's the biggest exposure we get nationally to a lot of different styles of music and performers.

Readers, tell us what you tune in?