A Lakewood Lens

It’s interesting doing Christmas with childless 20-somethings.

They have long stopped believing in Santa, and they aren’t anywhere close to being Santa themselves. But I learned this year that they’re still kids in adult suits, complete with decent resumes.

This year, I said “No stockings!’ because do they really need a tangerine from the North Pole? And, besides, I said, I’ve spent 25 years running out to the drug store on Christmas Eve to look for stocking-worthy junk, only to throw it all away when downsizing five years later. Honestly, I have found candy canes in their stockings in July that looked like they could have been in every child’s stocking in North America.

But there was outright resentment when I suggested we have no stockings.

“What do you mean, no stockings?” they said, as if we’d stripped them of their benefits in a union job.

Oh, yes. I am squarely still old Saint Nick to our twenty-somethings.

And not just any Saint Nick, but the Santa of their childhood dreams, the one that could put a bike together at two o’clock in the morning with a butter knife, or leap tall buildings in a single bound to find the only Big Wheel left in a 75-mile radius of home.

All these years later, I still have a red hat, a Master Card and a short list–although now it is texted, or emailed or sent along on Facebook. And the things they ask for come from glass countertops in expensive department stores instead of the endless plastic aisles at Toys R Us.

The minute your kids get their own apartments, you’re convinced that the next time you’ll see them is at your funeral some fifty years away. But don’t worry. They’ll be back on Christmas Eve looking for a cookie with a red nose in the middle of it and the stocking with their name on it that they’ve had since they were two.

I’ve been a little cynical of Christmas this year-and only because it seemed I just washed my last plate at Thanksgiving when right on cue the media played its first Christmas carol and we were let out of the starting gate like horses at the Kentucky Derby.

I wanted to get away from that frenetic Christmas pace, avoid being in line at Wal-Mart on December 23 at 4:00 pm when the possibility of a silent, holy night seemed farther away than Mars. I just wanted a holiday season that felt a bit quieter, a little bit less like dashing through the snow and a lot more like sleeping in heavenly peace.

But you know, that’s not the way our Christmas season went down again this year. Not at all. I was still standing in Wal-Mart on December 23, clutching cheap stocking stuffers and trying not to lob an ornament at the person in front of me who appeared to be shopping for the next six Christmases.

And I still baked too much and wrapped too much and spent too much and traveled too much and ate too much. And I decided that there was no reason to put Christmas in a coma just yet.

Because things have their own timing in the life of a family, and our jobs as parents are to sense where our family is in that circle of life. There’s no need to hang up the Santa suit, or to shun a wallet full of gift receipts or to not live fully in the moment on Christmas Day.

So, stir that cheese fondue and keep the tree lit and soak up every moment that is this holiday season, until the very last minute.

It is excess and extravagance and over reaching, yes. It is all of that.

But it’s a beautiful thing to stand there in your new pajamas and look out in the living room at the smiles of everyone you love lost in a sea of red paper and white bows.

I wish that every day I could heap whip cream on my children’s hot chocolate, but more and more that privilege is reserved for a few times each year.

And more and more I realize that Christmas is this thing that I savor, like a fine wine that is almost gone.

And I have to tell you what a joy it has been to wear this white beard for so long.

A Lakewood Lens

I don’t know why, but I’m always newly surprised when I wake up and realize that I didn’t win the lottery.

“I can’t believe I didn’t win the lottery!” I tell my husband, who always responds, “Honey, I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but you are not going to win the lottery. Ever.”

My chances, he says, of getting sucked up by the leaf truck in Lakewood are greater than my chances of winning the lottery.

But all kinds of people have won the lottery. Richard Sandlin won $7 million in the lottery a few years back. So did Philip Pina and Bill Poling. And they probably realized they won at the same moment their wives were standing behind them with a cup of coffee and curlers in their hair saying, “I don’t know why you keep wasting our hard-earned money on that dang lottery.”

The doubters of the world! For every person gazing up at the stars, clenching hope tightly in their fists and yelling up to the universe, “I have a dream!” there is a spouse standing behind them holding a dish rag or a bank statement telling them that dreams don’t come true.

I wonder if Albert Einstein’s wife chastised him about that Theory of Relativity thing, calling him down to dinner, and complaining that she hasn’t seen him in days. “It’s a theory, Albert! It’s just a theory!”

Oh, ye of little faith.

One of the most notorious mobsters in Boston’s history won the lottery, which proves there is no lottery god deciding who needs to win the jackpot most. If Whitey Bulger can win the lottery, then we all have a chance.

And quite frankly, I am tired of all the horror stories being peddled around about the poor lottery winners. How their lives took a turn for the worst, how in the end, they wished no one had ever handed them that check for $51 million because, as one winner stated, he missed the double-wide trailer he used to live in.

One winner had never left the state he was born in, and he still had not left the state he was born in 10 years after being handed $7 million. Why has he not been to Morocco, to eat a tagine and some couscous, to ride across the desert on a camel beneath a setting sun?

Our lottery winners need to use their imaginations.

And it just seems all wrong to me – lottery winners complaining! They never again have to wince when their National Fuel bill arrives in February. That right there is worth a lifetime of smiles.

Someone in my town won the lottery when I lived on Cape Cod. It was close to $50 million and they bought a nice house on the ocean, sent their kids to private schools and had a house full of Cuisinart appliances and Pottery Barn furniture.

And then they got divorced.

And, of course, they blamed it all on the lottery.

The big jackpot is the receptacle of a million dreams and a million nightmares. It holds all of the wishes and all the blame at the same time, a huge, swirling cauldron of contradiction and unresolved conflict.

I guess if you are the kind of guy who never left Idaho before you won the lottery, the day after you deposit the check in the bank, you are still the guy who never left Idaho. Because the lottery is like a giant X-ray machine that perfectly illuminates who you are. Lots of people didn’t even quit their jobs or leave the little home that they love, because people dislike change more than they love money.

And interestingly, most people are pretty happy with their lot in life when it comes right down to it. It’s what they know, after all, and people are comfortable with what they know. Just because you can afford to live next door to Mick Jagger on the island of Antigua doesn’t mean you want to.

If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t leave Lakewood. I’d just turn up the heat in my house, hire a slew of landscapers and build a beautiful family room off my kitchen. And I’d give lots of money away. I wouldn’t let it ruin my life, and I certainly wouldn’t complain.

Whitey Bulger – the Boston crook – took his jackpot money, hid it in the walls of his California apartment when he was on the run and lived behind a pair of sun glasses and under a wig for more than 16 years. And now, the United States government is the proud owner of his winnings and he’s in jail.

Thankfully, he has the lottery to blame for his misfortune.

A Lakewood Lens

By Margot Russell

margot62@aol.com

As far as I’m concerned, a cook cannot be a baker and a baker cannot be a cook.

Each one is a distinct animal, attracted to the kitchen craft for which they are uniquely wired.

Engineers make good bakers because baking is an exact science. Ingredients have to be measured and processed with accuracy. There’s no throwing a handful of this and a tablespoon of that into a cake; no stirring the batter while you sip a glass of wine.

Cooks, on the other hand, are more instinctual. They’re creative folks who probably never passed algebra.

And here’s the thing: You can look at a picture of a beef stew in a cookbook and eight hours later when you unplug your Crock-Pot, there’s the beef stew, looking reasonably like the picture.

Not so with a cake.

And that’s why I’ve decided that baking is torture, meant to teach us sloppy cooks a lesson.

I made a cake over Thanksgiving called a “quadruple layer tiramisu cake” (because my baking nightmares are short-lived in memory).

In the tortuous end, it looked like a lopsided ski slope at Peek ‘n Peak.

So, why is it my fault that cakes never bake evenly? (Oh, you’re supposed to take a sharp knife and even up the tops and the sides, but have you ever tried this? Because I don’t think Michelangelo could pull it off.)

I’ve complained before about the media-driven obsession with perfection, how we look at things in magazines and expect the same results. Just as they have heavier models in advertisements now, I think it’s high time we have lopsided cakes in cookbooks – some sort of nod to reality.

I honestly don’t know how they decorate cookies and cakes without cheating – without a guy in a muscle shirt and six earrings tattooing the picture of the snowman or a penguin on the bakery cookie.

That cake-making man on TV is nothing short of the reincarnation of Monet with a spatula. Unless you’re a prodigy, the average person cannot stand there with a frosting bag, piping a mountain scene complete with pine trees, snow and Santa barreling across the sky in his sleigh on a 3-inch sugar cookie that is burned at the edges and has a few thumbprints here and there.

Instead of admitting that this kind of thing is an art – that no, you shouldn’t try this at home under any circumstances, these television bakers sell their baking tools at Wal-Mart and Michaels, pretending that you, too, can have cookies that look like they just marched into your home single file from Martha Stewart’s clean and organized kitchen.

The other day was holiday baking day at my house, and I decided to prepare for disaster like a Navy Seal.

I studied the chemistry behind baking. I learned how to prevent the dreaded spread of the cookie when it hits the oven by softening my butter beforehand, bringing my eggs to room temperature, and not using baking powder.

I didn’t beat the batter too long so as to prevent air from being incorporated into it. I even put bags of ice on my countertops so that when I rolled out the dough, the ingredients wouldn’t regress to their former incarnations on a warm surface. (What, I ask you, is worse than trying to remove Rudolph from the counter with a spatula after you’ve used your cookie cutter, only to find he looks more like a deformed moose by the time he hits the baking sheet?)

But my dough stuck to the counter anyway, not at all threatened by the ice bags or the flour or the sharp spatula. I cut out an average of four circles by the time the dough resembled chewing gum under a park bench in July.

Nothing makes me sadder than a tray full of well-intended cookies looking the same as they did when you made them in third grade. This disappointment is a part of my yearly Christmas tradition. (“Eat one of Mom’s cookies so she doesn’t feel bad,” is also a yearly tradition.)

I’m done with the baking mitts. From here on in, I’m giving spaghetti sauce to my neighbors during the holidays because that’s something I can work on all day and actually feel good about. There’s none of this “drop the dough in perfectly rounded teaspoons onto the baking sheet” stuff when you’re making sauce. You can take a sip of wine, dump a little in the pot and walk away for an hour without burning the house down.

So, if you can bake, I greatly admire you.

As for the rest of us, that’s why we have Ecklof Bakery. Let them figure this all out.

A Lakewood Lens

I’ve written before about all the cool things being offered in this emerging “sharing economy,” and I thought I’d throw a few more into the mix. These types of initiatives put people to work and help the rest of us save money, despite the fact that it wrangles the powers that be.

A lot of these start-up ventures can’t be found in Jamestown yet, but, hey, you never know.

Let’s start with TaskRabbit.

Say you want someone to come over and wrap all of your Christmas gifts, or run to Starbucks for you while you’re home convalescing from your hip replacement. You can just pick up your smartphone, sign in to your TaskRabbit app, and be connected to a talented “tasker” who has been previously vetted and approved by the company.

The tasker will show up at your front door and run your errands for you – at a price that you’ve agreed upon. Payment is handled securely online after a task is complete, so there’s no need for cash to change hands.

Right now, about $4 million in tasks are completed each month, according to the website, and dedicated part-time taskers are banking about $1,000 or more in the same time period.

Need a ride and don’t feel like waiting for a cab?

Next time you’re in a city that hosts this service, you can summon a driver with a push of a smartphone button when you can’t find a taxi during rush hour. Uber – a new car-sharing service – connects passengers and cars within minutes at a cheaper rate and a quicker pace than most cabs.

Uber operates in 120 cities and 37 countries, and it’s not likely to fold anytime soon, much to the chagrin of traditional taxi drivers. The venture has been so successful that cab companies in New York had to lower their rates to compete.

Here’s how it works: A customer requests a car using a smartphone app and Uber sends its closest driver to their location, using the phone’s GPS. The fare is charged directly to your credit card. If you’re particular about what kind of car is picking you up, you can request Uber Lux, which features the priciest cars.

Uber drivers are not licensed chauffeurs. They’re just regular folks who use their own cars. They also use their personal auto insurance policy while driving for Uber.

If you think it’s just a silly idea, then look at this: Uber was recently valued at $18.2 billion, which is higher than Hertz – valued at $12.5 billion. Apparently, there are a lot of people hitching rides.

The revenue flowing through the sharing economy right into people’s wallets has surpassed $3.5 billion, and Forbes predicts growth exceeding 25 percent in the near future. It’s an interesting model where peers offer and purchase goods and services from each other through an online platform. I like the idea of subverting the system and finding ways to do things on our own terms. In fact, I’m fond of telling the younger generation that if they want to lead a long, healthy and abundant life, they’re going to have to find new ways to do things in our world, like grow their own vegetables or put the quest for rampant materialism behind them.

I like that these ventures offer employment to people in a tough economy, and there’s even some benefit to the environment with a reduction in carbon monoxide emissions.

The downside is that many city governments are resisting these new ventures, and we all know it’s hard to fight city hall. Despite regulatory snafus with city governments, it doesn’t appear the sharing economy is going away because it gives power back to the people.

Flying out of Buffalo soon and want to find a cheaper place to park your car – rather than the long-term parking lot at the airport?

Try Parking Panda, where you can enjoy discounts in private driveways or garages close to the airport.

Got an extra bike leaning up alongside of your garage? Rent it out on Liquid to a visitor from out of town who’s looking for an interesting way to see the sights.

You can rent out your car, your house, your tools and your tent on different sharing sites on the Internet. Most of these services can be found in big cities around the world, but it won’t be long until they’re offered in smaller locales.

Will we see something similar like a Jamestown-TASK in our future, with an organized crew running our city’s errands? Wrapping our Christmas gifts or running to Starbucks for us?

I certainly hope so. I’d like to see money being passed back into the hands of the people who really need it.

Looking for a list of all the sharing ventures available? Check out www.collaborativeconsumption.com.