The longest night and the shortest day.

For many years now our little family has marked this day on the calendar with an open house party full of friends, family, food, music and cheer.

It has morphed over the years as our lives shifted from lots of little kids running around, to our daughters teen friends mostly hanging in the attic, to very adult cocktails and chat.

We started this celebration as a way to make something special for our daughter as we navigated holidays tied to religions that neither my husband nor I practiced.

He was raised Jewish and I was raised Catholic, so we have small Christmas tree and we light the menorah, but the Solstice party (with latkes and Christmas cookies) was what we cooked up as our tradition.

I always like throwing parties.

Planning a menu, stocking the bar, decorating the house, and playing hostess to myriad friends, acquaintances and colleagues makes me happy.

I enjoy laying out a buffet of chafing dishes filled with latkes, arancini, and spinach dip followed by the totally fun moment of lighting the canned heat.

Plotting out the perfect cheese board and artfully arranging crudités, spiced nuts, olives and crackers is a delight. Arranging tiers of Christmas cookies, chocolates and torrone (which only I eat), makes me merry.

For me, it’s deeply satisfying to share love and friendship through food, wine and conversation.

And of course any excuse to wear a cocktail dress and red lipstick is always welcome.

This year, because of the pandemic, we won’t host our Solstice Party but our little family will raise a glass to toast the longest night and know that we are moving again toward the sun.

Wishing you joy in what ever holiday(s) you celebrate in the winter season, and hope for a sunny tomorrow.

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This morning while I was getting dressed this morning my husband said “TGIF!” and I said, “Really? You’re sure it’s Friday?”

His professional life still has standing meetings that keep him aware of the calendar in a way I that I clearly lack.

Holidays are also sneaking up on me at this point.

Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and it always reminds me of my husbands grandfather, Norman. I only knew him for a brief 6 years before he died, but I loved him and miss him still.

Norman was a story teller with a forceful personality. He was equally kind and caustic, friendly and demanding, and because I was new to the family, I could enjoy his flaws and find his quirks charming.

My husband and I went to dinner with Norman at least once a month back then, and then more frequently after his wife Frim passed away. Eventually I started cooking meals for him at his house and this always included sweets.

A favorite of his was the Crowned Apple Cake for Rosh Hashanah. It looked dramatic and was dense with apples and honey. It made for a sweet New Year and a happy memory. 

Rosh Hashanah always feels like the start of the “baking season” filled with birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah, and ending with my daughter’s birthday in January. 

Now, in the time of Covid, when caring for ourselves and others means NOT gathering, it’s hard to mark the holidays and rituals. Milestones like graduations, weddings, and births come and go with muted celebration and little fanfare.

And while I regret the lack of celebrations, I am most distressed by our inability to mourn in person.

It is almost impossible to lessen someones grief. All we can do is show up, pay respects, and mourn with our people during the most brutal of milestones. Bear witness and bring food.

And now we can’t.

I know we will get through this pandemic and it will be a marker in our history and memories – a before and after time. And hopefully it will forever help us remember what is truly important in our lives.

For me, as I am sure it is for most folks, most important are those I hold dear. The family and friends that I long to hug, and celebrate with, and comfort through all the milestones and all the rituals.

I look forward to the day we can be together.

Until then, to my family and friends, and to all those who celebrate across the world, L’shanah tovah.

I wish everyone health, happiness, and a sweet New Year.

 

Today is my 20th wedding anniversary.

Mr. Man and I are apart this year because he’s attending a leadership program at Harvard Business School (yay!) and I’m preparing our house & life for our move to Montgomery, Alabama in one week (yikes!).

It’s actually better this way because I haven’t yet settled on an appropriate gift. For whatever reason I am bad at remembering dates and coming up with good gifts. It’s a flaw. Or maybe each relationship only has room for one person to be good at that stuff.

Anyway as I was trolling for gifts I came across some really idealized representations of love & marriage that got me to thinking.

Back in the 70’s there was a super popular comic strip call “Love is…” that featured naked, cherub-like adults and cute quotes like “Love is… giving him a lick of your ice cream.” There was no escaping the cuteness. They were in the newspaper, in books, on coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters, greeting cards, sheets and towels.  A modern version of the strip still runs with updated quotes like “Love is… not letting technology interrupt your leisure time.”

I have some quotes drawn from the last 14 months of my life that I’d like to see in a new “It’s gettin real up in here” series.

Love is…

  • ….taking the phone call even though you know it’s bad news.
  • ….living apart for 6 months so one of you can take their dream job.
  • … holding your friends hand in the ICU.
  • … putting your pet down when they can no longer enjoy their life.
  • … helping your child take a leap into adulthood.
  • … knowing a couple of bad days doesn’t make a bad life.
  • … when you keep on keepin’ on.

The 70’s also gave us the book & movie “Love Story” which sold everyone the nonsense that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”.

Wrong.

Love means, among other things, saying you’re sorry, and trying harder, and knowing when to let it slide and when to call BS. And mostly, love means not giving up on love because love really is the raison d’etre.

I was forced to buy a new wallet recently. I don’t invest much in accessories like wallets, handbags, phone cases and such so this doesn’t happen very often. I think this might be the fourth or fifth wallet I’ve owned in my lifetime. All my previous wallets has slots for school photos. Which I sort of miss.

Cleaning out the old wallet, which had considerably more nooks and crannies than the new one, I found something my mother gave me back in 1991.

My mom was a religious person, a person of faith, and a big believer in miracles. Back in 1991, the year before my dad was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him a year later, I was in a place of flux.

When I was laid off from the theatre I worked at for years, I took a job as a temp for a publisher. Within months I was hired full-time and was making more money than I had ever made  in theatre. I think the salary was a whopping $18,000.

Seeing as this was thousands of dollars more than I earned in theatre, I actually paid down my looming debt and felt “rich”. I had savings for the first time in my life and still managed to act and direct  at night. The stamina of youth + coffee.

In 1991 I was weighing the decision to return to a theatre position full-time, which I ultimately did. Sitting at my moms kitchen table obviously moaning about money worries and trying to decide between what was safe and what was authentic, she pulled out a piece of paper and wrote me a note.

It said “Pay to the Order of Amanda T. Shaffer. Paid in Full. The Law of Abundance.” She dated it, had me sign it and told me to carry it in my wallet always.

I don’t know if her talisman worked but the next year I met Mr. Man who became my friend and husband, and the years following the abundance flowed – I founded a theatre, bought a house, had a child and continued to find interesting, fulfilling work in and out of theatre for the next 25 years.

There were many dips in the road, losing my dad in 1992, and then mom in 2001. Followed by the death of my brother, my husbands grandparents, and my father-in-law. But the abundance and richness of my life has never dimmed. And I am grateful.

Sunday was the anniversary of my mom’s death and I am still vaguely surprised by it every year. So I was happy to find the tattered paper talisman she gifted me with – dated on what would be my daughters birthday eight years in the future – and put it in my new wallet.

Where I will carry it always.

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My sister and niece were over the house to celebrate my daughters 16th birthday yesterday and, as usual, a bizarre bit of our childhood folklore floated to the surface of the conversation.

My daughter loves these glimpses into our past. Of course it never seems odd when you are living it, but it sure can sound that way thirty years later.

My sister and I were talking about my Dad’s various hobbies and I mentioned the Gee Haw Whammy Diddle.

Yes its an actual thing. A small propeller nailed to a stick with some notches cut into it. A second stick for making the propeller go right (Gee) and left (Haw). And there you have yourself one country boy, homemade toy.

It’s not like we were so poor we played with rocks and sticks, it’s just that my dad liked to make stuff. And he liked colonial era, boy scout, do-it-yourself from raw materials (possibly with the help of an expensive lathe) kind of projects most especially.

For a good stretch of my childhood he dabbled in leather goods (he had an account at the Tandy Leather Factory), and then he made candy dispensers out of mason jars (I still have one), and for a while he enjoyed working on wood-turning projects which meant everyone received wooden vases as gifts.

My all time favorite project of his was empty tuna cans with both lids cut off, spray painted gold and soldered together into a Christmas tree shape. He then attached a gold Christmas ornament inside each tuna can. That creation decorated the front door each Christmas for a couple of years and clanked impressively each time the door was opened.

Hard to beat the Gee Haw Whammy Diddle for sheer fun though. The name never fails to get a laugh followed by a  “Wait. What?”

Here is a link to the plans for how you too can make your very own Whammy Diddle. Impress your friends.

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Not many successful directors emerged from my film school class. Certainly I didn’t go on to direct, but maybe I would have if I had come from a broken home. That seems to be one of the secrets to success shared in the cultural artifact that I wish to discuss today: The Wes Anderson Collection, a new coffee table book by the film critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

I am an unabashed fan of Wes Anderson, and this book makes me swell with an even greater affection for him and his work. Literally, my chest gets bigger as I flip through the pages of this book, composed with as much care and attention as any shot from any Wes Anderson film, and my eyes gets wet from the remembered emotions I feel when I watch Anderson’s movies. There is not a great deal of biographical detail in this wonderful book, one fact sheds much light onto Anderson’s directorial perspective: the fact that he continues to grapple with his parents’ divorce, when he was a young boy. Knowing this helps explain the dense emotion and strict control in Anderson’s films, and knowing this personal aspect makes me admire him, and his work, all the more.

Wes Anderson is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I think he deserves every criticism aimed at him.

His cinematic style is mannered, and only gets more so with every film. There aren’t enough people of color in his movies, and he’s still struggling how to successfully represent female characters. None of that matters to me. I love him for his faults, not despite them, because as much as he is devoted to the look and style of his films, as much as he pays attention to composition and color, he is also emotionally true and committed to his characters. He loves his characters, and does not distance himself from them (unlike, say, the Coen Brothers, film makers I enjoy and admire, but rarely love).

Anderson’s films invariably make me cry, and they contain some incredibly fragile and heartbreaking moments of emotional honesty. The scene in The Royal Tenenbaums, when Chas tearfully tells his father, “Dad, I’m having a hard year.” The shot of the Whitman brothers in the back of a limo, riding to their fathers funeral, in The Darjeeling Limited. Mr. Fox’s frustration that his is not being true to his nature, as though he were a vulpine George Bailey, in The Fantastic Mr. Fox. These moments come to me during the day as I go about my business. They speak to me deeply. And the fact that they are nestled in beautifully composed, fully realized cinematic creations just ices it for me.

I could go on about these scenes, and perhaps will in a future post, but for now I want to recommend this amazing book that captures these moments, evokes them, and provides insight into the obsessions and influences of the artist who created them. The book also takes the form of multiple interviews between Anderson and Seitz, and I love interviews. There is nothing like being witness to a great conversation, and I could happily read interviews for days and days.

So: there it is. I look forward to future Riffs on the things I love. For now, I’ll leave you with this.

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