25X: Yo! Christmas Wraps

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Another title considered for this post: “More Evidence Jeff Isn’t Gay.”

Now, I don’t want to play into stereotypes of gay men, but, you know…some of us happen to have an eye for good design and the wherewithal to execute a Grand Unified Theory of gift-wrapping with such precision and skill that you’d think they were elf dentists in their spare time.  People who love to wrap gifts, like Lance, will spend hours doing it, jamming on some Mariah Carey and sipping a homemade latte.  And they’ll actually enjoy it!

I am not one of those people. (more…)

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25X: D-I-Y-X-Mas

Procrastinate, as I am wont to do. (That sounds vaguely like something Yoda would say.)

Last night, I finally went shopping for crafting supplies in order to put together the First Annual Lance+Jeff Super-One-Of-A-Kind Christmas Cards!!

I’m not warm and fuzzy with crafting–like baking, quality crafts require a level of precision and patience that I just don’t have.  Still, it was important to me to send out something that was handmade and unique.  So, I hunkered down and started piecing them together, a jumble of construction paper, glue and paint.

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It’s not like I love Christmas cards.  I like the tradition, but the gesture is lost on our generation, who would prefer to send out snarky Someecards instead of a card they spend some time picking out.  I’ve never gotten really into Christmas cards because their exchange is so inconsistent–people who sent you a card last year will forget for three nonconsecutive years, or your bestest pals from high school don’t even make that small, annual gesture at keeping in touch.  Vinyl’s coming back–why not Christmas cards?

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I want to love Christmas cards.  And while I was nursing a Wawa fountain soda into the wee hours of the morning last night, my supplies strewn across  our coffee table and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation playing on loop in the background, I felt that little pinch of cheer, the Christmas spirit finally starting to gestate (what a NASTY word, like “moist” or “nubbin”) inside me.

Christmastime is here.

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25X: Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas

Last weekend, I got Disney World and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.  This past weekend, Lance got Dollywood and its Smoky Mountain Christmas.

To be fair to Lance, we’d joked (or so I thought) about going to Dollywood for Christmas for almost a year.  Lance loves Dolly Parton purely and without a spec of irony, and in such a wholly and devoted way that I’m not sure even I hold a candle to their special bond.  I’ll leave the “why” for Lance to explain, should he feel so inclined, but just know this: there was no doubt in his mind that the 11-plus hour drive to Dolly’s theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, was well worth it.

We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Gatlinburg, a town over from Dollywood.  We’d stayed here on our one prior trip to Dollywood and loved it so much (it’s like a cabin with a fireplace and everything, but without the scary bugs and deranged woodsmen who come to kill you in your sleep!) we had to return.

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Above: Lance warming up by the hotel’s outdoor bonfire.  It was a little chilly during our visit!

(more…)

25X: The Best Of Time Of The Year

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Eep! Making it just under the wire here today–a long, zombified-brain-inducing drive back from Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas (more on that tomorrow) makes it hard to write.

[Insert perfect segue here]

This doesn’t directly relate to Christmas, but one of my favorite things about this time of year are “Best Of” lists.  It’s that sign, like the first bloom of spring, that change is upon us: the year is winding down (and, ergo, awards season is heating up.).  Sure, Christmastime is all about togetherness and giving and OMG ALL THE COOKIES, but the onset of wintertime brings about an annual spirit of reflection and reminiscing…which, after New Year’s, turns into regular ol’ Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I don’t know if I have any favorite “Best Of” lists; I’ll pretty much read any Top 10–movies, TV, music, theatre–I stumble upon.  When I was younger, I used to get soooo mad if, say, Alias (just seasons 1 and 2–I wasn’t completely lacking in critical judgment, even then) didn’t make Entertainment Weekly’s cut, or if Our Lady Peace was ignored their righteous place in the annals of Best Ofs (okay…maybe I was.)

Now, I find comfort in those lists that line up with my preferences, and find humor in those trying to justify things like A Fine Frenzy’s Pines as anything other than disappointing, meandering garbage.  They’re also a good well to dip into when you’re looking for something new: perhaps a music suggestion, or a reminder of a movie you may have missed while it was in theatres (I’m looking at you, Beasts of the Southern Wild.)  The hardest thing is to try and experience one of the featured productions without comparing it to the hype which got you to consider it in the first place.

Some Best Of lists are already available, like Time‘s (which has been online for, like two weeks now), while others, like NPR’s and The A.V. Club’s, will roll out over the next week or so.

We definitely haven’t seen enough movies or heard enough new albums this year to create a Top 10 list, but we’re always open to recommendations: what’re your favorite things from the past year?

 

25X: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

It’s 8:00AM as I’m writing this. Do you know where your favorite Lance+Jeff contributors are?

Nope, not Japan. Or Hawaii. Or even New York City (just an expensive hop, skip, and jump away from us normally). Nope, y’all, we’re currently in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to find our Christmas spirit; Dolly Parton is our guide.

A lot of us will travel for the holidays: some to see family, some to vacation, some to visit the model tour bus in front of Dolly Parton’s museum, Chasing Rainbows (I think that’s also the name of Liberace’s museum…too soon?). Travel, for many, is synonymous with the holidays, and if you can find a way to enjoy “the journey,” maybe singing along at the top of your lungs to really cheesy Christmas songs, then it can actually be a fun, memorable component of your holiday.

A few years ago now, Lance and I were on our way back to Michigan to visit my family for Christmas. When I was a kid, my immediate family lived in Maryland while most of my extended family called the Great Lakes state home, so I was familiar with this drive and knew how grueling it could be. But let me tell you, having the back of our Honda Fit (good riddance) stuffed to the brim with Christmas presents, so full you couldn’t open a door without something falling out, all the while sipping Salted Caramel Mochas and listening to Kenny and Dolly sing “A Christmas To Remember”…that was a good time. It felt a little magical, like we were two dentists bringing in tow a sleigh full of misfit toys.

Now, normally I’m all about packing up a bag and having a bit of an adventure, sometimes (::cough cough::all the time::cough::) to a fault–sorry, bank account. That’s why we flew down to Disney World for like 38 hours last weekend, and why we’re here now for Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas (we’ll save the musings regarding Lance’s Mecca-like religious experiences at Dolly’s theme park for another post.)

And it’s not like I usually mind long car rides. But something about yesterday’s drive just had me in such a foul mood (except for the gas prices, which are under $3.00 a gallon here in Tennessee! Now I know why Connie Britton wanted to film Nashville on location!). We left at least an hour later than planned, then hit lots of inexplicable traffic, tacking on an another hour or so to the trip. I couldn’t sleep in the car because no matter how low you keep the volume on the stereo, our Fiesta’s so small that your head is always near a speaker.

Then Lance had us route through Johnson City, Tennessee on the way to our hotel in Gatlinburg, The Mall at Johnson City being home to a Bath & Body Works test-scent store. A test-scent store, as you might gather, is where the company sells products before they may be released nationwide, taking stock of what does and doesn’t sell before mass producing it. This means Lance could get his well-moisturized hands on some candles that would normally not be released until next year, if they were going nationwide at all.

I’m all about “the hunt,” so to speak: devoting an illogically large amount of time to procure something you most likely don’t need. I do this a lot with couponing, re-buying things multiple times in an effort to get the best deal (though I’m sure an argument could be made that the amount of time and money wasted on this make it totally not worth it.) But at the end of what at that point was an 11-hour ride, all the while being constantly stuck behind people on I-81 that considered the speed limit a wild, dangerous proposition, the last thing I wanted to do was stop at a mall.

Then Lance plugged the hotel’s information into the GPS to see the time to the hotel from the mall.

“When’s it say we’ll get in?” I asked.

“Umm. Never mind.”

I reached for the GPS. “What’s it say??” I began to panic.

“9:30,” Lance whispered.

“9:30???” I yelped, a mix of shock and outrage. That meant another two hours in the car, after we were done at the mall.

The mall would end up being about an hour out of our way. With that realization, I lost it, becoming filled with irrational, boiling irritation. I wanted to cry and scream at the same time. Let’s appreciate the journey and not just the destination? That concept was so far lost from me.

So I sat in the passenger’s seat after stopping at the mall (had to stock up on Tiki Beach three-wicks!!), stewing with some unnecessary, indescribable mix of emotions: anger, irritation, sleepiness. I was DONE with this effing car ride.

Then we pulled off the highway and into Sevierville, Dolly Parton’s hometown and just two towns over from our hotel. That’s when I saw this:

The whole road, for miles, was framed with these gorgeous, enormous Christmas light displays. None of this blow-up lawn Santa shit here–these we’re beautiful, complex-but-simple for the fact that they were all made from lights.

It was something that just took my breath away a little. Something so simple, yet tapping into the part of my instinctual brain which finds comfort with light in the darkness.

In those moments, as we were passing by these wonderful displays, I didn’t think about the drive at all.

25X: That Christmas Moment

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There’s that intangible moment every year where it clicks: it’s Christmastime. Holiday parties! Carolers on the streets! Twinkling lights and wreaths and being generally a fat ass as you unapologetically gorge yourself on as many cookies, pie pieces, and drumsticks that you can fit in your mouth and around your waste before New Year’s.

There’s an energy, a constant low buzz of glee, a skip in your step, when your mind turns over, like a bad mattress, to Christmas mode.  You’re in the zone: you’ll spend hours baking cookies, hours writing out cards, and you’ll even listen to “I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas” without killing yourself.  You’ll do it all with a sense of unquestioning enjoyment.

It seems like I’m sugarcoating Christmas, but this switch-flipping happens to me every year, when the other pressing concerns of life are put on the back burner as Christmas cheer for all to hear fills me up inside.  There’s no specific point in the season when this sensation arrives, or anything particular that seems to cause it; when it’s there, I know.

We’re down to, what, 11 days before Christmas, and friends, that strand of lights in my mind hasn’t flickered on yet.  I became conscious of its absence when we were in Disney World.  I loved our Diet Disney trip and, save for only getting three hours of sleep on our last night there, we had a wonderful time.  But it didn’t fill me with Christmas joy.  Neither did putting up the tree, or cutting out paper snowflakes, or even reminiscing on this blog about all I love about the holiday season.

Why am I not excited? Is it being busy at work? It is because Lance and I aren’t exchanging gifts this year? Is it because it’s the first Christmas ever that I’m not going to spend with my family?  Some of Column A, all of Column B?

At this point, I’m a little worried it isn’t going to come, that Christmas 2012 will be here and then gone and then…that’s it.  Christmas is so awesome that I don’t want that to come to pass, but I’m not quite sure what to do.  Can you force the Christmas spirit?

Gimme some ideas, folks.  Help this hapless grinch.  Do y’all have strategies to get yourselves into the holiday spirit?

25X: The Holiday Latte Strategy

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“This is supposed to be a hot latte!” the cashier spat at the…whatever they call baristas at Dunkin’ Donuts.

“The iced is fine,” I said, reaching behind the counter to snatch away the iced gingerbread latte before the cashier could realize that the iced are worth at least a $1 more than the hot latte I paid for.

That’s the problem with Dunkin’ Donuts.  While they have some of the best hot coffee amongst the national chains, the quality of everything else seems to be totally up to the competencies of the staff working at any particular location.  And with the Dunkins in Philly, it’s pretty hit or miss.  The iced coffee won’t be double-brewed, or the bagels will be stale, or they’ll make an iced latte instead of a hot latte.

I want to rely on Dunkin’ because their lattes are always a few dollars cheaper than their Starbucksian counterparts.  During the fall, Starbucks may have the Pumpkin Spice Latte which everybody pines for after a year-long absence, but Dunkin’s regular ol’ Pumpkin (sans spice) Latte is nearly as good and is a little more affordable.

Similarly, the Starbucks holiday lattes, like the Gingerbread Latte, have a similar knock-off at Dunkin’, which is what I ordered this morning, only to get an iced version.

Since I’m a cheapskate, I try to enjoy the best of both worlds: quality and price.  I’m okay with a little less quality and craftsmanship in my latte.  My general rule is “one, like, $6 Starbucks latte a season, then the Dunkin’ version from there on out.”  The risk, of course, is that the questionably-trained Dunkin’ staff may or may not know what they’re doing, and you could end up with a dud; you don’t usually need to worry about that at a Starbucks (unless it’s one of those franchised ones in hotels or airports.  Eek, stay away!)

…But who am I kidding?  There’s is an expensive holiday espresso drink that I would pay damn near anything for (and Caribou Coffee knows it, which is why they’re like $4.50 for a small): Caribou’s new Salted Caramel Budino latte.  I don’t care if it’s 850 calories per serving (health be damned!), or that it doesn’t really taste like the best dessert of all time (Philadelphia restaurant Barbuzzo’s Salted Caramel Budino, also a million calories), it’s AWESOME. Maybe it’s because the caramel used in this drink is actually real caramel as opposed to caramel sauce, or maybe it’s because of the caramel mousse on top, but this is by far the best latte I’ve ever had at a large coffee chain.  After taking my first sip, in a strip mall parking lot in Michigan, I felt like I was wrapped up in a warm blanket…though I guess that might be the feeling you get when you instantly acquire a new layer of fat.

The minuscule difference between Dunkin’ and Starbucks? I’m okay with either.  But no caramel latte at Dunkin’ or Starbucks can compare to this artery-coating monster of MMM.

Now, before y’all send us lots of Caribou Coffee gift cards, we’re sadly without Caribous in Pennsylvania–in fact, they don’t seem to exist anywhere in the Northeast north of Maryland.  We only get to treat ourselves when we make it out to the Midwest while visiting family.

Santa, now you know what we want for Christmas.