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The Year of the Pop-Up Timer

My dad was not known as a cook. He must have made dinner for himself after my parents divorced, but that’s hard to believe based on the Thanksgivings he put together. He insisted on hosting, and he did his best, but let's just say we didn't go to his place for the food.

Finally, one year he agreed to let me cook. I'd been bragging about my culinary prowess, and he gave in and accepted my claim that I could whip up something more gourmet than what we'd been used to. Now I realize that my baking experience didn't translate into any real dinner-making ability, but at the time I thought I could do it all. How hard could it be?

I'd never made a turkey, so to be safe, I bought one of those with the pop-up timers. All I had to do was check occasionally and when it popped up, we would eat. I put the turkey in the oven while we played Scrabble. After an hour or so I looked into the oven. Nope, not ready. More looking, more not ready, more Scrabble.

After what seemed like twice the length of time it should have taken, I pulled the pan out and examined what was turning into withered jerky. No timer was popped up. It must be defective. What a rip-off! Those Butterball people would be hearing from me!

But wait. When I took the mummified bird out of the pan and flipped it onto a platter, it turned out that I’d had it in there upside down. That poor little timer never stood a chance: it had been pressed into the pan and couldn’t pop up. Who knows how long ago it started to try.

That year, we dined on rolls, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and plenty of pie to the soundtrack of bitching. "Why didn't you put marshmallows in the sweet potatoes?" "I really wanted some turkey." And you’d better believe that, like "The Fruitcake Story," that tale gets re-told more often than it should.

How to Get Attention in New York

The Anti-Defamation League entered the fray when a billboard advertising vodka claimed "Christmas Quality, Hanukkah Pricing." They got it taken down quickly, but claimed they were comparing the single day of Christmas to the eight nights of Hanukkah - hence the bargain. What do you think?

A Very Musical Thanksgiving (Videos)

Turkey Survival Anthem




Doing It Sandler-Style




Gobble, Gobble




The Poultry Rapper



The Thanksgiving Eating Challenge (Videos)

Thanksgiving Pie Eating Contest


America's top competitive eaters see who can stuff the most pumpkin pie into their mouths in a Thanksgiving Day pie eating competition. Pumpkin pie is one of the toughest competitions, with a thick dry crust and a deep heavy filling. Eric "Badlands" Booker took the title, eating four whole pies and three eighths in just six minutes.

Thanksgiving Dinner With a Side of Soap


The challenge this Thanksgiving: holding down dinner for at least three minutes after finishing it.

Thanksgiving Turkey Eating Contest


On Thanksgiving Eve, an emaciated woman beat seven plus-size men at a turkey-eating competition in New York City.

Thanksgiving Soda Challenge


The best part: he doesn't like to drink out of the bottle! What's next, a little umbrella and an extended pinkie?

Considering Deep Frying A Thanksgiving Turkey? (Videos)

How Not to Deep Fry a Turkey


This turkey...the person frying the turkey, that is...needs a little lesson in appropriate footwear for deep frying. Of course, his brother-in-law isn't much help, dropping the thermometer into the boiling oil.


Turkey Deep Fry


How to make a great deep fried turkey. Note creative use of cardboard boxes and wire hanger.

The Dangers of Turkey Frying


FYI, turkey fryers aren't UL listed, and for good reason. Some valuable tips from the fire department - a must-see before you drop a big bird into a vat of hot, flammable liquid.

An Expert's View of Turkey Fires


A representative from Underwriters Lab illustrates why turkey fryers can be dangerous. Don't try this one at home!

Black Friday 2010 (Videos)

Black Friday: It's a jungle out there. Save yourself some sleep, skip the parking nightmare and avoid the crowds: Shop Amazon's Black Friday Week.


You Got Hit? Hysterical!



After nine hours in sub-freezing Utah temps, they finally got inside to buy their…dolls and candy.

Based on a True Story…



Grandma’s been there, and her memory’s obviously good!

Waiting for the Fighting to Begin



Meet some Minnesota shoppers. LOTS of Minnesota shoppers.

Gonna Fly Now!



Having a successful Black Friday takes a certain amount of prep work. See the original this satirizes below.

Targeting Black Friday



Originally published November 28, 2010.

Get Ready for Thanksgiving!

It's coming: the season of turkey and traffic, of making new memories and breaking out old recriminations. Get ready for the opening of the Christmas shopping season with the running of the Black Friday bulls (the bears stay home).

This Thanksgiving season we offer the following survival tips:

1. Get the jack-o-lantern off your porch.

2. Start thinking about what you're thankful for. This is sure to come up at dinner, and you don't want to be um-ing and er-ing.

3. Plan your Black Friday attack by previewing the ad circulars and increasing your workout schedule.

4. Set your DVR for some classic Thanksgiving TV.

5. Place an order for pie. Forget homemade. Seriously. Do you really want to spend November 23rd peeling apples and cursing sticky dough? Think of it as one small step for the GDP.

The Twisted Psychology of Black Friday (Videos)

Black Friday Best Buy Style


Geek Squad Agent White neglects his post to offer rude commentary on Black Friday . It is 5:30am and there is a mob of people rushing in--and yet somehow not rushing fast enough to satisfy him.

Black Friday: Target


How badly do you want that DVD player? How about waiting all night outside in the cold? Seven hours in a sleeping bag on the pavement outside a shopping center is...well, crazy!

Black Friday At Wal-Mart


Here's what it's like walking through Wal-Mart about 10 minutes after the doors opened for Black Friday 2006. Note the amount of stuff in those shopping carts!

Black Friday at Circuit City: Run!


And the race is on! Black Friday 2006 was an indoor marathon.

Happy Anniversary

Today is the fifth anniversary of Hellish Holidays. This begins our sixth season of accepting the reality that is Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve and more. We wish you holidays that are not the least bit hellish - but encourage you to embrace your memories of those that were.

Holidays in the Diaspora

When you live far from the place where you grew up, holidays mean freedom from traditional obligations. Without family or in-laws nearby, you can lay a Martha Stewart-inspired Thanksgiving table or eat KFC standing up in front of the sink. You can open presents on your own schedule - no arguing about whether Christmas Eve or morning is the right time. No fighting about whose turn it is to host. You can sleep in. You can go to the movies. No one will complain that you let them down.

I know my preference for holidays free from family is not typical, possibly even unhealthy. It's not that I don't love my family and wish we could be together - I do and I do. But, as this site attests, not all my family holiday memories are rosy. A lot can go wrong - and frequently did. Why push it? I make it a point to see my family several times a year. The holidays are not included in those times.

While others brave pat-downs and blizzards to get to their loved ones, I give a Mona Lisa smile when asked if I'll be visiting family. But I'm quick to point out that I always hated traveling over the holidays. Both my sister and a cousin got married over Thanksgiving weekends, in New York and Milwaukee, respectively. I understand the thought process behind their decisions. I myself got married over a July Fourth weekend. But that no longer seems like such a great idea. (Neither does marriage, but that's another story.)

Of course, now 'tis always the season for crammed flights, delays and jacked-up hotel rates. You don't have to wait for the holidays to suffer like it's the busiest travel day of the year. The airlines are working overtime to make every day a holiday - in the hellish sense, that is. Parents with young children no longer get to board early. No one gets a pillow. Food selection is comparable to your local 7-11, but two or three times the price, and exact change please.

Back in my married days, we always traveled for Thanksgiving, to somewhere a drive or train ride away from Los Angeles: El Encanto in Santa Barbara, the Ojai Valley Inn, the stupendous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. These beautiful spots were well worth the price. Turkey in a hotel restaurant is always without tears because you don't know anyone else in the room.

These days, I do spend Thanksgiving with family - other people's family. For the past five years, several dear friends have graciously invited me to share the table with them and theirs. The holiday tension in these homes is minimal. I talk to my own family in the morning, then hop in the car. I bring some home-baked food, help with clean-up, and in between bask in a family environment that, although not my own, is warm and welcoming. And not the slightest bit hellish.

Watching People Eat (Videos)

Thanksgiving Dessert?


Whenever a husband calls his wife "my lovely bride" you know there’s trouble in paradise. No one’s having fun here.

Mashed Turkey


Turkey dinner: it's not for everyone.

Thanksgiving Dinner on Speed


Sometimes this is what it feels like after hours of preparation.

Enjoy Watching Him Eat Thanksgiving Dinner


There is something fascinating about this guy's take on Thanksgiving.



Wouldn't You Like to Be a Pepper Too? (Videos)

Black Friday 2011: Apparently inspired by UC Davis security techniques, a woman used pepper spray to get an Xbox 360 at half price. The most shocking part: she checked out and disappeared despite being "captured" on countless cell phone videos and leaving a wake of 20 injured shoppers.



The Inspiration?


Teen Holidays

Holidays and teenagers go together like pie and gravy, which is to say not well. One Thanksgiving, around age 13 or 14, they're participating enthusiastically, helping when asked and chatting it up with Grandma. The next year, they're chafing at having to stay through dessert, never mind sticking around to clear the table.

Although my teen years are long past, I vividly recall that feeling of claustrophobia, that yearning to be with friends over family. I can still feel the bracing cold of freedom when I finally escaped to my car with the broken heater, and took off to meet the people who knew me oh so much better than my family.

I know now that my family was no worse than anyone else's. But it didn't seem that way when we were all living under one, and then two, roofs, jockeying for our independence and working hard to make each other miserable. Back then my friends and I tried to one-up each other with holiday tales of dysfunctional parents and annoying siblings. I'm not bragging when I say that I usually won these competitions.

It never occurred to me that someday I would miss my family during the holidays and wish we didn't live so far apart. I certainly never imagined that I would ever celebrate a holiday without my dad. This Thanksgiving will be the eleventh since he died and I still feel his absence at every holiday table.

I also miss the friends from that era during the holidays, especially my friend Gaynor who died four years ago Thanksgiving week, of melanoma. She was the one I schemed with on the phone, trying to figure how to get the hell out of our respective houses and out into the real world of aimlessness and flirting.

This year my son was 13, and he eagerly joined in all the Thanksgiving festivities. I'm enjoying it while I can because I know this too shall pass. One year in the not-too-distant future he'll be working as hard as he can to get out the door before the turkey's packed up for next-day sandwiches. I'll make a stink because that's what moms do, but I'll let him go. Because I know someday he'll remember Thanksgiving with the family and know that his is no worse than anyone else's.

Originally published November 10, 2006

A Hildegarde Thanksgiving

"The Incomparable Hildegarde" (1906-2005) was a star for 70 years. At her peak, in the 1940s and '50s, she was the top supper club entertainer in New York. Despite her Wisconsin roots, she had a sophisticated European air about her: She wore long gowns and opera-length gloves. Her ever-present handkerchief served a role comparable to that of Steven Tyler's scarves today. She was best known for the song "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup," which was written by her lover/manager Anna Sosenko.

Why the history lesson? Because Hildegarde plays a supporting role in one of my most hellish Thanksgivings.

The year was 1983. I wouldn't say Hildegarde was at the height of her powers, but at 77 she was still breathing, and for a legend that's enough. For years I'd heard stories about how my well-heeled grandparents would travel from Washington, D.C. to New York in the postwar years to take in some theater and see Hildegarde. My grandmother, known as Mimi, was born the same year as the chanteuse, and Thanksgiving that year was her own 77th birthday.

When my mom and I saw that The Incomparable Hildegarde would be performing in Manhattan at the same time that Mimi would be up from Washington for Thanksgiving and her birthday, we decided to surprise her with tickets. We needed something positive because things had gotten somewhat shaky in our family--so much so that Thanksgiving dinner was actually held at my one-bedroom apartment in Queens.

There were six of us comprising three generations: grandmother, mother and four grown and almost-grown children, including the only "man" present, my younger brother. Mimi was selected to carve the turkey, which I recall did not make her happy. To her, a Thanksgiving table without a patriarch was like a Norman Rockwell picture entitled "Failure."

We dragged the kitchen table into the living room, added in both leaves, and threw a sheet over it as a tablecloth. (What can I say? I was young and no one had yet had a reason to throw me a shower.) Needless to say, the dishes were mismatched and whatever I put into service as a turkey platter, I'm sure it had not been designed with that use in mind.

Dinner was tense. Blame was flung and tears shed. The ever-stoic Mimi was able to stay focused on reminding everyone how much better her life had been than ours were shaping up to be. It was a relief to be done with it all. And finally it was the moment to present Mimi with her Hildegarde tickets and give her the good news that tonight we would all be seeing the show together.

Mimi took one look at the tickets and burst into tears. None of us had ever seen her cry before, even when her husband had died. She was more of what you might call a carrier: she caused tears but didn't have much first-hand experience with them. It was quite a shock. She composed herself quickly, though, and explained that even just seeing the name Hildegarde had brought back vivid memories of better times before her disappointing grandchildren had been born. (OK, she didn't say that last part, but it was implied.) She had mixed feelings about going: what if Hildegarde's voice was shot and she was a pale imitation of her former self? And, more importantly, what would we all be wearing? Did we even own decent clothes, because obviously what we were wearing didn't measure up.

Well, to fast forward through the subsequent arguing and transportation issues, we all calmed down and went. Hildegarde sounded great, and everyone had a much-needed brush with elegance. We might not have been the most stylish members of Hildegarde's audience, but I'll always know in my heart that we were the most dysfunctional.

Goodbye Harley

Once upon a time, Harlem was considered so unsafe that the only way I would visit it was on a tour bus. And so, one fall day in the '80s, I did. I wanted to see the Apollo Theater, 125th Street, the vintage stores and soul food restaurants. My friend Kim and I signed up and off we went.

About halfway through the tour, we saw a dog in a dumpster. He wasn't much of a dog, scrawny, anxious, homeless, and every color a mutt can be. But I hadn't had a pet since leaving home for college, and apparently I yearned for one. (I say apparently because I hadn't been aware of this gap in my life until that moment.)

Kim and I ditched the tour. I had already bought a cracked Bakelite cocktail shaker and a black silk evening bag missing a few beads, so I was pretty much done with the shopping portion of the trip. We fished the dog from the dumpster and took him out of Harlem on a city bus with an understanding driver. I named him Harley.

My apartment near Union Square wasn't set up for an undomesticated animal, and neither was my life. I couldn't spend a lot of time with Harley and certainly didn't know how to train him. His only skill was recognizing good shoe leather, the way other dogs can locate a duck that's been dropped by a hunter. Harley ate through all my Charles Jourdan heels, leaving the Candie's I hadn't worn since the disco era. He barked a lot. He growled at visitors. He needed to be walked constantly but couldn't get used to a leash. In short, Harley was no Marley. He was "the world's worst dog," but without his own bestseller. Ultimately, he had to go.

Unfortunately there were already too many dogs vying for the title of "worst" in the shelters of New York. I wanted him out, not euthanized. So I developed a plan: I would go to Jamestown, Rhode Island for Thanksgiving to visit my Aunt Joan, who ran a bed and breakfast, the Calico Cat, with her husband, the detested Uncle John. (More on him when the topic turns to hellish Christmases.) I would take Harley with me and turn him in at a no-kill shelter up in relatively sparsely populated New England.

Of course, when you travel with a dog, your options are limited. Goodbye Amtrak! Even Greyhound, ironically enough named after a breed of dog, is out of the question. I enlisted my friend Hope and together we rented a car and headed north, with Harley in the backseat whining, barking, panting and pacing. It was a long drive.

I don't remember how, in those pre-Internet days, I located an animal shelter, but I did. I made sure they didn't kill the dogs that didn't get adopted, since I had a feeling it might take a while for the right person to come along for Harley. I confess I did lie and claim I lived in Rhode Island, but I made a donation and figured my good heart and generosity would outweigh my dishonesty on the karmic scales.

I was dreading Harley's looking back at me as he walked away, but he was so trusting of me and the shelter worker that he went off without a backward glance. They put a little noose-like rope around his neck and, after I had signed my name to my fallacious paperwork, handed me his leash. I got misty and actually thought I was going to cry. But then I thought about the new, unchewed shoes in my future and visualized Harley romping happily in the smallest state in the Union, and I pulled myself together.

On the way back to the rented car I tossed the leash into a trash can.

That Thanksgiving weekend is a blur of my brother Paul hitting on Hope, my Uncle John throwing his weight around and the purchase of new shoes. On the drive back to New York, Hope locked the keys in the rental car, not once but twice. But that didn't even bother me because I knew no matter how late I got home, no one would be waiting for me, drooling bits of patent leather and anxious to drag me around Union Square in the bitter cold.

Eleven Eleven

Most couples have "their" song, and other "theirs" as well: personal and private shared items, ideas, moments, experiences, even coincidences that they misconstrue as destiny. For me and my ex, it was “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing and the number 11.

I'm not sure what it means to have a favorite number – built-in Lotto selection? a sign the house you're considering buying is right for you? – but 11 belonged to each of us, separately and together.

Innumerable times over our two decades together, the number 11 – and even more surprisingly, 11-11 – entered our life. Maybe it was because we were attuned to it, but it seemed to come up a lot. It had power for us, especially since we both worked in the digital world, which is all about ones and zeros. Even if we were in the midst of an argument, if one of us looked at the clock and it was 11:11, the tension was broken.

Today is 11-11-11, a one-time-only occurrence that even before we split up four years ago was on our radar. Since there's no “our” anymore, instead of thinking about it as a lost shared experience, I’m going to appreciate it as the ultimate Veteran’s Day.

Veteran’s Day is today because it's the anniversary of the German signing of the Armistice that ended World War I, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the end of that Great War portended the end of all warfare, a rejection of tragedy and loss? Yet here we are, millions of war-caused deaths and almost a century later, with warfare a constant throughout the world.

Hmm, maybe the number 11-11 isn’t the most ideal thing to share as a couple. Next time around, I’m going to choose more wisely.

Thanksgiving Snapshots 2010 (Videos)

Adam Sandler Took the Year Off



...but this guy's got the latest news.

Never Should Have Let the Doberman Watch Sweeney Todd



Electric knives are pretty scary.

I Want My 3:08 Back



The concept of a "tradition" has lost all meaning.

The Most Frenzied Time of the Year

Holiday shopping officially kicks off on "Black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving. Retail is a mystery to me - between rent, utilities, insurance, staff, inventory, marketing and the nightmare of dealing with (shudder) the public, I just don't get how it's still viable. Factor in a growing consumer hunger for discounts and the web's ubiquitous offers of free shipping (and often no sales tax), and it's hard to see how anything ever gets sold in a physical store, especially at full price.

Surely I can't be the only one who feels this way. And for those of us who don't want to go out to shop, enter Amazon.com's Holiday Countdown Store. The site is offering special deals through Christmas Eve.

Why set the alarm for 2:00a.m., then bundle up and fight the hordes? Bring a little tranquility and rationality to your holiday shopping and just click.
 
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