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It's that time of year when we all pretend we will make life-changing improvements and 'really stick with them this time'. From sad experience, I estimate this pleasant fantasy will disappear faster than the last Yeungling in a cooler full of Bud Lite. On about Day 6 we will wake up, go about our day, and not until about 3:48 p.m. remember the resolution(s) we had completely abandoned up until that point. Resolution may or may not be attempted depending on what it is. If your resolution was something like 'watch less TV' or 'read more books', don't despair! All is not lost! If your resolution was 'no more drive-thru', but this only hits you as you are cleaning the lunchtime Taco Bell bag out of the back seat, ruh roh! On Day 7, it will occur to us around 9:30 p.m. On Day 8, no sighting. Day 9, about 8:40 a.m. we will remember that we completely forgot all about our resolutions during Day 8. Day 10 =  'what resolutions?', and that will be that until next January.

I am completely cheating on resolutions this year due to a couple of factors.

1) Like 92% of us, I usually fail at this resolution thing. I am trying to learn from past experience. You know what they say about the definition of insanity. So I have adjusted my resolutions accordingly (see below).

2) I like to think I am getting older AND wiser about some things in life. I have stopped waiting until January 1 to make lifestyle improvements. Sort of like how I now shop for myself. I don't wait until special occasions, make subtle requests and hope people take the hint and gift me with things I like. I just buy them for myself, whenever I want (budget permitting). It's just easier that way. So when I see some aspect of my life that could use some improvement, I don't wait until January 1 Resolution Mania. This is turning out to be a pretty good strategy. Specifically, I successfully eliminated drive-thru meals (you don't even want to know how bad I was getting - or how fat!) and diet soda (Coke Zero, it was fun while it lasted) from my diet, as well as improved my writing habits, so yay me. The main disadvantage of this strategy is that all the big resolution topics are no longer available on January 1, as I have already tackled them!

On to the cheating -

I have two resolutions this year. One is personal; one professional. My main resolution this year may not seem like much, but since the Big Three are already undertaken (diet, exercise, productivity), you see how that limits my options. Here it is:

WHEREAS, I am the offspring of a 1950s era baseball pitcher; and,

Dad pitching for the Milwaukee Braves farm team 1958

WHEREAS, baseball is a noble and entertaining activity; and,

WHEREAS, I enjoyed playing and watching the game as a youngster and adult until other less worthy pursuits diverted my attention; and,

WHEREAS, 'tis the season for rectifying wrongs both personal and professional;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Lissa Johnston, do hereby proclaim 2018 the year I revive my lifelong interest in baseball and all related activities thereunto appertaining; vow to celebrate the glories of real grass, outdoor stadiums, and wooden bats; and resume giving our national pastime the loving devotion it deserves forthwith. Go Rangers!

The cheating comes about because there's not much happening in baseball right now other than a few trades and hiring/firing rumors, so I don't really have much pressure regarding this resolution for a couple more weeks when spring training gears up. And therein lies the danger - remembering the resolution!


The original version of this post first appeared in 2014.

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My grandmother Winona Louise Miller Nichols 1915-2004. She was a delightful little scamp (just like in this picture).Did you ever meet my grandmother Winona? If not, I wish you had the pleasure. She was a pistol. Born in 1915 in Marietta, OK, Winona was part Chickasaw. It was a little bitty part, but her Native American heritage shone through powerfully in her jet-black hair and tan-friendly complexion. If tanning had been popular in her youth - which it wasn't - she would never have burned or freckled. Granny Winona was a sprout compared to the long, lanky type she married and the six offspring they produced. She topped out at around five foot two, the Mighty Mite of the Nichols family. I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with her in my youth and have many fond memories of her.

One of her more memorable legacies to her descendants is resurrected every year around Christmas (not Easter!): the 'Christmas Eve Gift' greeting competition.  

My great-grandmother Launa 'Tina' Wolfenberger Miller 1893-1971

 Have you heard of this? It's one of these traditions lots of people practice but sort of on the QT - everyone thinks their family is the only group of weirdos on the planet that does it, so they don't talk about it much outside family to avoid appearing, well, weird. Here's how it works, in our family anyway: the goal is to be the first in the family on Christmas Eve to greet other members of the family with the phrase 'Christmas Eve Gift'. My mother remembers when she was very young, her grandmother Tina would play the game in person with Winona and family when she was at their home visiting for the holidays. Each of the six kids was greeted this way as soon as they woke up on that special day. Tina's mother Cinderella lived with Tina in her final years, and she also participated and enjoyed the game.

Great-great Gran with the fabulous name Cinderella Arnold Wolfenbarger 1867-1943

In my era this has mostly been done by telephone, often at irritatingly early times in the morning. I have had more than a few of these disconcertingly early calls, especially in the days before cell phones and caller ID, when we all jumped to answer the phone rather than let it go to message. ( Shoot, there was no 'message' to go to! ) A pathological sleepyhead, I was one of the slow ones to catch on - I never remembered to get up and call, I never remembered it was Christmas Eve until the caller 'got' me. Suffice to say I was easy prey, the Biggest Loser in this game.

All these years I honestly thought it was a Granny Winona thing and had no idea other people did it, until recently when my brother's attempt at CEG was foiled by cell phone technology and his failure to keep up with current events. He awoke early and made a CEG call, excitedly spouting 'Christmas Eve Gift!' into the ear of the person who answered. Who was a complete stranger currently in possession of a recycled cell phone number. . . My brother was mortified and apologized profusely for the pre-dawn interruption. The groggy recipient said, 'don't worry about it - my girlfriend's family does it, too'.

Now this was news! Like learning there is life on other planets! Turns out this is not exactly a widespread tradition like champagne on New Year's Eve, but plenty of families do partake. Origins appear tied to the days of slavery, when the master often gave a small gift to the servants or slaves first to greet him thusly. This explains why it is more of a southern tradition.

This has been going on in my mom's side of the family for 70+ years. I will admit I have not exactly been a staunch supporter of this game as I always thought it was a little silly and I was always too lazy to get up and make the calls. It's funny how things change when you get older. What once seemed goofy now is now charming and sentimental, especially when I remember the joy my grandmother got from playing this game.

I am honored to perpetuate her family-oriented tradition, especially one that is so light-heartedly cheerful. My cousins will be getting a shock on Christmas Eve. I am the last person they will expect to 'get' them on that early morning call. But not too early . . .

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Cliff 'Red' Jones
My dad, Clifford 'Red' Jones, pitching for the Alpine Cowboys ca 1956

Soon we will be rescued from two months of ho-hum televised sports viewing with opening of the baseball season. Huzzah!

I know, I know, baseball has an image problem. The fan base is shrinking. Many consider it boring. You know what? I don't care. I feel the same way about certain sports, so, non-baseball fans, I share your pain. You watch your stupid boring sport, and I'll watch something worth watching. How anyone who watched the final game of the 2016 World Series thinks baseball is boring is beyond me. But I digress.

Okay, full disclosure: I have powerful, sentimental motivation to follow a sport that admittedly can be a bit of a slog if you're not familiar with the game. My dad was a multi-sport athlete in high school and earned a baseball scholarship to Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas (my birthplace). Alpine is out in the far west mountainous triangle-shaped frontier of Texas. Back then it was just a wide spot on the road. but it was a real baseball hotspot due to the obsession of wealthy rancher Herbert Kokernot. Dad played for Mr. Kokernot's Alpine Cowboys until he was signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1956. He pitched for the Braves in their farm system for a few years before realizing the baseball biz wasn't likely to support his growing family. Oh, how times have changed.

Opening Day always opens the memory floodgates of our family baseball lore. There's the tawdry yet amusing shenanigans of baseball wives (told by my mom - about other wives, natch - Dad claims no knowledge of any such goings on). Mom does wish we'd quit telling about the time she dashed out of her seat to dodge an incoming foul ball tip, leaving me behind, an innocent, gormless infant,  blissfully unaware of the 70 mph cowhide-wrapped bullet of death about to rain down on my head. Handy tip: foul tips are possibly the lone disadvantage of players' wives getting those great seats behind the home dugout.

I'm thrilled to be able to show you the hilarious grainy video of the players milking cows on the mound as a publicity stunt. Luckily for my dad, he was a country boy born and raised. He knew his way around a set of udders just as well as he did a baseball diamond.

I am able to share with you an example of the requisite yellowed newspaper clippings like the one here, bragging up my dad as 'the big righthander' and 'fireballer' and the pitcher of not one but TWO shutouts in post-season play as a highschooler. Ain't no thang. Just two shutouts. In two appearances. Probably in the same week. Yawn.

This is why, at the Jones household, we understand why the baseball pitcher's arm is considered the most valuable body part in professional sports. This is why the Rangers' devastating loss to the Cardinals in the sixth game of the 2011 World Series still gets me a little choked up (we will not speak of this *sniff*). And this is why I'm so freakin' pumped for baseball season to start. Got the hat. Got the shirt. Got the remote. Let the games begin.

Dad and I paying homage to another Brave Eau Claire WI 1999

A version of this article first appeared in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

As Lent is upon us, I have been interested to learn what people are giving up in this season of abstinence. It is no surprise to me that the item most often abandoned is some sort of food. There are a few iconoclasts who do without tobacco, or alcohol, or shopping. I never got beyond the idea of renouncing something edible (I gave up chocolate). To many of us, foregoing food is the ultimate sacrifice. There is only one person to blame for my epicureal preoccupation: my mother.

Mom is the last of her line in a fine tradition of southern cooks. She grew up in a large family. Her own mother, my grandmother Winona, had to satisfy nine healthy appetites for the better part of two decades. Winona had no microwave or dishwasher as helping hands in the kitchen. It is no wonder, then, that as the oldest of six children, my mother soon found herself the number one kitchen assistant, and thus learned to cook at the apron strings of the master.

It is difficult to recreate the multi-dimensional majesty of my mother’s cooking

Mom at age 80 still frying cube steak like a boss

via the printed word. Thanks to Mom, if I ever find myself on death row and they ask me what I want for my last meal, I am ready with an answer: my mother’s chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, green beans, and her homemade yeast rolls. Her home-brewed iced tea is the perfect accompaniment. As is the case with most meals, the meat is clearly the star.

Chicken-fried steak is a southern specialty, often confusing the uninitiated. Is it steak? Is it chicken? Deep-fried or pan fried? Some are surprised to learn it is only the humble cube steak, pounded into tender submission before being dunked in milk to allow the flour coating to stick. Then the palm-sized portions hit the hot grease of my mother’s black cast iron skillet with the initial hissssss to rival any McDonald’s French fry operation. Once they have turned a toasty brown and filled the house with the intoxicating aroma of fried meat (my apologies to vegetarians), they are ready to eat. When that first batch hit the paper towel-lined serving dish to make room in the skillet for the next, my father could always be found skulking about in the kitchen, stalking stray nibbles of steak that had become separated from the Pangaea of the bigger portions. Done properly, as my mother always did, chicken-fried steak requires nothing sharper than the side of your fork to divide it into bite-size pieces.

The side dishes pale in comparison to this pan-fried glory. They are there for the sake of upholding tradition; and in the case of the potatoes, upholding my mother’s cream gravy.

Never in all my classroom hours of chemistry or math did I ever approach the level of timing, precise measurement, and pure artistry required to duplicate Mom’s cream gravy. Making gravy from scratch is my culinary Holy Grail. I have tried and failed more times than the Jamaican bobsled team. There are just too many things that can go wrong. The grease must be of the correct temperature (hot) and quantity (equal to the flour). The flour must be stirred into the hot grease vigorously, so that the dreaded lumps cannot form. Then, and only then, the correct quantity of milk is added. If you do not own the little pink crockery bowl my mother uses for the milk, you will never be able to get the milk quantity right. I do not own one of these bowls, as they have not been made since 1960.

This is why, when Lent rolls around each year, giving up some sort of food is the worst suffering I can imagine. When I am feeling contemplative, I wonder how something so harmless as a good meal in good company should be something I should try to control; avoid, even. Then I look at my last cholesterol test results. I suppose setting aside one of my favorite edibles is the least I can do for Lent this year. If I had any guts, I would have given up chicken-fried steak.