01/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Christmas on the (Bi-) Polar Express

Maybe it's just my imagination, but I don't think so.

The run-up to Christmas this year, with each passing day, just keeps getting odder and weirder, more dangerous and dreary, but somehow compelling nonetheless. The markets are crashing left and right, and it's been impossible for me (admitted financial moron that I am) to keep from logging on to every eight seconds or so, to see what's happening to my now nearly non-existent 401(k). I find myself surfing over to to check out the ever-shrinking value in my home. At work, my colleagues and I stoically keep our heads down, breathless with anticipation of layoffs and cutbacks in an attempt by my company to hang on to every last penny. The death knell for the industry, publishing, to which I have devoted most of my professional life as writer and editor, has been tolled. The civility-inclined man I helped elect as president has just selected to give the Inaugural invocation a pastor who has likened my committed, 9-year relationship to one of incest and pedophilia. Sometime back, in a previous post, I compared the Palin campaign to Alice-Gone-Down-the-Rabbit-Hole. It seems, now, that I grossly underestimated how unnervingly upside-down the world has become for all of us, regardless of political stripe or density of bank account; just this morning, I got word that a neighbor around the corner--a mom, and the owner of a large, friendly golden retriever who spends warm days asleep on the middle of her front lawn--discovered two bow hunters in her backyard and was told by the local police to let them hunt, or that she would be arrested.

The icing on the cake? An existential smack-down so fierce and stultifying that it feels as though it came straight from the bony finger of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as it strolled down Main Street in Pottersville:

be too greedy, it says -- let the poor starve and the homeless freeze, turn a blind eye to ignorance and need, ignore the elderly and the sick, perpetrate war for profit and let your soldiers suffer upon their return-- do all this, and I will send to you the devil himself. I will send you Bernard Madoff.

It's been a little difficult, then, to find the jolly in Christmas this year; instead, I've found myself looking inward, wondering long and hard about how I live now, and how I could live better (not materially, mind you) . I wonder about all of those inane, ridiculous gifts I've given over the years that sit around somewhere, gathering dust, long forgotten in some great landfill earmarked specifically for pointless holiday excess. And I think, as a food writer, about all of the supposedly impressive meals that I've attempted to make around this time of year; I think about the filets and the lobsters, the duck and the caviar, the champagne and the good Burgundies. This holiday season has slapped me around like I was one of those inflatable Bozo punching bags from the 1960s, dressed in drag, like Julia Child.

Today, I am cooking much, much differently than I did at this time last year. Now, I find myself shopping the way my grandmother (and yours) might have in the 1930s and 40s: I'm buying lesser cuts, and finding a not insubstantial spark of joy in knowing that I can stretch one hunk of pork for five completely different meals. I'm remembering that when my grandmother made brisket, she reserved a portion of the leftovers for tucking into the kreplach that would go into her soup a few days later. I'm making miroton with leftover top round; black bean cakes from one can, a chopped onion, a jalapeno, and topping it with a poached egg. All is right with the world, at least in the confines of my kitchen.

Christmas dinner this year will be spent with my partner's family; well into their 90s now, they all lived through the Great Depression and World War II on a farm in the northern part of Connecticut. They've all fought various cancers, many were widowed very young. When we asked this year what they wanted for dinner, the answer was unanimous: turkey. Nothing too big. Nothing too fancy. Just for us to be together, and to listen to Mitch Miller. This, in their book, will set the world right.

When I asked my mother-in-law what she thought about Madoff and the general state of the world today, she shook her head and said "I've seen it all before. This too, shall pass. It always does."

Pray that she's right.