Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Fond Farewell to the T.V. Show "Chuck"

For five years now, my husband and I have enjoyed the T.V. show "Chuck," which until this past season aired on NBC on Monday night at 8:00 (this season--it moved to Friday). For four of those years, we had our second and fifth sons living in the house with us, but they never really got into it, preferring to watch "House"--which was on at the same time on another channel-- instead. We always watched "House" with them, because we think watching favorite T.V. shows should be a social event and as much as possible a form of family bonding; but we always DVR'd "Chuck" so that the two of us could watch it later. If my husband was home the following day, we would settle in to watch it while we had our lunch; if he had to work that day, we would have a "'Chuck' lunch date" as soon as we could after he got back from his trip.

But on January 27, our beloved show aired its last episode, a two-hour finale. And it might sound kind of ridiculous, but I'm a bit sad! I can't believe that this funny, extremely entertaining show with its talented ensemble cast of endearing characters is going off the air after only five seasons, when so many shows that are complete garbage stay on for a decade and longer. In this day and age, when half of what's offered on the tube is so-called "reality" television that really could turn your brain to mush, "Chuck" was a sweet, intelligent, family-friendly program (funny, without resorting to the tireless barrage of double entendres and dirty jokes that most modern comedies rely upon to get laughs).

The show stars the eminently likable Zachary Levi as Chuck Bartowski, a mild-mannered, self-proclaimed computer "nerd," who works at Buy More (think Best Buy) and is part of the "Nerd Herd" (think "Geek Squad"). In the series opener, he receives an encrypted e-mail from an old college friend who's now working for the CIA, and the message subliminally embeds something called the "Intersect"--which contains all of our government's greatest spy secrets--into his brain. He has now become an invaluable "asset" to the CIA, because this database in his brain (which is activated by different triggers that cause him to "flash" and receive important information) can be used to thwart international terrorists and assassination attempts, to find and capture bad guys. When they realize Chuck is carrying around the Intersect, the CIA sends two agents, John Casey and Sarah Walker, to watch over him. To keep others from suspecting their true identities, Casey goes undercover by taking a job at the Buy More and Walker poses as Chuck's new girlfriend, and--here's the shocker--Chuck and Sarah eventually fall in love as the show goes on. Some of the comedy comes from watching Chuck try to continue interacting with his family, friends, and co-workers as the lovable computer whiz next door, while living a secret double life and going on dangerous spy missions with Casey and Walker. It might sound like a silly show--and I admit, the premise is kind of goofy--but it's been so much fun to watch.

[Sigh...] My husband and I have so few shows that we really look forward to watching together; now we have one less.

A couple of Christmases ago, one of our sons got us the DVD set of the first season of "Chuck." Now that it's off the air, I think we'll have to break it out and watch the series again from the beginning. I foresee lots of lunch dates watching old "Chuck" episodes. (And hint, hint, guys: seasons two through five would make excellent gifts in the future!)

In the meantime, I'd like to wish a fond farewell to "Chuck," a show that, in my opinion, was axed long before its time.

Monday, January 30, 2012

It's a Great Time to Be a Shutterbug

I've always loved taking pictures, lots of them. Back in the olden days (you know, the 80's and 90's), I used to take my film in to be developed the second I'd finished a roll, ordering double prints (with my fingers crossed that all the pictures had turned out well) so that I could send copies on to grandparents or glue them into baby books. Then I'd lovingly arrange all of my new pictures into neatly organized photo albums. These days, however,--thanks to the miracle of digital photography--I take way more pictures than I used to, and I can delete the duds immediately; but the downside is that I also make way fewer hard copies than I used to. I haven't put photos in an album since Christmas 2008! I have so many shots now to choose from, it's a bit overwhelming to go through and decide which ones should make the cut. So I keep putting it off and putting it off...Although when I became a grandmother in 2011, I did make myself a "Grandma's Brag Book"-- an album small enough to fit in my purse, filled with pictures of my twin granddaughters. But then my hubby got me an iPhone for Christmas, so now I suppose I'm going to just be one of those cool, modern iPeople and carry my photo albums around with me on my iPhone. (But I do miss flipping through real photo albums!)

My cousin, who put the "p" in paparazzi, once told me that she had over 25,000 pictures stored in different media storage devices, but almost no printed pictures. Yikes! I thought I was a shutterbug, but I've got nothing on my cousin. Her two young daughters, who are a couple of truly photogenic little darlings, will know what they looked like, from every angle at every stage of their lives--unlike my boys, whom I was only able to capture in often blurry, grainy, and generally sub par Instamatic and 35 mm snapshots. I'd love to go back in time with my awesome digital camera and take a few high resolution close-ups of their precious little faces...Oh, well--at least these days I can get some great shots of the twins.

Isn't the computer age amazing, though? It wasn't that long ago that the idea of printing out my own pictures, any size I wanted--right in my own house!--sounded about as crazy as living on the moon. When my boys were young and I was making picture collages for them, I used to bring hard copies of my snapshots over to Mail Boxes, Etc. and have the guy there run off color copies of them on his state-of-the-art color printer. (It was either that or dig through shoeboxes filled with strips of negatives, hold each strip up to the light until I found the pictures I was looking for, and have re-prints made--no, thank you!) At the time, the idea of having a color printer in your own home was pretty much unheard of. What a long way we've come! Nowadays, you can not only zoom and crop your pictures and choose the printing size, right on your own computer; you can even play around with the color to achieve different effects, such as an antiqued look. I took the above photo in Amsterdam about a week ago, and I thought it had a real vintage aura about it. It was the only picture I took where there were no cars or other modern-looking vehicles (and no golden arches!) in sight, so I thought it would look perfect if I adjusted the color and brightness to create a faded and aged-looking black-and-white. It looks great hanging in my dining room--it fits right in with my wall of black-and-white and sepia-toned old family photos.

When I think of the hoops I would have had to jump through to end up with this one photo with its special color effect (and the money I would have had to spend on it) back in those pre-PC, pre-digital camera days, I feel fortunate to be living in this day and age. Yep, I'm gradually being dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, into this marvelous new high-speed, high-tech, WiFi iWorld we live in. It does have its good points, especially if you're a shutterbug.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Virtue of Hope

In the Rosary books our family uses, the short prayer before the second Glorious Mystery, the Ascension, is this: "I desire the virue of hope. Think of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, forty days after His glorious Resurrection, in the presence of Mary and His disciples."

When we pray that decade of the Glorious Mysteries, we think about how Christ rose from the dead and then forty days later ascended into Heaven. We remember that He died for us, He died on the Cross so that our sins could be forgiven--and because He did so, the gates of Heaven, where He sits now at the right hand of His Father, were opened for us, too. So though we often stumble and fall here while we're struggling to stay on the right path, when we think of the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven--where He awaits us at the end of our own earthly lives--we can be filled with hope.I've been thinking about the virtue of hope lately, especially after reading The Diary of a Young Girl. I know I've been talking about Anne Frank a lot since my recent trip to Amsterdam, but I can't seem to get her out of my mind. If there was ever a human being who should have been filled with utter despair every minute, it was that poor child. Yet she didn't lose hope. Just listen to what she wrote in her diary on May 4, 1944, when she'd been living in the Secret Annex for just shy of two years: " I've often been down in the dumps, but never desperate. I look upon our life in hiding as an interesting adventure, full of danger and romance, and every privation as an amusing addition to my diary...What I'm experiencing here is a good beginning to an interesting life, and that's the reason--the only reason--why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments. I'm young and have many hidden qualities; I'm young and strong and living through a big adventure; I'm right in the middle of it and can't spend all day complaining because it's impossible to have any fun! I'm blessed with many things: happiness, a cheeful disposition and strength. Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is! With all that, why should I despair?"

Wow, huh? It kind of makes me ashamed of the times I've allowed myself to be filled with despair (even briefly) when faced with some hardship or seemingly insurmountable stumbling block. With all the blessings that have been showered upon me and my family, how could I ever waste even one second of my life feeling "down in the dumps"? But there's the human condition for you: we are flawed and weak, and without the grace of God, we'd be lost. But because of Our Lord, and the sacrifice He made for us, we never need to lose hope.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

This 'n That

First of all, this post will be very brief today. I kind of got carried away yesterday, and that one ended up being much longer than I'd intended. For me, it just would have been too difficult trying to encapsulate what is contained in Anne Frank's amazing diary using any fewer sentences (most of them Anne's) than I did. But I think Anne, who collected her favorite "beautiful sentences" in a notebook, would understand a writer's need to use as many of them as she thought necessary to do the trick.

(I just called myself a "writer"! As our young, computer-savvy texting generation would say, LOL!)

And speaking of beautiful sentences, I did not find enough of them in the book More Than Words Can Say. I mentioned in my Jan. 17 post ("If Modern Fiction is Making You Blue, I've Got the Book for You") that I was going to read it on my trip to Amsterdam last weekend, and I said I'd let you know if it was any good. No offense to Robert Barclay--who is a published author, whereas the only way I can get my amateur scribblings published is on this free blog!--but I did not enjoy it...more than words can say. It disappointed me...more than words can say. I wish I hadn't spent the money on it...more than words can say. I gave up and never finished it. This is a harsh review, and for that I apologize. I do think Mr. Barclay's story is a good one--it's set during World War II at a camp in the Adirondacks, with a love story at its core--and the book has its good points; but I couldn't get past his writing style, which just didn't work for me. I would recommend Dream When You're Feeling Blue--a lovely book with similar themes, set in the same time period--instead.

Now I feel like Simon Cowell. That was a bit rough.

Okay, what else? Oh, a few days ago I found the neatest thing for displaying the souvenir postcards I brought back from Nice and Monaco at--where else? the greatest store ever--T.J. Maxx. It is actually a small bulletin board inside a pretty, antique-looking frame. What's nice about it is that since the postcards are only pinned in place, I can change the display any time the spirit moves me--with the seasons, perhaps (although I don't think I'll do that, because these postcards are such sweet reminders of an idyllic "second honeymoon" with my husband).

Well, that's it for today's random ramblings. Have a great weekend!

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Moving Memoir

Since our trip to Amsterdam last weekend, I have been a bit obsessed with reading my copy of Anne Frank's moving memoir, The Diary of a Young Girl (The Definitive Edition), as well as going on-line to learn more about the life and times of not only Anne, but her family and the people who helped them out while they were in hiding. I cannot tell you how much seeing the actual "Secret Annex" she describes in her diary, walking through its small rooms and trying to imagine eight people living there together (in mortal fear of being discovered) for more than two years, affected me. I have been profoundly moved by the experience and will always be glad that, although we only had one day to do any sightseeing when I accompanied my husband on that trip, we were able to fit in a tour of the Anne Frank House. In my copy of the book, above, the top left-hand picture shows what the building looked like back in the 40's. As you can see from the picture I took from the boat on our canal tour, it has changed very little since then (it's the one with the black doors). In her July 11, 1942 entry, here is how Anne describes the Franks' new hiding place: "I don't think I'll ever feel at home in this house, but that doesn't mean I hate it. It's more like being on vacation in some strange pension. Kind of an odd way to look at life in hiding, but that's how things are. The Annex is an ideal place to hide in. It may be damp and lopsided, but there's probably not a more comfortable hiding place in all of Amsterdam. No, in all of Holland...Up to now our bedroom, with its blank walls, was very bare. Thanks to Father--who brought my entire postcard and movie star collection here beforehand--and to a brush and a pot of glue, I was able to plaster the walls with pictures. It looks much more cheerful."

One of the most moving sights in the Anne Frank House, to me, is seeing all those pictures she pasted up on the walls of her bedroom (which she shared first with her sister Margot and then with a middle-aged dentist she calls "Mr. Dussel," a man who joins the original seven residents of the Annex). Among the many things Anne chose to adorn her room were photos of movie stars cut out of her beloved "Cinema & Theater" magazine (Ray Milland, Ginger Rogers, and Marlena Deitrich, to name a few), a self-portrait sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, advertisement posters from her father's business, and a postcard picture of chimpanzees sitting around a table, with the caption "Chimpanzee Tea Party" printed across the bottom. That last item really got to me, because it was a reminder that, although the circumstances of her short life were tragic, Anne Frank was not only a senstive deep-thinker; she was also a normal, fun young girl with a sense of humor, a young girl who liked to laugh--and one who had dreams and aspirations and lived in hope for the future.

In so many of her diary entries, Anne expressed optimism as well as a keen awareness of the gravity of their situation. On January 13, 1943, she writes, "As for us, we're quite fortunate. Luckier than millions of people. It's quiet and safe here...I could spend hours telling you about the suffering the war has brought, but I'd only make myself more miserable. All we can do is wait, as calmly as possible, for it to end. Jews and Christians alike are waiting, the whole world is waiting, and many are waiting to die."

Anne Frank's diary is heartbreaking when it reveals just how terrible life was for the Jews during that time period. In July of 1943, Anne had become nearsighted and her Mother wanted her to see an ophthalmologist, accompanied by Mrs. Kleiman, the wife of one of their helpers. Anne describes how she feels about leaving the safety of the Annex: "Just hearing that made my knees weak, since it's no small matter. Going outside! Just think of it, walking down the street! I can't imagine it. I was petrified at first..." Imagine being terrified of simply walking down the street!

As time went on, it got harder and harder to be cooped up. On October 29, 1943, Anne writes: "I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage. 'Let me out, where there's fresh air and laughter!' a voice within me cries."

On November 8, 1943, she gives a vivid description of how it feels to live in constant fear that the Nazis will discover the Annex: "I see the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we're standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter. We're surrounded by darkness and danger, and in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other. We look at the fighting down below and the peace and beauty above. In the meantime, we've been cut off by the dark mass of clouds, so that we can go neither up nor down. It looms before us like an impenetrable wall, trying to crush us, but not yet able to. I can only cry out and implore, 'Oh ring, ring, open wide and let us out!'"

Anne's emotions were like a roller coaster. On December 24, 1943 she writes: "I'm 'on top of the world' when I think of how fortunate we are and compare myself to other Jewish children, and 'in the depths of despair' when, for example, Mrs. Kleiman comes by and talks about [her daughter's] hockey club, canoe trips, school plays, and afternoon teas with friends." It's heart-rending to realize that because she was a Jew, Anne had to feel fortunate just to be alive; yet all the same, she couldn't help but long for a normal life, for the chance to participate in all the everyday activities enjoyed by young girls her age.

Anne's faith grew in the Annex. On January 30, 1944, she writes: "I stood at the top of the stairs while German planes flew back and forth, and I knew I was on my own, that I couldn't count on others for support. My fear vanished. I looked up at the sky and trusted in God." She tried to stay hopeful, as her February 3, 1944 entry shows: "The world will keep on turning wihout me, and I can't do anything to change events anyway. I'll just let matters take their course and concentrate on studying and hope that everything will be all right in the end." And she tried to stay happy, too. On February 23, 1944 she says: "Riches, prestige, everything can be lost. But the happiness in your own heart can only be dimmed; it will always be there, as long as you live, to make you happy again."

Anne grew up a lot--faster than she should have had to--during the years she spent hiding out in the Annex. On March 7, 1944, she writes: "When I think back to my life in 1942, it all seems so unreal. The Anne Frank who enjoyed that heavenly existence was completely different from the one who has grown wise within these walls. Yes, it was heavenly. Five admirers on every street corner, twenty or so friends, the favorite of most of my teachers, spoiled rotten by Father and Mother, bags full of candy and a big allowance. What more could anyone ask for?...I look back at that Anne Frank as a pleasant, amusing, but superficial girl, who has nothing to do with me...my happy-go-lucky, carefree schooldays are gone forever. I don't even miss them...I lie in bed at night, after ending my prayers with the words, 'Thank you, God, for all that is good and dear and beautiful.'"

One normal teenage rite of passage that Anne got to experience was having a first boyfriend...and a first kiss. She and Peter van Daan (his real name was van Pels)--who was about two-and-a-half years older than she was--became very close. On March 22, 1944, Anne writes: "...things are getting more and more wonderful here. I think...that true love may be developing in the Annex." And later that same month, she writes, "My life here has gotten better, much better. God has not forsaken me, and He never will."

Throughout her diary, Anne talks about her dream of becoming a journalist and a writer one day. On April 4, 1944, she says: "For a long time, I didn't know why I was bothering to do any schoolwork. The end of the war still seemed so far away, so unreal, like a fairy tale...I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that's what I want! I know I can write. A few of my stories are good, my descriptions of the Secret Annex are humorous, much of my diary is vivid and alive, but...it remains to be seen whether I really have talent...I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for giving me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!...When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?...So onward and upward, with renewed spirits. It'll all work out, because I'm determined to write!"

On April 11, 1944, Anne writes: "If God lets me live...I'll make my voice heard, I'll go out into the world and work for mankind!" Just a few months after Anne wrote these words, on August 4, 1944, the SS (having received a tip from an anonymous informer) arrested the eight people in the Annex. They were all transported to concentration camps.

Anne ended up at Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen, where she died of typhus in February or March of 1945, about a month before the camp was liberated by British troops. The only person in Anne's family--in fact, the only person out of the eight who'd hid together in the Annex--to survive the war was Anne's father, Otto Frank. Anne's diary had been saved by Miep Geis, one of the selfless people who'd helped to keep the Franks, the van Daans, and Mr. Dussel alive while they were in hiding; she gave it to Otto when he returned to Amsterdam. Otto had the diary published in 1947, and since then, it has been read by millions of people all over the world.

Of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, more than a million of them were children. Although she was just one of many, Anne Frank helps to put a human face on the others who suffered the same fate. As it says on the back cover of the book, Anne's diary "continues to capture the remarkable spirit of Anne Frank, who for a time survived the worst horror the modern world has seen--and who remained triumphantly and heart-breakingly human throughout the ordeal."

If you haven't read this extraordinary book yet, I highly recommend it. I read somewhere that, aside from the Bible, it is the most frequently read non-fiction book of all time. Anne Frank dreamed of becoming a writer, and she also aspired to someday "work for mankind." Through her beautifully written and thought-provoking diary, in my opinion, she achieved both.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A City Filled with Bikes and Boats

Amsterdam is a very interesting city, full of cobblestone streets and lovely old buildings with--what appears to be the norm in Europe, from my limited experience--absolutely stunning architectural details. It was not like anything I'd seen before. The houses along the canals are tall and narrow, attached to one another the way the brownstones are in NYC and Boston. What's unique about them, though, is that their facades actually lean forward a bit, and they have big hooks located at the top near their gabled roofs. These hooks, with the help of ropes and pulleys, are for hoisting furniture and other heavy items into the homes. Because the buildings are so tall and narrow, so are their staircases, and without the hoisting hooks it would be impossible to move things in or out. Bikes are obviously a major mode of transportation in Amsterdam. Everywhere we went, we saw bikes, bikes, and more bikes. At the beginning of the canal tour we took on Saturday, while we were still out in the large harbor, the tour guide pointed out a mulit-level parking gargage near the water's edge. It had space to hold about 2,000 vehicles; but it wasn't for cars--it was for bicycles! And it was pretty full, too.

Not surprisingly, as the city is built on water (its landscape is composed of dams, dikes, bridges, and canals), there are also lots and lots of boats, including houseboats that are moored along the canals like cars parked up to the curb.I never gave much thought to Amsterdam before our recent trip; and although my husband had been there numerous times for work, I never cared one way or the other about seeing it (just like I never cared about seeing Nice, silly me!). Although I would have lived a perfectly full and happy life had I never visited this beautiful and historical Dutch city, I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to do so. I truly did enjoy my short stay in Amsterdam, a city filled with bikes and boats.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Happy Birthday to Son #4

The dapper little three-year-old on the left is my #4 son, who turns 24 today. Although he's changed a bit since this photo was taken--he's 6'2"now, his face is a lot more angular, and he's recently been sporting a moustache and goatee--he's still got a lot of the impish boyish charm that's on display here. And he's still got those dimples!

This son of mine is an extremely intelligent and talented individual. His drawings, which I've posted on this blog several times (most recently in a post from Jan. 14 titled "Lazy Saturday Mornings and Active Imaginations"), are truly amazing. I believe he could have a career at Disney or Pixar, if only he had a way to get his foot in the door. His dream job would be to design creatures and characters for video games (one of his lifelong passions); in the meantime, he's in the Army Reserves and he's putting his military intelligence training to good use working as a civilian contractor.

What makes this boy special, though--even more than his talents and abilities--is his character. He has a strong moral compass, he's kind and compassionate, and he's a very sweet son. I tell you, no mother could ask for a better son! He's very funny, too, with an offbeat, dry way of putting things--and he can mimic foreign accents and do a host of spot-on impersonations. (If you get a chance, make him do Christopher Walken for you. That one's a killer.)

When my fourth son was born (weighing in at 10 lbs. 12 and 1/2 oz.!!!), he came into the world screaming at the top of his lungs, instead of making little kitten noises like the three who'd come along before him. But as soon as the nurse placed him on me and I spoke to him, he got completely still as he listened to the sound of my voice. Then when they lifted him off my chest to take him down to the nursery, he began to scream again and I could hear him all the way down the hallway. "He knows who I am!" I said to my husband with tears in my eyes. That little guy completely melted me from the first moment we met, and he's just continued to do so in the 24 years since.

I love you, sweetie. Happy Birthday!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chubby and Jet-Lagged, with My Nose in a Book

Well, I'm being a lazybones today, which explains why I'm blogging about three hours later than usual. I guess I'm still recovering from my trip to Amsterdam. I don't know how my husband handles his schedule, because one trip wipes me out. And he's due to take off for a three-day trip to Dublin tomorrow!

We already looked to see if there were enough seats for me to go along, since I'm now a seasoned world traveler (ha ha!) and Ireland is definitely one country I've always been interested in visiting. But the plane is too full, so I'm staying behind for this one. That's probably for the best anyway. If I keep going to work with my husband, I'm not only going to be bone-tired all the time, but I'm going to be as fat as a stuffed goose, too. I gained four pounds on the Amsterdam trip, mostly from eating the awesome business class cuisine. I have trouble saying no to anything that's offered--one, because it's free; and two, because eating keeps me happily occupied during the flight, which helps me to forget where I am. I never eat five-course meals at home, but I sure do on flights (warmed mixed nuts to start, followed by an appetizer and soup, then salad, the main course, and dessert!), and then I eat the second meal they bring around about an hour before landing, too--even though I'm rarely even hungry after the first enormous meal. I love accompanying my husband to work, but it's turning me into a glutton. So I've made a resolution for the next time: no overeating on the airplane! No matter how good it all looks, I need to say no every now and then! (But I think I'll still accept those pre-flight, nerve-calming glasses of champagne--for medicinal purposes only!)

Inspired by our trip to the Anne Frank House on Saturday, I've been devouring The Diary of a Young Girl. I can't seem to put it down. I still can't believe that we got to go inside the building in which Anne wrote her diary; we saw her actual diary, with its red plaid cover, under a glass case--as well as many other loose pages filled with her handwriting; we walked past the bookcase that hid the entrance to the "Secret Annexe" and through the rooms that were occupied by Anne's family and four others. That visit to 263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam was a tremendously moving experience, and it makes the words I'm reading now truly come to life for me. I definitely want to write more about that tour of the Anne Frank House, but it's going to require more energy than I have at the moment and I want to do the subject justice. So for now, I'm posting two pictures that I took on our canal tour through the city.Isn't Amsterdam beautiful? I have lots more pictures, and you'll probably be seeing some of those in the coming days.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Flying High

Last night, we returned from our three-day trip to Amsterdam. It was wonderful, and I took lots of pictures with my trusty iPhone. (As I'm married to the iMan, it's about time I become the iWoman, I guess.) We took a boat cruise along the canals of the city, and--despite the overcast skies--that was lovely. We also toured the Anne Frank House, which was a very moving experience. I need to devote a whole post to that alone, which I plan to do later in the week.

I find that I'm on a bit of a high this morning, shaking my head in wonder at the fact that I have now been fortunate enough to visit two beautiful European cities with my husband. (And also marveling at the fact that I got business class both ways, on both trips--and now I am admittedly spoiled rotten!) I have some great pictures to share, but first I have to figure out how to transfer them from my iPhone to my computer so that I can post them on this blog. I experimented with this photo, one of me sitting in the cockpit shortly before we took off in Amsterdam yesterday morning. It took me three tries to figure out how to transfer it, so I'm going to wait until my hubby wakes up to transfer the rest. I'm quite sure there's a quicker and easier method than the one I used! Anyway, here's me in my husband's claustrophobia-inducing "office." There are so many buttons, screens, lights, switches, and gauges up there; it's absolutely mind-boggling to me that anyone could keep track of it all. I've always been in awe of--and terrified of--the miracle of human flight; sitting in that cockpit had the effect of making me even more awestruck, but also less afraid. Those guys who sit up there and man those controls are a rare breed, and they know what they're doing. (But sitting in my husband's seat made me appreciate my roomy, comfy, reclining business class seat even more, and as soon as this picture was snapped, I was anxious to get back to it!)

One of the big things I took away from my recent trips to Nice and Amsterdam with my husband is that, although most people think the life of an airline pilot (particularly a pilot who flies almost exclusively to European destinations) is a very glamorous one, his job is extremely tough. It's an exhausting routine. For my husband, it starts with a drive to Logan Airport in Boston and a commuter flight from there to Laguardia in NYC, followed by a cab ride over to JFK. Then there's the long flight (sitting in a cramped cockpit) across the Atlantic, and upon arrival in Europe, the crew shuttle bus ride to the layover hotel. There's a short respite during the layover, with time to do a bit of sightseeing if you're so inclined and to have a decent meal out; but the bottom line is that while you might be in an exotic locale that makes others envy you, the whole time you're there you're sleeping in a strange bed and living out of a suitcase, and you're carefully planning your sleep schedule to avoid jet lag so you're ready for the return flight (and in his case, you're also really missing home). And often, my husband returns from a trip in the evening, has one home-cooked dinner, sleeps in his own bed for one night, and the next day he's right back at it: driving to Logan, flying to Laguardia, taking a cab from Laguardia to JFK, flying across the Atlantic...

Whenever I've had to see a doctor, especially when it involved surgical procedures, I've felt so grateful. How fortunate we all are that there are people in the world who are willing to practice medicine, because I can't even imagine doing the things that doctors do. I feel the same way about pilots. People want to go places, and they want to get where they're going as fast as possible. It's hard to imagine life in our modern world without airline travel--even a landlubber like myself depends on it, with my children spread out so far these days. Thank God that there are people who are willing to do what pilots do--people like my husband. I've always appreciated him and the hard work he does (not only for our family, but for the countless passengers who've flown with him), but accompanying him to work made me appreciate him even more.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Amsterdam, Here I Come

One of my husband's sisters called me yesterday at about noon, and her timing was perfect. I'm so glad I got to talk to her right before my trip today. When she found out that I might be accompanying her brother on a three-day trip to Amsterdam, she asked me what we planned to do while we were there. I told her that we would only have one day to dedicate to sightseeing (because the other two would be dedicated to the long, long flights--gulp--there and back), and the only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn't all that interested in visiting the Van Gogh museum. Since it isn't tulip season yet, I didn't really know what else Amsterdam had to offer--besides its notorious red light district (and hopefully, some dikes and old-fashioned looking windmills!). My sister-in-law was a teacher at a US Department of Defense school in Germany when she was a young twenty-something (in fact, while she was over there, she met her husband, and they are now the proud parents of five--including triplets!), and she was able to do a lot of traveling throughout Europe. She said that she'd been to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and she highly recommended that we go to see it.

I had completely forgotten that Anne Frank spent the last few years of her life living in the Netherlands, where her family moved to escape the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany. This hadn't even registered with me until my sister-in-law mentioned that the house in Amsterdam in which Anne wrote her diary is open to the public as a museum. I am so excited now for this trip! I read The Diary of a Young Girl when I was a young girl myself, and was so fascinated and moved by it that I've re-read it several times since. I can't even imagine walking through the actual building where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis for over two years, the "Secret Annexe" that was both a safe haven and a prison for a young girl who had so much of her life ahead of her--a girl with a remarkable talent for writing who dreamed of one day becoming a journalist and a famous author.

During the years of hiding in the annexe, Anne not only faithfully kept her famous diary; she wrote many short stories as well. She also had a notebook in which she copied down "beautiful sentences" written by other authors whose books she'd read. I'm actually thinking of doing this now--what a great idea! I am so often blown away by the particular phrasing of certain sentences in books, by the way they perfectly express an emotion or describe a situation, and I like to go back and read them again. Collecting them in my own little "book of beautiful sentences" would make this so much easier.

I have no doubt that had Anne Frank survived the war, the publishing of her diary would have launched a long, stellar literary career. I also believe that if she lived in this day and age, she would have a blog (and she'd have countless loyal followers, surely). Because what is blogging anyway, if not a means of jotting down one's thoughts, interests, observations, and dreams? Blogging is a daily writing exercise, like keeping a diary or a journal. And just reading what flowed from her pen when she was but a girl on the verge of becoming a woman, I can only imagine the impact Anne Frank's adult musings might have had on the world.

While we're in Amsterdam, I hope to give my rusty French another try (it's either that or
Dutch, I guess, and I'm not too fluent in Dutch). I'll take lots of pictures with my iPhone, so look for those on Monday.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Play Date

Today I have an after school play date with a little girl named Mackenzie.*

Mackenzie is the foster child of some friends of ours, a couple who have been like true angels to countless foster children in this area over the past few decades. These selfless people have improved the quality of life for those kids lucky enough to become a part of their noisy, fun, affectionate household--and they've helped to boost the self-esteem of so many troubled kids, oftentimes even connecting them with loving adoptive parents.

Mackenzie is an eight-year-old girl who is currently repeating first grade and was recently placed with our friends. The poor little thing has had a tough life; at eight, she's had to deal with more heartache than most of us will see in a lifetime. She's suffering from a negative self-image, and she has complicated mother issues. Because of this, our friends thought it might be good for her to spend some time with an adult woman (one she wouldn't see as a "mommy" figure), doing the kinds of girly things she enjoys. Our friends know me pretty well--so they know that, although I raised only boys, I love all kinds of traditionally girly activities, like sewing, crafting, baking...and playing with dolls!

In preparation for Mackenzie's visit this afternoon, I went out yesterday and bought some goodies: a sketch pad and a package of new crayons (I still have lots from the old days, but they're mostly broken); a soft-covered book of Disney Princess paper dolls; and a chocolate cake mix and a big bag of M&M's, so that Mackenzie and I can make cookies together. Actually, we're going to make what we folks around here call "cakeys," using the easiest cookie recipe in the world. You take a cake mix (chocolate or yellow, your choice), add two eggs and 1/2 cup of oil, and then throw in some semi-sweet chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, or crushed M&M's. You make one inch balls and place them about two inches apart on the cookie sheet and bake at 350 for about eight minutes. Simple and delicious!

So if all goes according to plan, we're going to draw pictures, play with paper dolls, and bake cookies. (I sound like Elf, don't I? Maybe we'll eat some cookie dough and make snow angels, too!)

When I think of my boys during their childhood days, of how safe and secure and love-filled thier lives were, my heart aches for this little girl. I really hope that our play date goes well and Mackenzie enjoys being here. I'm not sure how she's going to react to me; I'm a bit shy and reserved (unlike her uber-extroverted foster parents), and she's a bit gun-shy about new people. She may tell our friends that she'd just as soon not have to come over and play with me again! Since I'm feeling a wee bit nervous, I thought perhaps I should pray to the Patron Saint of Foster Children to help me make Mackenzie's visit a positive experience for her. I had to do some digging on-line to find out who this saint was, and I found the name St. Matthew Guku. I was unable to find any biographical information about him, but I'm definitely going to pray to him this morning. I'll pray to St. Joseph--Our Lord's loving foster father--as well, and hopefully Mackenzie will have such a good time today that we'll be able to schedule another play date.

St. Matthew Guku, pray for me! St. Joseph, pray for me!

*Name changed for privacy.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Happy Birthday to My Baby!

My #5 son--my baby, one of my bookend boys--turns 19 today. This is what he looks like; isn't he a cutie pie?! Actually, this isn't a recent picture, and he doesn't really look like this anymore. He's 6'2" now and will no longer let me dress him in a Peter Pan collar. He's got a big, square chin, and his legs are a lot hairier these days. So yes, he's all grown up. (But in some ways, this is what he'll always be to me.)

We had our first four boys within a span of four years and three months, and we wondered if that was going to be it. Then, after a more than four year break, I found that I was expecting again--and this little guy came along almost exactly five years after son #4. He truly did complete our family, and none of us can imagine life without him. God, in His infinite wisdom, knew how much we needed this sweet precious soul amongst us.

Oh, no, you're probably thinking, here she goes with the bragging again. All she does is brag about her children! You got me there, I guess; but seriously, if you've met this boy, you know what a wonderful person he is.

My youngest son is one of the most tender-hearted people I've ever known. As a little fella, he always had a maturity about him, a wise-beyond-his-years quality, that was unusual in one so young. Most remarkably, he has retained a deep, sincere devotion to his Catholic Faith that is inspiring--even throughout the teen years when so many kids lose their fervor (or even drift away from their faith completely). He's very special, that's what I'm saying. He's a role model. And when I grow up, I want to be just like him.

My youngest son is also a funny guy with a great sense of humor. He does hilarious, spot-on impressions of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kermit the Frog (among others). And he can draw a mean T-Rex, FYI.

I could go on and on, because--as you can probably tell--I love this kid to pieces. He's out at his college far, far away, so I can't be there to say this in person; but here's wishing a Happy Birthday to my sweet baby boy!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

If Modern Fiction is Making You Feel Blue, I've Got the Book for You

I am already in the process of preparing myself, physically and mentally, for a possible trip to Amsterdam with my husband on Friday. This would be only my second time accompanying him on a working trip in the almost 24 years he's been a commercial airline pilot. I'm a major homebody with an extreme fondness for keeping my feet on good old terra firma; but with our youngest son back at college and no one here to take care of, there's really nothing holding me back (other than that pesky little aversion to airplane travel).

When I went to Nice with my husband in early December, I took along my laptop and my digital camera, making it so that I could blog each morning from across the pond. This time, I've decided to pack a lot more lightly--and that means if a gadget is too big to fit in my pocket, I'm not taking it--in order to make the trip as stress-free as possible. All I'm going to have with me is a small carry-on rolling bag and a big purse. I plan to snap pictures of Amsterdam with my new iPhone4 (which has a great camera on it) and then I'll post them when I get back. I'm sure the few people (very few) who actually check out this blog every day will survive a couple of mornings without my inconsequential ramblings.

Whenever I'm going to fly, one of the most important items on my packing list is a good book. Reading is one of my great pleasures in life, and knowing that I'm going to have a brand new novel to devour gives me a reason to look forward to flights that I would otherwise mostly dread. I discovered on the trip to Nice, however, that if I'm sitting in business class, I don't read as much as I do back in coach. On that trip, I was so excited about my little personal T.V. set (and the long list of movies and shows I could watch) that I didn't get through more than a few chapters of my book. But even so, I liked knowing I had that book with me. It was my little safety net: the faithful friend who had my back and, if called upon, would do its best to help me forget that I was sitting in a chair 30,000 feet above the ocean.

I've already picked up a paperback for Friday's trip, a novel about a girl who inherits a cabin in the Adirondacks from her grandmother. At the cabin, she finds the journal her grandmother kept during World War II, and family secrets are revealed. I was drawn to this book because my own paternal grandmother had a rustic camp on a small lake in the Adirondacks, an idyllic place in the most beautiful spot imaginable, and our family spent many happy summer days there. And I'm also a sucker for any story that takes place during the era of the Second World War. The book is More Than Words Can Say, by Robert Barclay.

I'm hoping Barclay's book is a good read, but I've been burned before. I just wish that I wouldn't keep getting disappointed by modern fiction. I'm always looking for that great novel that's written like a literary masterpiece, has a satisfying love story in it, shows characters who practice their faith in a positive light (particularly devout Catholics--what a rarity they are in today's fiction!), and doesn't have any gratuitous, blush-inducing scenes of physical intimacy. Books like that are hard to find, I'll tell you. And that's why I'm also taking along one of my best-loved books with me, Elizabeth Berg's Dream When You're Feeling Blue. I've read it about three or four times already, but I could easily read it again and love it as much as I did the first time. It's set in Chicago during World War II, and the main characters are the three beautiful Heaney sisters, who write letters to soldiers fighting overseas and attend USO dances to keep up the morale of the troops. The sisters are part of a large Catholic family, and the book shows how everyone back home, even the youngest children, made sacrifices and did their part to help the war effort. There is a sweet love story in this book, as well as a shocking plot twist at the end. It is beautifully written--and eminently re-readable--and it remains one of my very favorites. If the other book lets me down, I know I can always rely on this one.

Well, today's post turned into a bit of a book review, I guess. And I give Dream When You're Feeling Blue five stars out of five. As for More Than Words Can Say, I'll let you know when (or if!) I finish it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

How Much is That Doggie (or Horsey) in the Window?

My #4 son recently sent this photo, iPhone to iPhone, of his puppy Finny, a lab/shepherd mix with an overabundance of energy, relaxing on the couch. Take a look at it and tell me the truth: doesn't it sort of make you want to go out and get yourself a dog?

Finny is smiling here, and why wouldn't he be? He's allowed up on the couch, like a human (dogs these days!), and the expression on his face--not to mention his body language--makes it clear that he knows he's just livin' the life.

Dogs get to me, they really do. I am a sucker for a cute puppy dog. But even though I could probably use the company of a furry little friend of my own in this big empty house when my husband is away on trips, my husband and I intend to stay strong and fight the urge to go shopping at our local SPCA. We are on the road too much these days, traveling to visit our kids and grandkids, to be tied down by a dog.

But oh, I do love dogs!

Last weekend, my husband and I went to the theater to see the movie War Horse, a wonderful World War I-era story about a young boy named Albert and his horse Joey. I'm not going to say a word about the plot, because I want you to go and see it and I don't want to ruin the heart-tugging ending. But I do highly recommend the movie; it's so beautifully done, and in many ways it's a great family movie--not really appropriate for young kids, though, due to some tough, realistic war scenes. What's so sweet about it is that it's basically one of those endearing boy-and-his-dog movies, along the lines of Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, and My Dog Skip...but the dog is a horse. I've got to tell you, I fell in love with that Joey.

And now I think I want a horse!

Of course, I'm a bit afraid of horses. I've never sat on one in my life, and I think I'd be terrified if I ever saddled up and found myself galloping at high speeds atop one of those enormous beasts. I've thought this through, however, and you see, I wouldn't have to ride my pet horse. I could just feed him apples and sugar cubes, and I'd brush his coat and braid his mane; I'd love him and pet him, and he'd nuzzle me...

But I suppose a horse would sort of tie my husband and me down at least as much as a dog, wouldn't it? So I suppose we won't be horse shopping anytime soon either.

Oh, well. I guess I'll just have to get my pet fix in small doses, from my sons' dogs Finny and Allie.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

You Can Have Your Face Cake, and Eat It, Too

Well, my husband and I dropped off son #5, our baby, at the airport early this morning. He's on his way back to college, and now our nest is empty once again. Christmas is officially over (although I still have almost all of my decorations up, including the tree). That's kind of sad. Especially since this was a particularly wonderful Christmas season, for a number of reasons: our oldest son was back home safe and sound from his second year-long Army deployment; we had all of our children--the five boys, our daughter-in-law, and our twin granddaughters--together for several days just after Christmas; and this was our first Christmas ever with grandchildren--and I tell you, those little girls made our holiday celebrations so much more fun and special.

Unfortunately, the festitivites are over, and it's time for our youngest son to get back to the daily grind of classes, papers, homework, tests, and ROTC obligations. He really enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere at home during his month-long Christmas break and took advantage of the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed rest, often sleeping in well past noon. The real world beckons now.

We had one last hurrah last night, when we celebrated our baby's 19th birthday a few days early. His older brother (son #2) came up from his place an hour south of us, and the two boys, my husband, and I went out for dinner at Chili's. The birthday boy ordered his longtime favorite meal, that specialty of Mexican restaurants worldwide, I believe: chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and country gravy. (His brothers like to tease him about always ordering the same thing; but, hey--if you know what you like, why take chances?) Then we came back home and had cake, ice cream, and presents.

Last year, inspired by the show "Cake Boss" to take my cake decorating to a whole new level, I made a portrait cake of son #2 for his birthday, and it was a big hit. The family dubbed it a "face cake" (if you are a fan of the show "Scrubs," you may have heard the term before), and a new birthday tradition was born. Here's a picture that I took last night of my youngest son with his very own face cake, minutes before we cut into it (and he called dibs on the nose). So, what do you think? Does it look like him?This just goes to show that you can have your face cake and eat it, too. My boy had the nose last night, and I packed up the chin in a Tupperware container for him to take back to school with him today. Mmmm...face cake. It's handsome AND delicious.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lazy Saturday Mornings and Active Imaginations

I'm late getting at my blog today, but there are several good reasons for this. For one, I treated myself to a Saturday morning sleep-in, which was glorious. Then when I finally got up and went downstairs to make my pot of always highly anticipated morning coffee--horror of horrors--I realized I was out of half-and-half! We have skim milk in the fridge, but I'd almost rather not drink coffee at all than drink it with skim milk in it. Anything less than 2% makes coffee taste downright yucky, in my opinion. So I was forced to start my day with a quick trip to the grocery store.

When I got back, I burrowed into my favorite overstuffed chair and enjoyed my first heavenly-tasting cup of coffee in front of the T.V., and before I knew it, I found myself becoming engrossed by a TLC home improvement show called "Moving Up." (It's the one where people move into a new house and fix it up, then the previous owners come back and see what they've done to it--and they usually aren't happy about the changes the newcomers have made.) Anyway, I was in a real vegging-out mood, and I was thinking that I had nothing of interest to blog about today; so I thought I'd just take a day off.

But then I realized that there is one subject of which I will never grow tired: bragging about my sweet, intelligent, talented boys! And so I thought I'd share a piece of artwork with you, a masterpiece in ink and colored pencil which was created recently by son #4 as a Secret Santa gift for a co-worker. There are some components of the drawing which have meaning around the office that I don't get at all. But even without knowledge of the insider jokes that are embedded in the drawing, I think this is a completely amazing piece of artwork.This son of mine is a brilliant cartoonist, and he has a unique talent for drawing dinosaurs and mythical animals in intricate detail--and these images spring out of his very imaginative head most of the time (which I find impressive, because I always need something to copy). In fact, I have a collection of pencil drawings that this boy did many years ago, which depict these crazy creatures he dreamed up; these drawings are...well, they're impossible to describe. You'd have to see them, I guess. I may have to devote a week of blog posts to them one day soon.

On lazy Saturday mornings like this, kids all over this country are firing up their Wii's, Gameboys, iPads, and whatnot; they're watching cartoons or DVD's; they're texting their buddies. Wouldn't it be great if every now and then they'd shut off the electronic gadgets, sit down at the table with a piece of paper and a pencil, and just let their imaginations run wild?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Belated Birthday Wishes

I want to give a belated Happy Birthday shout-out to my husband's baby brother, the youngest of the eight siblings in his family, who celebrated a forty-something birthday on January 7.

When I first started dating my husband back in 1973, this brother-in-law of mine was only three-and-a-half years old. He was a blue-eyed, dark-haired little cherub with freckles on his nose; he was fiercely attached to a big plaid, satin-edged blanket that he called his "fankin'"; and he was without a doubt the most adorable little boy I'd ever seen. That little guy I first met all those years ago--who has been like a true brother to me all the years since--was probably half the reason I decided very early on that if I had to have only one or the other, I wanted to have all boys. (And Somebody up there was definitely listening, because He blessed me with five of them!)

Here is a picture of my brother-in-law and me taken in late 1982, when I was a young married woman who wasn't even a mother yet (and when I still had a few inches on him). Take a gander at my blouse, if you haven't noticed it already. Yikes! How could I have thought that those ridiculous leg-o'-mutton sleeves looked good on me--or on anyone, for that matter? The eighties were a bit of a black hole, clothing- and hairstyle-wise (think huge shoulder pads and big, moussed-up hair), and I was just one of the many casualties of that decade of bad fashion. I believe most of us Boomers probably cringe a bit when we look at photos from that time period. But I love this picture anyway, because my sweet brother-in-law is in it with me. Look at my adorable little buddy, with his Bieber-esque haircut (he must have been the heartthrob of his junior high class): isn't he just the cutest thing?

And now, incredibly, the boy in this picture is a successful partner in a big firm, happily married and the father of three...and I'm a grandma. Time out! Stop the clock!

Sorry I forgot you the other day, M. A belated Happy Birthday to you, "Mayfer Magillacuddy"!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

About This Global Warming...

I took this picture just a couple of days ago. This is what it looked like in front of our house on January 10, proving that miracles really do happen--because miraculously, there wasn't a speck of snow in sight. We had a freakish October Nor'easter here that dumped a few feet of snow on us and gave us a white Halloween. But so far, despite the fact that we're almost halfway through the month of January, we haven't had another snowstorm.

Yup, we had a green Christmas here in New England (aside from a Christmas night dusting of snow--and really, that was just a couple of flakes), and the temperatures during January have been hovering mostly in the high 30's and low 40's. We've even had some days that felt like spring--sunshine and high 50's--and I was starting to get used to the idea of a Southern-style winter. One without six-foot-tall mountains of snow on either side of our driveway. One without brutally cold winds that sting your cheeks. One without--well, you get my drift. I've always liked living in a part of the country where you can experience all of the seasons, but sometimes the winters up here are so long and cold and depressing, you feel like you're going to go crazy if you see even one more snowflake fall out of the sky--so I've been more than okay with the unseasonably warm winter we've been having up until this point. Yes, I admit it: I just love that global warming! (I made a vow to myself at the outset that I wouldn't get political or controversial in this blog, so I won't tell you how I really feel about all the hysteria over global warming.)

But wait a minute: in spite of the inevitable and inexorable warming of our beloved globe, I awoke this morning to find that it's all blizzardy outside. It's snowing hard and--oh, goody!--later, we're supposed to get some sleet and freezing rain mixed in there, too, before it all turns to rain. I knew the weather we've been enjoying so far was too good to be true! I knew I couldn't depend on that finicky, fickle global warming business to keep Old Man Winter out of the Northeast this year.

So about this global warming...what exactly is the deal? You know, I'm beginning to understand why the new PC term for this scientific theory is "climate change." But, hey, about this climate change...how come when I look out my window on this mid-January day, the climate looks about the same as it always does this time of year?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Fond Farewell the the Big Red Van

It's finally happened: we've said good-bye to the big red van that's been an integral part of our family for the past ten years. This fifteen-seater Dodge Ram Van, a de facto bus that was widely known as the "Pearlmobile," has been indispensible on so many occasions (taking our boys and all of their belongings cross-country when they began college, to name just one--and for more on our behemoth of a vehicle, the ultimate "Wagon Queen Family Truckster" if there ever was one, see "Trading in the Big Red Van for a Sportier Model," Nov. 8, 2011). We've put 225,000 miles on that van, had the brakes changed numerous times, and spent a small fortune just keeping it filled with gas. But finally, the amount of money it costs to keep it running has outweighed its usefulness to a couple of empty-nesters who have two other working vehicles at our disposal, and--other than when our youngest son is on breaks from college--only two drivers at home. At this point, it's just taking up space in our driveway. It's just a huge obstacle around which we're going to have to plow or shovel when (or if?) it snows this winter.

This past summer, we had to put over $2,000 into our beloved big red van just to get it to pass inspection; the previous year, we'd spent about the same amount to have the rusted-out floorboards in the back replaced. The old girl was starting to become a real money pit. So the last time we had major repair work done on her, we made a decision: we would keep her as long as her expenses were minor ones; but the next time we had to shell out a huge amount of money to fix her, we were going to have to get rid of her. We knew that day would probably come sooner rather than later.

Well, that day came about a week ago. The van hasn't been starting on a regular basis lately, and when it does, it stalls out unless you keep your foot on the gas at all times. We took it in for diagnostic tests and found out that it was going to cost a minimum of $1,000, and as much as $1,700, to get it in good working order again. There was no quesion: it was time to find a way to unload the van that had seen us through so many good years when we were raising our boys but had lately become "Old Unreliable."

Instead of trying to sell our van, my husband contacted the St. Vincent de Paul Society. They will come and pick up any kind of vehicle--even a boat--and take it off your hands. When they sell your vehicle at auction, the charity receives the proceeds and you can write off that amount on your taxes. (A minimum tax deduction is guaranteed, and then if the vehicle brings in more at auction, the charity adds the difference so that you can claim the higher amount.) For us, the idea of giving the van to charity felt like the right way to go. We hate to think of it rotting away in a junkyard and imagine that someone out there who's good with cars--the kind of person who used to be called a "grease monkey," but I suppose that's not PC these days--might be able to fix it up and get a few more good years out of it. The tow truck driver who came to take our van away last night commented, "This is a pretty nice vehicle for a donation!" That rattled me momentarily and made me think--gulp!--What are we doing? How can we get rid of the Pearlmobile? My husband told him how we'd raised five sons and the van had been so useful to us during those years, and he said that we were going to miss it. Then I started snapping pictures as the driver did his thing, hooking up cables so that that our enormous van could be pulled up the ramp of the truck, and the guy looked over at me and said, "Now you're making me miss it!"

I will miss that van (I spent so much time in it, it was like my little second home on wheels), but I know that letting it go was the right decision. We'll miss you, big red van. Thanks for all those years of dedicated service to the Pearl family.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Missing Cafe au Lait

Back on April 16, 2011, when I was still very new at this blogging business, I did a post called "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things." One of the items in the picture I posted that day was a beautiful china cup and saucer, part of a set passed down to me from my mother-in-law...and the cup was filled with that nectar of the gods, the most essential beverage ever invented, my life's blood (practically): COFFEE.

Yes, coffee never has to worry about being bumped off my list of favorites. Its spot is secure.

After my alarm went off a little while ago, I went downstairs and began the day the way I always do: I brewed a six-cup pot of coffee, and then, trusty mug in hand, I came down here to my basement office and sat at my computer to blog (and decided that today I would blather on and on about coffee--a subject about which I have an overabundance of enthusiasm). I love the coffee I make at home, because it's a mild-tasting brew. I use Maxwell House Lite, which is actually 50% decaffeinated. (That means I can drink six cups of it every morning--but when I'm grilled at my yearly physical about my daily caffeine intake, I can say I only drink three cups!) Sometimes, I splurge and buy a can of Folger's Breakfast Blend and a can of Folger's Decaf and mix them up to create a homemade blend of lite coffee. But my old stand-by Maxwell House is always a good option. It's nice and mild and it is good to the last drop. The important thing is that my coffee isn't too strong; if I'm out and about and stop to get a road coffee, I'll always choose smooth and mild Dunkin' Donuts over strong and bitter Starbucks.

Having such a picky palate when it comes to my coffee, I found myself worrying about where I would get my daily fix when I accompanied my pilot husband on a four-day trip to Nice in early December. I've never been one to order a European-style coffee like a latte or an espresso, and I knew that my idea of coffee with cream and sugar was probably not the same as the French version called cafe au lait. So like a truly ugly American, the first opportunity I had to order coffee in Nice--at an outdoor Christmas market in the middle of the city--I choked at the last minute and ordered a "cafe Americain." What a mistake! That stuff was even worse than my attempts at a French accent--stronger and way nastier-tasting than any Starbucks coffee I'd ever had. I decided that the next time I ordered a coffee, I would order the French version. You know, when in Rome and all that.

The next morning after Mass, I decided I'd get a real cafe au lait, but I must admit that I got it at the MacDonald's not far from our hotel (I was still taking baby steps). I ordered a large, which in our country can sometimes mean vat-sized, but the to-go cup that was handed to me over the counter was about the size of a small one at Dunkin' Donuts. "Yikes," I thought, "I am not going to survive my stay in France." But as I walked along sipping that cafe au lait, I really began to enjoy the distinctly different flavor of it. I was drinking a cup of French coffee (albeit one purchased from an American fast food joint) and feeling like a true native. It was stronger than I was used to, but remarkably, I found myself really liking it. Suddenly, instead of wondering how I was going to survive those days in France without my usual coffee, I began to wonder how I was going to survive life back in the states without cafe au lait!

My husband and I took a train trip to Monaco later that same day, and when we stopped at a swanky cafe called the Cafe de Paris, which is right near the Monte Carlo Casino and across from the Hotel de Paris, I ordered cafe au lait without hesitation--no cafe Americain for me this time! That's it, my lovely--and very expensive!--cup of cafe au lait from the Cafe de Paris, in the picture above. Isn't that the most beautiful sight your eyes have ever seen? It was an absolutely delightful cup of sweet, frothy, creamy coffee, strong but delicious, with a little jug of hot milk on the side to add as needed. Perfection! (And worth almost every euro it cost.)

By the last morning of our stay in Nice, I was even drinking the espresso my husband made me from the machine in our hotel room. I'd made a 180-degree turn from the woman who thought she was going to have to go through caffeine withdrawal on that trip because she wasn't going to be able to consume her daily pot of Maxwell House Lite.

I sometimes find myself thinking back on that divine cup of cafe au lait from the Cafe de Paris with nostalgia. I even ordered a latte recently at Starbucks to see if it had a similar taste. It just wasn't the same. I guess I'll have to go back to France someday, if only for the cafe au lait.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"Runned Over Cake"

Here is a recipe for a delicious, chocolatey Bundt cake that turns out great every time, gets moister as the days go by (that is, if your family doesn't eat the whole thing the day you bake it), and is super easy to make. It probably has a normal name; but in our family we call it "Runned Over Cake," because that's what the gal who gave me the recipe called it.

As you might guess, there's a story behind that unusual name. Apparently, my friend and her family were at a football tailgater, and someone had brought this cake. Somehow (the details on this are a bit fuzzy, but stay with me here) the cake was left on the ground and forgotten, and a car backed over it. Everyone was bummed out that the cake had been ruined; but when they looked at it they realized that only half of it had been, as the kids at the party put it, "runned over," and the other half was in good shape--so they decided to go ahead and eat the good half! Good call, I think. It would have been a shame to waste a perfectly good half of this scrumptious Bundt cake!

Ingredients for Runned Over Cake:
1 chocolate cake mix (without pudding in the mix)
1 sm. pkg. instant chocolate pudding (Wait a minute...wouldn't using a pudding-in-the-mix cake mix save this step? I don't know; but I'm a rule follower and I do what I'm told, and the recipe says to do it this way.)
1 c. sour cream
4 eggs
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. milk
6 oz. chocolate chips

Okay, now mix all of these ingredients, folding in the chocolate chips last, and spoon the batter (it will be thick) into a greased Bundt pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 min. (The cake should bounce back lightly when done.) Cool.

You can lightly dust your cake with powdered sugar, or you can top it off with a frosting glaze. To achieve the effect in the photo above, I put my cooled cake in the freezer for a little bit, then I warmed up some chocolate icing in the microwave so it would pour easily--and because the cake was cold, the warmed icing solidified before it had a chance to run down the sides and pool onto the dish.

This is a great cake to serve when you're having company, because it not only tastes great, but it looks pretty, too. At Christmas time, I put red and green sprinkles on the icing before it hardens.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Our Lady of Lourdes, Pray for Us!

This is an old photo (from the forties or fifties, I believe) of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at the University of Notre Dame. Although it has been many years since this photo was taken, the grotto has changed very little; it remains a favorite spot for Notre Dame students and faculty, as well as the thousands of visitors who flock to the campus every year.

This grotto out in South Bend, Indiana is a replica of the holy shrine at Lourdes, France, where in 1858 Our Lady appeared to a humble peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous. In memory of those apparitions, Notre Dame's grotto includes a statue of that young girl--who would later be canonized and become St. Bernadette--kneeling in prayer before the statue of the Blessed Mother that stands up high in a niche. There are also two small, smooth, black stones mortared into the wall of Notre Dame's grotto that actually came from Lourdes.

If you're ever out in South Bend, I highly recommend a trip to the grotto. When you're there--when you light a votive candle for a special intention and kneel down in front of it to pray--you get a sense of peace that is indescribable. You can feel Our Lady--in French, Notre Dame--there at the grotto, just as She's there atop the iconic golden dome (which you can see in the background in this photo, peeking through the trees), and She's watching over the university that bears Her name.


Blessed, Immaculate Virgin, by your appearance in the Grotto of Lourdes, many have been cured of their infirmities, both spiritual and physical.

Mother of Mercy, Healer of the Sick, Comforter of the Afflicted, you know my needs and sufferings. Look upon me with compassion. I come to you with confidence in your maternal intercession. Obtain for me, from your Divine Son, this special request...[mention your needs here].

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for me. Amen. [And St. Bernadette, pray for me, too!]

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Life in the Cloud

I know I talked about my iPhone yesterday, and I don't like to be repetitive in this blog, unless of course I'm bragging repeatedly--and shamelessly--about my gorgeous granddaughters, my dear daughter-in-law, my spectacular sons, or my handsome husband (how's that for alliteration?); but there is one other aspect of my new Space Age gadget that I find utterly amazing. And it has to do with something called "the cloud."

Have you heard of this phenomenon?

I became aware of it the other day when I got a reminder on my iPhone about a flight physical. Now, I'm not a pilot, I don't get flight physicals, and I never told Siri to give me such a reminder. But My husband had put a reminder about his flight physical on his iPhone, and magically, I got it on mine, too. When I asked my husband why our phones appeared to be communicating, he said it was because of this mysterious thing called the cloud. That same day, I had a reminder from Siri on my iPhone about getting my allergy shots, and my reminder made its way to my husband's phone, too, without any prompting from me. So we were both reminding each other of our appointments and our phones were reminding us as well; and I thought, "Now that we have this cloud, neither one of us will ever forget an appointment again!" In the old days, my husband might have said--right as we were going to bed and my brain was all tuckered out--"Don't forget to remind me about my flight physical tomorrow." And there was a better than 50/50 chance that if he didn't remember that appointment himself, he was in trouble--because I wasn't going to remember to remind him. Remember George Bailey's forgetful Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life, the guy with the strings tied around all of his fingers? That's me. But not anymore, I guess; because between Siri and the cloud, I'm going to have all kinds of help keeping my life in order.

I'm sure all of the techies out there get this cloud thing, but I really don't. So I did what I always do when I'm trying to understand something, and I looked it up on-line. Here is a simple explanation of what is known as "cloud computing," and I'm quoting from an article called "What is the Cloud?" (http://campustechnology.com/):

The easiest way to understand the cloud is to think of it as a utility, like electricity. When you plug a device into a wall outlet, electricity flows. You don't generate the electricity yourself. In fact, you probably have no idea where the electricity was generated. It's just there when you want it. All you care about is that your device works. [And by the way, isn't electricity amazing? I am still awed by that--never mind the cloud.]

Cloud computing works on the same principle. Through an internet connection (the equivalent of an electrical outlet), you can access whatever applications, files, or data you have opted to store in the cloud--anytime, anywhere, from any device. How it gets to you and where it's stored are not your concern...

Okay, I have to be honest: after reading this article, I'm not really any more enlightened than I was before. All I know is that my husband's iPhone is connected to mine, both of our iPhones are connected to our computers, and all of these connections are made possible by some sort of invisible cloud of information...and apparently, I just need to know that this is the way it is, and how it happens is not my concern. The whole thing seems a little creepy--a little Big Brotherish--to me, but I guess I can live with it. Especially if it means I'm going to remember to keep my appointments from now on.

(By the way, just as I finished this post, my phone made a little blip sound, and there was a message on it: "Take out the air conditioners that are still up." The fact that we live in New England, it's January, and we still have some air conditioning units in our windows is not the point; the point is that this was an iPhone reminder my husband had programmed for himself, but because of the cloud I got it, too. Thanks, cloud! There's no way now that my husband will be able to forget this latest item on his "honey do" list!)

Friday, January 6, 2012

My New Personal Assistant

I have a new personal assistant, and her name is Siri.

I know she doesn't just work for me; she works for everybody and his brother these days, because everybody and his brother seems to have an iPhone 4. But the crazy thing is that I have one. I like to think of myself as having more of a 19th century, Jane Austen-era vibe about me than a 21st century, hi-tech one. I was happy with my cute little pink flip phone (you know, the kind of cell phone Jane Austen probably used), and I scoffed at the idea of needing anything more complex. But my husband brought me kicking and screaming into the 21st century when he got me an iPhone 4 this Christmas, and here's my guilty little secret: I think I like it!

I call my husband the "iMan" (see my July 26, 2011 post, "The iMan and His Apps," for more on this subject). He has been the iMan for a little over a year now, ever since he was surprised with the gift of an iPad by his sons and me last Christmas. It was the greatest gift he had ever received, or would ever receive--like Ralphie's beloved Red Ryder b-b gun; I believe he slept with that iPad tucked under his arm that night, like Ralphie with his trusty "Old Blue" and Randy with his big shiny zeppelin. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration; his iPad wasn't actually in bed with him--but it was definitely within arm's reach as he slept! Within months, my guy had added an iPhone to his growing stable of iGadgets, which makes a lot of sense when you're in his line of work (he's an airline pilot). An iPhone is easy to take along with you wherever you go. When he's commuting to and from NYC, he can use it to check on flight delays and weather conditions and who knows what else. He can call me from overseas when he finds an area with free WiFi--he can even "facetime" with me. When he's on the road in far-off lands, he can locate all the Catholic churches in the vicinity and check on Mass times. And he can do all this using a little hand-held gizmo. There are so many apps that help him with his job and his life in general that I can see why he feels that iPhones and iPads are, if not actually necessary, very useful.

But why did I--a stay-at-home wife and mother--need one, you ask? Well, I didn't; but here are some things I've come to love about having one:

1. I can now text my children (which, let's face it, is the easiest way to get in touch with anyone these days) quickly and efficiently, because my new iPhone has a little keyboard. If you ever saw me trying to compose a text on my old cell phone--slowly and methodically hunting and pecking, and then pushing a wrong button and having to start all over again (I think I could have sent carrier pigeons with my messages and they would have arrived sooner than my texts)--you might have felt so sorry for me that you'd have gone out and bought me an iPhone just to put me out of my misery. In fact, that may have been one of the motivators for my husband when he decided to get me my snazzy new phone.

2. I can check my e-mails and my favorite blogs (Ree Drummond's "The Pioneer Woman," http://www.thepioneerwoman.com/; and my daughter-in-law's "Knit 1, Pearl 2," http://momofpearls.blogspot.com/) no matter where I am. I have this tiny computer with internet access--in the palm of my hand! It fits in my purse and I can take it with me anywhere. Isn't that just amazing? Isn't modern technology mind-boggling? I'm still baffled by the idea of phones in general--by the fact that you can dial some numbers and talk to people half a world away; so I'm having trouble wrapping my brain around this iPhone. But I must admit that it is very neat to be able to go on-line using my phone.

3. I now have an extremely efficient personal assistant named Siri. I give her commands like, "Siri, set my alarm for 7:00 a.m.," and she tells me she's done it. And then the next morning at 7:00, without fail, I'm woken up by the most annoying sound in the world--the kind of BAMP! BAMP! BAMP! noise you hear in the movies when a bad guy is in the building and they go into lockdown mode to root him out. I'm a heavy sleeper, but if that alarm doesn't wake me up, nothing will. Yesterday, I was due for my allergy shots, so the night before I told Siri, "At 10:00 a.m., remind me that I have to get my allergy shots." Sure enough, yesterday at 10:00 she got in touch to remind me. I tell you, that Siri is awesome, and she may become indispensible to me. Where was she all those years I was raising my boys and couldn't seem to remember orthodontist and dentist appointments? I know a certain Dr. H--- who would have appreciated Siri's reminders...a lot.

There are probably a million other things I'm going to love about the iPhone, but I've only had mine for less than two weeks so far. I may have more to say on the subject down the road, when I've become the iWoman. But for now, all I can say is that everyone needs a Siri in his life.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Twin Porcelain Dolls

I have twin porcelain dolls that are just waiting for my twin seven-month-old granddaughters to get old enough to love them. I made these little beauties (named "Jenny" by the doll artist who created the molds) years ago, in the mid-nineties, when I was taking a weekly porcelain dollmaking class. I was young enough at the time that having a daughter was still a possibility, but that wasn't the reason I took that class; I love dolls so much that I really just did it for me! It was a nice, feminine activity for a mom who was surrounded by five dinosaur-loving, video game-playing, sweet little ruffians. At the time, the idea of having grandchildren seemed so far-off and unreal that, while I made dolls for many family members and friends, I never made any specifically thinking they would be for my future granddaughters. Well, time does fly, as they say...and now I have two grandddaughters with whom I hope to share my passion for dolls.

The Jenny on the right, dressed as a little Irish lass in green, is one that I made for myself in 1996. My mother-in-law loved it so much that I decided to give it to her as a birthday gift that year. The next year, I made the one dressed in Christmas finery for myself, but this time instead of glass eyes, I decided to do painted eyes. So these two Jenny's aren't quite identical twins, like my granddaughters--but they're darn close.

In 1997, my mother-in-law's Jenny was nearly destroyed when my in-laws' house had a first floor fire that caused so much smoke and water damage, they had to gut the house and rebuild it. Mom's Jenny's eyes and wig had melted, her porcelain skin had turned black, and her soft cloth body smelled of smoke. I swapped Jenny's with my mother-in-law; I gave her my Jenny with the painted eyes and took her ailing one home to see if I could clean her up and repair her. I was able to put her pretty much back together, but she still has a crack along one arm, a badge of honor earned by surviving that awful event.

Since my mother-in-law's death, my husband's siblings have been encouraging everyone to take back any items that were gifts they'd given to Mom (in an effort to clear out some of the bric-a- brac that is cluttering up the house). I have been hesitant to do so; but fnally this Christmas I did bring home the Jenny with painted eyes that I'd given my mother-in-law when her Jenny got damaged in the fire. If it wasn't for those two precious granddaughters of mine, I think I would have left that doll there indefinitely. But I believe Mom would be happy to see it loved by one of her great-granddaughters rather than gathering dust on a shelf.

My daughter-in-law has commented that her girls are going to get all the "good stuff," because I keep finding things that I want to pass on to them. I guess I will have to try to control my first-time-grandma enthusiasm and save some things for the children my other boys may have someday. But these two Jenny's are definitely earmarked for the twins!

(By the way, the oil painting in the background was done by my maternal grandmother. Isn't it wonderful?)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Perfect Gifts for a Homebody/World Traveler

Back on December 26, I blogged in the morning about some special Christmas gifts I'd received the day before from my four youngest sons. Those boys touched me so much with their generosity and thoughtfulness, as they always do. Shortly after hitting the "Publish Post" button, I had to pack up my computer and the rest of my things. Then we all hopped in the car and headed for my husband's childhood home in Upstate NY, where we would spend the week after Christmas catching up with family. It was there that we met up with my oldest son, his wife, and his twin baby daughters, who'd traveled a few hours east from their home to be with us. We did a belated gift exchange the evening of the 26th with my son's family...and once again, I was bowled over by the thoughtfulness of my children. (And I have six children now, did you know that? My oldest boy brought me a lovely daughter, after all those years with only sons.)

Nothing against my son, who is a real sweetie pie and thoughtful in his own right, but "thoughtful" is truly his wife's middle name. Above is a picture of my Christmas gifts from those two kids, and I believe I can say with confidence that she is the one who is mainly responsible for them. She knit the slippers herself, and even made the little fabric flowers that adorn them. And she picked out the little journal for me, too, with pictures of vintage French postcards on the cover--so (now that I'm such a world traveler) when I'm on trips to exotic locales, I can keep a little record of all I see and do.

I can't think of any two items that better reflect my personality. I'm a real homebody--I can be almost hermit-like at times--and if I could live in a robe and slippers, I would! There's nothing better than the proverbial "snow day," when you can't go out anyway, you have nothing on your schedule, and you spend the day in lounge mode, reading or watching DVD's. No matter where I go in the world, and no matter how much fun I have there, I am always so happy to get back to my home-sweet-home. So these slippers were a perfect gift for me--not to mention the fact that I love gifts that are lovingly hand-made. However, in spite of this tendency to want to burrow, slipper-clad, in my cozy nest at home, I have also become interested in traveling to far-off places, an activity which until recently was well outside my comfort zone. In early December, I accompanied my husband on one of his working trips to Nice, and I had the time of my life! Nothing could have surprised me more than the fact that when it was time to return home--as the plane sat on the runway awaiting take-off and I looked longingly out my window at the waters of the Mediterranean Sea--I was sad that I couldn't stay longer! What had happened to that girl who claimed that, although her husband routinely flew to cities all over Europe, she had no interest whatsoever in seeing any of them herself? So a journal for keeping memories of such trips is as perfect a gift as the slippers. In fact, I may get to write in my new journal later in the month...if there's space available on the flights, Dublin and/or Amsterdam, here I come!

Thanks, kids, for these lovely and thoughtful gifts--two items I will use and cherish. I love you both!