Saturday, March 31, 2012

Decorating for Easter

Well, I'm a little late getting to it, but I've finally put out some Easter decorations. My husband and I have been on the road so much in the past few months that I've been kind of neglecting my house. Time got away from me--and now Easter is going to be here before we know it. I can't believe that tomorrow is Palm Sunday!

I love this little Easter vignette on my dining room table. Those are fake lilies in my antique transferware pitcher (I have the blackest thumb in the universe, and if they were real, they'd be dead by Easter), but I think they're very pretty all the same. Hey, lots of things in my house are fake. Take, for instance, my kitchen countertops. I wanted new granite ones, so I gave my old, worn-out laminate ones a faux finish and achieved the same look (well, not quite, but close enough) for the cost of a few cans of paint and some varnish. Fake is absolutely okay with me--especially when it comes to plants.

The sweet little vintage-style chick and bunny figurines--as well as the pitcher, which was once upon a time part of a matching bowl and pitcher set--all came from a quaint little shop in our town's old-fashioned downtown area. I've spoken of this shop, called "Just the Thing," before in this blog. I love its haphazardly arranged mix of antiques and unique gift items. I like to go in there just to poke around; however, this can be a bit dangerous, as they do always seem to have just the thing that I didn't even know I needed until I find it there. Like that chick and that bunny: I didn't know I needed them, but I definitely did.

If you look closely at the picture above, you'll see a black and white photograph of my beautiful late mother-in-law hanging on the wall, in the background on the right. I think of her often, but especially at Easter time. She passed away three years ago on Holy Saturday, God rest her soul. Mom loved holidays, and holiday decorating, and setting a holiday table...and holidays haven't been quite the same since she left us.

I hope you are enjoying making your house pretty in preparation for the joy of Easter Sunday. And if your Easter lilies are genuine, and they're thriving, then I must tell you that I admire your green thumb. My mother-in-law had one, too.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Feast of St. Fergus

I wasn't sure what to write about today; in fact, I had almost decided to just take the day off and think of something good to write about tomorrow--then my husband suggested that I check to see if there is a Catholic saint whose feast is celebrated on this date. I did some digging and came up with a name I'd never heard before: St. Fergus.

Apparently, this 8th century Irish saint was the bishop of Downpatrick. He also spent some time in Scotland as a missionary. I wasn't able to unearth a whole lot of information about him, other than that he was a descendant of Coelbad, King of Erin, and he is responsible for having a church or monastery built. I don't know whether he was martyred or died of natural causes. The only image I could find of him is the 15th century carved effigy in stone pictured on the left.

One of the best things about discovering this obscure Irish saint heretofore unknown to me is that I am now aware of an awesome new saint's name that one of my sons could use for his future offspring. When my husband and I were in the early days of our marriage and thinking about names for our own future children, I batted around some strong Irish/Scottish-sounding names for our sons, like Seamus and Angus; but my husband (he of the 100% Irish blood!) thought they were a bit over-the-top. So we ended up compromising by naming our female Black Lab/Golden Retriever puppy (who was our first "baby") Shamus*; and when our first son came along, we gave him a more mainstream Irish moniker: the Gaelic version of the name John.

But if only I'd known about this 8th century Irish bishop named Fergus! What a great name for a son! We could call him Gus--a nickname I just love--for short. With my baby-bearing years well behind me, I'm not going to have the chance to use this exquisite name now; but perhaps if we ever get another puppy, we'll name it Fergus. Gus for short if it's a male, and Fergie if it's a female. Boys, you better hurry up and use the name Fergus for a son, or we just might snap it up!

We Catholics like to name our children after saints, and it's amazing how many unusual names (ones you'd never in a million years guess) are actually saints' names. Before my oldest son and his wife were even expecting their first child, my husband, two of my other sons, and I were having a hilarious conversation with him after he'd found a list of all the names of official Catholic saints. Mucus is the name of a saint, did you know that? And Radbod, too. That day, amid much laughter, we decided that if he had a son, he just had to name him Mucus Radbod. (Lucky for him, his wife gave birth to twin girls!)

What do you think of the name Fergus? Do you like it as much as I do? Well, I may never have a grandchild--or a dog--with this name; but from now on, I am going to remember St. Fergus, who along with Sts. Patrick and Brigid did his part to spread the Faith on the Emerald Isle.

(*The gal whose Golden Retriever gave birth to Shamus made up an official-looking birth certificate for us--through the office where she worked--when we adopted our little black doggy. She wasn't aware of the proper Gaelic spelling of Seamus, and thus we ended up using the Anglicized version she'd written on the birth certificate.)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Potties and Pottery

I've been reading about the ancient Greeks lately, after my recent trip to Athens with my husband. Like the ancient Romans, they were brilliant innovators and inventors, and their achievements in architecture are truly mind-boggling. They were ahead of their time, that's for sure, and built magnificent structures that still stand to this day--and they did it without any of our modern conveniences, like electrical tools, computer technology, and fuel-powered machinery. The Parthenon is still standing; parts of it are in ruins, but after thousands of years, it's still standing. I find that incredible.

The ancient Greeks were not only gifted architects, however; they were also engineering geniuses. For instance, they designed cannons and other machines used for war, odometers, levers, and alarm clocks. If you can believe it, all those centuries ago they even figured out how to provide buildings with central heating. In about 350 B.C., they warmed the Great Temple of Ephesus by circulating heated air through flutes built into the floor. They rigged up automatic doors, for goodness sake! And here are some of the great strides they made in water technology: they built aqueducts for water supply, water wheels and water mills, sewage and drainage systems, and fountains, to name a few; they even figured out how to provide indoor plumbing for showers! And this was all long before the Birth of Christ. I find that amazing, especially when I think about the fact that the early settlers in our country carried water buckets to the house from the pump or the pond, and took baths in giant metal tubs using water heated up in a pot over a fire!

Sometimes, I get the romantic notion that I would have liked living back in Colonial America, because it seems as if in some ways life was sweeter and simpler. You know, I could put on my little homespun dress and my bloomers and my muslin bonnet, and practice my book learnin' by embroidering my numbers and letters on a sampler that my mama would hang proudly in our house...our drafty house, where I would share a bed with three siblings..and never get to have a hot shower...and let's not even talk about the outhouse. Yikes: the outhouse! I like to fancy myself an old-fashioned type of girl--but only until I remember all the modern conveniences without which I can't imagine living!

Anyway, while my husband and I were in Athens
together, we went to the Acropolis museum, and I saw yet another well-preserved marvel of ancient Greece: a child's potty chair from the 6th or 7th century B.C. It was not made of cheap white plastic, like the one I used for potty training my boys; it was made of clay pottery and hand-painted all over with intricate designs, like a work of art. That's it on the bottom shelf, on the left. There were lots and lots of decorated clay pots and urns in the museum, and I may not have noticed that this piece had a special purpose if those little pictures hadn't been hanging to the right of it, illustrating its use.

Not only is the Parthenon still standing, but so is this little potty chair! Can you imagine an archaeologist finding my plastic one thousands of years from now, perfectly preserved? I don't think so. We live in a throwaway society; a lot of what we have is cheaply made, and when things break, we throw them out and get new ones rather than fix them. My husband told me about an article he read in "Sports Illustrated" regarding the construction of the new Yankee Stadium (and the tearing down of the old), and someone was quoted as saying that in this country, we destroy our coliseums. That made me kind of sad. Compared to Greece, with mementos of its ancient civilization in evidence all over the place, the U.S. is so very young. But I wish we'd preserve the rich history we do have! My plastic potty chair? Not so much. But the original Yankee Stadium? Yes! And that's coming from a citizen of Red Sox Nation.

(Don't know how I got on the subject of outhouses and potty chairs...)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Those Darn Cats!

I've already made it quite clear in this blog that I'm not a huge fan of cats (August 7, 2011: "No Cats, Please!"), largely due to the fact that I only narrowly survived a premeditated sneak attack by Harvey, our lunatic black cat, when I was a teenager. As a youngster, I was as enamored of furry little kittens as any young girl is apt to be; but I lost my youthful naivete about those fickle felines as the years went by and it became obvious to me that cats are just sneaky opportunists. They don't really love you--not the way dogs do. So I am a dyed-in-the-wool dog lover; but there is absolutely no love lost between me and cats.

In January, I accompanied my pilot husband on a trip to Amsterdam, and while we were there we went out to dinner at a cozy, "mom and pop"-style Italian restaurant. I was amazed to see that there was a cat hanging out in the dining room, and moreover, that the proprietor had no intention of shooing it off the premises. This was certainly something I'd never seen before when eating out in the U.S.! We were seated at a table for two near the window, and this mild-mannered cat sat on the windowsill not more than a foot away from us, staring at us throughout the entire meal. Now my husband is no more fond of cats than I am (and is in fact slightly allergic to them), so you would think that this situation would be a bit stressful for us. But that cat kind of grew on me as we ate, and by the time we were getting ready to leave, I decided to pet him. That's when his true cat nature came out, along with his claws, and he hissed at me and made me remember why I'm a dog person. I repeat, I am not a fan of cats. (If you read "The San Remo's Cat" post on February 2, 2012, then you're wondering why I'm retelling that story; but hang on: I need to remind you about the cat we met in Amsterdam to set up a story about our new Greek cat friends.)

Recently, I accompanied my husband on another working trip, this time to Athens. After our first day of sightseeing, we climbed to the top of a hill called Lycabettus, which provides a stunning panoramic view of the city, to watch the sunset. We ordered two bottles of Mythos, and as we sat at an outdoor table and sipped our beers and shared a bowl of mixed nuts, who do you think came to keep us company...but another cat! He was separated from us by a Plexiglas partition, but he sat there and watched us, just the way the cat at San Remo's had done several months before. What is it about us that attracts cats? we wondered. (European cats, anyway.)Well, the second night we were in Athens, we went out to dinner and were dining al fresco at a romantic little table for two...and guess who joined us? That's right, another cat! He acted just like the other European cats we'd met before him: he sat there patiently, watching us throughout our meal. There were other diners nearby, but do you suppose this cat was interested in any of them? Nope. He just wanted to hang out with my husband and me and stare at us, hoping for a handout no doubt. (Okay, I'll come clean...his good behavior did earn him a piece of sausage.)
For some reason, the word is out in Europe that my husband and I like to have the company of kitty-cats when we go out to eat. I want to say that these recent experiences have made me even less fond of cats than I was already...but I must sheepishly admit that those little critters are beginning to grow on me. At this point, if I ever go on another trip abroad with my husband and we aren't joined at the table by a cat, I'm going to feel like something's missing. Oh, I becoming a cat lover? (I'm so ashamed to admit that. Almost as ashamed as I was to admit, on the day after the Patriots' Super Bowl defeat to the Giants, that I like Eli Manning...) Those darn cats! Just when you think you've gotten them out of your system forever, they draw you back in!

(By the way, I'm really dating myself with the title of this post--with a reference to Walt Disney's 1965 film "That Darn Cat!", starring Haley Mills and Dean Jones.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Athens, a Photographer's Paradise

I am going to give you a break from my wordy, drawn-out ramblings, after three straight days of posts that were perhaps just a bit too long for their own good. I decided that today I would just share a couple of photos (two of the more than two hundred!) that I took on my recent trip to Athens with my husband.

If you like to take pictures--and you're a fan of ancient architecture--Athens is a veritable photographer's paradise. I was just snapping away constantly as we toured the city, because everywhere I looked there was something awe-inspiring and/or breathtakingly beautiful to see. We were lucky, too, because when we arrived we heard that it had been cold and rainy the week before--but for us, it was warm and sunny the whole time. The photos I took of columns and arches and ruins would not have been nearly as lovely if the sky hadn't been so blue.

Sometimes I think I would have enjoyed being a professional photographer, because I'm very happy behind the lens of a camera. I know I'm just an amateur, but--by the beard of Zeus!*-- aren't these photos spectacular (if I do say so myself)?
*Sorry, I've been dying to use that Will Ferrell line from the movie "Anchorman" ever since I got back from Athens, after spending all that time looking at the ancient temples of Zeus and the other Greek gods. Boys, if you're reading this: that one was for you.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Top Ten Reasons I Like Going on Trips with My Husband

For the past 24 years, my husband has been a commercial airline pilot--and for the last 16 of those years, he's been flying internationally (to mostly European destinations). I never accompanied him on any of his trips until this past December. For most of the years he's been working for the airline, I had sons living at home and felt it was more important for me, as a mother, to stay back here with them. Truthfully, I was relieved that I had such a valid excuse, because getting on an airplane has never been on my list of top ten favorite things to do. Or top 100, for that matter. My husband had a job to do, which involved flying away from his family (which I knew was tough on him); and I had a job to do, which involved staying behind and keeping the home fires burning.

But in the fall of 2011, our youngest son left for college, and my husband and I became true empty-nesters. Suddenly, the house seemed very empty and quiet when my husband was away on trips; and suddenly, there didn't seem to be as much keeping me here...other than that pesky fear of flying.

For many years, I've been promising my better half, "When the boys are grown, I'll come on trips with you." It was easy to say, because that time seemed so far in the future that it wasn't even real. But that day finally came, my friends. The rubber finally met the road (or the runway). And I finally had to decide if I was going to work past my aviophobia and accompany my husband on some of his trips. In December of 2011, a dream opportunity came up: a 4-day trip to Nice, with plenty of seats open in business class going both there and back. So I did it. I went on a trip with my husband...and it was absolutely wonderful.

When we were on a train in France, taking a short trip from Nice to Monaco, I asked my husband if, despite my wild promises, he'd ever really believed I'd someday come to Europe with him. "Nope," he said, and we both laughed. "Me neither," I replied.

But since then, I've been on a 3-day trip to Amsterdam and a 4-day trip to Athens. These trips have been the most fantastic experiences for me, having never been to Europe in the more than 50 years I've been alive. They've been great for my husband, too; because he says he's never gone on a trip--no matter how awesome the destination--where he didn't wish he could have stayed home instead. But if he has to go and I go along, too, then he gets to take home with him. Wherever we are, if we're together, then that's home--right? (Are you saying "Awwwww"? Or gagging a little?)

Anyway, I've come up with a David Letterman-style Top Ten List, outlining the top ten reasons I love going on trips with my guy.

10. My husband looks so handsome in his pilot's uniform. (This reason comes in at #10 because he looks just as handsome in his off-duty uniform of jeans, Underarmor t-shirt, cowboy hat, and black Chuck Taylor's.) 9. I finally have a feel for what my husband's life on the road is like. (He's been doing this job for almost a quarter of a century, but I never really knew all that was involved. It's a great job, but extremely demanding and tiring. I don't know how he does it!)

8. The sights from up high are simply amazing. (I was watching the airplane icon moving along its route on my little T.V. screen on the way back from Athens, and I saw that we were in the vicinity of the Alps. I grabbed my iPhone and took this awesome photo from the window.) 7. I get to see far-off places that I've only read about in books or seen in movies. (And I know my husband enjoys showing me places he's been to dozens of times himself, and getting to see them afresh through my eyes.)

6. I'm happy that I'm not home alone in my big old house--especially at bedtime. (I hear lots of unnerving nighttime noises now when my husband is away. They are usually just the normal expanding and contracting creaky sounds that are common in any house. But not long ago, I actually had a midnight intruder when my husband was on a trip: a flying squirrel that came down the chimney and scurried around downstairs before ending up in my bedroom!)

5. I get to drink European coffee! (It's so different! It's so much stronger than what I usually drink, the cream is so much creamier, and the cups are so much smaller--they don't serve it in vat-sized containers over there, like the Dunkin' Donuts large Styrofoam cups I'm used to. But I've learned to love it! When in Rome, and all that jazz.)

4. I love all the perks in business class. (If I'm going to fly, which I like about as much as getting a root canal, then I require all of that front-of-the-plane pampering: gourmet cuisine, comfy reclining seats, great pillows and blankets, in-flight new release movies on a personal T.V. screen, and pre-flight glasses of champagne. I've informed my husband that business class is how I roll. If there aren't going to be seats up front for a trip, then I'll just skip that trip, thank you very much.)

3. Being the "captain's wife" makes flight attendants treat me like visiting royalty. (I may be overstating this perk, because I think they treat everyone sitting up front like royalty. But they really are awfully nice to me!)

2. I love it when they announce over the PA that "the captain has turned on the seat belt sign," when there's turbulence or whatever. (My chest swells with pride and I feel like saying, "That's right, people. That's my husband up there, and you better do what he says." I'm so proud of my captain!)

And the #1 reason I like going on trips with my husband is...I know that it makes him happy!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Athens, Day 2

On Thursday (the second layover day of our Big Fat Greek Trip), we had planned to get a really early start in order to pack in as much sightseeing as possible; but I was out cold until 9:30, still recovering from the flight over, and my husband didn't have the heart to wake me before that. We got on our way by about 11:00--a bit later than we'd hoped, but still hours earlier than we'd gotten started the day before. Right off the bat, we had to stop and check a very important item off the to-do list: we got me a cappuccino, which I now believe is the nectar of the gods. Ahhhh, heaven! And after that, we headed for the subway and looked forward to spending a day checking out the ancient temples of said gods.

Even riding the subway over there was an enjoyable experience for me. The subway in Athens is very modern and extremely clean, and in places has an almost museum-like quality. There are glass-fronted cases embedded in the walls that house ancient pottery and other treasures from centuries B.C. that were unearthed when the subway was being built.

We got off the subway and purchased tickets, for twelve euro apiece, that allowed us entrance into all the main attractions of Athens: the Acropolis, the new Acropolis museum (where all the statues and carved friezes rescued from the ancient ruins of the Parthenon are exhibited, in order to preserve them from the elements), the Agora, the Roman Agora, the Temple of Zeus, and Hadrian's Library. We spent six hours absorbing all that beauty and history, and it was a day I will never forget. While on the Acropolis, we watched skilled craftsmen at work high up on scaffolding, entrusted with the task of replacing missing chunks from the columns of the Parthenon, patiently chipping away at new marble inserts. We looked over the stone walls down at the city of Athens below, and could see a basketball court not far away, with a group of boys playing hoops. My husband commented on the strangeness of that juxtaposition: modern life going on right there in the shadow of the Acropolis. (While we stood in awe of the marvelous architecture of ancient Greece, we realized that it was probably all old hat--very old hat; even ancient hat, you might say--to native Athenians who saw it every day.) From up there we could also clearly see Lycabettus, the hill crowned by the Church of St. George, where we'd had our sunset beers the night before.

My husband got me into trouble up there, though. He had me climb up onto the porch of a building next to the Parthenon called the Erechtheius, and told me to put my hand on one of the giant columns so that it would look like I was holding it up. We didn't think a thing of it, since the entire porch area was filled with tourists like myself. But as soon as I got up there, I was reprimanded and shooed away by a Greek tour guide. It was a bit mortifying. We still don't know exactly what I did wrong, but surmised that the only ones allowed access to that porch were people who'd paid extra for a guided tour inside that particular building.

I got into trouble one other time, when we visited the Acropolis museum after our descent from the Acropolis. There was an awesome marble sculpture of roaring lion--and I got this harebrained idea that I would pose with my head close to its mouth, to make it look as if it was about to eat me, and have my husband take a picture. I hadn't planned to actually touch the statue; I just wanted to get close enough to get one of those zany pictures that I see in the Facebook photo albums of all the fun people I know. This was totally out of character for me; because, you see, I'm not one of those fun people. Normally I don't even like having my picture taken at all. Well, it serves me right for going outside of my comfort zone once again, because I was reprimanded in Greek by one of the museum's employees. For the second time that day, I felt like an absolute idiot. I'd just like to say, though, that if those Greek museum curators don't want stupid Americans like me to get too close to their ancient works of art, they should put them behind glass, or have little fences set up around them. Those statues are all out in the open, almost as if they are meant to be touched! Oh, well...I took this shot in the Agora. If I do say so myself, I think it is pretty enough to put in an Athens guide book.

We walked, and we walked, and we walked...for six hours altogether. Aside from the sites mentioned above, my husband also took me to see the original Olympic stadium, which is amazingly well-preserved. After a long but extremely interesting and satisfying day, we rode the subway back to the hotel, where we took a short rest and then got freshened up for dinner.

We took the subway back into the city and stopped first in the plaka to buy a few trinkets for our kids, then made our way through the crowded cobbled streets to Psara's for dinner. We'd eaten there the night before, but liked it so much that we decided to go back again. Psara's is an interesting establishment; it is built into a hill and is made up of several buildings with multiple levels. On Wednesday night, we'd dined in a group of six on the highest level, at an outdoor rooftop table, where we could plainly see the nearby lighted Acropolis. On Thursday, my husband and I decided we wanted to have a romantic dinner for two rather than meet up with any of the flight crew. We sat at an outdoor table again, but this time on a lower level of the restaurant, in a narrow cobblestone alleyway. It was just wonderful. We shared a grilled meat platter (lamb, veal, beef, chicken, and sausage!) and a Greek salad. We had ordered a glass of red wine apiece to go with our dinners, but we were brought an extra little carafe, on the house; and because my husband was going to be flying the next morning and wasn't going to touch it--and I hate to waste anything--I ended up consuming the rest. Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm a bit of a lightweight when it comes to alcohol; so needless to say, I wasn't as steady on my feet as I should have been as we made our way back to the subway!

But what a great dinner! We lingered after our meal, talking while I worked on that carafe of wine. I kept thinking that we should get going, but my husband said that there was no need to hurry. Apparently, when you get a table for dinner at a restaurant in Europe, they consider it yours for the night. I'm so used to the way it is here, where you know they're just dying to get you moving along so they can reuse your table. I have to say, I like the way Europeans think! There's nothing I like more than sitting at the table after a nice meal, just talking and relaxing.

Now all that was left was a long, LONG plane ride home the next day. But even the two flights--more than ten hours each way--were well worth it (despite my well-documented aversion to flying), so that I could spend two glorious days exploring Athens with my husband. Don't be surprised if I end up boring you with added anecdotes from this trip in the weeks to come!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Athens, Day 1

Well, yesterday afternoon my husband and I returned from our four-day trip to Athens. I had planned to blog from over there, and lugged my extremely heavy and cumbersome laptop from home to NYC to Athens, and then all the way back again...and I didn't end up using it at all. There is no Internet service available on international flights, which we hadn't realized; and then we were told by some other crew members that the Internet service at the layover hotel in which we were staying was somewhat slow and unreliable (as well as not free). So we paid for Internet for my husband's iPad, because when we're on the road we use all of its apps for a whole bunch of important business (to set an alarm, for one thing, and also to get on the airline website to find out how many seats are available on flights and then get listed on them); but I decided it wasn't worth the hassle and cost to get my computer hooked up, just so that I could blog! In the grand scheme of things, my little "String of Pearls" isn't all that important. Besides, there was so much to see and do, I don't know if I would have wanted to take time out to sit down and write about it all.

I'm a bit overwhelmed, actually, and don't know where to start. This trip was such an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and I know it was wonderful for my husband as well--because although he's been to Athens a number of times in the course of his career, he's never been there with me. It was like the greatest date EVER! We had almost two whole days to sight see. And let me tell you, there are a lot of sights worth seeing over there. We were fortunate, too, because the weather couldn't have been more glorious. It was sunny and in the 60's or 70's the whole time we were in Athens.

We flew out of NYC at about 4:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday and landed in Athens at about 8:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. East Coast time) on Wednesday. After we took a bus from the airport over to our hotel and got settled in, the the first thing we did was nap for about three hours, because by then it was about 10:30 a.m. Athens time, but still only about 4:30 a.m. to our bodies. Our batteries recharged (relatively, anyway), we got up, showered, found me a coffee (I think I like cappuccino now!) and got on our way. We walked all around the city and strolled through the plaka (which is sort of like a marketplace, with tons of shops and cafes). I think everything about me must scream, "Naive tourist! Sucker! Easy target!"--because if I even let my eyes rest momentarily on some pretty thingamajig in one of the shops, the shopkeepers were yelling out to me, offering discounts, and all but grabbing me by the arm.

In fact, at one point we passed two elderly, heavyset Greek women, sitting in chairs on the sidewalk near a little bridge we were about to cross. It was warm and sunny, and they looked drowsy and content, almost half-asleep. Resting on their laps were piles of beautiful pieces of ornately embroidered fabric with silky tassels. I looked over as we passed by them, intrigued, wondering what they were holding (scarves? shawls? tablecloths?), and all of a sudden, those two old ladies--who moments earlier didn't look like they could run if their lives depended on it-- were chasing me down the street, holding up the embroidered cloths and yelling at me frantically in Greek. I don't know what they were saying (it was Greek to me), but I think it was something along the lines of, "Where do you think you're going, Missy?! Get back here right now and buy this!" My husband, who has been to just about every major city in Europe by now, after flying internationally for sixteen years, asked if I actually wanted one of the cloths, and he said if I thought it was worth five euro or so we could go back and get it. "No, I just thought it was pretty," I said. Then he told me that if I didn't want to be chased all over the streets by pushy salespeople, I should try to keep eyes focused straight ahead--unless, of course, I actually intended to buy something. I guess Greek shopkeepers don't know the concept of "window shopping," which is my favorite kind of shopping.Is it really that obvious that I'm an American tourist? (That's the Acropolis up there behind me. And by my feet, one of the thousands of mellow Greek dogs we saw napping on the streets. There are dogs and cats everywhere--even in the restaurants!)
After exploring the plaka and marveling at all of the ancient architecture that abounds throughout the city, some of it amazingly intact and some of it in ruins, we walked over to a large hill called Lycabettus, which in Greek means "from where the twilight comes. " We climbed partway up, but then my legs turned to lead (I hadn't slept more than twenty minutes total on the ten-plus hour flight over, and it was beginning to catch up with me), so we decided to take a tram the rest of the way. The 18th century Church of St. George crowns Lycabettus hill, which offers a spectacular panoramic view of the city of Athens, and there is a restaurant located up there as well. We ordered two Greek beers and sat at a little outdoor table and watched the sunset. It was in every way perfect.
After we rode the tram back down Lycabettus, we walked back through the city, en route to a restaurant called Psara's, where my husband had eaten before. On our way, we saw some of the crew who'd flown over with us sitting at a cafe--three flight attendants, along with one non-revving family member, like me--and we joined them and had a drink (more cappuccino for me!) and some appetizers. Then the six of us went to Psara's and had dinner at an outdoor table in the shadow of the Acropolis, which was all lit up and looked incredible. We ate a delectable traditional Greek meal of tender meats slow-cooked in clay pots, with gravy and potatoes; then we went downstairs and sat at a table inside, where there was live music and the affable waiter treated us to after-dinner drinks and dessert, on the house.

Dinner with the gang was so much fun...but I think my favorite moment of the day was drinking beer at sunset on Lycabettus with my hubby, gazing out over the city as the sky turned pink. [Sigh.] It was so romantic!

And as we turned in for the night on Wednesday, the fun wasn't even over yet, because we still had all of Thursday to look forward to. Our plan was to tour the Acropolis and all the other ancient sites. But this post is long enough already; so I'll end here and pick up where I left off tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Big Fat Greek Trip

Well, it looks like I'm going to Athens with my husband. There appear to be plenty of seats, in business class (huzzah!) as well as in coach (fingers crossed that I don't end up there), both on the flight over today and on the flight back on Friday. The only kicker is that there aren't daily flights out of Athens to the U.S. on my husband's airline; so if for some unforeseen reason I get bumped on Friday, I won't have another chance to get back to the States until Sunday. And my hubby is the guy flying the plane out of there on Friday, so he will have to leave--with or without me.

Which would leave me alone... in Athens...AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!

I'm going to do it, I'm going to fly to Greece; but I'm a bit nervous about the trip. It's bad enough that I'm a white knuckle-flyer; but I've seen the movie "Taken," and I know just what happens when naive Americans are let loose in European cities. Of course, I'm not a silly, hard-partyin' teenage girl; and I wouldn't in a million years get into a car with a stranger--whether on foreign soil or American soil. So I guess I can rest easy that the fate of Liam Neeson's movie daughter doesn't await me, even if I end up having to spend some extra time by myself in Athens. ("Taken" is a great movie, by the way, if you really love an edge-of-your-seat, action-packed thriller--and Liam Neeson is excellent in it; however, I warn you that if you watch it, you probably won't ever let your college-aged daughters study abroad.)

I'm good to go today, because I have a fresh new passport, which I had to renew recently. My old one sat unused for almost ten years, and then I squeezed in two trips--to Nice in December 2011 and to Amsterdam in January 2012--before it expired. I have more than 50 clean new pages now, just waiting to be stamped with the names of exotic locales. What a great way to inaugurate my new passport: with a Big Fat Greek Trip to Athens. There's another wonderful movie for you: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." It's so funny and heart-warming (and so much less scary than "Taken"). I love it when the overprotective paterfamilias cries, "Why you want to leeeeave me?"--just because his grown daughter informs him that she's going to take some time off from working at the family restaurant to take a few courses at a local college. I use that line all the time on my boys, whenever they leave me to go off to college or other faraway places. (I'm going to use it on my husband, too, if he has to leave me behind in Athens!)

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is such a classic romantic comedy. If you haven't seen it yet, you've missed out on a good one.

Anyhoo--I'm planning to take along my laptop on this trip, so hopefully I'll be blogging from Greece.

I'm going to be blogging from Greece....AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!*

(*The earlier scream was one of terror; this is one of excitement. Were you able to tell the difference?)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Getting Brave

A little over a year after starting "String of Pearls," I have finally made the first small changes in the layout of my blog site. My daughter-in-law occasionally updates different design elements on the home page of her wonderful blog, "Knit 1, Pearl 2," and as a result, it's got a really professional look about it. But I've stuck with the original, bare-bones design I chose back in March 2011, just happy that a technology-challenged person like myself was able to figure out how to start a blog in the first place.

But yesterday afternoon, I got brave. I added a new design element--a list of the topics about which I write most frequently--at the top of the page. The words are printed in pretty pink rectangles, and I think they spiff up my site a bit. (If you're reading this page right now, you can see them yourself--so I suppose I didn't need to describe them to you, did I?) If a particular topic interests you, you can click on the label of your choice and you will find everything I've posted about it so far. I also chose to change the layout for the list of labels that is located at the bottom of my home page, the list that you come to when you scroll down until you can go no further unless you hit the "Older Post" tab. That list includes everything I've ever blogged about, not just the nine subjects in pink listed above, and you can click on any of those words to read posts on a particular subject. I'm currently in the process of re-labeling some posts that could fit into more than one category (both "Faith" and "family," for instance, or "family" and "travel").

This was a big step for me. I was very comfortable with the look of my blog page all this time; if somethin' ain't broke, I've always believed, then don't fix it. I thought if I tried to get too fancy and played around too much with design, I would ruin everything. I feared my entire year's worth of blogging might disappear into the nefarious blogosphere, and I'd never be able to find it again. That's how much I understand about the internet and how it works. That's how comfortable I am with computer stuff (and with change in general).

But I hope these new design elements make my "String of Pearls" home page better-looking and a little more user-friendly.

Baby steps, baby steps. If I'm still at this by next March, mabye I'll be ready to do even more sprucing up; but for now, I'm pleased with these little changes. I feel like a brave new me.

And I hope this new me really is brave, because I just found out minutes ago that my husband swapped with another pilot for a four-day trip to Athens that leaves tomorrow. If I want to, I can tag along. [Gulp!] What do you think: do I want to? (If I do go, you'll be seeing some great pictures in the coming days!)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

My Doppelganger

Apparently, I have a doppelganger.

It's not a twin sister, in case you jumped to that conclusion. I have identical twin granddaughters, but I am not a twin myself. Moreover, I don't much resemble either of my two younger sisters, if you want to know the truth. If you saw the three of us standing together and didn't know we were related, you would probably guess that we had sprung from three entirely different gene pools.

My husband, on the other hand, has on occasion been mistaken for one of his younger brothers*, with whom he shares a strong resemblance. And he also has a celebrity doppelganger. If he had a dime for every time someone told him in his younger days that he looked like a young Dick Van Dyke, he'd be a rich man today. Here's a picture of Dick Van Dyke, far left, with the cast of his wonderful 60's television show. Put a cowboy hat on him (and a space between his front teeth), and that's my hubby. Yet to my knowledge, no one has ever seen a resemblance that strong between me and any other person--of either the celebrity or non-celebrity variety.But now I've been told I have a look-alike, and my interest has been piqued.

My husband and I recently ran into a longtime friend after the 11:00 Mass at our parish church. This friend always goes to the 11:00 and we almost never do, preferring the 9:00; the fact that our college-aged son was home at the time and likes to sleep in a little longer than his parents do was the main reason we bumped into this good friend at the later Mass. Anyway, while we were catching up, he told us that on a Sunday a few weeks back he had seen a woman who looked just like me. So much so, he said, that when the Mass ended he was just about to go over and strike up a conversation with her before he realized that it wasn't me.

I am intrigued by the idea that I have a doppelganger, and she may even live right here in the same small town. (Of course, she may have just been visiting, and will never show up in our church again, but...) I kind of can't believe it and want to see her for myself. I can't imagine what that would be like, looking into the face of a person who looks exactly like you do. I guess my granddaughters (who are only about ten months old as I write this, aren't all that interested in looking at each other yet, and couldn't verbalize their feelings if they wanted to) will be able to tell me how that feels someday. But it seems like it would be quite strange--you know, seeing a mirror image of yourself--for someone who wasn't born a twin.

I'm a little skeptical about this so-called doppelganger. Perhaps our friend was just spinning yarns.

But I want to see her!

What about you? Has anyone ever told you that you have a doppelganger?

(*By the way, this same younger brother was always being told that he looked like Dick Van Dyke's younger brother, Jerry!)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Wearing o' the Green

In honor of the feast of St. Patrick, the beloved Patron Saint of the old Emerald Isle, I thought I'd post a wee bit o' Irish humor (and I'm not just talking about this photo of Himself--that is, my husband--unabashedly sporting a loud, very green and very shamrocky ensemble to the airport this morning when we dropped off our youngest boy).

Okay, here goes:

May those who love us, love us. And those who don't love us, may God turn their hearts. And if he doesn't turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles, so we may know them by their limping.

And on a more serious note, here's an old Irish blessing:

May the Irish hills caress you. May her lakes and rivers bless you. May the luck of the Irish* enfold you. May the blessings of St. Patrick behold you.

(* And when I say "the Irish" here, I'm not talking about the ND Irish men's basketball team, who really put the "mad" in March Madness--if you happen to be a fan of theirs, anyway.)

Saying goodbye to our baby, after having him back with us for a whole week, was a sad way to kick off St. Patrick's Day; but if I feel like crying into my green beer later on tonight, I'll just think of my hubby, whose wearing o' the green was a big hit at the airport this morning. I tell you, thumbs were going up all over the place!


Friday, March 16, 2012

More Wisdom from That Silly Old Bear

I've been frustrated for the last month or so, because I've got 5 or 6 pounds to lose that just don't seem to be going anywhere. I managed to make it through the deadly holiday stretch from Thanksgiving through Christmas in 2011 without gaining an ounce, and I guess having that success lulled me into a false sense of security. "I work out almost every day," I told myself, "so it looks like now I can occasionally indulge in a Hershey's Bliss milk chocolate square--or 2 or 3 or 8--without gaining weight. How marvelous!" As long as I stayed true to my Turbo Jam work-outs, I reasoned, I didn't have to give up bread and butter and desserts. Whew! That was good to know.

I accompanied my husband to Nice in December and Amsterdam in January, sitting in business class there and back on both trips, and felt confident that I could enjoy the cornucopia of high-calorie gourmet business class offerings without putting on any weight. I was the gal who'd survived the holidays without gaining an ounce, remember? I was bulletproof! "Would you like an enormous, warmed chocolate-chocolate chip cookie?" the flight attendant asked in the middle of the night (and this after a four-course dinner only hours earlier): "Don't mind if I do!" I enthusiastically replied.

Suddenly, though, to my chagrin I found that when I returned from that Amstedam trip, I was 4 pounds heavier. "Well," I thought, "that'll surely fall off now that I'm back home, eating the way I usually do and working out daily." WRONG! I have a question for all of you fellow 50-something women out there: do you find that it's a lot harder to stay slim now than it was even 10 years ago? And if that's so, then it's just biological, right? And really not our fault?

Of course, if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I haven't been as vigilant about watching my diet as I was before the 2011 holiday season. And it's really hard right now, you understand, because I gave up diet sodas for Lent, and they're my go-to non-caloric oral fixation. (And the sun was in my eyes, and I tripped on a rock...and it's not my fault! I had to eat those crackers and cheese!)

I think I just like food too much.

I've blogged before about the wisdom of that utterly lovable "silly old bear," Winnie the Pooh ("Wise Words from WTP," Feb. 28, 2012). Well, here's another quote from A. A. Milne's "bear of little brain," with whom I feel a certain bond:

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. "It's the same thing," he said.

I love that bear. And I think A. A. Milne was a genius.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Happy Birthday to My Big Brother

Today is my big brother's birthday. (Yes, he was born on the Ides of March!) He is the firstborn of my parents' five children, and I came along a mere 16 months after him. We were always thick as thieves growing up. My father claims that we never really fought as little kids, that we always acted like "best buddies."

I think this picture of us from 1962 is hilarious. With our raggedy hoodies and our twin tough-guy scowls, we look like a couple of little thugs here. (What was up with us in this picture?)During our teen years, my big brother and I couldn't have been more different. He attended the local all-boys Catholic high school, and he spent his years there partying more than studying. I attended the rival co-ed Catholic high school across town, and I was a studious rule follower and a bit of a goody-two-shoes (in his eyes especially). He teased me unmercifully. But in spite of our differences, we were always very close. In spite of the teasing, I never doubted that he was in my corner. He could always make me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. He still can.

My big brother is more than just a funny guy, though. He is an upstanding member of his community: hard-working, successful, church-going, and responsible. He is a deeply devoted husband and father. And in a world where so many of us lose touch with those who knew us when (aside from quick Facebook posts), he still counts among his good friends the guys with whom he played junior high basketball.

I don't tell him often enough, but I admire him and really think he's something special.

So a very happy birthday to you, big brother (from your nerdy little sister). And here's wishing you many more!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Money Talks, But Chocolate Sings

I have a little ceramic sign with that saying on it hanging in my kitchen, and I love it. I also have this framed sign, given to me as a gift from one of my sisters-in-law (who knows just what a chocoholic I really am), hanging over the doorway that leads from our kitchen into our man room/sports room/"new" room:I realized after I'd posted my blog yesterday that when I was listing the foods my uber-picky middle son would eat when he was a little boy, I'd forgotten to add the most important item of all: CHOCOLATE!

He's not alone, though, because everyone in this family loves chocolate. My husband, oldest son, and daughter-in-law prefer dark chocolate, while my other four sons and I would choose milk chocolate over dark in a heartbeat. Some of my boys also adore white chocolate (which I'm not even sure is technically chocolate--but we count it). When making desserts for my family, you simply cannot go wrong if you make something that includes chocolate.

One of my favorite desserts to make is a batch of good old Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies, so I often have bags of semi-sweet morsels in the cupboard. I am careful--most of the time, anyway--not to open them up until I'm just about to stir the chips into the cookie batter, though. If the bag is intact, it will be left alone; but an open bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips is fair game around here, and nobody can resist it. Especially son #1--which is kind of funny, because other than this weakness for chocolate, he's one of the healthiest eaters you've ever met. He'll take a bowl of plain yogurt (ewww!), add a little brown sugar to flavor it, and throw in a healthy dose of Grape Nuts cereal to give it some crunch (though my husband insists that's like chewing on gravel). I think his favorite food group is vegetables, whereas my middle son's favorite food group is Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. He eats raw broccoli as a fun snack the way some people eat potato chips. But that boy cannot resist an open package of semi-sweet chocolate chips. If he visits your home, be forewarned: you will have to hide the chocolate chips.

I got creative in my attempts to find ingenious hiding places for them when he was still living under this roof. (It became a kind of game we played.) But it was positively spooky how good he was at sniffing them out, even when I'd found the most bizarre places to stow them away. Once, I'd stashed an opened bag of chocolate chips in a hatbox in the dining room. I had three decorative hatboxes from T.J. Maxx stacked one on top of the other, largest to smallest, and I was using them to store some dishes and linens. My boys almost never went into the dining room, much less noticed my cutesy little storage containers; besides, I'd put the bag in the middle box, not the top one where it would be easy to find. I thought my chocolate chips were safe. But my oldest boy decided to mosey by those hatboxes, and for some unfathomable reason he got the urge to lift the lid of the one in the middle of the stack. He came into the kitchen carrying his prize and wearing a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin on his face. We all had a good laugh over that one. (What made him lift that lid? How did he know that bag would be there? Was he the "Chocolate Whisperer"?)

I'ts my fault, I suppose: I could not resist chocolatey goodness--particularly bite-sized Heath bars--when I was pregnant with him. He can blame his chocoholic tendencies on his chocolate-lovin' mother. As far as my kids' love of chocolate goes, I'll borrow a favorite saying from my dear late father-in-law, himself a Hershey's Kisses devotee: "They didn't get it from the neighbors."

But hey, chocolate sings. And it's the answer.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

For All You Cracker Connoisseurs...

When my middle son, son #3, was a little boy, he was such a picky eater that whenever he asked me what was for dinner, I would hesitate and then mumble, "Um, I don't want to talk about it."

My middle child only liked a handful of food items: Kraft macaroni and cheese, Macdonald's burgers and fries, Spaghettios, Cheerios, and peanut butter sandwiches. (Just peanut butter, hold the jelly--because jelly, you see, is utterly disgusting. It's derived from fruit, after all.)

Wait a minute, he did like chicken; I'll give him that. If we were having chicken for dinner, I was in the clear--as long as it wasn't going to be in a casserole and come into contact with other yucky things, like sauces or gravies or vegetables.

But thank goodness my boy didn't have a peanut allergy, because he pretty much lived on peanut butter growing up. And he really liked it on crackers. Actually, he liked crackers all by their lonesome, too, and became a bit of a cracker connoisseur--and after having his horizons broadened in the kitchens of his many friends, he eventually informed me that Townhouse crackers were infinitely better than Ritz. I'd always bought Ritz, and Ritz only, because I thought that when it came to crackers, that brand was the gold standard, the king of the hill. When I was growing up, we usually only had dry, boring Saltines in the pantry, and buttery-tasting Ritz crackers were saved for special occasions. I thought I was actually spoiling my kids by giving them only Ritz; but if my boy--who liked almost nothing--liked Townhouse crackers better, then by golly, he was going to get Townhouse crackers.

Last fall, when I was visiting my daughter-in-law and the twins at her parents' house out in the Midwest (where she was staying while my oldest son was on deployment), I tasted a brand of cracker that knocked the crown right off my beloved Ritz. My daughter-in-law's mom set out a platter of crackers and cheese, and there was this type of cracker on there that was utterly heavenly-tasting: nice and salty, with a hint of chicken broth baked right into it. Yum! "These are incredible," I said to her. "What are they?" Surprised I'd never had them before, she showed me the box. They were called "Chicken in a Biskit." Right away, I thought of how much my middle son--a fan of both chicken and crackers--would love them. I decided right then and there that the next time he was home, I would have a supply of them on hand.

Well, he was home at Christmas. He noticed the unfamiliar blue box sitting on the Lazy Susan almost immediately, and he gave "Chicken in a Biskit" crackers a try with some Muenster cheese on top. "These are so good!" he said. My husband was there in the kitchen with him and replied, "Yeah, I used to love those when I was a kid." Hold the phone! My son looked at his father as if he'd been purposely cheated out of a lifetime of joy and said, "Are you telling me that they had these when you were a kid, and I've never tasted them before this?"

I started dating my husband when he was a teenage boy, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about him. But I didn't know he'd ever had those amazing crackers, either. Apparently, he's been keeping secrets from all of us.

Oh well, better late than never, I always say. My middle son is not such a picky eater anymore, and he has a fairly wide variety of items on the list of foods he'll eat. He no longer relies on crackers for survival. But when he craves a good cracker, at least now he's no longer in the dark about "Chicken in a Biskit." And his mommy will always add them to her shopping list when she knows he's coming back home!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Decadently Cheesy Mac & Cheese

I've got a great recipe for homemade mac & cheese that I thought I'd share with you. It's Lent, and we Catholics can't eat meat on Fridays; so if you're Catholic (or a vegetarian, or you just really like cheese) and you're looking for a great meatless main dish, this would do the trick. Just add a green salad and you've got yourself a satisfying meal.

I started with a basic recipe from The Joy of Cooking, but put my own spin on it. I thought it was too dry--not nearly cheesy enough!--so I quadrupled the cheese sauce. Then I added some extra butter and other good things. It's definitely not a diet food...but I promise you, it's to die for. If you have a big group to feed--especially a big group of hungry growing boys--it's almost sure to be a hit. I used to make this for my youngest son's high school lacrosse team potluck dinners, and those boys always attacked the casserole dish the minute it was set down on the table.

First step: you'll need 4 c. of cooked elbow macaroni (a 16 oz. box). Drain it and while it's still hot, add about 1/2 stick of butter to coat the noodles. Then throw in 1/2-3/4 c. shredded parmesan cheese. Set aside.

Make the cheese sauce: in a big saucepan (or perhaps a soup pot), melt 8 Tbsp. butter over medium heat, then add 8 Tbsp. of flour. Stir constantly while this mixture begins to bubble, cooking for about 2 minutes (make sure not to let it get brown). Pour in 4 c. of hot milk and continue stirring until the sauce thickens (about another 2 minutes). Remove from heat and throw in about 4 c. of shredded cheese. (You can use cheddar alone, but I use a mixture of cheddar and Monterrey Jack. You can really use any kind you like.) Add some salt and pepper if you wish (I usually do). Stir until you've got a big old pot of creamy, cheesy deliciousness.

Mix up the macaroni and the cheese sauce: put the buttery parmesan macaroni and the decadent cheese sauce together in a big bowl, and mix with a big spoon until all the noodles are well coated; then scoop the mixture out and spread it into a 9 x 13" glass baking dish.

Top it off: first, with a not-too-thick layer of shredded cheese (that's right--more cheese!). In a bowl, mix 1/2 stick of melted butter and one "sleeve" of crushed Ritz crackers; now sprinkle the cracker crumbs over the top of the shredded cheese.

Okay, it's time to cook your decadently cheesy masterpiece. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes, until you can see the cheese sauce bubbling all over the place and there's just a hint of brown crustiness at the edges of the dish.

Optional: add crisp, crumbled bacon or chunks of ham (unless of course you're Catholic and it's a Friday during Lent). Or lobster! Doesn't that sound divine? Someday I'd like to try adding lobster.

To me, this dish actually tastes even better the second time around--as leftovers, heated up in the microwave.

Enjoy, but don't get on a scale for a couple of days afterward.

Bon appetit!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lent, a Season of Hope

Today is the third Sunday of Lent.

The term Lent comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word for springtime, lencten--meaning the lengthening of daylight hours as winter draws to a close and spring begins. Although this word was originally used simply to denote the spring season, it has long been translated as a name for the forty days of fasting and preparation leading up to Easter.

Lent is a time for fasting and prayer; for abstinence and sacrifice; for soul-searching and Reconciliation. It is certainly a time of healing and hope: just as the earth is transformed from winter into spring (with its promise of new life) during the Lenten season, we can also look forward in hope to Easter Sunday and its promise of new life in the Risen Christ.

I've almost succumbed a couple of times--as weak as I am-- to temptation; I've almost given in to the urge to break my Lenten pledge. Those frosty bottles of Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke (strategically placed for impulse buying, in little glass-fronted refrigerators near the check-out areas in just about every store I frequent), sing to me with a siren's song. I'm embarrassed to admit how hard it is for me to walk away from those soda cases empty-handed. It's such a small sacrifice to make; you'd think that it would be a snap to do, in light of what Jesus did for me when He died on the Cross. But such is the human condition, unfortunately.

I'm glad for Lent, and the sacrifices that go with it; without them, I might take the joy of Easter for granted. And because of Easter, there's always hope--even for someone who needs as much work as I do!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

It's Uncanny!

Two days ago, I blogged about some failed attempts at having a couple of children's books published way back in the 80's. Thinking about them again, and breaking out all the illustrations I'd created with such youthful hope, got me in the mood to get everything organized. So I went to Michael's yesterday and bought a big portfolio with protective plastic sleeves. Now all of that old artwork is neatly organized, instead of jammed into deteriorating oversized envelopes and folders. (I love to organize things! From time to time, I even enjoy watching home improvement shows where messy, cluttered-up houses get cleaned up and organized, like TLC's "Clean House.")

Anyway, in my travels I came across the 1982 illustration above, which I planned to use on the cover of a masterpiece (not!) about a little boy with a big imagination. And when I looked at it, I actually gasped a little.

This pen and ink drawing doesn't much resemble any of my five sons (who were only twinkles in their parents' eyes at the time it was rendered); but it looks so much like a five-year-old Pearl family nephew of mine--a cutie who is actually my godson--that it's positively uncanny! It's got his huge eyes, his impish killer smile, and his straight dark hair. If it had his dimples, the resemblance would be complete. I find it amazing that I sketched this thirty years ago, a quarter of a century before this nephew was even born, and it could be him.

Maybe I'm imagining it, though. Does anyone else who knows which nephew I'm talking about--the miniature magician who put on a show for us at Christmas, if that helps--see a resemblance? Is it really that uncanny, or do these old eyes of mine deceive me?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Give Me a (Spring) Break!

My baby boy is coming home tomorrow! Woo hoo! He had thought about taking a trip to some beachy Southern locale with several buddies from his dorm, but then he decided to come home for spring break instead. (And the people rejoiced!)This is a picture of said boy with his mumsie, taken 19 years ago when he was about 3 months old. Isn't he just the cutest little person you've ever seen? He was (still is) such a happy guy. When I look at his beaming face here, I could just about eat him up.

I wasn't supposed to be in this picture with him. When I took my little man into the Wal-Mart photo studio that day to have his picture taken in this adorable "Three Little Kittens" romper, which had been worn by his father many moons earlier, I was not planning a mother-son photo shoot. If I was, I'd have surely tried to make myself more presentable, dontcha think? I believe I had not even showered that day. (You know how it is when there's a baby in the house: daily showers become a sort of hit-or-miss thing for Mom.) My hair was a mess--and by the bye, would somebody please explain to me how I could go out of the house (even to Wal-Mart, which is not exactly a hot spot of high fashion) wearing a red plastic headband? I mean, I was a lot younger then, with months to go before my 35th birthday; but I believe red plastic headbands are meant for females no older than the age of 5.

The headband did match nicely with my bright red, oversized, rather tacky Christmas-themed sweatshirt, however--the one I wore mostly in the privacy of my own home during that Christmas season, when I was 8-9 months pregnant. That's right, 3 months after giving birth, I was still sporting that same baggy, garish top as a cover-up for my belly fat. Little else probably fit me at that time, actually. Unfortunately, I was never one of those gals who got back into her pre-pregnancy jeans by the time her baby was 4 weeks old. (Grrrr...) It always took me 9 months to gain the weight and another 9-12 to lose those last stubborn 5-10 pounds (and sometimes, I was pregnant again before that even happened!).

And can we talk about those ginormous glasses? I've said this before on this blog, but I'm going to say it again: why didn't anyone tell me how ridiculous I looked in those things? I know that huge glasses were all the rage back in the day--but c'mon, give me a break already!

Okay, now that I've picked myself apart, I will admit that I'm glad the Wal-Mart photographer didn't listen to my excuses that long-ago day and proceeded to browbeat me into having my picture taken with my son. I don't really look ready for my close-up, but I do look happy. (Not to mention a lot younger and less wrinkly than I do now.) And now that I'm older and wiser, I've learned just how quickly that sweet, precious time goes when your children are little and helpless and need a mother's care so completely--so any images that capture that fleeting period of my life are special to me. Spending a couple of weeks recently with my oldest son, his wife, and their twin baby daughters, I was reminded of how much I miss sitting with this baby boy (and the 4 who came before him) on my lap; how much I loved cuddling him and burying my face in the soft skin at the back of his neck, breathing in that incomparably wonderful "baby head" smell. Thank God for grandchildren, who give us old folks another go at cuddling and nuzzling babies!

There's nothing--I repeat, nothing--as wonderful as motherhood. Or babies, with their soft skin and great-smelling heads. Or young children who keep you laughing and on your toes. Or sons who've grown from little boys into fine men. Or tiny twin granddaughters, whose heads smell the way their daddy's did.

Or college-aged sons coming back home for spring break.

Forgive me, God, when I complain about unattractive photos of myself in too-big glasses. And thank you, thank you, thank you for the gift of my children and grandchildren!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Gentle Rejections

Yesterday, I admitted that one of the things I love about blogging is that you can push a button and magically see what you've typed up "published" and looking very polished and professional. It got me thinking about the two times--many, many years ago--when I tried to get a couple of children's books published.

I still have a pair of gentle rejection letters (one dated 1982 and the other 1984) from Dodd, Mead, & Co., Inc. in NYC that say:

"Thank you for giving us a chance to consider your material.

We are sorry to say that it does not fit in with our immediate publishing program, but we are nevertheless grateful to you for thinking of us in this regard."

These are form letters in content, but you can tell that they were actually typed up specifically for me--on cream-colored letterhead paper, using one of those Stone Age office tools known as a typewriter--so that my dreams could be squashed in the most personal way possible.

I never did send my manuscripts (and boy, do I use that term loosely here!) out to other publishers after those initial rejections from Dodd, Mead & Co. When I look at them now, I realize why: they just weren't all that good, and I knew at the time that if I was serious, I would have to polish them up quite a bit. (Or perhaps burn them and just start over.) But once I started having babies in rapid succession, I felt my time was better spent reading quality books by published authors to my sons rather than trying to write children's books myself.

One of the manuscripts I submitted for consideration was about a little boy who was a bit of a dreamer, a Walter Mitty type. The point of that one was to encourage kids to use their imaginations. It wasn't a bad idea in theory, but the execution was terrible. The other one was about a little girl who eats so many chocolate chip cookies that she actually becomes one. Yes, that's right: she becomes a human chocolate chip cookie.
Help, indeed.

I wonder why a big Madison Avenue publishing house decided that this gem of an idea didn't fit in with their "immediate publishing program"? Yikes! Just imagining an editor having to take the time out of his busy day to look at my amateur efforts makes me cringe. You can probably guess what the book is about, can't you? The little girl stops eating so many cookies and begins eating lots of healthy fruits and vegetables, and then voila! She's transformed back into a cute little girl, and she lives happily ever after. (So predictable!)

Again, not a bad idea in theory; but the execution left a lot to be desired, as you can see. I should be too embarrassed to show you this illustration, but I thought you could use a good laugh today.

I started two other children's books over the years. One had the working title Shame on Shamus, and it was about a naughty but lovable dog that gets into everything. I used our puppy Shamus, a Black Lab/Golden Retriever mix, as a model for the six acrylic paintings I did as illustrations for the book before the project got shelved. The other was a simple alphabet book. It was going to have three pages of illustrations for every letter--at least, that was the plan. I finished the work for letters A through D about eighteen years ago; but then my youngest son learned how to walk, and somehow I never got around to completeing that project either.

Now that I have the power to self-publish on this blog, perhaps I'll start working on that ABC book again and get it into print, posting one illustration at a time on "String of Pearls." (If I do that, though, I'll have to be ready to read critiques in the "comments" section that might go something like this: "Thanks for giving me a chance to consider your material, but I'm sorry to say that it doesn't fit in with my idea of what constitutes a good children's book...")
One should never give up, though; right? You have to keep on dreaming!...Hey, doesn't that sound like good material for a children's book?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hitting the One Year Milestone

Well, today marks the one year anniversary of my humble little blog, which I created on March 7, 2011 with the encouragement of my wonderful daughter-in-law. My very first post titled "Ready, set, go!" was nothing to write home about (it was very short, without pictures); but at that point, I was just amazed and thrilled that I'd figured out how to get the ball rolling. If you knew how terrible my computer skills are, you'd be amazed, too.

In the past year, "String of Pearls" has amassed an enormous stable of loyal followers--18 in all! Thanks, family!--and I have published 352 posts (counting this one). I've tried to blog daily, but there have been times when I've been on the road, without Internet access and/or my trusty laptop, so I've missed a few days here and there. But because blogging has become such an enjoyable and satisfying activity for me (it's a little bit of brain exercise that makes my day feel complete), a day without blogging seems like a day without sunshine.

Not really, but I do enjoy it.

I don't know why blogging is so much fun, but it is. Most of us former English majors are closet would-be novelists, so there's nothing more empowering than being able to simply push a "Publish Post" button and see a professional-looking piece of writing--something that looks almost like a page from a book or a magazine--appear on the computer screen. I'm living out a fantasy here. But it's more than that. When I started this blog, I had the intention of putting down some family history and family memories in black and white for my children, as well as striving whenever possible to glorify God and the Catholic Faith--thereby using the Internet, so often a vehicle for spreading evil content, for good.

At the beginning, I set out to make my blog very eclectic (sort of like a women's magazine), touching on a variety of areas that interest me: I was going to post recipes and craft project ideas, reviews of books I'd read and movies I'd seen, tidbits about fashion and home decor, information about the lives of the saints and other subjects having to do with the Faith, and humorous or heart-warming family anecdotes. I have not been as eclectic as I'd planned, however; out of the 352 posts I've published so far, 97 can be found under the category of "family." The category that comes in second is "Faith," with 45 blog posts. Aside from the catch-all category "misc.," each of the other specific categories--on a list that includes everything from art to animals, sewing to sports, and travel to T.V. shows--has considerably fewer posts. So if you read this blog much, you know what my two favorite topics are.

And you may be getting sick of hearing about my family!

But I'll never get tired of talking about my handsome, heroic husband, my sweet, sensational sons, my darling, delightful daughter-in-law, and my gorgeous, gladsome granddaughters. (How's that for alliteration? I wasn't an English major for nothin'.) So if I make it through another year of blogging, there will probably be a hundred or so new opportunities for bragging about my peeps, my string of Pearls. Hopefully, though, I can increase the number of posts dedicated to matters pertaining to the Faith. And maybe I should throw in a few more recipes.

I'm going to celebrate this anniversary by attempting to set up my very own Facebook page. I've been sharing one with my husband, under his name--but I think it's about time I get into the social media pipeline like the rest of the known world. (I hope it's not a whole lot harder to get a Facebook account up and running than it was to set up this blog.)

To those of you who've been reading "String of Pearls" during the past year, thanks so much for your support!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Miniature "Coffee Cup Pigs"

Have you ever heard of "teacup pigs," the adorable miniature potbelly pigs that are such a hit with the Brits these days? When I was talking to one of my sons on the phone a week or two ago, he told me about them and I immediately went on-line to check them out. Oh. My. GOODNESS! I don't believe I've ever seen anything cuter in my life. (Scratch that. My twin granddaughters are much cuter. But as far as animals go, they're the cutest.)
When I saw pictures of teacup pigs, my only thought was, "I want one!" I have an obsession with pigs, which has been duly documented on this blog (April 4, 2011: "Oh, For Pigs' Sake!"). I have pig art on my kitchen walls and pig figurines all over the place. I never thought I'd actually want one for a pet, though, until I saw these teeny, tiny oinkers. Wouldn't that be fun to have a teacup-sized little piggy around? Only I would call mine a "coffee cup pig" because despite my English heritage, I am not a huge fan of tea.

Teacup pigs go by a number of names, including miniature pigs, pixie pigs, pocket pigs, potbelly pigs, miniature potbelly pigs, and teacup potbelly pigs. And now, they go by coffee cup pigs, thanks to yours truly.

Most of what I read about teacup pigs made them sound like perfect little pets. Apparently, they're quite affectionate: they like to have their bellies rubbed, just like my sons' dogs Allie and Finny. They're intelligent, too; in fact, their intelligence is thought to rival that of dogs. They're reported to be playful, clean, and easy to maintain. They can be trained to use a litter box in a matter of days and live to be 15-20 years old. Don't they sound divine so far? But the more I researched, the more I realized that having a teacup pig for a pet might be a bit of a pain in the neck at times. I guess these little critters are constantly in search of food and will overeat if allowed (the little pigs!). They use their vaunted intelligence to spend pretty much every waking hour trying to figure out how to get more food. Owners have to pig-proof their homes the way they would child-proof for a 2-year-old, or the little eating machines will get their snouts into everything and wreak havoc. Like all animals, teacup pigs are prone to laziness and aggression if they aren't adequately exercised and socialized. Hmmm...perhaps they wouldn't make the most perfect pets after all...

But they're so cute! And so little! It's their littleness that really gets me.

Regarding their size, here's what else I discovered about these irresistible little critters: teacup pigs don't stay teacup-(or coffee cup-)sized forever. Aww, nuts! I knew they sounded too good to be true. They are potbelly pigs that have been bred to be smaller than normal, but normal is rather large. Your average farmyard pig weighs 600-800 pounds as an adult; a regular-sized potbelly pig is a good bit smaller, and tops out at 120-200 pounds. By 2 or 3 years old, these wee teacup cuties are full-grown and weigh only 30-65 pounds, making them about the size of a cocker spaniel. That's small for a pig, surely; but I wanted a miniature pig--one that would never get bigger than a coffee cup. The piggies in the above picture are newborn, and that's why they're so tiny. I guess that in reality, what I wanted was to own a newborn teacup pig for about a month or two (and do a photo shoot with it sitting in one of my coffee cups), and then give it to some nice farmer to raise. Oh, well...

Along with all the many other good reasons NOT to get a teacup pig, they don't come cheap. I saw one in an English advertisement that was priced at a whopping 1,100 pounds. That's a lot of dollars to shell out for a pet that will probably end up eating you out of house and home. So I suppose I'll just have to be satisfied with looking at adorable pictures of this newest pet sensation on-line, and leave pig ownership to braver souls than I.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Two Thumb's Up for The Help

Recently, I finally got around to reading The Help, the best-selling book that was made into a blockbuster, Oscar-nominated movie in 2011. Kathryn Stockett's novel has been around since 2009, but I hadn't been aware of it before all of the recent buzz generated by its Hollywood adaptation. Had I known how good this book was, I would have read it so much sooner!

A couple of weeks ago, I was down in AL, doing my best to lend a helping hand while my son and his wife were moving into their new home. With twin baby girls to care for, mountains of boxes to unpack, and thousands of sheets of packing paper to compress and dispose of, they needed all the help they could get! During my stay with them, I certainly had no time to read during the day; not with eight-and-a-half-month-old twin granddaughters (who had just decided they'd like to become more mobile, and found a whole new lease on life once Daddy brought home two new walker chairs) on the premises. But I was happy to read to my granddaughters, or feed them, or take them for walks, or sing to them--off-key, but with enthusiasm--throughout the daytime hours. Grammy was thrilled to play the role of "the help" in a home where any work I did was by my own choice, and I knew that I was loved and appreciated.

Once I hit the sack at the end of the day, though, I looked forward to spending a little time each night reading this wonderful book--about a whole different way of life than any I could ever imagine--by talented writer Kathryn Stockett, devouring its compelling prose until my eyelids grew too heavy to go on. There's nothing like having a good book going (don't you agree?), and every night when I began a new chapter, I could hardly wait to see what was going to happen next. The Help somehow manages to be heart-breaking yet funny, poignantly moving yet sharp-witted. For the week that I spent getting through it, a little bit at a time each night, I felt I inhabited the very real world Stockett has skillfully created. I felt I knew her characters; they became real people to me. As USA Today reported, "You can't stop reading until you've devoured the last word. Its characters jump off the page and into your heart."

How true that is! The characters really do come to life in this book. They practically breathe. The NY Times said, "The two principal characters [Aibileen and Minny] leap off the page in all their warm, three-dimensional glory." Entertainment Weekly called The Help "compulsively readable." NY Daily News gave its endorsement of the book, deeming it "a good old-fashioned novel." I have to agree with all of these reviews found on the back cover of the paperback copy I bought. The Help is a good old-fashioned novel. It's a page-turner that makes you care about everyone in it. And it's that rarest of animals: a work of modern fiction that tells a great tale, and even includes a love story, without relying on blush-inducing scenes of sexual intimacy. As Siskel & Ebert used to say when rating movies on their old T.V. show, I give it "two enthusiastic thumb's up."

I don't want to give too much away, but here are a few tidbits. Low-key Aibileen, one of the maids who works for a white family, is thoroughly lovable--and whenever she talks about her relationship with her young charge, Mae Mobley, she gives a perfect description of the unconditional love of a mother for her child. I was very moved by all the scenes between Aibileen and that little girl. Sharp-tongued Minny, another one of the maids, is uncompromising, fearless, and hilarious--and all I can say is that after reading this book, you'll never look at chocolate pie the same way again. Skeeter, the self-deprecating young white woman who sets out to write a tell-all book from the point of view of the help--in the 60's, in Mississippi, meaning this is a move that will make her a pariah with her social set if they ever find out about it--is an extremely likable character, too (not to mention funny and courageous). You'll find yourself pulling for her as she sets out to acccomplish her goal, and holding your breath whenever her secret project is in danger of being exposed.

You'll be on a roller coaster of emotions as you read The Help: you'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll want to cheer out loud. I've never been involved in a book club before; but after reading it, I'm thinking about starting one here on my street, and having this be the first book on our list--just so I can talk about it with others who've enjoyed it as much as I have! Get it. Read it. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

(Oh, and by the way, when I got back from AL, my husband and I watched the movie version on pay-per-view. It was very good. But the book is so much better!)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Counting My Blessings

Sunday is always a good day to count your blessings, and that's what I find myself doing today. On this very date twenty-four years ago, my husband began his career as an airline pilot for a major airline. It's a good job--but not a perfect one (if there is such a thing), because it takes him away from home too much. However, in this day and age, when being employed by the same company over a number of decades is becoming a rarity, he feels lucky to have had job security for so long.

And I feel lucky to have him. We began dating when we were both fifteen, and I knew almost from the start that he was the only one for me. He was my first love, my first serious boyfriend. And thirty-one years ago, we two became one in the Sacrament of Matrimony.

When we got married, my hubby was in Navy flight school. While we were still a couple of bright-eyed newlyweds, he earned his wings and became a Naval Aviator, a pilot of supersonic fighter jets. I tell you, when he put on that green flight still my heart! The word "dashing" doesn't begin to describe it. He was like a real-life action hero. (He was! No chuckling from the peanut gallery; and by the peanut gallery, I mean my sons. Deal with it: your dad is a hero!)

After seven years of marriage and the birth of son #4, my husband decided to get out of the military so that our family could set down roots, and it was then that he began his career as an airline pilot. Twenty-one years ago, we bought a Colonial-style house in New England, which we still own and love, and not long after that, we welcomed son #5 to our brood. While our boys were growing up, my husband was always a loving, hands-on, involved dad (not to mention their Pee Wee football coach, their youth lacrosse coach, and their high school lacrosse coach). He had to be gone for a few days at a time for his airline job; but when he was with us, he was there 100%--for the boys and for me.

This heroic husband of mine has always supported and encouraged me in everything I do, and he looks beyond my many faults and sees only good things. He makes me feel safe, cherished, and loved more than I deserve to be loved. He makes me laugh. He truly does treat me like a queen, and he's taught his sons to treat me with the same respect. (From the time they were sprouts, they knew they'd better--or Heaven help them!) Because of his fine example, I now have grown sons who are so sweet in their dealings with me that sometimes, just thinking about the five of them reduces me to tears.

Yes, I am inordinately blessed. God has been so good to me, and I thank Him profusely. I thank Him most for giving me the man in the picture above, because all of my earthly happiness begins and ends with that handsome pilot. [Sigh] He's my hero.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Battling Aviophobia

Isn't this shrine to Our Blessed Mother magnificent?! My husband and I went to see it last Sunday afternoon on our way back from the airport in Boston (the day after our "date night" in Atlanta, when my husband flew down to meet me because I got stuck there as I was making my way back home from our oldest son's home in AL).

For the past 21 years, every time we've driven to or from the airport, we've passed a huge billboard sign that reads: "ON THIS HISTORICAL SITE, 35 FT. STATUE, Madonna Queen, National Shrine, TURN NEXT RIGHT."

I can't count the number of times I've said to my husband, "I wonder what that's all about. I really want to see that statue someday." But usually, we're in a hurry to get where we're going, so we'll decide to do it another time. Well, that time finally came last Sunday...and I have to tell you, it was spectacular. The above photo doesn't begin to do it justice; you have to see it in person to get the full effect. This gigantic floating image of Mary the Queen of Heaven is framed by bricks and "crowned" in gold, and it sits on a hill that overlooks the city. It's enormous and beautiful and absolutely awe-inspiring. Hard to describe, really. So if you're ever in the vicinity of East Boston, MA, you should check it out.

I thought I was going to be passing that big blue and white sign once again this morning, because I had decided to accompany my husband on a three-day trip to Amsterdam. I'd rather avoid flying at all costs; but now that our kids are grown and out of the house, I want to spend as much time with my guy as I can. Since he has to live so much of his life out of a suitcase--and has done so throughout his long airline career, sacrificing all that time away from home to provide for his sons and me--I'm trying to learn to become a frequent flier. (You know, for the team.) I'm sure that most people would think I was a complete fool if I hesitated for even a minute to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Amsterdam. However, I was feeling a little nervous about today's flight; I even thought about coming up with excuses for why I shouldn't go. I'm sure if I tried hard enough, I could come up with a plethora of plausible excuses.

Part of me was excited about the trip. Even though I'd just accompanied my husband to Amsterdam back in late January, I was looking forward to the royal treatment in business class on the way over (because that's how I roll, people), and to attending a Latin High Mass with him tomorrow at a Catholic church near the crew hotel. I was also looking forward to another top-notch Italian dinner tomorrow night at San Remo's--and checking in on the restaurant's cat-in-residence (the one I wrote about in a blog post on February 2, 2012). My husband has been to Amsterdam since our trip together, and he says our little feline dinner companion is still prowling the San Remo's dining room.

Yet part of me, as always, was getting the jitters. (Remember that scene from the slapstick comedy "Airplane," where the plane is going down, and the passengers are watching a movie showing a plane crashing and bursting into flames? That's the very movie that was playing in my head last night.)

I guess you could say I dodged a bullet, though; my husband woke up feeling under the weather this morning and had to call in sick for this trip. I'm a bit relieved, because I'd rather spend time with him--nursing him, if necessary--right here in our house...on the ground, where we belong. But I'm also surprised to find myself feeling slightly bummed out that I won't be going to Amsterdam today. Do you suppose that means I'm beginning to conquer my aviophobia?

I'm going to keep battling it, that's for sure. And every time we drive past that billboard on the way to the airport, I'm going to remember this beautiful shrine with the 35 ft. Madonna Queen statue. And it will remind me to pray to Mother Mary, asking Her to give me faith and courage when I travel by plane.