Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Surviving the Tweener Years

Jack celebrating his 12th birthday this summer.
Hmmm.  Maybe instead of "The Year of Allison" I should call this period of my life "Surviving the Tweener Years."  I'm heading into uncharted territory with Jack.  At 12, he is growing up.  He's lost his last baby tooth and is no longer ordering off the children's menus. He's old enough that he doesn't want a babysitter, but too young to make good decisions on a consistent basis.  (Just last week he asked for matches so he and his buddies could build a fire in the front yard.  They were genuinely shocked to find out that, in my opinion, this was not a brilliant plan.)  Although he shows signs of maturity, he's still far from adulthood. 

Today was the first day of middle school orientation.  Jack prepared for his first impression of 7th grade with, it seems to me, an entire can of Axe Deodorant Body Spray.  While Jack seems ready, I'm the one who is nervous.  What do I do when he comes out for breakfast surrounded by a cloud of cologne?  Gasp for air?  Tell him to only use half the can next time?

What about the band aid covering the scab on the bridge of his nose?  Will other 7th graders think that is cool or dorky?  And is it really better to have a messy locker like the other boys or should I shell out the $25 for the middle school fundraiser and purchase a locker organizer?

If Jack isn't apprehensive about any of this, I certainly don't want to impose my awkward middle school memories on him.  I just want to be prepared.  New school, new schedules, new changes to a growing body--there's bound to be some angst on my horizon.  One minute he's my sweet child who still wants to snuggle and read next to me.  The next minute he's pushing the limits of independence by refusing to practice his guitar.  

I know there's no parent handbook for surviving the teenage years.  I pray I can be patient more often than not.  I hope I can maintain a sense of perspective.  I want to keep my sense of humor.  And when all else fails, I know there's wine in the pantry!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lessons From Ireland

Having a grand time in Ireland.
To summarize: Ireland was an amazing experience.  Or, as the Irish would say, "grand."  I took a little zanax to help me relax on the plane and I felt like it lasted all week.  Or maybe it was the Guinness.  Really, I think it was all of Ireland--the beautiful views, the interesting history, the friendly people.  We had a lot of fun and learned a lot too.  I'll tell you a little about our trip, along with some of the lessons we learned along the way.

Aillwee Cave
In Ireland, drive very carefully.  Oh, everyone tells you to drive on the left.  On the highways it is pretty easy and the roundabouts were a fun alternative to traffic lights.  It's the smaller roads that are tricky.  They are about as narrow as a sidewalk and have no shoulder--instead being flanked by limestone walls or large shrubbery so you can't see what's coming.  Then the speed limit is 100km.  I don't have a picture of the roads because I was too busy holding on to the car and pressing my imaginary brake a lot.  Our first day there, Paul sideswiped a lot of shubbery, drove up on a curb and knocked our side view mirror in with a telephone pole.  In Paul's defense, he was doing a much better job than I would have been, especially with no sleep after the plane ride. 

Pulnabrone Portal Tomb

Our first day we went to The Burren, and all the driving was worth it.  Burren is from the Gaelic word meaning "stony place" as you can see here.  We toured a cave there, hiked around the limestone fields and stopped to check out various relics, such as an ancient tomb believed to be over 4500 years old.

Limestone in The Burren

Paul at Bunratty Castle

Day two was rainy so we stayed in Bunratty to tour the castle and visit their folk park.  Although it was cold and wet, all the little houses and cottages around the castle had fires burning.  Jack spent a lot of time adding peet for fuel and tending the fires.  When we were hungry, we stopped in a pub for some lunch.  We walk in and wait to be seated.  As we are standing there, I can overhear the couple at the table nearby talking.

"Why are tose people just standing tere, do ye tink?
"Ah, tey must be Americans, ye see."
"Why, how would ye go on knowin' a ting like dat?"
"In America, tey need de invitation to sit down."
"What a strange custom!"

Window in Bunratty Castle
So our next lesson: In Ireland, there are no hostesses at the pubs.  There are, however, great stews...if you like lamb.  We never had a problem finding a place to eat or good food to eat. The kids ate lots of chips (french fries) but were dismayed to find out that Irish ketchup tastes funny.  Once we were in a pub and they had little packets of Heinz on the table.  One by one, that ketchup was transferred to Jack's pockets to be used in future meals.

Over the next few days, we had lots of adventures.  We took a ferry to the smallest of the three Aran Island and spent the day hiking and playing on the beach there.  
At the beach on the Aran Islands 
We saw the Cliffs of Moher and attended a Traditional Irish Night full of storytelling, dancing and music.

Cliffs Of Moher

It wasn't until day 5 of our trip that we hit a major snag.  We were travelling to the Dingle Peninsula for the day.  Since it is a 2.5 hour drive to get there, we decided to spend the night at a B&B.  The arrangements were made and confirmed with a lovely woman named Veronica Houlihan.  We took our time getting there, stopping along the peninsula to enjoy the views and play on the beach.  When we finally arrived late afternoon, there was no answer.  We tried to contact her with no success.  Finally we decided to ask the shopkeeper next door if he knew her.  "Oh, yes, I know Veronica Houlihan.  A shame about her husband's brother, isn't it now.  And the funeral's today."  

Any idea how long an Irish funeral lasts?  Neither do we.  We wandered around town a bit.  Still not home.  We ate dinner in a pub.  Still not home.  We ate ice cream at Murphy's.  Still not home.  We played  cards.  Finally, we decided we needed to try Plan B.  We started driving along the road looking for B&Bs with vacancy signs.  When we found one, I would run up to see if they could accomodate the 4 of us.  Three more times we struck out.  Paul was starting to think about having to drive back to Bunratty.  Katherine started to cry.  "Give me one more chance," I pleaded.  We stopped again.  The woman answered the door.  I told her my story.  "Come in," she said.  "In Ireland, you can always find a bed."  We had a great night's sleep and a full Irish breakfast in the morning. And that became one of our lessons: In Ireland, you can always find a bed.

Dunbeg Fort in Dingle

I'm glad we stayed in Dingle because we had more time to see everything in the morning.  We saw some ancient stone forts, potato famine cottages, farms, the Blasket Islands (great visitor's center), amazing beaches surrounded by sheer cliffs, pottery studios (the kids got to try using a potter's wheel) and lots and lots of sheep.  The kids loved all the farm animals.  They were so used to people feeding them, they would try to eat your sleeves if you came empty handed.  That's why Katherine decided one of our lessons should be, In Ireland, the horses eat your raincoat.  Dingle was beautiful.  But it was time to move on.  We only had one day left in Ireland and we still wanted to go to Killarney.  Killarney has a beautiful National Park.  We hiked around, toured Ross Castle and Muckross House.  And, knowing it was our last day, we started talking about places to go next time, when we return to Ireland.  Our last lesson: In Ireland, you are always welcome.

Fáilte  (Welcome)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Happy Songs

Look at the sky, baby,
What do you see?
Looks like the tears that I cry
Falling down, like rain on the ground
Every time you say goodbye.

A rainstorm earlier in the day cooled temperatures a bit and now the sky is clear.  Paul and I are sitting on a blanket on a grassy hill eating (what else?) tomato sandwiches and sipping vodka tonics.  We have come to Wolf Trap to see one of my favorite musicians--Alison Krauss and Union Station. 

Alison Krauss is an amazing fiddle player and her voice sounds like melted butter if butter could harmonize.  In my opinion, finer bluegrass is hard to find.  Simply put, her music makes me happy.   That's why I have her song "Everytime You Say Goodbye" on my Happy Songs list. 

Do you have a happy songs list?  I highly recommend it.  I keep one on my ipod.  There's not a strict science to collecting the songs.  If I hear a song that makes me happy, onto the list it goes.  Then, I can use the songs to improve my mood when I need a boost.  It's no secret that music can be powerful.  Did you know that people use music as a form of therapy for chronic pain, neurological disorders and depression?  If you want to know more about music therapists, check out the Music Therapists Association's website:  One of my favorite quotes is from Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev):  "Simply put, music can heal people."

My songs range from pop (Maybe Katie--Bare Naked Ladies) to country (Forever and For Always--Shania Twain), from classical (Vivaldi's Autumn Concerto in F Major) to classic (Glory Days-Bruce Springsteen).  There are songs that remind me of happy memories and songs that make me dance around the kitchen when I'm cooking dinner.  There are originals (It Hurts Me Too-Keb' Mo') and covers (Just Like Heaven-Katie Melua).   Sometimes I add new selections and remove others.

I'm not going to list them all because the point is: these are my happy songs.  Go get your own songs.  Songs that make you happy.  What's on your Happy Song List today?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Too Many Tomatoes

I am, by no means, a "master" gardener.  "Lazy" gardener is more like it.  Well, I'm being too hard on myself.  Probably the most accurate description is "laissez-faire" gardener.  Once I plant, I tend to leave my garden alone and see what happens.

Tomatoes is what happened.  I am picking them by the basketful.  They are so prolific, they have managed to escape the confines of their cages and have overrun the tiny space once designated for peppers, cucumbers and carrots. 

This year, I chose four different types of tomatoes.  The biggest is called Brandywine.  It is a large beefsteak tomato with a pinkish hue.  It is my go-to tomato slicing on sandwiches.  It's my trickiest variety this year as it seems prone to cracking along the top and side and the leaves turned brown pretty early.  Next, the Better Boy.  This is a hybrid variety and less prone to disease.  It has been a stable producer for me and another good sandwich tomato.   Third, I chose a saladette tomato called Juliet.  It is oblong and easy to cut up for salads or a sauce.  Last, my favorite--a cherry tomato called Sweet 100.  It is amazingly productive and aptly named.  I pop those suckers in my mouth like candy.  Mmmm. 

Brandywine, Better Boy, Juliet and Sweet 100

I am in tomato heaven.  BLTs for lunch, salads sprinkled with warm cherry tomatoes for dinner.  I'm happy to share my bounty with my non-gardening friends.  I make fresh pasta sauce, tomato marmalade and enchilada sauce.  And still, I have quite the surplus.  I find a very easy way to make a rustic tomato sauce.  Basically, I just puree the cleaned, chopped tomatoes (seeds, skin and all) in a food processor in batches.  Then I put the tomato pulp on the stove and simmer on low for the afternoon until the liquid is reduced by half.  I've made several batches of this to freeze for future recipes.

In a few weeks, the tomato harvest will slow down as the weather cools.  Just when I think I'll be out of the kitchen, I look out my window.  Uh oh.  The plums are getting ripe.