Friday, December 23, 2016

Confessions of a Christmas Tree Nut---The Sequel

(Too much still to do, too little time, so I'm re-posting this six-year-old essay about my Christmas trees.  It  still applies--I've got those four trees up now.   But this year I expanded my tree collection, adding two more trees, just as I threatened in the original post.  In the living room, near the large real tree, is a small white one with some of the handmade ornaments I bought in Mexico and India.  And in the family room, a small green tree has appeared decorated with the forest creatures I've collected, mostly made out of twigs and straw and wood.  I couldn't resist giving them a tree of their own.  And I keep thinking of new tree themes for next year.  As for the Christmas cards,they're all going to be late this year.  That's why I call them "Holiday cards" and figure if I get them out before January 1, they still count.)



Right now I should be addressing Christmas cards but I'm in the grip of my seasonal craziness which involves decorating...lots...of...trees.  Each with a theme.  In every room. Well, not EVERY room because my husband has started to crack down on that--especially in his office, despite the lovely all white (sprayed snow and icicles and pine cones) tree I did one year.  It shed.

Above is the Woodland Creatures tree, made up mostly of ornaments I got from Pier One (all at least 30 per cent off, because it's the last minute.) I just couldn't resist these rustic little animals and birds made mostly of twigs and straw and natural products.(The star on top is a tiny starfish.)  The gold stars seem to be made of twigs--I cut apart a Pier One garland to get them. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

And here below is the little white tree I decorated with my hammered, painted tin ornaments  from Mexico and the lacquer-on-wood (I think) ornaments from India.

The Mexican tin ornaments are wonderfully crude and folk-y and the Indian ones are so  carefully detailed and elegant, so each country really should each have its own tree.

There's even a Mexican nativity scene of tin.  I love the clay angel at upper left sucking its toe.  And I love the Indian sets of three camels and three elephants.

At Thanksgiving 2015, with the help of kids and guests at the tree-trimming open house on Saturday night before Nicolas's baptism, we decorated the four trees that I always have. And here they are (in photos from 2010, but they look much the same in 2015).

The Real Tree goes in the living room.    I usually pick a color scheme, and this year went with silver and white, with the only color coming from some crazy peacock ornaments I got from Pier One.

With the peacocks, I also used lots of white butterflies (from the Dollar Store) and white birds and angel wings, so I guess the theme of the wonderful-smelling Real Tree this year would be wings.

In the dining room I always put a wire tree to show off my antique ornaments.  And I put a wire from the tree to the window latch so that it (hopefully) can't get knocked over.  You can see that we don't have much snow in Massachusetts, unlike Minnesota, but we will soon.


Some of these ornaments are reproductions, but most are the real thing.  My grandmother had a whole tree decorated with blown-glass birds with those spun glass tails and often a metal clip to hold it on the tree.  I really love the fragile teapots once sold at every Woolworth's for pennies. They cost a lot more now.  The blown-glass ornaments usually say "West Germany" on the metal cap.  The  glass ornaments that were once screw-in light bulbs were made in Japan between 1930 and 1950 and are a lot less likely to break.


In the library I always put my Shoe Tree, which started when the Metropolitan Museum in New York first started selling ornaments based on shoes in their collections.  
This became a kind of mania and now I can't afford to buy the newest ones from the Museum, but I've added lots of cunning real (baby-sized) shoes, and people keep giving me more.  My favorites on this tree are the Chinese baby shoes that look like cats and the fur-lined baby moccasins and the tiny Adidas sneakers. 

On the porch I've put the  Kitchen Tree, or Cookie and Candy Tree.  This was inspired by some friends who live in a tiny apartment and decorate their tree only with cookies and candy and pretzels and candy canes.  Then, when Christmas is over, they put it all outside for the birds and other New York fauna to enjoy.

As you can see, I've cheated quite a bit--adding ornaments that look like kitchen utensils and non-edible gingerbread men and peppermints.  An authentic Kitchen Tree should have chains of real popcorn and cranberries (which we did back when I had children small enough to enjoy stringing them.)

Last year  Trader Joe's sold little gingerbread men with holes already punched in their heads so I could string them on the tree, but this year the gingerbread men are frosted but the holes are missing, so I just  stabbed them with the wire hooks and it worked fine (and any that broke, I ate, of course. They taste better frosted.)
That's four trees so far (six in 2015!)-- and I haven't  shown you my Santa Claus collection and the miniature town in the bay window in the kitchen and the many creche scenes we have from around the world....But let's face it, I have to get back to those Christmas cards.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Thinking About Angels and Lost Loved Ones at Christmas

This can be the saddest time of the year for anyone who has lost a loved one during the holiday season.  Last Christmas, a friend of mine whom I've known since grade school lost her  husband the day after Christmas and, a few days later, her son died.  She handled this unimaginable tragedy with incredible courage and grace.  This Thanksgiving I received from her a  printed card that had on the front a quotation from Epictetus: "He is a wise man/Who does not grieve/For the things which he has not,/But rejoices for those which he has."
         Inside was printed a message which said in part: "Dear friends, I want to wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving.  I have decided that it means more to me to recognize thankfulness and gratitude than to write Christmas cards...I believe I have successfully (well almost) focused on how lucky I have been, what beautiful memories I have, and how fortunate I am to have such very good friends...Here's to looking forward."
       Ann's incredible strength reminded me of a blog post that I wrote five years ago under the title "A Christmas Eve Thought About Angels" which I am repeating below.  The relative whom  I took for therapy at Dana Farber, was my sister-in-law Glykeria (Lillian). She died in 2012 and her son Spyro died unexpectedly a year later.   I suspect that Lillian is now busy in heaven preparing the traditional Greek  Christmas Melomacarino for her son.

Yesterday at the supermarket I bought a Hallmark book called “Angels Everywhere, Miracles and Messages” by Lynn Valentine.  I paged through it last night before wrapping it as a gift.  I’ve always had an interest in angels—especially folk-art renditions of them-- and  so have carved and painted images of them all over the house, especially at Christmas time.



The book was a collection of various people’s experiences with what they perceived to be an angel because,  at a critical moment when they asked for help from God,  a mysterious stranger appeared  and then, after saving them or giving them a message of  encouragement and hope, he or she suddenly disappeared without any explanation.

The author included, in between these “as-told-to” stories, quotations from various sources about angels.  When I read the first one, from Hebrews 13.2, I suddenly remembered the verse, but reflected that it sounds so much better in the King James Version of the Bible (from which I memorized passages every week for Sunday School) than it does in the Revised Standard Version (which came out in 1952.)

(This is also true about the Christmas story-- in St. Luke, Chapter 2-- which I memorized for a church pageant when I was very small.  Now I recite the King James Version to my long-suffering family every Christmas after we see the children’s pageant at St. Spyridon Cathedral, as we will tonight.)

The passage in Hebrews 13.2 about angels goes like this:  “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Earlier this week I went with a relative who has lymphoma to the Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston.  We sat in the huge, crowded adult reception room for hours, waiting for her name to be called.  While there, I was moved by the poignancy of all these people, who were clearly so ill, having to suffer during Christmas week with their disease as they were battling to survive to another Christmas.

A young teenage Asian girl sat in front of me, wearing a red knit cap to hide her bald head.  She had brought her father, who didn’t know any English.  Then a doctor came out and evidently told her that her blood count was too low to give her chemo today—maybe she could come back on Thursday?  She introduced her father to the doctor and the dad fervently shook the hand of this man whom he hoped would save his child. 

Then two attractive brunette sisters took their places in front of me.  I assumed they were sisters because they looked so much alike, even though one of them had a mask over her face. Throughout the reception room were people with oxygen tubes, wheel chairs, canes, surgical masks, bandanas and caps in place of hair

But each one of these cancer patients had a caregiver with them. 

When we first arrived, a man in his sixties, with his wife beside him, told the receptionist  “I’m here to check in for three weeks because I’m having a bone marrow transplant.” I winced at the thought of having to spend Christmas and the next two weeks sealed in a sanitized, isolated room where no one could visit you, because of your compromised immune system.

Today, wrapping the last of our gifts and preparing for all the traditions that we enjoy with our children every year—made even better because our newlywed daughter is introducing her husband to our family’s Christmas customs—I reflected that, even if you have the world’s best gifts and tree and food, there’s no joy in it if you don’t have someone there to share it with you.  That’s why Christmas can be the saddest time of year for those missing the person who used to share the holiday with them.

A week ago I dropped off gifts for a family referred to me by Pernet Family Health Services-- something my friends and I do every year.  Pernet gives us a wish list made out by the parents.  These families are so poor that they can’t afford winter clothing or toys.  But at least they have each other at the holidays.

Every one of us, if we stop and think, can come up with an acquaintance who might be about to spend the holiday alone… someone who has lost a spouse through death or divorce, or maybe a single parent whose children have grown up and moved away, or even a pet owner who is grieving the loss of a beloved cat or dog. 

Among people I know, there’s a woman who recently lost her husband of 50 years, and a beloved teacher from high school who may also be alone now that she is retired and a widow.   I also know a foreign student stuck in snowy Boston who can’t afford to go home to her own country.  Foreign grad students are often stranded over the holidays with no place to go.

A telephone call or an invitation to dinner or just  dropping by with some homemade treat would probably be a better gift than the expensive toys and winter clothing I dropped off at Pernet last week.  Sharing the joy of the season with someone who’s alone might be not only the cheapest, but also the most meaningful gift we could give right now.  And our friend or acquaintance might remember that call or visit and think, as the scripture put it, that they had entertained an angel unaware.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Worst Taste Christmas Decorations Ever?

 Today we awoke to discover a winter wonderland outside and the cars blanketed in snow.  It's past time to assemble the lighted deer for the front yard.  At least the candles are in every window and the main Christmas tree is up and decorated in the living room, thanks to the kids and grand-kids who did it on the day after Thanksgiving.  I still want to put up my "shoe tree" in the library; the cookies, candy and kitchen-stuff tree on the porch, and the antique ornaments tree in the dining room.  Last year I also had a tree with Mexican tin ornaments and lacquered ornaments from India, but I'll skip it this year because it would never survive the attacks from two toddlers coming for Christmas.  But I'm contemplating a "forest creatures" display on the mantle over the fireplace.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I'm re-posting the article below from five years ago.  And when the snow stops I'll drive over to see whether the peeing Santa is atop this house yet again. I'm constantly amazed at what people do to decorate during the holiday season.


The first time I drove by the decorations on the roof of this house in Shrewsbury, MA, I thought--"Nahh!  That's not what I thought it is."  The next time I drove by, I took a good look and realized it WAS!  Santa peeing a lighted stream across the roof into a puddle of lights.
I went back in the daytime to make sure--but without the lights, I'll bet no one noticed anything odd about this Santa standing next to a chimney.
I just read last week that a homeowner in nearby Westborough MA., who got carried away with filling his front yard with lights, was receiving warning letters from an anonymous neighbor who threatened to tear down the display if he didn't winnow it out to make it more "tasteful."  But at least the guy in Westborough didn't have Santa peeing on his front lawn!

Meanwhile, daughter Eleni, who's spending Christmas with her husband Emilio in his native Nicaragua, says that touring the  Christmas displays in Managua means going from one creche scene to another.  She's got photos of the Nacimientos on her latest blog post "Away, In A Manger."  Every home has a Nativity scene, I gather, and in public spaces the figures are life-sized.  But the Christ Child, which is the centerpiece of the scene, cannot be placed in the manger until Christmas day, when he is born.  Before he's placed in the manger, the children touch the Christ Child for a blessing.

Here in Worcester, MA and its suburbs, there are a lot of giant inflatable Santas and Snowmen in front yards, but there is nary a Christ Child or manger scene around.  I think I read that it is now illegal to have a representation of the Nativity in a public place.

But I'll bet there are no laws on the books in Massachusetts against having a peeing Santa on your roof.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Behind the Scenes at Trump's Mar-A-Lago

Since the President-Elect and his family are spending their  Thanksgiving holiday at Trump's Florida estate of  Mar-a-Lago,  I thought I'd repost a photo essay from my blog of April 4, 2011 to give an inside view of just how over-the-top the place is, not to mention re-showing the portrait found inside that shows The Donald just as he imagines himself to be.

Palm Beach, I’ve noticed, is like Disney World for grown-ups—everything is bigger, better, cleaner, fancier (and more expensive) than in the real world. 
The latest example came yesterday (Sunday) when we were invited to lunch at the Mar-a-Logo Club by a friend who is a member.  (The cost, I’m told, is $150,000 initiation fee and $75,000 each year after that.)
I didn’t even know that Donald Trump had turned his palatial (think Versailles) private home into a private club in April of 1995.  His presence is still everywhere—from the plaque at the door to the name and crest on the paper hand towels (I stole one) in the gold-encrusted bathrooms and on the welcome mat, to a portrait that is apparently meant to portray The Donald at a younger age in sports clothes.


Everywhere you turn there are golden cherubs, marble statues, parrot and monkey motifs and antique Spanish tiles.  Flowers? Chandeliers? Fountains? Swimming pools? Don’t ask.

 The Mar-a-Lago Estate was built to the specifications of Marjorie Merriweather Post (then Mrs. E. F. Hutton)and completed in 1927. (The name is Latin for “Sea-to-Lake”—it has water views both front and back.)  Three boatloads of Dorian stone were brought from Genoa, Italy. There were 114 rooms in the original villa.  According to a “short history” of the place, “It was Mrs. Post’s plan to bring together many Old -World Features of the Spanish, Venetian and Portuguese styles.”
In January of 1969 the estate was named a “National Historic Site”.  After Mrs. Post died in 1973, she left the place to the federal government for use as a diplomatic/presidential retreat.  It was pretty costly to maintain--so in 1985, it was sold to Donald Trump who used it as a private residence for ten years  (and married his third wife, Melania, there in 2005).  Even his first wife, Ivana, used it for her ill-starred wedding to an Italian 24 years her junior in 2008. 
In April of 1995, it became the Mar-a-Lago Club.

According to the “brief history” available at the desk, Trump has “since built a magnificent swimming pool, an award-winning beauty salon, a world-class spa, one grass and five red-clay championship tennis courts and a remarkable croquet court.…Completed in 2005 is the all-new Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom—the interior is in a Louis XIV  gold and crystal finish that is one of the finest spaces of its kind in the country.”

We joined our friends for lunch in the outdoor patio (where I ordered lobster quesadillas) and they told us that Jennifer Hudson was on the premises, resting after her recent performance on American Idol, and Joan Rivers had just checked out.
With the Trump name plastered everywhere, it sort of seemed natural that The Donald himself breezed in as we were eating. Wearing a baseball hat and casual clothes, he greeted the several tables of diners, making sure everyone was happy.  I asked about the décor, having been stymied by the mix of Spanish tiles and the Arabic-looking plasterwork.  Was it Moroccan? I asked and he agreed—Moroccan it was!  (At that point neither he nor I had read in the “brief history” that it’s actually “Spanish, Venetian, and Portuguese” all mixed together into a decadent , dazzling, over-the-top mish-mash that would send Mad King Ludwig into a jealous funk. There popped into my memory a French phrase which doesn’t really have an English equivalent.  It was all a bit “de trop.”)

Later in the afternoon we saw Trump depart, along with Melania and her parents, their young son and an older girl who was evidently Tiffany, the daughter he had with second wife Marla Maples.
Throughout the estate, which we explored post-lunch, poking into rooms and peeking behind doors, we kept encountering antique tiles with a Latin motto: “Plus Ultra”, which translates as “Beyond the Ultimate.” This is Mar-a-Lago’s slogan.  As we left, past the gilded cupids and the large brass lions at the gate , I was reminded of another ancient classical slogan carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:   “Midhen Agan”—“Nothing in excess”. 


Monday, November 21, 2016

More Thanksgiving Shortcuts from a Lazy Grandma

--> It's time to post my yearly essay about Thanksgiving shortcuts from a lazy cook (me). It changes slightly every year as I find more ways to cut down my holiday hysteria with even more shortcuts.  For example, this year I got our turkey from Trader Joe's because it 's already brined as well as "all natural, no antibiotics,  fresh" and  the turkeys "roam free...and they're fed an all vegetarian diet."  And they're very reasonably priced!   


I'm starting my annual baking tonight before the kids and grandkids arrive on Wednesday and on Thursday we'll sit down to a Thanksgiving table set for 12, including five-year-old granddaughter Amalia and 18-month-old grandson Nicolas.  Last year  Amalia made me promise that we'd bake an "orange pie" together, which I took to mean a pumpkin pie, and she decorated the top with a ring of candy corn left over from Halloween.  The pies pictured above are from a Thanksgiving several years ago, in the days when I would make three pies and a pumpkin roll every year. 
 
Every Thanksgiving I'd try a different apple pie recipe in the hopes of finding the prize-winning pie that will bring tears (of joy, not sorrow)  to my family’s eyes.  This year I'm only baking the Chocolate Kahlua pie (at right above) which has become a tradition that the family insists upon.  I'm ordering a pecan pie and an "Apple Croquante" from a wonderful  bakery that popped up next to my hairdresser's in Westborough, MA.  It's called "Yummy Mummy Bakery" and has addictively delicious brownies all year round.  By popular demand, I'm substituting for the old faithful pumpkin pie (which nobody ever finished) some incredibly delicious Melt-In-Your-Mouth Pumpkin Cookies which I made last Christmas and then had to make again after Christmas.

For 46 years I’ve been streamlining Thanksgiving cooking  because I’m lazy, and my Greek relatives still don’t realize that my special cornbread stuffing comes out of a package (slightly doctored up.)  They spend days making their Greek stuffing, which includes chestnuts, hamburger and a lot of other good things.  Amalia's honorary Grandma, "Yiayia" Eleni Nikolaides, will be making it for our table this year.  Of course everyone prefers the Greek stuffing, but I still make my cornbread stuffing, because it’s “tradition.”   Another tradition is everyone competing for the honor of wearing the Turkey hat, which Nicos won last year.  He's next to "Yiayia" Eleni Nikolaides.





Amalia wore her turkey dress to the Thanksgiving show at her school last year

 Nowadays magazines and ads on TV make much of the young wife and mother terrified by the complexities of roasting a turkey and serving Thanksgiving dinner to a crowd. I think the whole thing has been vastly over-complicated by the media. So I’m going to share my sneaky shortcuts for a super-easy Thanksgiving.

The Turkey—don’t stuff it! A turkey roasted with the stuffing inside takes much longer and then you have all those risks of food poisoning if you leave the turkey and stuffing unrefrigerated long after taking it out of the oven. Stuffing baked in the turkey comes out soggy. I prepare my stuffing on top of the stove.The directions are on the back of the Pepperidge Farm Corn Bread Stuffing package—Melt 6 TBSP butter in a saucepan, add a cup of chopped celery and a cup of chopped onions, cook for 3 minutes. (Then I throw in sliced mushrooms and maybe this year chopped apples and cook some more. You could also add chopped chestnuts or pecans and crumbled bacon or sausage.) When everything is softened, you throw in 2 1/2 cups water or broth  and add the stuffing mix, stir and you’re all done.

As for the turkey—I always get a fresh turkey, even though it costs more, so as not to have to defrost it for days and then find it still frozen on Thanksgiving morn.  Last year I got mine from a nearby Wegman's and bought the organic kind, which cost five times as much as the non-organic kind, but I justified the expense to myself and a sticker-shocked husband by saying the turkey was free range, had a happy childhood, and was never injected with hormones. (This year I got the already brined free-range turkey described above from Trader Joe's.) When I put it in the oven, I'll cut an onion and a couple oranges in half and put them in the cavity first.  For the last 15 minutes I'll baste it with an Apple-cider glaze from an old Martha Stewart Living.  (Do you remember the Thanksgiving when Martha recommended deep-frying your turkey and many faithful readers risked life and limb trying?  This year she recommends starting the turkey upside-down, nestled on slices of bread on a v-shaped rack for 45 minutes, but I'm certain that, when it came time to turn it over, I'd drop it. So I'll stick with a turkey cooking breast-side up, but with an aluminum foil tent  on it after it's nicely browned.  Tradition! (Don’t forget, the turkey needs to sit for a half hour to soak up the juices.  But without stuffing, it cooks a lot faster, so I won't have to get up before sunrise to start it.)

Green Bean Casserole and Candied Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows: I don’t make them. I came to realize that nobody eats them. What I do make is: Parmesan Potato Casserole which is mashed potatoes in a casserole dish with a lot of butter and cheese, cream and eggs stirred in and then you bake it with some cheese and parsley on top. I cook Wild Rice mix straight out of the Uncle Ben box. Artichoke hearts alla Polita with peas and dill. Corn and red pepper casserole.  Stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer.
2016 Update: Daughter Eleni has been doing research for a magazine article on foods that are likeliest to improve health and increase longevity, and it seems that sweet potatoes are one of the best.  Who knew? So this year, at her suggestion, I'm going to make Coconut-Mashed Sweet Potatoes from the Blue Zones site. 

Gravy—open a can. I’ve tried about a million “No-fail turkey gravy” recipes over the years and I manage to fail every time. What I do now is open a couple cans of store-bought turkey gravy, chop up some of the neck and liver of the turkey (which have cooked in the roasting pan alongside the turkey), add a nice splash of some liquor—like sherry—or you can throw in some of the pan juices. Who’s going to know that it came out of a can? (Update--this year I'm using Trader Joe's Turkey Gravy which comes in a small carton, not a can.)

Orange-cranberry relish—you can make this up to a month ahead. Everybody loves it and it makes even the driest turkey taste better. Pick over and grind in the blender a one pound bag of cranberries. Grind up a couple oranges—pulp and rind. Mix together with two cups sugar or more. Chill in the refrigerator--the longer it sits the better it tastes. I always make a double recipe.


When the kids were small I would have them cut with scissors a jagged edge around hollowed-out orange halves to make little baskets to hold the cranberry relish—I’d put the baskets surrounding the turkey. Nowadays I surround the turkey on its platter with bunches of green and purple  grapes.


Place cards and menus—Making the place cards or favors is a great way to keep children busy and out of your hair. I used to have mine make favors/place cards that were turkeys fashioned out of (store bought) popcorn balls with a ladyfinger for the head and neck, three toothpick legs to stand, red or orange cellophane tied around the popcorn ball and gathered for a tail.—The three-legged turkey was then stuck in a large flat cookie, where the name would be written using those cake-decorating tubes.  Last year granddaughter Amalia made our place cards --colorful paper turkeys with googly eyes from a kit I bought at a Paper Store in Manhattan.  Stores like Michael's now offer place mats to color and place-card kits to assemble.... perfect for keeping the little darlings busy through the long Thanksgiving meal.

Here's our table last year.  Papou Nick, as the patriarch,always sits at the head of the table to carve the turkey. 



 The centerpiece is always the same—I have a basket shaped like a cornucopia, filled with various fruits, nuts and some fall flowers that have survived in the garden. Couldn’t be easier. Candles in candle holders.  Also I've acquired a bunch of rubber turkey finger puppets which Amalia has already commandeered.    And yes, everyone has to tell what they're thankful for. I always print out on the computer a small decorative menu for each plate so people know what they’re eating. What they won’t know is how easy it was, unless you tell them.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Obama Visits Greece and Nick Quotes Him the Bible

 

Last Sunday, Nick and I were in New York when he got word that he was invited to attend the state dinner in President Obama’s honor to be given by the Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos in the Presidential Palace in Athens on Tuesday night.

So we drove back to Massachusetts while Nick scrambled on the phone to find a flight out of Boston that would get him to Greece in time for Tuesday.  (There are no direct flights to Athens at this time of year.) He eventually flew on Monday afternoon on Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then to Athens, arriving midday on Tuesday. I really wanted to go too, but the Embassy told him no spouses were coming, not even Michelle Obama.

Nick has sent me photos of the event, which he thoroughly enjoyed.  Young women in native costume welcomed the 120 guests entering the grand dining room.  They were seated at long tables arranged like three sides of a rectangle, or the Greek letter pi. Obama sat in the center of the head table, at the right of Greek President Pavlopoulos and on Obama’s right was Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

  I was amused to see that Tsipras, who as a Marxist and leader of the leftist Syriza party made a point throughout his campaign of never wearing a tie, appeared throughout the state dinner and other events honoring Obama, always tie-less in an open-necked white shirt.  I was also amused that the Prime Minister, an avowed atheist, was seated next to the Archbishop of Athens. I wonder what they talked about.

While Prime Minister Tsipras speaks halting English, Greek President Pavlopoulos knows it well, but both made their public remarks in Greek and then paused for an English translation.  Watching the event on Greek TV, I heard Obama whisper to President Pavlopoulos, “Is this your house?  Do you live here?” and Pavlopoulos answered, “No, I have a home over by the Hilton.”

The menu, printed in two languages, featured “Shrimps with citrus fruits”, “rice with vegetables and herbs”, “baked grouper with greens, garnished with potatoes and cherry tomatoes”, “chestnut dessert”, ”seasonal fruit, two kinds of wines and coffee.

President Obama began his remarks with “kalispera” (good evening) and lauded Greece for the country’s hospitality, humanity and its contributions to the world as the source of democracy.  After the Greek president and prime minister spoke,  the children’s choir of the Greek National Opera sang four songs, both John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Simon and Garfunkel’s  “Sounds of Silence” and two popular Greek songs by Theodorakis and Hadjidakis.  Afterward, Obama enthusiastically mixed with the children and thanked them for their performance.


Sadly I have no photo of Nick talking to Obama.  At U.S. State dinners, there is usually a photographer who takes your photo as you are introduced to the President in a reception line, but at the Greek state dinner, Obama shook hands with the guests as they filed out of the dining room.


Nick had a brief conversation with Obama which delighted them both—Nick said, paraphrasing a famous statement made by Saint Paul right before his martyrdom: “Mr. President, you have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith.  History will not slight you.”  Obama replied, “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”  Then he took a few steps, turned back smiling and said, “Letter to Timothy right?” (He was right, it’s from 2nd Timothy 4:7.  Proof that our President knows his Bible and was not dozing during Sunday school.)

The next day, Wednesday, Obama visited the Acropolis Museum and saw the Parthenon for the first time.  Then he spoke to a large group of invitees at the new Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center.  Nick was there.

I asked Nick, when it was all over, if he felt Obama’s visit to Greece had been a success. (It was covered live for three days on Greek TV, which I watched sporadically.) The New York Times said last Tuesday that Trump’s victory had rattled Greece because “Obama had been supportive of Greece’s efforts to get its finances in order, and of Europe’s bid to keep Greece stable.  Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hoped that Mr. Obama, who travels to Berlin on Thursday, might even persuade the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to offer Greece some debt relief by the end of the year.”

In answer to my question Nick said, “I think it was important to both the visitor and the visited. Obama, as he finishes his presidency, wanted to go to the fountainhead of the values he pursued as President. And that of course is Greece, where democracy and individual rights and equal justice under law were developed.  And the Greeks needed somebody to show compassion for their plight in view of the hard stand their fellow Europeans, especially the Germans, are taking. I think both of those goals were fulfilled very successfully. Obama was really in top form.”
 



Saturday, November 5, 2016

"Holy Death", the Virgin of Juquila and My Painting

Since it is the season of the Days of the Dead, I decided to re-post one of my very first blog posts, published on November 18, 2008, about a painting I did inspired by some of my visits to Mexico.  (I'm hoping to make another visit to Oaxaca in February.)
My friend, photographer and teacher Mari Seder, first introduced me to Mexico, its incredible colors and fascinating folk and religious art when I visited her in Oaxaca many years ago.

Several years ago I traveled with her to the isolated Church of the Virgin of Juquila on the mountainous road from Oaxaca to Puerto Escandido. Pilgrims come here by foot from all over Mexico to ask for a miracle from this tiny, dark-skinned figure of the Virgin who is housed in a massive church.

The pilgrims walk for days, sleeping in village squares, fed by pious Mexicans, until they reach Juquila. They often approach the saint on their knees. The tiny figure (who is considered Indian because of her dark skin) has a white train which stretches out of the church and far into the distance. Pilgrims leave on the train gifts and hand-made wooden crosses either specifying the favor they need or thanking her for favors received. My photo at right below shows two Indian women on their knees approaching the Virgin, one with a blond baby on her back.

 Three years ago on March 21 my daughter and I were on a tour led by cooking guru Susanna Trilling (http://seasonsofmyheart.com/). We were at El Tajin – a pre-Columbian archeological site in Veracruz, composed of multiple pyramids. It was the Spring Equinox and hundreds of Mexicans, all dressed in white, came there to be cleansed by the Sun God with the aid of cueranderos (healers).

On the way into the pyramids, among the many objects on display on the road outside, I noticed the skeletal lady dressed as a Spanish Senorita. I had never seen anything like her … she was like the many Guadalupe virgins seen everywhere, but she was Death.  So I took her photo, but no one could tell me exactly what she was for. They told me she was Santa Meurte and I could see she was available for some kind of religious ceremony (for a price) but I couldn’t get any other kind of information. Everyone seemed reluctant to talk about her.

Last year in February in Oaxaca I attended a class sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum called “Expanding Your Vision -- Painting and Photography in the Magical World of Oaxaca, Mexico”. It was taught by my friend Mari Seder and Oaxacan artist Humberto Batista. (Nowadays they still offer classes in Oaxaca, but they're doing it on their own: http://www.artworkshopsinoaxaca.com/) Humberto strongly encouraged the students to think outside the box and to paint something unlike their usual style.

At his urging (although I am VERY literal – usually painting just what I see) I incorporated the figure of Santa Meurte from El Tajin into my painting of the interior of the Church of Juquila. The result is the painting above.

I was surprised and excited when I recently picked up the New Yorker dated Nov. 10 and found an article by Alma Guillermoprieto called “Days of the Dead, The new narcocultura.” She wrote about the narcotics trafficking that is causing such bloodshed in Mexico and she investigated the role of “The Holy Death” – especially as she is celebrated in a mass every day in a troubled neighborhood of Mexico City called Tepito where the drug dealers and addicts collect.

The author suggested that there are two thousand shrines in Mexico to Santa Meurte and that she is the saint of drug traffickers (although the woman who established the large shrine in Tepito denies that it is only for drug traffickers.)

When I painted the watercolor at top, showing a woman crawling toward the Virgin of Juquila , I imagined that she was going to ask the Virgin to heal her baby and was encountering Santa Muerte blocking her way to salvation. If it’s true that Holy Death is the saint of narcotics dealers, that adds another dimension to the painting. Perhaps the baby’s health and safety are threatened by some version of the narcocultura (maybe not now but when he grows up.)

The thought gave me a shudder, appropriately enough at this season which celebrates the Days of the Dead. And it adds a layer of unexpected meaning to the painting

Sunday, October 30, 2016

President Reagan's White House Ghost Story

It's become a Halloween tradition for the Rolling Crone to re-post the story told to me by President Reagan of his own encounters with White House ghosts and other haunting happenings experienced there through the ages.

Ever since the White House was first occupied in 1800, there have been rumors of hauntings, but I got this story direct from the President. No, not President Obama. I first heard about the White House ghosts directly from the lips of Ronald Reagan.

It was March 18, 1986, and my husband Nick and I had been invited to a state dinner in honor of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The State Dining room was filled with gold candlesticks, gold vermeil flatware and vermeil bowls filled with red and white tulips. I had the great privilege of being seated at the President’s table along with Chicago Bears’ running back Walter Payton; the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife Mila Mulroney; the president of the Mobil Corporation; Donna Marella Agnelli, wife of the chairman of Fiat; Burl Osborne, the editor of the Dallas Morning News, and Pat Buckley, wife of William Buckley.

The President, a brilliant storyteller, entertained the table throughout the meal and the story I remember best was about his encounters with the White House ghostly spirits. Here is how I wrote it later in an article about the dinner for the Ladies’ Home Journal: “According to the President, Rex, the King Charles Cavalier spaniel who had recently replaced Lucky as First Dog, had twice barked frantically in the Lincoln Bedroom and then backed out and refused to set foot over the threshold. And another evening, while the Reagans were watching TV in their room, Rex stood up on his hind legs, pointed his nose at the ceiling and began barking at something invisible overhead. To their amazement, the dog walked around the room, barking at the ceiling.

'I started thinking about it,' the President continued, 'And I began to wonder if the dog was responding to an electric signal too high-pitched for human ears, perhaps beamed toward the White House by a foreign embassy. I asked my staff to look into it.'

The President laughed and said, 'I might as well tell you the rest. A member of our family [he meant his daughter Maureen] and her husband always stay in the Lincoln Bedroom when they visit the White House. Some time ago the husband woke up and saw a transparent figure standing at the bedroom window looking out. Then it turned and disappeared. His wife teased him mercilessly about it for a month. Then, when they were here recently, she woke up one morning and saw the same figure standing at the window looking out. She could see the trees right through it. Again it turned and disappeared."

After that White House dinner, I did some research and discovered that half a dozen presidents and as many first ladies have reported ghostly happenings in the White House. It’s not just the ghost of Lincoln that they see, although he tops the hit parade. He caused Winston Churchill, who was coming out of the bathroom naked but for a cigar when he encountered Lincoln, to refuse to sleep there again. And Abe so startled Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands that she fell into a dead faint when she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find Lincoln standing there.

I also learned that the Lincoln bedroom was not a bedroom when Lincoln was President—it was his Cabinet Room where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s well known that Abraham Lincoln and his wife held séances in the White House, attempting to contact the spirit of their son Willie, who died there and who has been seen walking the halls.

The ghost of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, appeared often in the Rose Garden, which she planted. There is even reportedly a Demon Cat in the White House basement that is rarely seen. When it does appear, it is foretelling a national disaster. While the Demon Cat may at first look like a harmless kitten, it grows in size and evil the closer one gets. A White House guard saw it a week before the stock market crash of 1929 and it was also reportedly seen before Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

Abigail Adams’ ghost has been seen hanging laundry in the East Room—she appeared frequently during the Taft administration and as late as 2002 and is often accompanied by the smell of laundry soap.

Lincoln himself told his wife he dreamt of his own assassination three days before it actually happened. Calvin Coolidge’s wife reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost standing at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back gazing out the window (just as Reagan’s daughter saw a figure in a similar pose.) Franklin Roosevelt’s valet ran screaming from the White House after seeing Lincoln’s ghost . Eleanor Roosevelt, Ladybird Johnson and Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan all sensed Lincoln’s presence near the fireplace in the Lincoln Bedroom.

I’d love to find out if the Obamas have encountered any ghostly knockings, or if their dog Beau has suffered the same alarming anxiety attacks as Reagan’s dog Rex. Tomorrow, as the portals between this world and the other world swing open, I suspect the White House will be hosting a ghostly gala of the illustrious dead.

(If you have any  personal paranormal experiences to report, let me know about them at: joanpgage@yahoo.com )

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Plastic Trash Makes Serious Art

-->
When my friend Mari Seder suggested we go to the opening of a new exhibit at the Fitchburg Art Museum—an exhibit entirely devoted to plastic—I was dubious, but it turned out to be full of funny and serious art that inspires visitors while addressing the subject of how our plastic trash can threaten the environment.
The infamous pink plastic flamingo was invented in 1957 by designer Don Featherstone for Union Products in the Fitchburg/Leominster area of Massachusetts, so it was not surprising that a flock of flamingos greeted the many visitors to the opening of “Plastic Imagination” on September 25.
 Inside we found enthusiastic crowds of all ages as well as the ten artists who contributed to the show.  Dominating the lobby, hanging from the second floor ceiling, was “5 Gyres, All in the family debris” by artist Lisa Barthelson, who built it specifically for the show, using only bits of plastic culled from her own family’s discards.  “It’s an ode to the plastic gyres which are clogging our oceans into this horrifying plastic  stew, while celebrating all the plastic that has come through my house,” she said. 
 It was part of her “family Debris Series” which also included this beautiful Mandala, made primarily of toothbrushes, contact lens containers, peanut jar caps and other plastic throw-aways—all used by her family.
Lisa also created this “dis-carded armor” made up of her family’s old credit cards and other plastic cards like the ones that clog my wallet.
 Here is Lisa (right) talking to Mari in front of an installation called “Shell Symphony”  by Margaret Roleke, which is made entirely of plastic rifle shell cases. 

 Roleke uses plastic toy soldiers in her art and is often sending a message about war, as in “Barbie Lives in a Police State” and “White War”, but she says her art is also  evolving into ideas about popular culture and consumerism.

 
 The curator of the Fitchburg Art Museum, Mary Tinte said, “This show, hopefully, is an invitation to come explore and tap into the wonders of plastic,  but also allows us to grapple with… how we’re walking the fine line between its necessity and usefulness and how  it…makes our lives better, but on the flip side, how we might need to address the pitfalls of how we are consuming it in such great quantities.”


 “Yellow Barrel” by Tom Deininger weighs nearly 300 pounds.  Here it is from afar and close up.






And here’s his “Mt. Rainier” seen from far and near.

A history of the plastics industry was provided at the exhibit. It began in Leominster in the 1800s and the area still includes more than 70 successful plastics companies, some of whom helped sponsor the exhibition. In the 1800s many businesses in Leominster made hair combs from animal horns, but when the supply of horn was dwindling, and an early form of plastic was discovered, the machines for horn items were converted to using plastic.

Here is one of the vintage advertisements I saw on the wall—“Tupperware. Best thing that’s happened to women since they got the vote.”
On one wall is a pink flamingo holding a bag of plastic pieces with the message: “Have you been inspired by the artwork you saw today?   Purchase a bag of plastic ‘stuff’ in October and November at the Museum’s front desk for a refundable $5.00.  Take it home and make a fabulous sculpture or wall hanging.  Bring your creation back to the museum for an exhibition on December and we’ll return your $5.00.”

I didn’t purchase the bag full of plastic ‘stuff’, but I did decide I would take a good look at all the plastic detritus that comes into our house before throwing it out (yes, we do recycle!) and will try to turn some of it  into art, instead of trash.