"" Writer's Wanderings: 2004

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Christmas Memories 4

John Grisham was not original in his idea of "skipping Christmas". A year or two before his book came out, we looked at our options for gift giving and feasting and found that most of it would be done before the week of the 25th. Our kids were all on their own, some with their own kids now, so we decided to try a warm Christmas vacation.

Bob found a wonderful ship, the Paul Gauguin, in French Polynesia. (Everyone always says "Tahiti" but we were constantly corrected. Tahiti is only one island in French Polynesia.) We arrived two days earlier and stayed at a hotel to give us some time to catch up on the time difference.

Our room was in a thatch roofed bungalow out over the water. Below us in the pristine water was a reef active with a variety of tropical marine life we could observe just by opening a few slats in the walls or stepping out onto the veranda.

Once settled, we donned our bathing suits, found two lounge chairs in the shade and settled in to read and enjoy the beautiful warm breezes that drifted across the water. There were few people around to disturb us and it wasn't long before we fell asleep. We hadn't counted on sleeping long, nor on the sun moving across the sky and changing the position of the protective shade. We awoke just shy of being cooked lobsters but refreshed and ready to explore.

We found a small dive operation with two divemasters who spoke French and little English. Thankfully the hand signals for diving are universal. The dive was not so remarkable but we were able to renew our skills and feel comfortable in the water again, ready to take on some serious diving from the ship's offerings.

The Paul Gauguin was a beautiful but small ship. It was full of families celebrating Christmas away from home. I wondered if I was going to regret our decision when Christmas day came.

Each morning, we found ourselves looking out at lush green tropical forest that covered the sides of volcanic mountains. We explored the islands, sometimes on a shore excursion and other times on our own. At Moorea we rented a crazy little car and drove around the island. Each turn in the road revealed a new breathtaking view. It was amazing how God could cram so much beauty into such a little place.

Christmas morning arrived. I had packed little Christmas stockings filled with hard candies to give to our room steward and our waiters in the dining room. I found our room steward in the hallway and handed her a stocking. Her face lit up and many "thank you"s poured out but the real excitement came when I handed her a second stocking and said she should give it to a friend. She was like a child in her excitement to find her friend--more excited to be able to give than to receive.

As we relaxed on a warm sandy beach under the shade of palm trees rustling in the breeze and watched Santa in red shorts and barefeet as he handed out his treats to the kids, I thought about the meaning of the day. It didn't matter so much where you were, what traditions you followed, or whether it snowed or not. What mattered was the spirit of giving that was realized in that first Christmas gift of a small baby to a world in need.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Christmas Memories 3

The first Christmas after my mother died was a particularly difficult one. In the tradition of her usual pre-Christmas activity, she had begun buying gifts for us sometime in late August. We had a new sailboat and she decided that we would all have to have jackets with our sailboat's name embroidered on them. She died in September.

I knew that gift was coming. Her best friend who had done the embroidery had called to tell me they were done. What should she do with them? "Mom would want us to have them," I told her and went and picked them up.

We invited Dad to go with us to our Christmas Eve service. Normally we would have joined the two of them and my brother and his family at their home after our service. I didn't want him sitting home alone waiting for us. Dad was never a church-goer. Not even for Christmas and Easter. Surprisingly, he agreed to go with us.

I stood between my dad and my husband as we began to sing the familiar Christmas hymns. I suddenly realized my father was singing! Not only was he singing (I only remembered him whistling--never singing) but he knew the melody and the words. He caught me staring at him.
"What?" he said like a teenager caught in the act. "I know these songs." He turned back to the hymnal and continued singing as if he did that every week.

Later there were the tears when we opened the presents and donned our jackets. "Silver Reflections" was embroidered across our backs. It is an appropriate name for our sailboat. It's gray and it's reflection looks silvery in the water. But the memories I have of my dad singing in the Christmas Eve service are "golden reflections".

Friday, December 10, 2004

Christmas Memories 2

That first Christmas with all five kids was very special. The twins were 12 and Andy was 9. Cheryl, 6, and Don, 5, had arrived at our home permanently in October. The three older boys were still getting used to this "sister stuff". They knew how to relate to Don--he was a boy--but they gave Cheryl space, not ignoring her, just allowing her to do her thing until they could figure out what that "thing" was. I don't know that they ever have.

We had moved Christmas up a day to Saturday. That morning, Andy awoke early as usual (his record time was around 4:30 a.m.). He waited a decent amount of time, opening his stocking gifts while the rest slept, then began the process of getting the rest of the household up by waking Don. It didn't take long for the rest of us to be up and into the family room.

We have an orderly process of unwrapping gifts one at a time starting with the youngest. Don opened his and was immediately enthralled. Cheryl opened hers next and the enthusiasm and excitement has yet to be matched by anything I've ever seen. As they each played with their gift, I looked to the older boys to watch them scurry to the tree for theirs. To my amazement they sat in awe of Cheryl and Don, mesmerized by their expressions of joy over Santa's gifts to them.

I heard a sniffle and turned in the direction of the sound. Ron (one of the twins) wiped his nose on his sleeve. I chose not to correct his behavior. It was better left unnoticed at that age that he had been so touched emotionally. A moment later, composure regained, he observed, "Wow, this really is their first real Christmas."

Moments later, paper flew and boxes spilled their contents of goodies as the rest of the treasure was discovered under the tree. But that one moment in time when love became the focus of Christmas will always be treasured in my heart.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Christmas Memories

The first Christmas with Cheryl and Don in our home (see Williamsburg Christmas blog) was an exciting one. Cheryl and Don had been in 7 foster homes within 6 years and we were the third home they came to that year. Cheryl's anxiety level rose as Christmas neared and over and over we heard how Santa never came to see them.

Each Christmas they were returned to their biological home but it was social services that provided a truck and a doll sometime during the season. Cheryl recalled asking to hang stockings one year and being told "Santa doesn't come to this house." That stuck in a six year old's memory.

My reassurances that "Santa always comes to this house," seemed to go unheeded so I decided to enlist a friend who did Santa visits every year for the neighborhood. Christmas was on a Sunday that year so we decided to move our celebration to Saturday morning. We'd be able to attend church without a fuss from the kids and it fit in with our Santa plans as well.

Friday night, Santa rang our doorbell and Cheryl was so ecstatic she couldn't talk--really something for a "motor mouth." After opening the small gift he brought, he told Cheryl and Don, "I know where you are going to be now. This is your 'forever family'. You moved so much before I had trouble finding you. That won't happen again. But you better get to bed 'cause Santa can't work his magic if you're awake."

Of course my husband couldn't let Rich off the hook that easily so he quipped, "Hey, Santa. Who's going to clean up that mess the reindeer leave on the roof?"

Before Rich could give his come-back, Cheryl jumped up and down yelling, "I will! I will!" She didn't want any kinks in this Christmas.

Needless to say, the kids were in bed early--even the older guys--and Santa worked his magic that night.

Williamsburg Christmas 3

Sticking with the traditional, the colors I chose each year to decorate our home were always red and green. We had green and red stockings for each of our three boys thanks to my mother's new found interest in knitting Christmas stockings on her knitting machine. She was using the extra money she made selling them to pad the Christmas account she used for the grandkids.

When Cheryl and Don joined the family, it was time for two new stockings. Don still wasn't speaking well but nodded when Grandma pointed to green for his stocking. Cheryl, never one to lack decisiveness, blurted out her choice immediately. "Purple!"

"Mom," I pleaded, "you can't be serious. Not purple."

"Purple is what she wants. Purple is what she gets." It was spoken with the authority of a grandmother/mother.

For many years Cheryl's stocking was the centerpiece of our mantel hanging amidst all the greenery and fruit and, of course, the red and green stockings of the boys. I was writing an essay about our first Christmas one day and looking for a lesson in it all. It came as God's answers always do, quietly and with great impact.

Purple, Karen, is the color of royalty. Every year you hang that purple stocking, you celebrate the birth of a king.

Monday, December 06, 2004

A Williamsburg Christmas 2

My wonderful husband got into the Williamsburg Christmas decorating craze too. He used the pattern in the Colonial Williamsburg Decorates for Christmas by Libby Hodges Oliver to make a board that fit above the front door for me to cover in fruit and greens. The best way to describe it is to think of an oval cut in half lengthwise, then covered with nail brads every 2-3 inches. You wire the greens flat against the back, stick a pineapple on the nails in the middle and surround it with apples (and sometimes lemons). It looks beautiful when finished and was always a point of conversation when we had guests.

The problem with the beautiful display came during the season that our weather fluctuated between near spring temperatures and freezing wintry days. The fruit took a beating from all the temperature changes. On the night of our Sunday School Christmas party it was a little warmer and as I began to greet guests, I noticed they were wiping something from their heads as they entered. It wasn't raining or snowing, I thought curiously. Then about the fourth set of guests to arriver were closer friends who were willing to admit that they were getting "juiced" waiting for me to answer the door.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A Williamsburg Christmas

Last night I spoke to a group of Home Economics teachers about creating Williamsburg Christmas decorations with fresh greens, fruit, and dried materials. As I demonstrated, I recounted some of my experiences with my own Williamsburg decorations from years past.

The year we adopted our two youngest children who were five and six at the time, I made my usual arrangement of fresh greens and fruit on the dining room table. The greens formed a gentle S shape radiating from a grouping of candles in the center. Along the greens I had placed apples, pears, oranges, pinecones, and mixed nuts. Halfway through the Christmas season, I would replace the fruit with fresh and use the old in a fruit salad. (We always ate healthy during the Christmas season to keep my decorations looking fresh.)

One night we were expecting guests for dinner. As I began to set the table. I noticed something different about the fruit in my arrangement. I blinked. Sure enough, someone had taken a bite out of each piece and placed it back on the table again. There was no time to replace the fruit so I just turned it over and hoped my guests wouldn't examine it later.

I was pretty sure I knew who the culprits were although there's no telling if my other three boys might have done it to be funny. Whoever did it created a wonderful Christmas memory that makes me smile to this day. Actually, I remember smiling a lot that evening every time I thought about the little teeth marks hidden in the underside of the fruit before me.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Butch Davis Resigns As Browns Coach

Four years ago, we happened to be on a cruise with the coaching staff of the Florida State football team. The last day of the cruise we entered the dining room and were seated at a table with a very nice couple that we didn't immediately recognize. After the third or fourth person walked up and thanked the man sitting across from us, we realized we were eating breakfast with Bobby Bowden and his wife. What a wonderful unpretentious couple. We quipped about OSU football and mentioned that the Browns were getting a new coach, Butch Davis, from Miami.

Bobby Bowden emphasized how lucky we were. "He's a really good guy," he said.

Our first two seasons with Davis looked promising culminating in a playoff game in the second season. Then things slid downhill. We hoped this would be the year.

In May, we were returning from our son's graduation at U of M in Florida. A man got on the plane with his son and sat a couple rows in front of us in coach. He looked a lot like Butch Davis and I pointed him out to my husband. We concluded it was a "look alike". Surely the coach of the Browns would be flying first class. As we exited the plane in Cleveland we heard several people wish him well in the coming season and then realized that indeed it had been Coach Davis and his son flying with us.

Unfortunately all the well-wishers were disappointed as our season hopes disappeared with an injured playmaker and a quarterback that did more complaining than performing. Still, the blame came to rest on Coach Davis. Today, he resigned.

Davis cites all the controversy taking a toll on the team and his family as the reason for resigning now. I'm sure a job prospect in Florida is part of that too. I remember Bobby Bowden's words, "He's a good guy." He is. He has conducted himself with humility, grace, and tact in an atmosphere of fan-aticism that would just as soon chew him up and spit him out. It's sad that nice guys sometimes finish last. I hope Butch Davis and his family will find the next job more satisfying and fulfilling, one that will challenge and strengthen the "good guy" within him.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Buckeye Tradition

I went to school in the Woody Hayes days at OSU. I know that's dating myself. It's okay. I've learned to live with growing older; after all, what's the alternative? The Michigan game at the end of the season always sent the campus into a frenzy. It still does. As a matter of fact it usually sends our household into a frenzy. This weekend was no different.

Flag flying and Brutus standing proudly in the front yard, our neighbors have come to accept that we're a little, well, you know...nutty. Last year we used Brutus for Halloween decoration and dressed as OSU fans requesting our "beggars" give the OH-IO cheer before receiving their candy. It's great fun, that rivalry with "that school up north". We have some friends that graduated from Michigan. We forgive them.

No OSU coach has survived the Michigan games quite as well as Tressel has though. No matter this year was not a stand out, everyone agrees, he won the important game today.

I especially appreciate Tressel's emphasis on the traditions of a college campus. The skull session (the band's pre-pregame show) is required attendance for the team. The crowd shows their appreciation and support before they head out to suit up for the game.

After the games there is the gathering of the team members with the band and those still left in the stands to sing the alma mater. Perhaps not all appreciate the gesture but as they look back to those college days it will ring in their memories. And someday they will return as we do and feel the thrill of those youthful days when the stress of higher education was put aside on Saturday as the band played, the crowd cheered and the alma mater was sung. "Time and change will surely show how firm thy friendship...O-HI-O."

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Last Cheerio

I'm taking a break from cleaning and straightening our house to write this today. Two little whirlwinds spent the weekend with us--our grandchildren. Time is precious with little ones so I don't worry about what the house looks like while they are here and I try to plan meals ahead that won't take much time.

Tyler is three going on 21. He's become a backseat driver already. "Holy cow, Grandpa! I told you to turn left." "Grandpa, don't go too fast in Mommy's van." "Be careful of those semis, Grandpa, they're dangerous." Makes my backseat driving look tame.

Danielle, who is 15 months, doesn't talk much yet but she has learned to flirt. It gets her the attention she wants and melts hearts along the way. It was her first overnight at our house and she adapted quickly. I think Mom had more separation anxiety than she did.

The last time we had a visit from a grandchild was a few weeks ago when Kotomi (1 year old) visited with her parents. We played and baby sat while Mom and Dad took in a movie. She snacked on Cheerios and imbibed milk and, just as efficiently, spread the toys all over the floor. When they left, my helpful husband tidied the family room while I finished the dishes and all too quickly the house returned to its childless state. As we sat watching TV in a house that suddenly felt all too quiet, I glanced down at the rug that sits under the coffee table and noticed one lone Cheerio that Bob had missed. I reached down and picked it up, placed it in his hand, smiled and said, "Missed one." He held it for a while between thumb and forefinger and reminisced happily about our time spent with our granddaughter.

When I finish today, I will be sure to leave one Cheerio on the rug--one Cheerio for Bob to find so we can sit and reminisce and anticipate the next visit.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

An "Aha" Moment

Once in a while I get a moment where I just want to say "aha". It happened again this morning. I was working on my Sunday school lesson (I teach a class of adults). We are using Swindoll's book "Laugh Again" which is based on a study in Philippians. This week's emphasis is on the trait of unselfishness--putting others before yourself.

Something Swindoll said reminded me of the trip we took to the World Fair in Tennessee one year with three of our kids. We arrived at the entrance about the same time busloads of senior citizens were disembarking their coaches and lining up at the entrance. We stood fairly close to the gate and watched the crowd swell. The closer it got to opening time, the tighter the pack became and suddenly we could begin to feel a slight push. The boys were about 10 and 7 (the older two are twins) and I began to fear that they would be crushed in the rush. We edged our way to one side and watched as the crowd of adults poured through the gate as it opened. When the rush was over we calmly walked through the gate and began our day of exploration, thankful that we had not been hurt in the onslaught of eager visitors.

So many times we rush to be first, to have the attention, to demand our right to...(fill in the blank). That's not the way Christ would have us live our lives. In Matthew, he describes himself as being humble and full of grace--unselfish.

My "aha" moment came. In the rush to be first, to be the attention-getter, the important one, what are we missing? If we were putting others first and lingering at the back of the line is it just possible we might find someone else there too? Would we meet Jesus?

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Wish Upon a Star

We just returned from a three night cruise on Disney Wonder. Our niece is one of the performers and we wanted to see her at work.

As I watched the shows (quality productions), I realized what a great message Walt Disney always sent to children. Follow your dreams. You're important no matter what your size or stature. You can overcome problems even if they seem bigger than life. Be creative. Use your imagination. Have fun. Good triumphs in the end. Don't overlook the little things (it all started with a mouse).

Those are the things my generation grew up on. The Mickey Mouse Club was always on TV right before dinner--helped keep the kids out of mom's hair for a while. I can still sing the song although I don't think I carry the tune any better.

In an age of electronics where every toy needs a battery and a child can sit and be entertained, I hope we have not lost the simple tools of imagination and creativity that make our world a place where dreams can come true.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Ohio and Florida Votes

We have a connection between Ohio and Florida. We live in Ohio and our son lives in Florida. This year it's our turn to slow the election results. Although, as I write this, it looks as though Ohio will go for Bush even if the provisional ballots are considered.

Am I the only one amazed at how many hours some people stood in line to vote? I hope that sends the message to other countries that we still value our right to vote and our democratic process. Although in the background, I can hear those little computers lining up to say "here we are use us." Can voting from home be far off?

It's a little scary to think of our voting process being entirely computerized when there are still so many ways a system can be corrupted. Imagine us arguing over missing bytes instead of hanging chads. Provisional ballot challenges would be replaced by controversy over multiple password registrations. Maybe we should just go back to raising a hand and counting...but then you have to trust the counter and make sure no one raises both hands.

Monday, November 01, 2004

All The World Is A Stage

We have an eating area in our kitchen surrounded by windows looking out over our backyard. When the trees and brush were cut away, it gave us a beautiful view of a small lake and creek behind our house. It's a mecca for wildlife especially since I've planted so many "delictable tidbits" for the deer. They dine in the morning and evening eating plants and shrubs from the top down.

Then there's the rabbits. They take care of the plants from the bottom up and generally choose those the deer leave behind. Chipmunks feed on the bulbs in the ground, moles "aerate the soil" and the geese tear up the grass. A huge blue heron circles on occassion checking out the size and availablity of the goldfish in my pond. (I was smart enough to only buy the 59 cent variety.) Someday I fully expect to see elephants tromping through.

I keep the nurseries and hardware stores in business buying all the latest "off" sprays and "animal resistant" plants. We have motion detectors that chase the deer with a spray of water. Unfortunately, the detectors don't descriminate between deer and meter readers or friendly neighbors. All these things help to keep me slightly ahead of the wildlife...except for the squirrel.

This is no ordinary run-of-the-mill squirrel. He sneaks his way up two levels of decking to a bar stretched out from the railing to a spot right in front of the window where he hangs by his tail to grab the suet block and smear greasy lard all over his paws and face. Then he swings to the finch feeder and somehow manages with those greasy paws to wrest the top off the tube of thistle to grab what he can.

Quite the showman, he performs these feats in front of us as we sit at the table trying to eat our dinner. One evening I thought I might get his acrobatics captured on video for America's Funniest Video. At least then I would have some money to pay for the seed and suet he was consuming. He was so greasy from the suet that he slipped into the half empty tube head first and for a moment appeared to be stuck. Face pressed against the side of the tube, his tail flicked and twitched with his discomfort. Unfortunately for me, by the time the camera was on and running, he had managed enough leverage to pull himself out of the tube and he scampered away.

Having learned this new trick however only brought the furry critter back again and again. He became very adept at popping the cap off the feeder. That is until Bob drilled a hole through the cap and screwed it on. Now he sits there and contemplates the problem before him...the squirrel, not Bob. We fully expect one day to see him come, metric wrench in hand and dig into the feeding tube again. In the meantime, the finches enjoy the food when the "sentry" is not there and we continue to contemplate a way to keep him out of the suet.

Shakespeare said "all the world is a stage". He must have had a backyard like ours.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Stop the Political Ads! I Want to Vote.

Are they getting to you yet? If you live in one of the critical states (and I do), you've been innundated with point/counterpoint political ads since before the conventions. And what have we learned? That one party can sling mud just as well as the other party. Can we vote and get it over with?

Now we have "fact checkers" on the networks since the CBS incident over Bush's military record. Too bad the news media doesn't check facts all the time instead of just during elections. The media seems to slant the news to their particular way of thinking. We have one local channel that has been labeled the "tabloid news channel". They're not afraid to add a line of commentary on the end and, unfortunately, not mention that it is commentary.

But, I digress.

What I would really like to hear is not how much better my world will be if you are elected but how you think you're going to get it done. A vision is just a dream if you have no plan of action to deliver. I'd like to see campaign promises turned into campaign plans of action. I may know my destination but without a good road map, I'd have a hard time getting there.

Draw me a map.

My name is Karen Robbins and I approve this message.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Surprise Garden

Last week friends called and said they were dividing the daylilies I had given them originally three or four years ago. We have since moved to a new home and they wondered if I wanted some of the plants they had. Remembering the large empty spot I haven't planted yet in our new yard, I eagerly said yes.
When Eldon put them in my trunk he pointed to each bag and tried to remember what color the plant was. He needn't have bothered. By the time I took them out of the trunk, I had forgotten. Call it senioritis, dementia, or just lack of recall, it happens more and more and especially when I have a busy week.
I took the plants to the spot in front of the house bordered by rhododendrons and began planting. Instead of worrying about what colors were going where, I planted them where I dropped them and decided I would just be surprised when they bloom this coming spring/summer. The surprise will be multiplied by how many blooms the deer leave behind for me to enjoy. It's one of their favorite meals.
So, instead of a secret garden, I have a surprise garden--something to look forward to over the snowy months to come.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Cappuccino in Venice

This past summer, we traveled through Europe with Bob’s brother, Dick, and his wife, Polly. Venice was a unique adventure. We arrived amidst gray skies and drizzle. The buildings around St. Mark’s Square looked dirty and dingy. I wondered how anyone could claim this as a beautiful spot. After our dinner, however, the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the façade of St. Mark’s Basilica bringing the building to life with shimmering golden mosaics.

In the square were outdoor cafes where some musicians were beginning to perform. We were attracted a café with a stringed ensemble and made ourselves comfortable at a table. When the waiter came three of us ordered cappuccino (Dick was off for gelato). We didn’t pay attention to the menu. We only wanted cappuccino. This was just dessert. Oh what a dessert! The cappuccinos were excellent but the bill was outstanding. When converted to dollars, it was $15 per cup of that delicious brew. By not looking at the menu, we had missed the mention of a cover charge.

Ah, Italy, so crazy, so frantic, so romantic, so expensive! Everyone said it was a once in a lifetime experience. That’s for sure. We’ll never order $15 coffees again.

(I have managed to cover the cost of my cappuccino by selling a story on Venice. It’s posted at http://www.familytravelfun.com/venice-italy.html )

Monday, October 18, 2004

Autumn

There are two times a year that I cannot drink in enough of the scenery in our part of the country. Spring is one. There is a point in the emerging foliage on the trees when the dark branches appear delicately daubed a light yellowed green mixed with the tiniest flecks of burgundy color. The colors begin to swell and finally burst into leafy green with bountiful spring blooms interspersed throughout the landscape.

Autumn is the other one. This weekend the fall colors hit the height of the season. Golden yellows, pumpkin oranges, raspberry reds and every shade inbetween was bathed with beautiful sunlight that brightened God's glorious painting. Here and there a dark evergreen pine would contrast with the brilliant colors making them even more striking.

Today the rain is washing away the color. The leaves will grow heavy and the wind will blow them down. Another autumn will fade into winter. But I will remember the spectacle of color, and while the snow flies, I will look forward to the rebirth of spring. And I will try to find the beauty in the purity and softness of the new fallen snow while I wait.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

A Child Called It

For our book discussion group at the library this month, we were asked to read A Child Called It by David Pelzer. It is not a pretty story. Pelzer reveals, in graphic terms, the tortuous abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother. I almost quit reading half way through the small book. I kept hoping it would get better for him. It only got worse. Starvation, mutilation, near drowning, and ostracism from the family were only some of what went on seemingly forever in the four or five years she chose to single him out and perpetuate her sick punishments on a boy who never deserved them.

Thankfully the ugly part is sandwiched between two short chapters revealing his rescue by social services after a few teachers finally risked their jobs to bring the abuse to light. It occurred during the 1970s and Pelzer indicates that social awareness of child abuse was not in the forefront at that time. Hopefully, things have changed--but I wonder. Too many children still continue to die from shaking, beating and other horrendous abuse. Is it so cleverly concealed until its too late or are we not paying attention? This is not the situation where you use the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

The Secret Garden

In the middle of all the neon and noise, all the glitz and grandeur, we found an oasis of nature captured in a quiet shaded garden--a secret, hidden in the heart of Las Vegas.

While in Vegas this week, we stopped in at the Mirage to see Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden. The secret is a mini zoo on beautifully landscaped hotel property. Who would have thought! There are spacious areas for the animals to play and roam and three huge pools for the dolphins to exercise and show off.

The dolphins are the first attraction as you enter. There are 11 dolphins, three of which were born in the Secret Garden. The puppy dogs of the ocean, they were ready to play and display their talents. About every hour there is a team of behavioral scientists that play with the dolphins. It is not a choreographed show but they do jumps, spins, tail walks, flips, and retrieve objects in the water. I assume it takes the boredom out of being confined even if the pools are large.

Next we entered the shaded garden area and received an audio wand to hear the commentary given by Siegfried and Roy about their animals. I always thought of the pair as performers but our visit changed my mind. They are more conservationists than performers. You can feel the concern for the animals in their commentary. The white lions were first. They are unreal. Almost a pure white with a huge soft mane framing their faces, they sat regally on the rocks, blinking a hello and acting as though they knew how good they looked. They were about 8 feet in length and had to weigh at least 400 pounds. I was surprised to see two males together but apparently the males bond together to protect the pride.

A sleek black panther and a couple of cheetahs were in the next display. A little mouse ran out from one of the enclosed areas and a cheetah paced impatiently waiting for his "playmate" to come back in.

The next area held an Asian elephant, Gildah. Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and have light markings across the nose area and around the head. She munched her hay and occasionally dipped it in the water before raising it to her mouth--kind of like chips and dip. She was looking good for a 56 year old.

Next we admired the beauty of the white tiger. Our commentary told us that the stripes of the tiger are like fingerprints--no two tigers have the same pattern.

The real show however was around the corner where three baby leopards, born in March, played with each other as well as a couple of caretakers inside with them. They would hide behind some clumps of high grass, one paw separating the blades for a better view, and then pounce on their sibling as s/he came by. An unsuspecting caretaker would find himself wearing a leopard hat all of a sudden if he wasn't careful. Toys were strewn all over the area to be picked up and discarded on a whim. Bundles of energy, they entertained us for quite a while.

You can find information about this little secret at www.siegfriedandroy.com/animals .

Friday, October 08, 2004

Upgrades in Vegas

We just returned from a few days in Las Vegas. It was our warm sunny alternative to the dive trip we had planned to Grand Cayman that was canceled thanks to Ivan. We arrived at Ceasar's Palace to check in and pleasantly bantered with the man at the reception desk. His keyboard clicked away efficiently as he looked up our reservation.

"Do you need to have a king bed or would you like two large queen beds in a larger room?" What a question. We looked at each other and wondered how much of our sleeping habits this guy needed to know. Thankfully, he continued, "The reason I ask is, there is a 900 sq. ft. suite available on the 24th floor with a his and hers bathroom. But it has two queen beds. You can have it for the same price as your other room." He looked at us for a decision.

"Sold." Our sleeping habits could adjust.

The room was outstanding. A floor to ceiling window looked out on the four pools below us and into the distance to the mountains that surround Las Vegas. Each bathroom had it's own sink and a little room with the toilet (mine included a bidet--Anyone know how to use one?). My bathroom had a large jacuzzi tub as well and a clear glass shower with two showerheads connected both rooms. The other usual amenities were there, TV, mini-refrig, etc. The whole suite was bigger than our first apartment.

We enjoyed four days of seeing the sights and sitting by the pool and enjoying great food. When it was time to return home, we caught our transportation to the airport and began our trek through the system to check in. When the e-ticket spit out boarding passes, Bob noticed we weren't sitting near each other. The agent suggested we go to the gate and see if someone there could find us seats together when the check in process was nearing completion.

At the gate, the agent had a difficult time finding two seats together. She held our passes and said she would work on it some more, apparently trying to get someone to switch with us. About five minutes before boarding she called our names and I went to retreive the passes.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I couldn't find two seats together in the back so I had to put you in first class. I hope that's all right." I had trouble closing the gaping mouth that showed my surprise. Two free upgrades in one trip. I don't recall ever getting one.

It just goes to prove not all winners are at the gaming tables and slots.
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