"" Writer's Wanderings: 2011

Friday, December 30, 2011

What Kind of TV Are You Watching?

TV sets just keep getting bigger and thinner and more techie (is that a word?). The latest need-want-just-gotta-have set is 3D. I refuse to have to wear glasses to watch television--especially when the programming has gotten so bad. 3D glasses would interfer with my multi-tasking. You see, I normally read and/or work on my laptop while I'm sitting with my husband "watching" TV.

I do remember watching it much more intently as a kid. Never missed a Mickey Mouse Club! Bonanza was a must on Sunday nights. And then suddenly Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe were in color! The first color TV sets actually became available on this day in 1953 and sold for $1,175. That would be the equivalent of buying on of those new fangled large screened 3D hi-def TVs today.

So, what's next? Smellivision? There's already been a movie that tried that with scratch and sniff cards. Heaven help us if they produce a TV that actually puts smells into the room. I really wouldn't care to smell the Cartwright's horses in my family room.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Infamous Day in 1170 in England

It was on this day in 1170 that Thomas a Becket was assasinated in the Canterbury Catheddral. We made a visit there in 2010 and plan to actually stay a few days there in the coming year. Here is a little of what I wrote after our visit:

The history of the cathedral dates back to 597 when St. Augustine was sent to England as a missionary and eventually became an archbishop. He established the “cathedra,” the seat of the archbishop, within the Roman walled city of Canterbury and the cathedral was begun. Since his reign as archbishop there have been 103 successive archbishops including the famous Thomas Becket.

Our delightful tour guide pointed out the different types of architecture that dated the various parts of the cathedral. Most, if not all, of the churches and cathedrals in Europe are a combination of many different eras as monarchies rose and fell, countries were conquered, and ideals and philosophies affected not only the spiritual lives of the people but the physical facilities of the faithful. History is written in the walls, windows, and reliefs of church buildings.

The most notorious history of the Canterbury Cathedral dates back to the reign of Henry II who appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury thinking he could have the upper hand over Rome with his friend in a place of power. Henry didn’t count on Becket changing his allegiance from the king to the pope and the church. There were many conflicts between the two. Disappointed and in a fit of anger, Henry is said to have muttered, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Four knights took him literally and set off to Canterbury to please the king. They lured Becket into the cathedral and murdered him in a spot that is marked today by a modern sculpture mounted on the wall. The two swords represent the knights, but as our guide said with a sly smile, the four knights are represented—two in the shadow cast on the wall. This little proper English lady also explained in proper English terms and somewhat graphically how Becket was killed. The top of his head was apparently sliced off and his brains were spread on the floor beneath our feet. Somehow I wasn’t too sure we ought to be walking there if that were true.

Henry II was penitent for years after Becket’s death. He really had loved his friend. He set up a shrine that brought thousands of pilgrims who reported many miracles happening at the spot of where Becket’s remains lay. Later the shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII and Becket’s body disappeared. A lone candle now burns at the spot where it had been.

Our guide was also quick to point out several places in the cathedral that were connected with America and Australia since there were several in our group from those two countries. We came home with a pamphlet that describes 11 different places in the building that have some sort of connection to the USA including a stone from the Bell Harry Tower that was used to carve a pulpit for the Washington National Cathedral.

Just as we were nearing the end of our hour and a half tour, bells chimed and a voice rang out in the huge sanctuary calling all within the walls to stop and take a moment for prayer. This has happened several times when we’ve been in cathedrals or churches on a tour. It is a great reminder that this is a house of worship as well as a vault of history. And it is very uniting to say the Lord’s Prayer with hundreds of visitors from all over the world.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do You Perk or Drip?

On this day in 1865, the coffee percolator was patented by James H. Mason. Who knew it had been around for so long? Not I. Yet I've enjoyed that technology and the gadgets to follow.

Apparently the earliest ways of making coffee was to pulverize the roasted coffee bean and add it to boiling water--kind of like instant coffee. But this coffee didn't dissolve in the water. Instead it let a thick muck on the botton that was undrinkable. It also gave a foamy topping to the beverage. In Turkey, they still make coffee that way in many places.

The percolator would have been quite an improvement letting the water boil up through a tube and spread out on top of the ground coffee beans. There was the danger of letting it perk too long though. Electric percolators were an improvement in that eventually they had a built in timer that stopped the action when the coffee was done. And now we have drip makers and one cup makers and. . .

What would we do without our coffee? So, do you perk it or press it or drip it?

Monday, December 26, 2011


Part of our Toastmasters' meeting includes learning a new word. A while back, someone came up with the word, PARAPROSDOKIANS. We had a great time with it. The definition is: Figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; frequently used in a humorous situation.
"Where there's a will, I want to be in it," is a type of paraprosdokian. Here are a few more:

1. Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

2. Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

3. I thought I wanted a career. Turns out I just wanted paychecks.

4. If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

5. We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

6. War does not determine who is right - only who is left.

7. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

8. Evening news is where they begin with 'Good Evening,' and then proceed to tell you why it isn't.

9. To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

10. A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wise Men Still Seek Him

When we buy Christmas cards I like for them to be representative of something to do with Christ's birth. While hearth and home and Santa are a nice part of Christmas it is truly about God's Son. This year the cards I found repeated a theme I seem to have followed over our 43 Christmases together--Wise Men Still Seek Him.

Back when I was creating my own cards, one year I had the three kings on camels silhouetted against green construction paper. Throughout the years, homemade or bought, I think the cards have expressed that theme a dozen times at least. Why, I wonder, do I keep repeating that theme?

This year my cards have the wisemen's message again. But this year I think I know why I keep returning to the theme. It was after Christmas that the Wise Men came. Jesus was about two years old according to the scriptures. The wisemen didn't stop their search for him when they knew he'd been born. They didn't celebrate and then just go on with their lives. They sought him out to honor him and to bring him gifts.

The cards say "Wise Men STILL Seek Him." I guess that is the message I wanted to bring to those I know and love when I sent those cards. Seek Him. Honor Him. Worship--long past Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Past - The Barking Gift

[This was a story I wrote a few years ago for my grandparenting column at Positively Feminine.org. It always makes me smile.]

It was Christmas morning. The night before, we had given reverence to Jesus, trying our best to put the emphasis on the “reason for the season.” Full of anticipation, my kids burst into the family room and then stopped short when their Christmas present barked at them. Tied to one leg of the TV was a black and white Beagle-Terrier mix puppy. It was the only thing we could think of that their grandparents had not already purchased for them for the holidays.

The dog received little attention that day and the weeks that followed. Instead, my kids played with all the toys that had come from my mother who collected their wish lists long before Halloween. Grandma brought the seasonal catalogs she received in the mail to our house for the boys to look over. She coined the term “wish book” long before JC Penney and Toys R Us used the marketing ploy. My mother always started shopping early, so by the time I got around to doing Santa’s work, my choices narrowed drastically.

While my mother’s heart was in the right place, beating her to the toy store became a contest the rest of the year as well. There were some things that we wanted to be able to do for our children. We wanted to provide their first bikes and their first baseball gloves—even if it meant having to save nickels and dimes to do it. We wanted to be the heroes in our children’s lives once in a while.

It took a lot of talking and negotiating to come to an agreement over the division of gift-giving responsibilities, but we finally worked out a compromise. The kids circled their desires in the wish books, and we met with Grandma before she started shopping and divided the list between us. Grandma got a few of the “hot” items and “Santa” got the rest.

It was not until I became a grandmother, that I understood my mother’s desire to shower gifts on her grandchildren. As a grandma, I want to see the delight in their eyes, to hear their squeals of joy.

I’ve used the same compromise with my grandchildren’s parents that worked with my mother. The wish list is made and divided for Christmas and birthdays. Often we celebrate the holiday after it has passed. When that happens, we try to buy something that compliments what they have already received—a cartridge for their computer game, extra clothes for a doll, more tracks or buildings for the train set.

The compromise has worked well. The excitement is still there, and I maintain the respect of my grandchildren’s parents who want to provide for their children as I once did for them. Besides, they remember the dog—the gift that kept on barking.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Past - The Purple Stocking

[Here is another past post. This one is December 2004. The full story was eventually published in A Scrapbook of Christmas Firsts.]

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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Past - The Tree

[This week I am revisiting some posts from Christmas past. Here is one from December, 2007]

In a world where things are always changing and progress happens in the blink of an eye, there is one constant that brings most of us all together again--Christmas. The things of Christmas have changed over the years though. Take trees for instance.

Growing up, there was always a live tree. I don't know that artificial was even available in those early years. The bulbs were multi-colored and hot to the touch and silver tinsel was a must. Then came the years of the aluminum tree. The silvered branches changed color as a disc with four basic colors, red, green, purple, and yellow, rotated in front of a spot light that shone on the tree. Mom refused to have one. I'm grateful.

There was one year when she succumbed to the flocking. I don't know how she talked Dad into it because I seem to recall him wrinkling up his nose every time he looked at it. Maybe she sold him on the idea because it was supposed to preserve the tree longer.

Of course the more popular artificial trees became, the more outrageous they got. Pink and purple and white. Each year we passed on the lastest fad and stayed true to the real smell, the real feel, and the real mess of needles to clean up.

Mom gave in to the artificial world when the trees became a little more realistic looking and my brother and I were gone. That way she could get us to come home and put up the tree early. Mom was not above a guilt trip. "I don't think we'll have a tree this year," always brought us home to decorate.

Bob and I started out with real trees. Our first, which was probably the most perfect we had, stretched our budget at $5. This year we had to shop for a new artificial tree since we lost ours in a flood last year. We thought we'd wait until the sales after Christmas and this year get a real tree--until we looked at the prices. A nice tree around here goes for at least $70. We bided our time and found an early sale on artificial. Now there are no fire worries, no needles to clean up, and our decorating is done and ready for the kids to come home.

While out shopping, we saw aluminum trees trying to make a comeback and artificial ones that were flocked. It made me think of all the changes over the years and the one thing that has remained constant. The reason for the season--Jesus.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Thoughts- Picture This

Our travels have almost circumnavigated the globe. It's an amazing thought. As we have visited so many different places and I have written about our travels, I struggle to clearly picture in words how those areas and people appeared to me. Think about the most glorious sunset you've ever seen and then try to put it into words. Once you are past the oranges, reds, purples, pinks, etc. it gets more difficult and it is impossible to capture the magnificence of the moment and the emotion it evokes.

Taking a photo or even a video of the experience does not do it justice either. There may be some beautiful pictures as a result, but it will still not equal that one stunning scene that will be embedded in the archives of your mind.

Now imagine the miracle of Christmas. In our heads, we see what others have told us. We see images others have painted--and those images are mostly as an impression of the words of others used to describe the scene. Scripture does not recall a donkey (exactly) for Mary to ride on. Nowhere does it say that there was an innkeeper but we insist on that as part of the story. The three kings were three wise men--but wait! Now we don't even know that there were three. There could have been more since the Bible doesn't really give a number. And they didn't arrive until Jesus was around two years old.

In our joy--in our desire to celebrate this great miracle, we have tried to picture what we were not physically there to experience. In doing so, we have created lovely pictures on cavases and in words that have come to symbolize our Christmas story. While every detail may not be exact, the truth still remains. God sent his only Son so that whoever would believe in Him could have eternal life.

In my mind, I have a picture of heaven. It's based on several places in the Bible where heaven is described. I'm sure the real thing will look nothing like what I've pictured. It will probably be much more glorious than I could ever imagine. Does it diminish what God has prepared? No. It just gives me something to look forward to.

However you picture your Christmas story, a stable or a cave, a donkey or a cart, three wisemen or a dozen, may you focus on the one thing we all know to be true: God's promise fulfilled in His Son, Jesus.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Will The Christ Child Come?

[This is a story that has circulated and been enjoyed by many all over the world. It came to me in an email from friends we had made on board the Queen Mary 2 this past year. Curious, I searched for the "unknown author" online and connected with her finally. Her name is Gaye Willis and she lives in Alaska. The story was written in 1998 and published at LDS World's Countdown to Christmas. Gaye claims she's not a writer but even in telling how she has received feedback from so many all over the world, I think the Lord has blessed her with the gift of words. Here's her story.]

One Christmas we had an interesting experience that I would like to share. Halfway through December we were doing the regular evening things when there was a knock at the door. We opened it to find a small package with a beautiful ceramic lamb inside. We looked at the calendar and realized that the 12 days of Christmas were beginning! We waited excitedly for the next night's surprise and only then, with the gift of a matching shepherd, did we realized that the lamb was part of a nativity set.

Each night we grew more excited to see what piece we would receive. Each was exquisitely beautiful. The kids kept trying to catch the givers as we slowing built the scene at the manager and began to focus on Christ's birth.

On Christmas Eve, all the pieces were in place, but the baby Jesus. My 12 year-old son really wanted to catch our benefactors and began to devise all kinds of ways to trap them. He ate his dinner in the mini-van watching and waiting, but no one came.

Finally we called him in to go through our family's Christmas Eve traditions. But before the kids went to bed we checked the front step -- No Baby Jesus! We began to worry that my son had scared them off.

My husband suggested that maybe they dropped the Jesus and there wouldn't be anything coming. Somehow something was missing that Christmas Eve. There was a feeling that things weren't complete. The kids went to bed and I put out Christmas, but before I went to bed I again checked to see if the Jesus had come -- no, the doorstep was empty.

In our family the kids can open their stockings when they want to, but they have to wait to open any presents until Dad wakes up. So one by one they woke up very early and I also woke up to watch them. Even before they opened their stockings, each child checked to see if perhaps during the night the baby Jesus had come. Missing that piece of the set seemed to have an odd effect. At least it changed my focus. I knew there were presents under the tree for me and I was excited to watch the children open their gifts, but first on my mind was the feeling of waiting for the ceramic Christ Child.

We had opened just about all of the presents when one of the children found one more for me buried deep beneath the limbs of the tree. He handed me a small package from my former visiting teaching companion. This sister was somewhat less-active in the church. I had been her visiting teacher for a couple of years and then, when she was asked to be a visiting teacher, she requested to go with me. I had learned over time they didn't have much for Christmas, so that their focus was the children. It sounded like she didn't get many gifts to open, so I had always given her a small package--new dish towels, the next year's Relief Society lesson manual--not much, but something for her to open. I was touched when at Church on the day before Christmas, she had given me this small package, saying it was just a token of her love and appreciation.

As I took off the bow, I remembered my friendship with her and was filled with gratitude for knowing her and for her kindness and sacrifice In this year giving me a gift. But as the paper fell away, I began to tremble and cry. There in the small brown box was the baby Jesus. He had come! I realized on that Christmas Day that Christ will come into our lives in ways that we don't expect. The spirit of Christ comes into our hearts as we serve one another. We had waited and watched for him to come, expecting the dramatic "knock at the door and scurrying of feet" but he came in a small, simple package that represented service friendship, gratitude, and love.

This experience taught me that the beginning of the true spirit of Christmas comes as we open our hearts and actively focus on the Savior. But we will most likely find him in the small and simple acts of love, friendship and service that we give to each other. This Christmas I want to feel again the joy of knowing that Christ is in our home. I want to focus on loving and serving. More than that I want to open my heart to him all year that I may see him again.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Quick Toffee Treats for Your Party

If you know me at all you know there are times I am truly challenged in the kitchen. I never make Jello. Not because I don't like it but because it never turns out right for me. It's either too rubbery or you can drink it with a straw. I can make these delicious treats though and to my surprise, successfully every time! This is a recipe we circulated on postcards from our book, A Scrapbook of Christmas Firsts. There are lots of other great recipes in there as well--from the other authors who are much more successful in the kitchen.

10 Minute Toffee Treats

1 sleeve saltine crackers
1 cup butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 cups chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil, then line with a single layer of saltines. In saucepan bring butter and sugar to boil. Boil 3 minutes. Immediately pour over saltines. Spread. Bake for ONLY 4-5 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle chocolate chips over top. Wait 4 minutes and spred. Sprinkle with nuts Cool and break into pieces.

Disclaimer: These can be addictive.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Crafty Christmas

For several years the Word Quilters contributed to the blog created for our book A Scrapbook of Christmas Firsts. While we have not done a lot of posts this year, there is still lots of great material at the blog having to do with Christmas. If you are a crafty person looking for some more ideas for Christmas gifts and decorations, here is the link to the list of posts on crafts:

Crafty Saturdays!

Happy crafting!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

10 Ways to Make Home Safer While Away

1. First and foremost is a security system. Whether you hook into a system that sends a response unit to your home or just sets off a loud alarm, it is a good deterent.

2. Most communities will let you call the police station and ask for a house watch while you are gone. They will ask the dates you will be gone, if you have any lights you will leave on or are on timers, and whether you have anyone coming to check the house while you are gone.

3. Random light timers are a good way to make it appear that you are home. If you don't use random timers, set the regular timers to correspond to your usual routine at home.

4. Tell a trusted neighbor you will be away and ask them to keep an eye for anything unusual.

5. Be careful who you tell about your holiday plans. I was in the post office one day and heard a lady loudly explaining how many months they were spending away in Florida. It would not have been difficult for someone to find where she lived and take advantage of her absence.

6. Make sure to stop your mail. You can ask for a vacation hold for up to 30 days. If you plan to be away longer than that, you need to make other arrangements like forwarding or having someone collect your mail.

7. Contact your newspaper carrier and stop delivery for the period you are gone.

8. Ask a neighbor or friend to put a bag of trash out on trash day where yours is usually set--especially if you are gone for more than a week.

9. One of our relatives had a mannequin head that she put on a pillow on the couch and stuffed pillows under a blanket to make it appear someone was sleeping on the couch. Did it work? They never had a break-in but I'm not sure if that's the reason. Still. . .

10. And then there's the fake dog bark. It was set to go off whenever the doorbell rang. And just for good measure, it "barked" occassionally for no reason at all. Just be sure it sounds like a really BIG dog.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Polar Express - The Special Passenger

As the Polar Express (CVSR) pulls away from the North Pole, there is a distant jingle of bells. The lights in our train car shine brightly now and everyone has returned to their seats. We sing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and suddenly the door to our train car opens and there he is himself--the man in the red suit trimmed in white and ho-ho-hoing as he is welcomed with squeals of delight.

Santa makes his way through the car stopping to hear the wishes of all the little ones. As he greets each child, his assistant elf hands him a sleigh bell (after she checks it to be sure it jingles) and soon the whole train car is alive with jingle bells. The car must be full of "believers" since everyone can hear the bells jingle.

Upon Santa's departure, we of course must sing a chorus or two of Jingle Bells. Then it is on to The Funky Chicken, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and other popular requests. Some nights there is a fashion show of pajama ensembles.

Little ones and some big ones begin to fade and eyelids flutter on the ride home. As we pull into the station, coats are gathered, little ones hoisted in arms, and thank yous ring out all around. It's been a great night as always and the memories will last a lifetime.

When the last passenger has left, elves get busy cleaning up the train car for the next night's run.

"Did you see the look on that little one's face when she got the bell?"

"The one in the blue Star Wars PJs really got into the Funky Chicken!"

The memories for the elves will last a lifetime as well.

[Most everyone is familiar with the story of the Polar Express either through the book or the movie. If you aren't, discover its charm this year. Many areas of the country have a Polar Express during the holidays. Check in your area but be sure to book early. It's quite a popular tradition and growing.]

All Aboard The Polar Express!
The Polar Express to the North Pole

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Polar Express to the North Pole!

The Polar Express, also known as the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, sits at the station at Rockside Road in Independence as eager train riders board and are led to their seats by the elves on the train. My job involves serving the hot chocolate and cookies but I help to keep the energetic little ones--and big ones--entertained as we wait for all to board and be seated. Most, including the adults are wearing their pajamas. It is quite a flannel sleepwear fashion show.

Our trainman in the car informs us that all are aboard and the conductor has given the signal for the train to begin moving forward to the North Pole. Our lead elf, Patrick, begins his welcome, introduces the other four elves in the car and the trainman, and then begins the story of The Polar Express. During the telling, the assistant elves and trainman add sound effects, illustrations, and lots of cheering.

Meanwhile back in a little cubby hole, I and another server elf begin pouring hot chocolate into cups, adding lids, and wrapping packaged cookies (straight from Mrs. Claus' oven) with napkins. As soon as the story is finished, they will be handed out.

Between the refreshments and our arrival at the North Pole, we break out in song but soon, the lights in the car begin to dim. It's the signal that we're getting close. All the children are asked to move to one side of the car and the adults to the other and the "Northern Lights" begin to give the landscape a festive glow.

Elf Patrick announces that we are arriving. We're here! The North Pole! We pass the hobo warming himself by the fire and then we see them--the North Pole elves! They are surrounded by thousands of Christmas lights and displays. And, wait! There's Frosty and the Gingerbread Man and Reindeer and Mr. and Mrs. Jack Frost with their dog, Snowflake! We pass the train cars that are holding all the gifts that Santa will deliver on Christmas Eve. As the train pulls through so that all the cars get a view of everything, Elf Patrick points out the Winking Lizard, the watering hole for the North Pole elves (a little humor for the adults).

We stop and wait a few minutes and sure enough, there's Santa! His sleigh is being pulled by a smaller version of the Polar Express and next to him sits Mrs. Claus. Is that a little flour on her nose from all her baking?

It is at this point that all the hours of volunteering are worth it. There is nothing so special as the faces of little ones who are magically transported to a world of their imagination. Faces pressed against the windows are softly lit by the glow of the Christmas lights. I remember my wonder as a child at all that was magical about the season. But our adventure isn't over yet. . .

The Special Passenger
All Aboard The Polar Express!

Thursday, December 08, 2011

All Aboard The Polar Express!!

It's five o'clock and I finish off my elf trappings by making my cheeks pink with my lipstick. Mine is not the whackiest elf costume on the block. In fact if you were to rate it with 10 being the craziest, mine would probably be there at 0. But it fits me--sort of a mix between Mrs. Claus and a pointy earred elf.

Bob, my trainman husband, has already donned his uniform. He looks quite handsome in it and the brass buttons we added to the vest and jacket have really set it off. He doesn't have a hat yet. Trainmen earn their hat when they have a hundred hours of volunteer work in.

I grab my large bag to store my coat in later, and a roll of paper towels. The towels are for wiping up the hot chocolate drips and any spills that might occur in the exitement of visiting the North Pole. They also help to wipe off the windows of the train when they begin to steam up from all the excited little bodies of children whose one wish is to see the big guy in red.

Arriving at the train yard, I park my car, say a silent prayer of thanks that it's dark early and no one saw me driving in costume, and scurry off to check in for my assigned car. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway becomes The Polar Express for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is quite a transformation.

After a quick bite to eat, the train suddenly jolts and then steadily moves toward the station where we will pick up all the eager children and their families for the journey to the "North Pole." I join the other elves in my car and we ready everything for the storytelling, the hot chocolate/cookie partaking, and all the fun, singing, and games along the way.

It isn't long before our car begins to fill with eager voices and spirited Christmas energy. It's what fuels a little elf for the adventure ahead. . .

The Polar Express to the North Pole!
The Special Passenger

Monday, December 05, 2011

Water Island - A Ferry Ride From St. Thomas

On our recent cruises in the Caribbean, we stopped twice at Charlotte Amolie on St. Thomas. I am not fond of that port no matter which pier (Havensport or Crown Bay) we dock at. Crown Bay is a little nicer because it is less congested and we are close to the Crown Bay Marina where we can catch the Water Island Ferry. Actually it's more a water taxi than a ferry since it is a small boat for passengers and suitcases only.

We have visited several times (see an earlier post) and this time we decided to go over and tool around the island in a golf cart. We happened upon a golf cart rental through the suggestion of someone we met. The Apollo Auto & Golf Cart rental agent met us at the pier on Water Island and gave us a quick overview with a small map.

For $35 we toured around the small island and caught views of St. Thomas that were very scenic. Best of all there was no congestion, no sales people hassling you, and it was nice and quiet. The island is mostly privately owned with many get-away homes that are occupied during the winter months.

At the top of a lookout point was Fort Segarra, and underground fort that was in the process of being finished when the war ended. You can still see the "pill box" and the gun mounts that were never used. It is all a part of the fascinating history you can find at the Water Island History site.

It only took an hour to tour the island, even in a slow moving golf cart, but we had planned to stop at Honeymoon Bay beach for a swim and lunch. The beach got busy with excursions from the cruise ships but there was still plenty of room to enjoy it and the beautiful waters of the Caribbean.

All told, our excursion (including lunch) cost us about $75 for the two of us. A bargain these days.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Books For The Road - Reclaiming Lily

As a Patti Lacy fan, I couldn't wait to read her latest, Reclaiming Lily. My patience was rewarded with yet another great read. Reclaiming Lily is the story of a Chinese doctor, Kai Chang, whose youngest sister was adopted by an American family, the Powells, who feel threatened not only by the arrival of Kai who wants to meet with her sister but also the news of a possible medical problem that could affect their daughter.

The story plays on many levels--the medical problems associated with a genetic disease, a defiant teenager who is rebelling against the fact that she's adopted, an adoptive mother who fears losing her child's affections, and a sister on a mission to heal as well as fulfill her mother's dying wish. All of these mix with the background of Chinese tradition and heritage.

I can relate to several of them. Perhaps that is why I found Lacy's tale so striking. I am an adoptive mom and I know what it's like to have a daughter rebel against her situation. I know what it's like to have your adopted child meet with her biological family. I know the fears that Gloria Powell experienced in the story. I've also been to China and learned a bit about the Cultural Revolution and the culture in which China exists today. It is fascinating and Lacy has done her homework.

I write all of this just to say that you will have a good read and what Lacy has presented in her novel, Reclaiming Lily, is quite on the mark.Share

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Books For The Road - The Best of Me

Romance novels are not necessarily one of my favorite reads but I enjoy the story-styling of Nicholas Sparks so when I wanted a nice easy read with a little depth and some romance, I picked his recent release, The Best of Me.

The Best of Me is about two teenagers who fall deeply in love but due to circumstances of who their families are, they are torn apart. Actually in the name of love, Dawson releases Amanda when it is time for her to go off to college and her parents have completely forbidden her to see him. His reasoning is that love should be able to set someone free. Amanda wonders if that is because he expects love to return to him. It does. Years later when the two of them are reunited by the passing of a common friend but now the two have led very different lives. Still, they realize their love for each other has never faltered but life is complicated at best and the two struggle with what the consequences could be should they reunite.

Sparks will make you truly care about these characters and by the end you will definitely need tissues handy if you are in the least sentimental. I’m not sure if I liked the fact that I saw the ending coming probably sooner than I wanted but at least I was prepared for it. Good read for the road.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beef & Guinness Stew

While in Ireland, we had Beef and Guinness Stew several times for dinner. The recipes were a little varied. Some were very rich and hearty, gravy-based and served over potatoes, once with a filo dough topping, and other times the dish was more like a soup. When we visited the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, we picked up a recipe card for the popular stew. You can find other recipes to use with Guinness at their website.

Beef and Guinness Stew

7 oz. (200ml) of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout
1 lb. stewing beef, cut in cubes
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced (the carrots in Ireland were huge so I'd use two or three of ours)
1 large celery, diced
1 large parsnip, diced
1 quart beef stock
sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary (to taste)

Brown the meat in large pan. Add vegetables and cook until tender. Pour in the Guinness and simmer to reduce by half. Add the beef stock and herbs and simmer for an hour to hour and a half. (You might want to thicken it a bit if you like more of a gravy than a soup.)

It is said that the stew is better made a day in advance and served over champ potato.

Champ Potato

2 pounds potatoes, peeled and halved
1 cup milk
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 cup butter
1 ground black pepper to taste

Place potatoes into large pot, and fill with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.

Drain well. Return to very low heat and allow the potatoes to dry out for a few minutes. Meanwhile, heat the milk and green onions gently in a saucepan, until warm.
Mash the potatoes, salt and butter together until smooth. Stir in the milk and green onion until evenly mixed. Season with freshly ground black pepper.

The Irish also make a potato called colcannon which is the same only with a little cabbage added to the potatoes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Slán go fóill, Ireland

Our last day of touring Ireland we left Belfast and traveled down the coast with the Irish Sea on our left as we headed for Dublin. This last little bit of roadway would bring us full circle around the Emerald Isle. We stopped in Newcastle for one last tea and scone and arrived in the last place on our itinerary my husband wanted to see, Bru na Boinne.

In Bru na Boinne, the area between the towns of Slane and Drogheda lie prehistoric passage tombs. There are about 40 mounds in the earth which are the oldest surviving traces of human activity in the area. The largest of the mounds is Newgrange which is surrounded by a kerb of 97 stones, the most impressive of which is the entrance stone that is covered in engravings.

Much to our chagrin, we found that the tour would take too long for us to do since we had arrived a little too late to catch the ride to the tomb and would have to wait until the next scheduled one. We explored a bit the visitor's center and added on another reason to return to Ireland.

Along our journey I picked up quite an eclectic collection of observations of Ireland and its people. Here are a few:

* Hubcaps are often tie-wrapped not because of theft but because they could pop off on the rugged roads.

* Side view mirrors are the most likely auto repair job because of the narrow stonewall lined roads. We managed to return the rental with both still intact.

* M roads are fastest and widest. N roads are wide enough for two cars and can be quite fast. R roads are a bit unpredictable in size and speed. L roads are usually one lane, sometimes with grass in the middle and even though the speed limit may say 80 kph keep it much lower.

* The Irish like their butter. As one woman put it "we use it by the slab."

* With lots of drizzly rain and sunshine, you are guaranteed to see rainbows--although we found no pots of gold.

* No matter how fast you travel on a road, no matter how narrow the road, the locals will pass you.

* Portions in the restaurants were always huge which begs the question, Why aren't more Irish people obese?

* Black pudding is a spicy breakfast sausage. If you have a squeamish stomach, don't ask why it's black.

* Count on dramatic sky-scapes to be ever changing.

* Pitch and Putt courses are not your regulation golf courses. It's a whole different game.

* A sign that shows a road narrowing is usually accompanied by the words, "Traffic Calming Device." Huh?

* Rest assured that if you hesitate whether in your car or on foot, someone will ask if you need help with directions.

* And if a gentleman should happen to come up to your table while you're having tea and start a conversation in Gaelic, just smile back at him, nod your head a bit, and keep quiet. He'll never know you didn't understand a word of it. Then again, you could be meeting up with a leprechaun and not know it.

With that, I say Slán go fóill, Ireland. Goodbye for now. I suspect we will return. You have totally enchanted us.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Belfast, The Black Taxi Tour

We stood in front of the Titanic Quarter where our tour had ended to wait on a Black Taxi that was about to pick us up for our scheduled Black Taxi Tour, a tour to take us through the area of Belfast that was most active during The Troubles. When the taxi arrived the astute members of our group realized. . .it wasn't black. It was gray. When we pointed that out, we got quite a barrage of language explaining that not all "black taxis" were black. We moved on.

The taxi driver/tour guide who looked like he might have lost a few battles in the street, or the bar, wanted to know where our car was since he would not be bringing us back to where he picked us up. He drove us the short distance to the lot where we'd parked, spoke a few moments with the guys as they determined where our B&B was, and then led the way to the B&B so the guys could leave the car there. Still not where he would drop us off but we could return more easily there.

That left my sister-in-law and me in the car with the driver. We just kept giving each other glances wondering what would come out of his mouth next. But without the men there, he was very polite.

Still feeling a bit uneasy about this whole thing, I relaxed a little as the guys joined us again and even had to laugh at the looks on the other three faces when our driver asked if we'd had any "crack" in Ireland. Actually the word is craic (pronounced crack) and means fun. They looked at me like I was crazy when I said, "Yeah!"

The tour consisted mainly of stopping to look at all the murals Belfast is so famous for. Depending upon which neighborhood you are in, Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, Republican or Loyalist, the murals change expressing that point of view. With all the labels associated with basically two groups of people, it got very confusing. Even after researching, it still is.

Since the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998, things have quieted down. As in Londonderry our guide had emphasized that Troubles were over, our taxi driver repeated the same thing. It was hard to be convinced when each time he got in the back of the taxi to sit on the extra jump seat and give commentary, he kept looking around the area and over his shoulder. While I read that the Black Taxi drivers are both Catholic and Protestant, I'm guessing ours was maybe Catholic since when we appeared to be in the Catholic area he relaxed a bit.

The tone of the murals has changed somewhat. There are 17 walls in the city that separate the Catholic areas from the Protestant. On one such wall along Falls Road, the murals have been toned down a bit and are now more generally political and often have to do with international issues. In the Shankill Road area, there is a housing project that surrounds what look like practice fields for soccer perhaps. I shudder to think that there are lots of children playing on them because the mural that made the greatest impact on me was one our driver said was so very unusual in its perspective. The gunman's eyes in the picture, as well as his gun, seem to follow you no matter where you stand on the fields. The UFF under his picture stands for Ulster Freedom Fighters a part of the Ulster Defense Association.

The history of the Catholic vs. Protestant struggle is very confusing to me especially since it doesn't really seem to stem from religious beliefs so much as that your religious preference (or what you were born to) determines your political affiliation. With all the historical places we visited the best I could piece together to try to understand how it all began was that when Henry VIII was king in the 16th century, he broke with the Catholic church. Remember the eight wives? Rome was not pleased with him. He tried to force Ireland to become a Protestant country as well sending his emissaries to destroy monasteries and do away with anything Catholic.

Animosity developed. Then later, in the 17th century came a struggle for power between William of Orange and King James. William was Protestant and James, you got it, Catholic. This is the struggle that led to the gates of Londonderry being barred as King James tried to storm the Protestant city loyal to William and the slogan, "We will not surrender." Now all of this is a little too simple an explanation but it points out one thing--hate festers.

In more recent history, the rule of England (the UK) over Ireland led to the Protestant politics invoking severe sanctions against the Catholic contingency often sending Catholics to jail for minor reasons. Remember there was also that potato famine. In 1922, the majority of the Irish island seceded from English rule and formed the Republic. For some reason, Northern Ireland chose to remain a part of the UK. So you see, there are actually two different countries that have a common heritage.

Are you confused yet? I still am.

In a way, I wish we had not taken the Black Taxi Tour--oh, by the way, the taxi driver's language improved greatly when he realized we weren't users of certain words. The tour was depressing in that we could see that even with the peace agreement in effect, there are still walls that separate, still back yards completely screened for protection, still places where mistrust and hate appear to brew. It cast a shadow on our view of Belfast which had been so positive in the morning on our Titanic Walk.

The taxi driver left us off at the Crown Bar in the "neutral" area of Belfast, the area he claimed where everyone got along. The Crown Bar was beautiful inside and out. It is one of the oldest landmarks in Belfast. We looked around and then headed across the street for a coffee. We needed to sit and absorb all that we had seen.

We walked a bit around a very nice shopping area. Perhaps had we been able to stay an extra day, we would have enjoyed it even more but we called it a day and found a taxi to take us back to our B&B in a nice residential area of Belfast.

One more note and I will finish my philosophizing. Over the years, we have been to many places all over the world. Just a glance at the category listing of my posts will show you that. Lots and lots of history has been explored in each place and the struggles of the world all seem to stem from two things: the desire for power and greed. Enough said?
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