Saturday, December 21, 2013

Friendship

I know that for you, my friends in my inner circle, it can be quite exhausting at times. I'm relentless and aggressive in evangelizing my outlook on life. I can't help it. I so firmly believe that there is joy to be found around that next corner that the enthusiasm for what's to come just bubbles out of me. I am excited about the magic within our reach. Life *is* magical. Life is a miracle. Every day is an amazing gift! I want to live mine to it's fullest potential and I want to see you do the same alongside. I know that God created the universe and from end to end it's filled with wonder. I'm an optimist because the most powerful all-mighty God set things in motion to come together for the best and that's not just a fairytale but a promise we can count on. I count on it. I expect it. When you're in my inner circle my joy is going to knock on your heart over and over again. It's going to whisper to you, 'Believe. Believe in love. Believe in joy. Believe in the very best.' Do you know I see the best in you? I see your hurts and your wounds too. I see the scars of shitty childhood and the pain of fresh cuts from more recent tumbles. These experiences lie to you about your worth, they poison your mind against God and try to deny your entitlement to joy. I want you to see beyond those lies. I want you to see the truth of how amazing you are. I want you to see how you have been destined for great things. And every chance I get, I will push you to be bold and be brave and come along on magical adventures with me and revel in joy.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Still miss you Daddy

After my father died and in the midst of my grief I found that I wanted to hear his voice more than anything. I scoured my voicemail archives, searching desperately for even one message from him. And then I found this, played it, and felt comforted. He died in March of 2011 and I have probably replayed this voicemail thousands of times since. At first I played it over and over and over again every day but as the time passed I find I need to come back to it only once every few months or so.

Note that if you're viewing this post through the email subscription distribution you probably won't be able to playback the audio; you'll need to come to my blog site to listen to to.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Butternut Squash Tart with Sage & Chile Honey


adapted from Bon Appetit

 

ingredients

  • 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water
  • 1 small long butternut squash, peeled
  • kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 habanero, scotch bonnet, or red Thai chile pepper, minced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 12 fresh sage leaves
  • 1/4 cup shaved Parmesan
  • black pepper

preparation

Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Unroll 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry onto prepared sheet.
Cut stem off squash. Using a mandoline, thinly slice squash from stem down through the neck, preserving base of squash for another use. Steam the squash slices until al dente. Brush pastry with 1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water. Arrange as many rounds of the butternut squash over pastry as you prefer, overlapping as needed and leaving a 1/2" border. Brush squash slices with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with kosher salt. Place tart, uncovered, in oven and bake until pastry is deep golden brown and cooked through, 25–30 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine 1/4 cup honey, 1 thinly sliced chile pepper, and 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat (add another minced chile pepper if more heat is desired). Boil until thickened slightly and syrupy, about 6 minutes.
Line a plate with paper towels. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet until just beginning to smoke. Add 12 fresh sage leaves; fry until crisp, about 30 seconds. Transfer to paper towels to drain.
Slice tart. Arrange 1/4 cup shaved Parmesan on top; drizzle with chile-infused honey. Garnish with fried sage leaves and a few grinds of black pepper.



Butternut Squash, Sage, and Ricotta Ravioli with Hazelnut Brown-Butter & Brussels Sprout Leaves

 

Butternut squash ravioli has been a trendy item at fine dining establishments the past few years. I’ve wanted to try my hand at it for awhile now so when our friend Michael asked me to teach him how to make ravioli from scratch (we covered how to make fettuccine last month) I thought it was the perfect opportunity to perfect butternut squash ravioli.

 

I started with a recipe I found online for the filling, refined it (changed the cheese it calls for, added roasted Brussels sprout leaves) and used Marcella Hazan’s recipe for the ravioli dough. From start to finish this dinner is a time consuming process (multiple hours) but well worth it. Make it for someone special who will appreciate your hard work.

Ingredients

For ravioli

  • 2 cups flour
  • 4 large eggs

For filling

  • 2 pounds butternut squash*
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground sage
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3 ounces ricotta cheese

For sauce

 

*You can use either 2 pounds of whole, uncooked squash for this recipe or 1 and 3/4 pounds of peeled, frozen, diced, raw squash from your grocer’s freezer.

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425°F and lightly grease a baking sheet.

Make ravioli dough:

Dump the flour onto a clean work surface (I use my kitchen counter) and make a well in the center. Crack the eggs and pour them into the well. The flour should keep the eggs from running. Scramble the eggs with a fork, then using clean hands, draw the flour over and into the egg mixture, a little at a time, incorporating as much flour as you need to make the dough come together. Using this method allows us to leave some of the flour out or add it all in depending on the humidity in our kitchen and the bulk of the egg so that we don’t create too dry a dough. Once the dough comes together (should not be overly sticky; a little less sticky than pizza dough) you can begin to knead it – either by hand or using the dough hook in your stand mixer – until it’s smooth and satiny (at least 8 minutes if kneading by hand). This step is crucial; if you underknead the dough it will not survive its passage through your pasta machine. Once the dough is ready, form it into a disc or ball and wrap it in saran wrap and place it in the fridge to rest.

Make filling:
For whole squash, slice and seed it before putting the squash halves, flesh sides down on a baking sheet and roast in middle of oven 30 minutes, or until flesh is very tender. When squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh into a bowl and discard skin. For frozen squash, steam until tender and then pour into a bowl. Mash squash with a fork until smooth.

While squash is steaming or roasting, in a skillet cook onion and sage in butter with salt and pepper to taste over moderate heat, stirring, 5 minutes, or until onion is golden brown. Deglaze with white wine as needed. Stir in garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Cool onion mixture slightly and add to squash. Add ricotta cheese and stir to combine well.

Make and stuff ravioli:

Take the pasta out of the fridge and on a lightly floured surface, cut the dough into 10 pieces. Working one piece at a time, shape each piece into a  rectangle and pass it through your pasta machine on the widest setting. Fold dough in half, turn it 90 degrees and pass it through again, this time on the next widest setting. Now pass the dough (without any more folding) through the next widest setting and repeat with the narrower settings until you’ve gotten through the next to narrowest setting on your machine.

Put rolled out rectangle on a lightly floured surface, and evenly space tablespoon size mounds of filling along the long bottom edge of the rectangle, leaving a half an inch space between the mounds and leaving a quarter inch space between the long bottom edge of the dough and the filling. Fold the top half of the dough over the filling, pressing the long top edge against the long bottom edge to form a seam. Using a ravioli cutter, cut along the bottom edge of the dough just above the seam to seal the dough and make a pretty cut edge. Do this as well for the sides of the dough and also between the mounds. You now have a 3 edged ravioli and you can also run the ravioli cutter along the top edge to make it 4 edged ravioli. Set aside the dough scraps and at the end of rolling out all of the dough you may have enough scraps to combine and roll out one more rectangle.

Transfer ravioli to a dry kitchen towel. Make more ravioli with remaining wrappers and filling in same manner, transferring as formed to towel and turning occasionally to dry slightly.

Make brown butter and Brussels sprouts:

Cut the base off a handful of Brussels sprouts so that you are easily able to peel apart the leaves. Peel and discard the outer, frayed leaves. Peel the inner leaves and toss lightly in a bowl with olive oil. Roast the leaves on a cookie sheet at 375 F for approx 5-10 minutes or just until the leaves begin to deepen in flavor.  In skillet cook butter with hazelnuts and fresh sage leaves over moderate heat until butter begins to brown and leaves crisp, about 2 minutes, and immediately remove from heat (nuts will continue to cook). Mix in Brussels sprout leaves. Season hazelnut butter with salt and pepper and keep warm, covered.

Cook ravioli:

In a large stockpot bring salted water to a boil for ravioli.

Cook ravioli in batches in gently boiling water 6 minutes, or until they rise to surface and are tender (do not let water boil vigorously once ravioli have been added or the ravioli make break apart). Carefully transfer ravioli as cooked with a slotted spoon to a large shallow baking pan and add enough cooking water to reach 1/2 inch up side of pan. Keep ravioli warm, covered.

Transfer ravioli with a slotted spoon (letting excess cooking liquid drip off) to plates and top with hazelnut brown-butter sauce.

Note that this recipe will vary in its pasta dough yield based on humidity and how thick you roll out your dough. You may find you need to actually double the brown butter sauce if you’ve rolled out a significant amount of ravioli. It’s all about your preference, so don’t be afraid to experiment. You will almost always have filling left over, which is excellent the next day warmed up and served alongside roasted pork.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Gratitude

Today a new acquaintance thanked me for the time and grueling effort I put into working with the mentally ill back in my days as a counselor (my first career before I got into IT). Nobody has ever acknowledged or thanked me for this before and I didn't realize how much I needed to hear that. The world of mental hospitals and physical restraints and Ativan and trying to help people who struggle with helping themselves is a horror story that I'll never forget. When I have bad days at work now (which is rare btw) I think back to what it was like working in those mental health facilities - scraping human feces off the walls, dealing with violent outbursts, or trying to comfort a little boy who was kept in a cage and fed nothing but dog food and table scraps till he was 9 - and I count my blessings. My thoughts and prayers go out to those who are dealing with mental illness as a patient, family member, or health service provider.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Book Review: Diary of a Wildflower

Over my vacation, I read Diary of a Wildflower by Ruth White.

Lorelei is one of many children in the Starr family, growing up in an isolated mountain area in Virginia in the early 1900s. Diary details her childhood - very reminiscent of the Waltons, but a bit darker - and her eventual horizon-broadening introduction to city life and upper class society. Inevitably Lorelei crosses paths with a handsome and kind upper class gentleman and together they bring her Cinderella tale to its happy conclusion. I am a sucker for happy endings and so White has found a fan in me.

White is an accomplished children's book author and this is her first foray into adult literature and the adventure that is Kindle self-publishing. She's done very well here and other than a few typos inherent in self-publishing and an abrupt and stark change in accent & writing style for Lorelei's character (our narrator) late in the novel, I find Diary to be a great read.

Recommended; 3 out of 5 stars.




Book Review: The Wicked Girls

Just finished reading The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood. It bills itself as a psychological thriller and it definitely delivers. Probably one of the most riveting books I've read all year.

At the age of 11, Jade Walker and Annabel Oldacre are convicted as juvenile offenders and co-conspirators in the brutal murder of a 4 year old girl (Chloe) in their community. Because of Walker's dysfunctional upbringing, no one is surprised at her involvement in this kind of trouble but Oldacre comes from a proper well respected family and so she is viewed with more derision as "she should have known better". Likewise, Jade's rehabilitation is more generous and forgiving allowing for her poor upbringing while Annabel is dealt with by the court system more harshly. Annabel has her own family troubles as well - just deeply hidden from the public spotlight- making the way she was singled out for stiffer punishment seem especially cruel. Years later, aged out of the juvenile prison system and released, Jade and Annabel live with the secret of their shared past. Each of them has been shielded by the state with a new identity and sent into adulthood with a fresh start and gainful employment and they both believe that no one is the wiser to their secrets. A condition of their parole is that they must not have any contact with one another and while both adhere to this without issue for years, a brewing news story in Annabel's community brings Jade (now Kirsty Lindsay) face to face with Annabel (now Amber Gordon) and opens up a new chapter in their lives that threatens to unravel everything good they've managed to establish after their release. Woven into this thrilling central plot are two compelling side stories involving disturbed men in Annabel's community, a great deal of secondary character development for Jade and Annabel's friends and coworkers, and a well paced flashback story that slowly teases out the details of the day Chloe died.  

At the end of the book I found myself questioning the perception of Annabel and Jade as cold blooded childhood killers. Did each get what they truly deserved in the prison system? And as adults did they prove that wickedness is something you're born with or something you grow into with a habit of bad choices and lies? Perhaps even evil can be something we are desperately and helplessly pushed into by external factors?

The great strength of Marwood's writing is that she has drawn me into a genre I rarely enjoy. I prefer happy endings and I don't do well with graphic violence but Marwood tells her tale so well that I can't help but recommend it anyway.


Book Review: Lies You Wanted to Hear




Lies You Wanted to Hear is a well paced, well styled, and engaging debut novel by James Whitfield Thomson. A lot of discussion has taken place regarding the author, who at age 67, has made quite an entrance onto the literary scene. In Lies, Thomson showcases the rocky relationship between Matt and Lucy from courtship through its eventual unraveling. Lucy is depicted as wholly selfish and troubled while Matt's character is more nuanced. The decisions that each of them make wound not only each other but their children as well. For a lot of fathers reading this novel, Matt's sentiments on the family court system and his moral dilemmas on how to protect his children will hit a little to close to home. And I don't doubt that for a few mothers who look back on their decision to settle for a 'nice' guy and  wrestle with feelings of wanting more - more excitement, more fun, more passion - that Lies will hit a little close to home as well. This, THIS is the dark version of Bridges of Madison County  where temptations are not refused, where adultery is discovered, and where lives are ruined in a cautionary tale.

A good read; 3.5 stars.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trip Report: Guyana

One of the beautiful things about mile running is the adventure that awaits when you open yourself up to traveling wherever the sales lead you. Out of the more than 80 countries pinned to my wish list board, Guyana, a small country in northeast South America, has never figured in at all. And yet when Delta dangled an unbelievable sale to the country I didn’t hesitate to book a flight for myself and the dear husband for a September 2012 weekend getaway.

Once the tickets were purchased and I started to complete the preliminary research for the trip I was taken aback. Typhoid risk: palpable. Yellow Fever risk: moderate. Malaria preventatives: required. Ahh well, all in the name of adventure right? So hubby and I endured the shots, ordered the preventatives and steeled ourselves for the unknown.  We also put up with a lot of good natured ribbing from coworkers and friends who questioned our judgment on selecting Guyana as a destination. Sale or no sale, they couldn’t see the appeal.

Making advanced travel arrangements isn’t easy for Guyana. There aren’t a lot of tourists and so a lot of the tour companies on the ground don’t man their phones regularly and even when they do, they are reluctant to pre-arrange sightseeing without confirmation of a large party. It’s pretty much the norm for them to take the wait-and-see approach for excursions- if they have enough interest on a certain day they will make the trip, if not they won’t. I like to have all my loose ends pinned down in advance so that was a bit maddening for me. Because of this, only our first day (Friday) was mapped out. I planned to lead Jonathan around Georgetown (capital city of Guyana), pointing out the rich British history that is still evident today in the architecture. The rest of the weekend was up in the air, to be decided upon arrival.

As soon as our plane touched down in Georgetown and we walked off the plane I questioned my decision to book the trip. It was very hot. It was very sticky. Even Thailand wasn’t as steamy as this place. I really hate sweating. And the malaria risk means you can’t get away with wearing shorts and exposing yourself to mosquitos. We took a taxi to our hotel and found it wasn’t much cooler in our room either, even with the air conditioner cranked up. We were staying at the Herdmanston Lodge and the staff was nice enough to allow us a very early check in which gave us a chance to freshen up and change into not-sweaty clothes before we ventured out for our city tour.

Georgetown was explored by the Spanish and settled by early South American tribesman. It was eventually taken over by the Dutch and served as a lovely little Dutch colony back in the day, circa 1700s. Taken by the British in 1781, taken by the French in 1782, restored to the Dutch in 1784,  taken by the British again in 1796, given back to the Dutch in 1802, and taken by the British once more in 1803 (which controlled the city until Guyana gained independence in 1966), there’s a rich multicultural history to the city and beyond into the countryside.

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Under British control, thousands of Africans were brought in as slaves and then indentured laborers from India were also sailed in to work as a stop-gap measure for the lost productivity once slavery of Africans was abolished. This created two distinct underclasses of ethnic groups in the community and precipitated racial discord that persists to this day. Because many Indians look to their heritage as that of a proud working class people who saved and scrimped to get ahead and buy themselves out from indentured servitude they see themselves as above those whose ancestors were mere property. Reinforcing their prejudice, when the British and other Europeans departed en masse following the 1966 independence, those of Indian ancestry captured most of the governing positions across every community, overseeing those they believe to be beneath them. There wasn’t one person we came across in Guyana who didn’t have a laundry list of complaints about the competing ethnic group they share their community with. Those of African descent accuse the Indians of conspiring to keep them down, of nepotism on a large scale, of corruption, and of hateful prejudice. Indians meanwhile accuse Africans of theft, idleness, envy, and ignorance.

Walking around Georgetown on foot from beautiful English era building to building, we were introduced firsthand to politics in Guyana: trash overflowing from every dumpster, strewn across every public surface, and littering even the beaches. I’ve never seen so much filth in all my life. Why  it is this way: in an effort to extract greater taxes from the residents, the city mayor halted trash pick up, claiming there wasn’t enough money in the treasury to pay for it until the community agreed to a tax increase. The community refused to consent to more taxes and so the trash piled up over many months with both sides at a stand off. We passed people dropping their trash in the street, in the parks, on the sidewalks. When asked why not just clean up their own trash they replied it’s the mayor’s job and they won’t give in and let him win. So they live in their once beautiful city with the trash piling up day by day. As I alluded to, there are a handful of beautiful old historic buildings but I couldn’t bring myself to snap any pictures with the trash desecrating their exteriors. Here’s a shot another visitor took in cleaner times of St. George’s Cathedral, which boasts bragging rights as the tallest wooden structure in the world.

Photo Credit: Dmitri Allicock

After a sticky, steamy, sweaty, rather depressing day walking around Georgetown I hoped that I could find a way to salvage our weekend and squeeze something amazing out of it. As luck would have it, I came across Baganara Island Resort online and they had a vacancy. The price was very very affordable and best of all it meant an escape from Georgetown and it’s trash problem. Most guests at Baganara book the private speedboat or charter plane direct from Georgetown but hubby and I are a special kind of cheap so we opted to piecemeal our way there with public transportation supplemented by the minimum private speedboat trip required to transfer us from the closest public terminal to the island. This meant a long taxi ride from our hotel in Georgetown Saturday morning to a public dock a few towns over, a grueling public speedboat ride (DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT! DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT! Vagina bruising is a real thing, people!) from the public dock in that town to a public dock in another town further up the river, and then finally a quick private speedboat ride from that dock to the island. A couple of hours overall to get there and quite the hassle.

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Fresh picked bananas waiting on the public dock to be transferred via speedboat to a nearby town up the river.

While it would take a few days for my pelvic bruising to subside (DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT!), as soon as we stepped off the boat onto Baganara Island all of our stresses and angst just melted away. And while we were still melting too (so so so hot outside), hubby and I each had a nice glass of fresh made lime crush placed in our hands to cool us down and welcome us to the resort. The resort maintains a staff to cater to dozens of guests and yet we were blessed to discover we were the sole clients that weekend. An entire private island to ourselves! A entire team of people at our beck and call! With the currency exchange rates as they were, our nightly stay ($200/night USD) when priced in Guyana dollars appeared outrageous. Admittedly, it was a bit of a thrill to leave a status update on Facebook noting we were renting a private island with staff in South America for $40,000 a night.

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View from the outdoor terrace at Baganara

The food at Baganara was excellent, the staff provided top notch service, and the grounds were lovely. There was a jungle for hiking, a spacious outdoor terrace for playing games or reading, a small beach on the river for swimming, and a comfy hammock. Give me a hammock and I’m content.

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Hiking Baganara: a spectacular tree

 

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Hammock= Jenni bliss

We spent the next 24 hours relaxing and feeling great about our lives and then it got even better: we opted for the excursion from the island to Kaieteur Falls, which is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. At five times the height of Niagara Falls, it’s also quite tall. An adorable little Cessna style plane came to pick us up (the island has a private runway) and away we went on an adventure. One at the top of the falls, there was a meandering scenic hike to the water’s edge and wildlife viewing with our expert guide (tiny tiny tiny poison dart frogs) before we flew back to Baganara for lunch and a bit more relaxing.

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Afternoon ride

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Approaching the waterfall

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Up close and personal

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Don’t step back too far…

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From the top of the falls looking into the distance, following the river with our eyes

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Looking straight down over the very edge of the waterfall

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Final shot of Kaieteur Falls as we traveled away by plane

We opted to take the charter plane from Baganara back to Georgetown and then it was a quick taxi back to the Herdmanston for our final night in Guyana. The next morning we paid our taxi driver a little something extra to swing by an unlicensed liquor store (Guyana produces some fabulous dark rums) en route to the airport for our return flight to the States.

In retrospect, I’m really glad we took a chance on Guyana. I’d recommend it to anyone, with some caveats. Namely, little to no time in Georgetown (unless they clean up the city) and more time in Baganara. Make sure to ask for Kurt Jordan when you call the resort (From the US: 011-592-222-8055); he’s the manager and he will get you set up perfectly. Definitely schedule an excursion to Kaieteur Falls – it’s breathtaking. Oh and I’d recommend splurging and taking the private motorboat or charter plane from Georgetown. The public transportation is not something I’d ever care to replicate.

Happy adventures!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: Stick With It

Reviewing business books has mostly been depressing as I’ve found so many of them directly contradict my values and theological understandings as a Christian and prescribe strategies for “success” wholly incompatible with the Christian walk. So I was particularly pleased with the themes Lee Colan advanced in his new book, Stick With It as they avoided such deficits. Colan reminds us (or informs those who weren’t already aware) that perseverance is the hinge on which the doors of success are opened. While strategic planning is necessary for success it is never sufficient; follow through is key.

Colan breaks down perseverance (or adherence as he refers to it) into three essential components:

1. Focus (on our mission)

2. Competence (to complete necessary actions derived from our mission)

3. Passion (for the whole of the work before us and what it stands for)

For each component, Colan provides a detailed blueprint for building and sustaining the intensity necessary to succeed. He includes useful little strategies such as relying on create once- run many times routines, and tracking leading AND lagging indicators of success to verify we are on track.

Perseverance is a lost virtue in American society, that much is clear. So many (myself included) get excited about a shiny new plan and throw ourselves into things with gusto only to slowly fade in enthusiasm and effort a few days or weeks down the line. 21 days to form a habit and all that right? But how many of us actually make it to day 22? Very few I’m afraid. It’s theoretically simple but never easy in practice: plan to stick to the plan! Keep on keeping on. Have the wise been reminding the young, the weak in discipline, the slaves to quick fixes of this key principle for centuries? YES. Nevertheless, Colan’s voice adding to the great chorus of the wise over the millennia on this matter is a welcome one; one more person reminding us of the importance in seeing things through can only help shape our character.

Anyone who has struggled with self-discipline and found that there is a part of himself that has trouble following through with the well intentioned plans the other part of himself drafts in earnest will find value in Stick With It. Hint: that means everyone. Romans chapter 7 reminds us, “21So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” Colan provides some clear and useful techniques for stepping on the neck of that slothful sinful nature within us. For those readers who do not subscribe to Christianity, you needn’t worry – Colan never actually references scripture or religion  - he simply reaffirms the value of adherence to our mission, be it corporate or personal, and provides practical methods for achieving adherence. But his counsel overlaps so beautifully with scriptural principles that the faithful will easily recognize the wisdom in his understandings and prescriptions whether he intended to present a case for discipleship or not.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ducks with Hats

Suzanne reminded me of one of the best parts of our Pacific Coast Highway trip last year that I forgot to share with you readers. And it would be such a tragedy if you didn’t get to share in this joy.

Presenting ducks with bad toupees.

Yes, ducks with bad toupees. Or perhaps ducks with fascinators if you prefer to imagine they’re wearing little hats. These fellas lived at one of the hotels we stayed at and wandered inside our room one morning.

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Trip Report: Pacific Coast Highway

Almost one year ago, three of my favorite people and I flew across the country, crammed ourselves into a convertible and drove the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to Santa Cruz. We lifted our itinerary from my dog-eared copy of National Geographic Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips. Both the book and numerous other guides online recommend driving from south to north for the best views, so that’s just what we did.

Our first night we stopped in Santa Monica to enjoy dinner with my Uncle Lucien at a seaside restaurant before settling in Santa Barbara for the evening. Traffic was pretty bad from San Diego onward but given the mess that Washington, DC metro traffic always is, it was not more than we could handle.

The next morning we were up early and ready to take on the Pacific Coast. We spent a bit of time touring the Santa Barbara Mission (known as the Queen of the Missions) in the morning before heading out onto Highway 101 and it was a great little start to our morning. The Mission features a beautiful expansive courtyard (perfect for weddings!) and some fantastic murals and tile inside the buildings.

View of the Santa Barbara Mission 

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I’d read a lot about Lompoc and it’s abundant flower fields. I got everyone on the trip (Jonathan and our friends Suzanne and Penny) excited about the flowers and giddy with anticipation over the amazing floral displays that were sure to come. So of course when we got there nobody local (we asked several people) seemed to even know what the “famous 19 mile flower drive” was and our efforts to find the fields on our own were finally rewarded with just a few patches of color. I don’t know why, but my flower viewing excursions are ALWAYS disappointments. Granted some of it comes down to not passing through at the scheduled peak flower time (we were at Keukenhof three weeks before the main tulip blooms and at the Portland rose garden one month before the roses appeared) but even when we come in the “right” season we seem to have problems. I once arranged an entire itinerary for Mt. Rainier around peak wildflower bloom only to have a freak cold winter delay the flowers to a week past our visit; likewise a bitter cold winter last year kept the Going to the Sun Road closed 10 days beyond our visit. Is this me complaining that God doesn’t bend nature to my travel schedule? Yeah, I guess it is.

Lompoc Flower Fields

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Most unusual stop on our trip? Definitely the Madonna Inn. This place is unbelievable in its décor and as a bonus it serves up fantastic cake. There is a waterfall in the men’s bathroom and of course we all snuck in to take a look at it once Jonathan gave us the all clear.

Madonna Inn

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We made a pit stop stop in Morro Bay for lunch and ate at Rocca's Surf Shack which was really really good. From the restaurant we had a great view of Morro Rock – the sad crumbling remains of a massive ancient volcanic.

I was very surprised as we drove through this part of California to find the landscape is very southwestern in appearance - think NM with parched brown fields of grass, sparse trees, and high heat. I guess I was expecting it to be green and beautiful like San Francisco. 

We drove through the cozy little town of Cambria before our afternoon excursion to Hearst Castle. Everything I know of the Castle – the beautiful pools at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas modeled after the originals at the Castle, the glimpses of the gardens on television documentaries, etc – promised a breathtaking residence. The gardens, pools, and exterior architecture of the Castle are in fact just as amazing as the hype. You can even see all the way to the sea from the hillside. But the interior of house? It’s awful – a garish mishmash of clashing art and cultural artifacts that have no business being curated together. It’s tacky, it’s dark, it’s depressing. I was so disappointed in the interior design.

Hearst Castle Exterior

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That evening we stayed at a roadside motel in San Simeon  and one of the best parts of our stay was the chance to run early the next morning along the Pacific Coast Highway before returning to the motel for breakfast. It was quiet, peaceful, and the views of the ocean were lovely (just don’t look the other way or you’re staring once again at the ugly brown barren grassland).

After breakfast we climbed back in the car (we were pretty good about rotating drivers every 4 hours and man was it ever windy in the backseat with the top down) and headed for the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, the largest elephant seal rookery on the West Coast. Here I was in heaven. I could have stayed for hours just watching the seals play but we had more sights waiting for us further up the road.

The seals! The seals!

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We stopped at Ragged Point Scenic View before arriving at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to take a closer look at McWay Falls (it’s the only waterfall that drops straight into the Pacific Ocean).

Scenes along the Pacific Coast Highway

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Further up the road, the Carmel Mission was waiting. I was so lucky here at the Mission to catch the end of a wedding and get a great shot of the bride and groom for my bridal collection (I collect pictures of brides that we’ve captured in the moment from our travels around the world). The Mission is a lovely attraction in its own right, with gardens in the courtyard and a historic interior. It was dedicated in 1770 and served as the headquarters for Northern California.

Carmel Mission

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Our next stop was a little town I fell head over heels in love with: Carmel-by-the-Sea. So many adorable boutique culinary shops, so many great restaurants. Trivia: Clint Eastwood served a term as mayor here. 

We took a vote and unanimously decided to drive the Pebble Beach scenic road before packing up and heading to Santa Cruz for our final stop on our Pacific Coast Highway Tour. It’s a $10 toll to drive the road but well worth the fee as stretches of it run right through pine and cypress forests and then along the shoreline where sea lions and otters are abundant.

The Lone Cypress Tree

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We got into Santa Cruz pretty late in the evening and met up with my friend Asher for dinner and a tour of the Beach Boardwalk. We had so much fun and the highlight of the evening was riding the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in 1924 and now a designated National Historic Landmark. It was a fantastic ride and I can’t wait to go back to Santa Cruz and ride it again.

We spent the night in nearby Milpitas and then zoomed back down to San Diego via I5 the next morning in time to catch our flight home. If you get a chance to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, here’s my advice:

1. Give yourself at least 2 days to drive it as we did (even more if you’d like more time to see the Monterey aquarium or head up further to San Francisco).

2. Hearst Castle - it’s still worth a visit for the gardens, but skip the house and save your money.

3. Make sure to make time for Carmel by the Sea. Absolutely the perfect little village.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Trip Report: Alaska 2012

Every few years my best friend and I try to get our families together for a summer vacation. LiteraryEllyMay and her husband had expressed interest in taking a cruise so Jon and I invited them to join us on a Celebrity cruise to Alaska in July (2012). We’d previously cruised with Carnival as well as Costa but this time we wanted to do something a bit more upscale; the kind of cruise with enrichment programs and gourmet food. Celebrity came highly recommended to us and so we booked passage on a one week Alaska sailing leaving from the Port of Seattle. Departing from Seattle was an added bonus because it allowed us to show our friends around the city and spend time with Jonathan’s brother Joel and his family who live out there.

We arrived into Seattle on the fourth of July and spent two days sightseeing before boarding our cruise ship to set sail for Alaska. Another happy coincidence was that Jonathan’s younger brother Jerry (lives in Chicago) and his family happened to be in Seattle visiting family at the same time, so we were all able to get together for a lazy afternoon on a boat in Puget Sound that Jerry’s in-laws own. One of the most interesting things we did in Seattle was to visit the salmon locks and watch the salmon swim upstream through the glass fronted wildlife exhibit. LiteraryEllyMay had me in stitches as she narrated for this one poor ragged salmon who must have taken a half an hour just to progress six feet upstream.

Seattle skyline, view from Puget Sound

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Jon and I were both very impressed with Celebrity. The rooms were lovely, the staff was always gracious, and the food was fantastic. We had such a good time that we booked our next cruise (a three week sail through the South Pacific from Australia to Hawaii in April 2014) while still on board. In addition to the usual games, nightly shows, bars, dancing, and karaoke, Celebrity featured lectures, lessons, a Top Chef style cooking competition (I was a participant!), and fantastic little boutique eateries like a patisserie and a gelato shop. Really cannot overstate how great the amenities and service were. Additionally, every Celebrity cruise has a regional expert on board to provide information (and often entertainment) about the areas the ship is visiting. For our Alaska cruise the featured guest was Brent Nixon and he provided a wealth of information on Alaskan wildlife and habitat. Everyone who attended his talks can tell you the difference between a black bear, brown, bear, and a Grizzly and also expound on the beauty of killer wales. Just absolutely engaging and wonderful.

A very dapper Jon dancing in the hallway

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I anxiously await the judges’ decisions during the Celebrity cooking competition

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We clean up pretty good for the ship’s formal evening

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Off the ship, we enjoyed many excursions as we sailed up and down the coast of Alaska. We had a half day to explore Ketchikan (home of abundant salmon and historic whorehouses) by foot and by float plane, a few hours in Juneau to hike a mountain top and a full day in the Yukon by way of Skagway (we took a narrow gauge train ride, saw an impressive suspension bridge, and had a fabulous time). We also enjoyed breathtaking views just off the ship’s bow as we passed through the very narrow Tracy Arm fjord one morning on the ship. It was so cold outside but everyone donned coats and blankets and braved the wind to take in the scenery.

We look forward to heading back to Alaska in the next few years to explore more of the interior. I’d love to visit Denali National Park, the arctic circle, and a handful of other places. In fact, I am headed to Anchorage for a weekend in September with a friend of mine for a little bit of a preview of the the Alaskan frontier.

 

Ketchikan and our float plane ride over the Misty fjord

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Passage through the Tracy Arm fjord – both waterfalls and glaciers descend to the ocean

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Views from our hike in Juneau

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Our trip into the Yukon on rail via Skagway

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