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Archive for the ‘Family Travel’ Category

— 1 —

 

Well, hello from a place where it’s warmer than twenty degrees.

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Not much warmer – the high today in Pensacola was in the mid-40’s, but compared to what we’ve had in the far northern reaches of Birmingham, it felt balmy.

And tomorrow! 50’s!

So…what’s up?

 — 2 —

The older of the two boys has had and is having a busy week. He went with scouts last weekend to Sugar Mountain, NC, to ski – they left Saturday, skied all day Sunday, then returned Monday…which was to be followed up by a Wednesday departure for the March for Life in DC.

It was all fine, but I was just a little concerned about the proximity of two marathons of sleeping-in-buses and sleeping-on-the-floor-of-church multipurpose rooms  and the flu germs and who knows what else, along with having to get up early for school Tuesday and Wednesday. I’ve been making him bulk up on Echinacea and vitamin C since the beginning of January in preparation. I’ve been reading lots of articles over the past few years declaring that herbal remedies in pill form and vitamins-in-pills are essentially useless, but I have to tell you that years ago I had a rather dramatic experience of quick recovery from something (don’t remember what) after starting on Echinacea, and since chewable vitamin C actually tastes like it might be getting to work in your body – I’m sticking with those two at least.

I was greatly assisted in my proactive doctoring by the fact that around these parts, Snowmaggedon threatened this week, everyone got really scared, and so school was cancelled Tuesday, which was great, and then Wednesday, which was even better.

(Not for the teachers – I feel for them. These AP teachers in particular, looking at that calendar…those tests aren’t budging from early May, and must be prepared for….)

But it was good for him – he could sleep, sleep, sleep. He’s up in DC today (they drove all night Wednesday night, arrived Thursday morning, did museums and the JP2 Center, then will march tomorrow) and so…..

 

— 3 —

M and I had some time. I wanted to go somewhere warm, but wouldn’t you know it, everywhere in the south within driving range is nothing but cold. Pensacola was as good as we could do…and maybe it will be fine? As I said, it’s supposed to be in the 50’s on Friday.

I’d never been here before. I’ve been to various spots on the Gulf shore, both in Alabama and Florida, but never Pensacola. What do I associate it with? Traffic, I guess. And weird evangelical movements. And towering condos.

But it turns out, there’s some interesting history here, and so I decided that some history studies would be just the thing for the rest of the week. It’s off season, so it would give me a chance to check out the area without the aggravation of endless lines of traffic.

What’s the interesting history? Well you can read about it here but in short – Pensacola (not St. Augustine) was the first attempt at European settlement in non-Mexico North America – and it was a disaster. The fellow in charge of bringing hundreds of people and livestock up here from Mexico parked the ships in the bay while he sent a party inland for a few weeks to reconnoitre. And guess what happened? A hurricane happened, sunk all the boats, and wiped out any chances for a well-founded settlement. They stuck it out for two years, but ended up being rescued and returned to Mexico. In subsequent decades and centuries, Pensacola bounced between Spain, France, Great Britain and of course the U.S. of A, with time in the C.S. of A as well – although not long, since the Union grabbed it in 1862 and it was a key point in the blockade.

–4–

We left home around 10 – later than I’d intended, but last night, I read that roads around Montgomery were still iffy – and in fact, schools were closed there again today – so I decided to let the sun warm things up a bit before we headed out.

(I had originally thought we might drive down Wednesday night, but I’m glad we didn’t do that – there were indeed icy patches under underpasses and on bridges which would have been far more hazardous in the dark of night than they were mid-morning.)

First stop was a very brief one: in Georgiana, Alabama, to the house where Hank Williams lived from age 7 to 11, and where he was first given a guitar and learned to play it.

In preparation, I blasted Hank Williams for a good 45 minutes on the car CD player as we drove and told Michael the Hank’s story, included his death (which has always intrigued me, not just because it’s intriguing, but also because of the Knoxville connection.)

We’ve been to the Hank Williams gravesite in Montgomery, but it was years ago – I didn’t think he’d remember it, but he claims he did (“Was his wife buried there too? And it was big? Yes, I remember.” I guess he did.)

There’s a museum in the home, and the sign said, “Open,” but I really didn’t want to spend a lot of time, so we just stopped, took in the sign and the location, and moved on south…

 

–5 —

We reached Pensacola about 2, ate a Jaco’s on the water (Cuban for him, crabcake salad for me), then walked up to the downtown area – there are several small museums in the historic area, and we started with the largest one – the T.T. Wentworth Museum, which is housed in the former City Hall, a lovely Mediterranean Revival structure. The origins of the museum lies in the huge, eclectic collection of local Famous Person T.T. Wentworth, a fraction of which is exhibited in one room – the rest of the museum is dedicated to a history of the Pensacola area and changing exhibits.

I do love what the collectors of old gathered and left us. It’s usually so much more interesting than the carefully-curated, ideologically shaped contemporary museum. Both have their place, but given that I am a person who delights in finding meaning in the purportedly random, you know which kind of experience appeals to me more.

The ticket gets you into other smaller museums in the historic district – but everything closes at 4, and since we arrived on the scene at 3, we were out of luck – we can use the tickets on Friday, so we’ll probably do that for part of the day.

 

 

— 6 —

We made our way back to the car, engaging with way-too-tame squirrels along the way, and looking at various bits of archaeological finds along the way (mostly foundations and bits of walls from the British period – they were the ones whose plan forms the shape of the downtown even today).

Across one bridge to Gulf Breeze, with a short drive down to one of the entrances of the Gulf Shores National Seashore just to check out the layout, and then to our hotel. There are several heated pools, but I’m thinking the 40-ish degree weather is going to deter this one from making an attempt.

Dinner at local mediocre tourist staple Peg Leg Pete’s, just because – mostly because it’s slow season and there’s no waiting.

And…I’m already aggravated because there’s so much we want to do tomorrow, and so little time. We just can’t do the Commerce Museum, Business and Industry Museum, Naval Air Museum, Archaeology centers and do any walking In Nature….Well, we can come back, next time with the other son joining us.

 

— 7 —

 

Last night, M and I watched Chaplin’s The Kid. I had never seen it. It was lovely – Jackie Coogan was natural and charming. The linked article relates some of the real turmoil that are in the background to the film: the recent death of Chaplin’s infant son and his own removal from his home at the age of seven. I was struck, not only by the charm and humor of the movie, but also by:

  • The relatively honest treatment of an unwed mother and the implicit condemnation of the condemnation of unwed motherhood – if that makes sense. “Her sin was motherhood” reads the card accompanying “The Woman’s” discharge from the charity hospital, babe in arms.
  • The pervasiveness of prayer in the film. There is just a lot of praying. The Woman prays for her baby to be found, Chaplin and The Kid pray before they eat and before they go to sleep in the flophouse, and The Kid prays desperately when he’s being taken away – such a wrenching sequence!
  • The look of the film – maybe it’s just now with our monster television, I can actually see detail – but the textures of the walls, the furniture, the clothing – everything in The Kid – are almost palpable. Chaplin grew up in poverty, of course, and the set quiet consciously and powerfully evokes that life.

Chaplin, Hank Williams…it’s all education. Every bit.

 

 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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And here, we are on Day Three of Christmastime in the City…

(Instagram summaries here…)

It was going to be cold. We all knew that. Everyone knew that. I’ve been cold before. I was born in Indiana. The formative part of my childhood was spent in Kansas. I lived in northern Indiana for seven years as an adult. I’ve been cold.

Still…this was cold.

The high in Manhattan on Thursday was to be around 20 degrees, so of course we weren’t going to be traipsing about the city (although my Birmingham friend did just that, and covered an impressive amount of ground, on foot, outdoors. But as I said, she’s a New Englander…), so that would be our Metropolitan Museum of Art day.

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(Other options: We’d been to the Guggenheim last summer, as well as the Morgan Library. The Frick might have been another option, but I did want to see the Michelangelo exhibit, so the Met it was.)

We – including they have been to the Metropolitan Museum a few times, including some time this past summer, most of that spent in the ancient Americas and Byzantine holdings. The focus this time would be Michelangelo, as well as  the Medieval and Renaissance holdings, including the lovely Neapolitan Christmas tree and presipio that was part of Ann Engelhart’s inspiration for Bambinelli Sunday.

But how to get there? That was the knotty issue. For you see, the Met is not on a subway line, and “our” subway options didn’t take us easily to the east side. If the weather had been good, it would not have been anything to wonder about – take the subway to the Natural History Museum and walk across the park to the Met. It was about ten degrees. I wasn’t walking across Central Park in that. Sorry. So after checking out of the Leo House, taking our backpacks with us, then taking the subway up, we took a cab from the Natural History Museum stop  – five bucks, quick trip, no problem.

But in my efficiency, I landed us there early – as in twenty minutes early, and apparently not even near-zero degree weather moves the rulers of the Met to let the freezing, IMG_20171228_095633.jpghuddling masses in out of the cold even a nanosecond early. We crowded in an alcove entrance to the educational wing with a few dozen others until my oldest arrived – he was working that day, but he’s a Met member, so he stopped by on his way to work to get us in – once they opened – and Ann soon followed.

 

Highlights:

I do love all the Madonna and Child statuary at the Met. They are mostly all smiles, mother and Child – and there is just a sense of warmth in those rooms – warmth mixed with regret, since all of that loveliness should still be in churches and chapels, still being used as objects of devotion.

These galleries also were relevant to a project I recently completed. As I wandered, I found myself wishing I’d had a chance to visit in the midst of my writing, but I was also reassured that I probably got the gist of the subject correct…

I love this Visitation group – both Mary and Elizabeth have clear oval bubbles on their abdomens – the cards indicated that there were once images of the babies visible through each.

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An interesting martyrdom. St. Godelieve – part of this larger piece. 

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This was, according to the placard, a devotional crib for the Christ Child, probably given as a gift to a woman entering a convent or upon taking final vows:

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The tree – not great photos, but I’m sure you can go to the website and see more:

The Michelangelo exhibit was very instructive and quite well done, helping us understand his development as an artist and his process.

After FOURTEEN DOLLAR HALF-BAGUETTES WITH A COUPLE OF PIECES OF HAM AND CHEESE on them  – Ann left, and we continued on up to the World War I exhibit – very, very good and sobering, of course. A presentation of visual art inspired by the experience of the Great War, the theme was, over and over, initial jingoistic enthusiasm brought up short by reality and suffering.

Museum Fatigue is a thing, of course. Think about it. Look at the maps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How can anyone “do” this museum, even in a day? Even if you could whizz through every room, what would you really see? What would you absorb? That’s why I don’t push it, that’s why we take our time. Even if this were our first, only or last time at this massive museum, I wouldn’t insist on pushing through and seeing “everything,” or even a lot.

It’s like all of travel, it’s like learning, and it’s like life. There’s this much  (spreads arms wide) that’s out there. One person can only fruitfully and memorably encounter and absorb this much (holds fingers close together). It’s much more fruitful to go slowly, contemplate and see a few things in a thoughtful way rather than racing through a checklist, glancing at images and taking a few selfies in front of the more well-known pieces as you go.

In the context of art, consider that every piece you see is the fruit of weeks if not months of work and a lifetime of creative thought and energy, as well as the product of a complex culture and social setting that’s different than the one you live in. A glance and a checklist is not the point. Contemplation and conversation that might lead to a broader, deeper understanding is.

So slow down. Look carefully. Listen. Talk about it. Think some more. And then go see something else – or go home and think about that one thing. I’m not telling you. As I have to do all the time, I’m telling me.

Coda:

We left the Met about 4:30, took a super slow M4 bus down to Penn Station – seeing more IMG_20171228_181353.jpglights and windows as we went (speaking of checklists), found the Shake Shack, shared a table with a very nice pre-school teacher from Long Island, got on the train to the airport, arrived there, found the shuttle to the Doubletree, hopped on that, checked in, and leaving Boys with Screens, Mama went to the bar, took notes on the day and had a drink (or two) to help her sleep since a 3:30 AM alarm was in her future.

Coda II:

We did it! Woke up with our alarm, didn’t suffer too much, got the shuttle back to the airport, checked in for our 6:11 AM flight back to Atlanta. Which didn’t leave until 7. Arrived in Atlanta, got in the car, drove to Florida, dropped off boys with grandparents, aunts, uncle and cousins, then I drove to  Charleston where I’ve been all weekend with IMG_20171230_144002.jpgmy son, daughter-in-law and grandson. I’ve been babysitting, going to the Children’s Museum, stopped by the Daughters of St. Paul bookstore, and to Mass at the Cathedral, where former Mayor Riley was the lector. I found him after Mass and introduced myself – he’s good friends with Bishop Baker, and had been in Birmingham a year and a half ago to present at a conference on racial issues. I spent some time this fall editing those talks into a form that we hope will be publishable as a book, so I wanted to meet Mayor Riley and thank him for his leadership of Charleston and wise words, particularly after the Emanuel AME church shooting – and I did – he was, of course, very gracious, pointing out to us Bishop Baker’s steeple atop the Cathedral – because of seismic and weather issues, there had been no steeple until Bishop Baker revisited the issue during his tenure there.

And now, back to Life in 2018!

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Christmas in New York City….what to say?

How about…been there, done that. 

Or…There. That’s done. 

I’d always thought Christmastime in the City would be fun to experience, and now that my oldest lives there, we had a good excuse. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve got the gist of the trip: we left Christmas night from Atlanta, spent Tuesday-Thursday there, left at the crack of dawn on Friday for other parts of the country. I was glad to do it, glad to spend time with my son and see friends, but heavens, it was cold and wow, it was crowded. As I said: been there, done that was what I thought as we flew away for points south!  Highlights:

  • First highlight was in getting there in the first place. The boys were scheduled to serve Christmas Day Mass at the convent, and when I made the reservations, did so assuming that Mass was at the usual Sunday morning time – 11am. Only to find out a few weeks later that no, Mass was at 12:30. Flights were at 6:19. From Atlanta. 2 hours from Birmingham.  A time zone ahead. So essentially, we would be leaving for a 6:19 flight a little more than four hours before it took off from two hours away, with perfect traffic.
  • Well, we obviously made it. The most tension-inducing aspect of the situation was that I had purchased United’s most recent low-level fare – the Basic Economy, which comes with a lot of restrictions, most of which – only being able to take a personal carry-on like a backpack, no guaranteed seating together – didn’t bother me (we each took a backpack, which was fine for three days, even in winter weather – we are not fashionistas), but there’s one more restriction: you can’t check in ahead of time online unless you are checking a bag (which costs extra, natch). This is to enable them to enforce the no-carry-on rule on site, so it’s understandable, but still. You know how it is when you’re racing to the airport. You can think: Well, at least I’m already checked in. Nope.
  • But, we made it, with time to spare. Go me. I mean…go. 
  • We flew into Newark, which was a first. Arrived, then took the very crowded train into Manhattan. Why was it so packed on Christmas night? It seemed to me, since it was crowded when we boarded at the airport, that the riders were folks who’d done their Christmas elsewhere and were returning home. We had to stand for most of the trip, but that’s fine.
  • Got to Penn Station, then walked the seven blocks in the cold to our hotel – the Leo House.
  • Now, this was a new discovery for me. I am not sure how it had never crossed my radar before. The Leo House is a Catholic guesthouse that’s been around for decades, named after Leo XIII and originally founded to be a safe haven for German immigrants. You can read its history here. It certainly showed its age – particularly in the bathrooms – but it was very clean and the breakfast was substantial and varied every day. I prepaid, and so we had a double room – two rooms connected by a bathroom, with three beds – for under $200/night. With breakfast. In Manhattan. In a good location, a block down from a subway, with the Empire State Building in view. It worked. It would be just about perfect if the bathrooms were updated, but that would be a multi-million dollar, probably unaffordable project. I’d stay there again – and probably will!
  • Day one (summarized on Instagram here). Yes, we went to the Central Park Zoo. We’d never been, and online commentary indicated that it wasn’t a bad winter activity – there were animals that flourish outside in the cold, and there was enough indoors to make it bearable. Walked through the park by the skating rink (we heard them introduce a skating session with about 5 minutes of announced warnings and disclaimers – #ModernTimes) – then to the subway to take it up to the Natural History Museum, which was…packed. As was everything over those three days. It made sense: Christmastime in the City has its appeal, plus it was so bloody cold, any attraction that was indoors was…attractive.
  • I stood line to get tickets – me and many Russians. We paid extra to see the Mummy exhibit, and probably shouldn’t have. It is part of this museum trend to just bring in extra $$$ with special exhibits that have a particular appeal – you think, “Oh, we want to see mummies!” and so you can…but for a price! Anyway, we’d seen many mummy displays all over the world, so I’m not sure why I gave into the pressure on this one (from the sales clerk, not my kids), but I did and was irritated. There wasn’t a lot to it that we had not seen elsewhere.
  • But I did see Mammoths and mastadons, which interested me because I’d just read this book. I find these early mammals much more interesting than dinosaurs, perhaps because they are closer to us in time, and in fact inhabited the planet with us.
  • We’d been here before, but it was several years and a couple of trips ago, but it was worth a revisit. I like the Field Museum in Chicago better, though….
  • Then dinner with my son and my friends Ann and Paul Engelhart at this very good French restaurant..and then Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • I need to think a bit more about this production, but I’d say that it was interesting, worth the time and money, and captured an aspect of the thematic essence of the piece while missing another part of it. Let’s put it this way: it’s not a light holiday confection, but honestly, who thinks of Hansel and Gretel this way? It’s a dark tale of suffering, temptation, exploitation and revenge or justice – or both. The German Expressionistic tone of much of the production brings out this darkness effectively, but what was muted was the spirituality of the piece, which is pretty strong: Hansel and Gretel are protected by angels, and in a sense, their journey to the witches’ house is a journey they’re led on for the salvation of others – the children the witch has turned into gingerbread who are freed by Hansel and Gretel, brought to that place by their own suffering.
  • The weird thing about the evening was this: a friend of mine from Alabama was in NYC at the same time. We’d said we’d meet on Wednesday or Thursday, but we came very close, without knowing it, on Tuesday night: she and her group ate at a restaurant on the same block as ours at the same time…and then they went to The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center…as we were at Hansel and Gretel. 
  • Small world, again.

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— 1 —

Well, this is…unusual.

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It’s not the mere fact of snow. We’re not Texas, which got hit Thursday night. We do get snow here in Alabama and throughout the Southeast, just…not usually in early December. Our snow (and more treacherously, ice) comes in January and February.

But here it is:

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When my son brought home Rumors of Snow on Friday earlier in the week, we both scoffed. Even the forecast called for no more than 10% chance of precipitation today. Well, I guess we hit that 10%.

Early yesterday evening, the schools announced a two-hour delay, and across the land, prayers were sent up that this was only a warning shot, a placeholder for something bigger and greater to come.

And they got it.

Now, here’s my ritual warning to hardy Midwesterners and New Englanders: Don’t mock us. It may seem silly to cancel school for, um, an inch (maybe) of snow, but listen: we don’t have masses of snow-clearing equipment around here ready to send out and blanket the county. It’s hilly – mountainous even. An inch of snow in the early morning falling on Alabama hills and mountains, with only minimal salt or ploughs at the ready is not the same as an inch falling in on the flat, fully prepared land of northeastern Indiana.

Although I will say, there’s no ice with this – the roads are just wet. They could easily be driven. But it is supposed to snow much of the day so eh, why bother? It’s Friday….

Update:

 — 2 —

And it’s the Immaculate Conception! Time for this annual gift from me – and the Monkees – to you.

I toss the same general post up every year. I don’t care. No need to search my brain for heartfelt spiritual metaphors from Daily Life™. When we have the Monkees!

Riu riu chiu, la guarda ribera;
Dios guardo el lobo de nuestra cordera,
Dios guardo el lobo de neustra cordera.

El lobo rabioso la quiso morder,
Mas Dios poderoso la supo defender;
Quisola hazer que no pudiese pecar,
Ni aun original esta Virgen no tuviera.

Riu, riu chiu…

Este qu’es nacido es el gran monarca,
Christo patriarca de carne vestido;
Hemos redemido con se hazer chiquito,
Aunqu’era infinito, finito se hiziera.

Translation:

River, roaring river, guard our homes in safety,
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.
God has kept the black wolf from our lamb, our Lady.

Raging mad to bite her, there the wolf did steal,
But our God Almighty defended her with zeal.
Pure He wished to keep Her so She could never sin,
That first sin of man never touched the Virgin sainted.

River, roaring river…

He who’s now begotten is our mighty Monarch,
Christ, our Holy Father, in human flesh embodied.
He has brough atonement by being born so humble,
Though He is immortal, as mortal was created.

River, roaring river…

And the Kingston Trio:

More from Fr. Steve Grunow on the song and the feast.

— 3 —

It’s a good day to buy a .99 book on the Blessed Virgin, don’t you think?

— 4

You might recall that my 7th grade homeschooler and I are reading The Yearling. He’s got a couple of chapters to go, but I finished it last night and was just about as wrecked as I was when I read it in 7th grade and solemnly declared:

I repeat what I said a few weeks ago: if you’ve never read The Yearling – do. In a way it’s a young people’s book, but it did win the Pulitzer Prize. The writing is lush and some of the most powerful, evocative descriptive language you’ll find – and I’m a reader who normally – I admit – skips through landscape descriptions. I didn’t want to do that with Rawlings’. It’s a powerful, painful and true coming-of-age story.

As he reads his “school novel” – along with his leisure reading he’s always got going, I toss in some short stories and poetry a couple of times a week. This week he read “The Reticence of Lady Anne” by Saki and “The Death of a Government Clerk” by Chekov. He declared that he saw the twist of the first one coming well before the end, but was quite surprised by the second. The Chekov indeed gave us more to talk about. It’s short, amusing and ironic. The theme we dug into is: Okay, you’re worried and stressed out. But in your anxiety about that thing, are you missing the real thing that you should be worried about?

–5 —

Earlier this week, we took an afternoon at the Birmingham Museum of Art. You might have heard me rave about our local treasure before, but bear with me. It’s a very fine museum, with a solid collection that changes it up just often enough to stay fresh. There’s no admission charge, so if you’re a local you have no excuse not to visit regularly.

My son has been reading a lot about Japanese history, so we took time to revisit the very good Asian collection.

Take a look at this. Read the placard and enjoy the little rats fashioning the mallet. It’s a charming piece.

I’d seen this painting of St. Bernardino of Siena before, but never really stopped to study it. This time I did, and discovered that this was not simplistic hagiography. It’s something else – I’m not sure what – a commentary on the varied attitudes we bring to these moments? An observation of a scene? I don’t know if you can see it, but see what you can of the individuals gathered – they’re not all listening, in fact…most of them aren’t. I’m particularly taken with the boy hanging on the platform, and the friar slouched behind the preacher….taking a nap.

— 6 —

Watching: Tonight we finish Lost, and I am of two minds about it. I’m sorry that we’ll be done – this has really been one of the best things the three of us have done together, apart from traveling. I’ll be sorry to leave this Lost crew behind, once again. But…it will be just a bit of a relief to free up some brain space and not have 75% of the conversations around here start with…”So what is that other reality all about???”

Maybe I’ll read a book?

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I did watch all of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel last week and I wouldn’t recommend it. I had watched the pilot in the spring, found it annoying and disappointing and predictable, but decided to give the series another chance.  Well, that was aggravating. Not quite at a hate-watch level, but more at the: I really want this to be better, so I’ll keep watching hoping that happens. It didn’t. Very pretty to look at with rich period detail, but generally superficial both in human terms and in relation to the culture it purported to present. I’ve never watched Image result for amazing mrs. maisela nanosecond of The Gilmore Girls, so I didn’t come to it as a fan of that show, but I was very open to the concept – upper-class 50’s Jewish housewife discovers a flair for stand-up comedy – but what emerges is not recognizably authentic in any way. I wasn’t watching people, I was watching a script being recited and cultural caricatures being embodied. Mad Men had its weaknesses, but the one thing it did right was the character of Peggy Olson, who began the series as a mousy, naive secretary, and ended it as a confident copy-writer, a transformation that was earned and authentic every step of the way. I wasn’t expecting that level of work here, but I was hoping for something a little closer than I got.

— 7 —

Bambinelli Sunday!

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I just noticed that The Loyola Kids Book of Saints is priced at $7.25 on Amazon at the moment. I don’t know how long that will be the case – but there it is, if you’re interested.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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— 1 —

Uncertainty has been the theme of the past few days, hasn’t it? Having spent the last two days concerned about my people in Charleston, as of tonight, That Cone looks like it might actually impact us here in Birmingham more…what? 

 — 2 —

I have a little bit of preparatory material for the new book due on Friday, so this will be…short. The good news is that this bit of work has clarified my process on this book and reassured me that yes, indeed I will be able to knock it out this fall even as we dive back into homeschooling. How much else  of other types of work I can get done is another question, though – I really want to do this Guatemala e-book, and I’m hoping after tomorrow’s work is sent off, I can clear out two compartments of my brain, one for each task.

— 3 —

A decent week in the homeschool. The science class began (it’s only four weeks long – he says next week, they will dissect a squid, which is great. I had wanted to dissect a squid on our last go-round with homeschooling, but I couldn’t find any fresh squid in town at that time. Since then, a new, huge Asian grocery store has opened, and we were there a couple of weeks ago, and yes, they have fresh squid, ripe for your eating or dissecting. Or both.)…and boxing continues. Today (Friday) is the Diocese of Birmingham Homeschool Beginning of the Year Mass at the Cathedral.

Speaking of school, speaking of middle school, speaking of middle school-aged kids – read this article and pass it along – on social media and this age group.

This sums it up for me – and not just in relation to young teens, either:

Social media is an entertainment technology. It does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life or a future job; nor is it necessary for healthy social development. It is pure entertainment attached to a marketing platform extracting bits and pieces of personal information and preferences from your child every time they use it, not to mention hours of their time and attention.

Got that?

And you know, guys, I do have half of a blog rant on tech and schools that I dearly hope and pray I will have time to finish someday, but in the meantime, read this – and again, pass it on. Dear Teachers: Don’t be Good Soldiers for the EdTech Industry:

You are engaged in an effort to prove that they don’t need a fully trained, experienced, 4-year degree professional to do this job. They just need a glorified WalMart greeter to watch the kids as they push buttons and stare at a screen. They just need a minimum wage drone to take up space while the children bask in the warm glow of the program, while it maps their eye movements, catalogues how long it takes them to answer, records their commercial preferences and sells all this data to other companies so they can better market products – educational and otherwise – back to these kids, their school and their parents.

There.

— 4 —

We did manage a trip over to Red Mountain Park – an interesting place that is, like so many of this type around here, the fruit of such hard work by deeply dedicated volunteers and one that nicely reflects both nature and history. 

The “red” in Red Mountain is hematite – a type of iron ore that, along with limestone and coal, became a linchpin in an exploding local economy:

Red Mountain developed at steadfast pace. Pioneer industrialists such as Henry F. DeBardeleben, James W. Sloss, and T.T. Hillman ushered in an explosion of ore mining activity to support Birmingham blast furnace operations as they developed. Jones Valley’s first blast furnace, Alice, was partly supplied with iron ore from the Redding mines that will be an extensively developed part of Red Mountain Park. Iron ore flowed from the new mines over freshly laid rail of the Alabama Great Southern Railroad, and later via the Louisville & Nashville’s (L&N) Birmingham Mineral Railroad that first reached the Redding area in 1884….

…After the war, Birmingham remained one of the nation’s leading iron and steel centers, but change was on the way. Changes in manufacturing, difficulty in accessing ore seams, and increased foreign importing contributed to the decline of what had been Birmingham’s lifeblood since its founding. The last active ore mine on Red Mountain Park property closed in 1962. Much of the land that comprised the company’s former mining sites remained untouched for almost 50 years. But in 2007, through the efforts of the Freshwater Land Trust and through the ideas of Park neighbor Ervin Battain and a dedicated steering committee, U.S. Steel made one of the largest corporate land donations in the nation’s history, selling more than 1,200 acres at a tremendously discounted price to the Red Mountain Park and Recreational Area Commission. That transaction made possible the creation of Red Mountain Park, the opening of which makes Birmingham one of the “greenest” cities in America in terms of public park space per resident.

— 5 —

The park is new – as you can read above, it’s less than ten years old, so it’s really just developing. They have big plans, and it’s always interesting to go back and discover new things.

Here are two of the mine entrances (blocked off, of course), that you can see on the trails. If you enlarge the photo on the right, you can see the dates of operation of that mine –  1895-1941:

 

— 6 —

Took a quick trip to Atlanta on Sunday. Passed by this. Didn’t sample either:

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— 7 —

Book talk!

Celebrate the feast of the Nativity of Mary with a (still) free download of my book, Mary and the Christian Life.

Get a cheap e-book on Mary Magdalene here – Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies.

As I mentioned last week, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is available. Amazon doesn’t have it shipping for 2-4 more weeks. What is up with that???

 But you can certainly order it from Loyola, request it from your local bookstore, or, if you like, from me – I have limited quantities available. Go here for that.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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— 1 —

Travel is so very strange. You spend weeks or even months anticipating the trip, and then it comes…and then it’s gone. Last week at this time, I felt as if I were in the midst of some epic trek and now…it’s over. And it’s been over for a week. And it feels as if it all happened a few years ago.

I did write a bit about it, as promised – two posts, one on the practicalities of the trip, and the other on the food. 

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We were there….

— 2 —

We’re getting closer to the publication date of my new book, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories. 

Looking good!

— 3 —

What with travel and my older son working in the evenings, we haven’t done much movie-watching recently, but we finally squeezed one in last night: Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which provided some inspiration to George Lucas in the imagining of Star Wars. 

It was mostly enjoyable, but of course not nearly the film that The Seven Samurai is. The acting was not quite as naturalistic, and in particular the female lead screeched her part, and I for one, was very grateful when I learned that the character would be feigning muteness as part of the plot. I do wonder if some of the exaggerated and mannered speech in the film is an expression of some Japanese theater tradition.

That said, the film had an effective and actually somewhat emotional climax – and Toshiro Mifune is always…. a pleasure to watch. That’s what she said…

I really want to watch Stray Dog next. 

— 4 —

Currently reading: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

My son has to read it for school, so I thought I’d take a shot at it, as well, never having read it before. (As with last summer – he had to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I’d never read, and found absolutely fascinating.)

It’s not high literature, but it’s certainly effective – and it strikes me as a good segue into that junior year in which they are doing the later half of both American history and American literature.

And you know someone is a decent writer when he can render an immigrant family’s attempt to purchase a house in such a way that you can’t put the book down until you find out what happens….

— 5 —

Regular readers know of Casa Maria, the local convent and retreat center at which my sons often serve Mass. The foundress of the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word, Mother Mary Gabriel Long, passed away earlier this week. Here is her obituary – I had no idea she and Sister Assumpta Long, OP of the Dominicans in Ann Arbor, were actual sisters.

— 6 —

Cooking: Made this strawberry cake – very simple and very good. 

(I used a springform pan, btw)

— 7 —

I finally figured out how to link Google photos with WordPress, so I’ll be super lazy and finish off these takes with some more pics from the trip:

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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When you imagine traveling abroad, is food a part of the picture? Do you imagine yourself lingering over long dinners in Paris bistros or Italian trattorias, discovering humble geniuses creating marvels on hidden Tuscan roads?

Yeah, well. I like food – most food – and look forward to eating adventures when I travel, but really, most of the time, I end up hacking up a roast chicken and boiling some pasta for overtired kids in a kitchen where I’m never quite sure if I turned the gas off properly or not.

Obviously, children – and the constraints of time and money – impact the experience of food when you’re traveling.  Mine are not the pickiest eaters in the world, but nor are they the most adventurous, although there’s been a lot of growth over the past couple of years on that score. Palates are definitely maturing.

But what that has meant is that dining has never been a focus of travel for us, as it is for some. We need to eat, we eat when we can (I always tell them  when we’re traveling: When there’s food in front of you…eat as much as you can. You never know when your next chance for a meal is going to come. )

We’ve had some good meals, but we’ve also eaten a lot of street food (which is almost my favorite) and plates of cured meats and cheese and bread in the apartment at night (which is my absolute favorite and why expensive plates of charcuterie offered in American restaurants irritate me – I can get the same and more of better quality from any Italian grocery store for a fraction of the price…). It’s a challenge (and expensive) to depend on restaurants as the focus of dining when you’re traveling, especially with children. Especially in southern European countries, where dinner is late – oh, my.

The first time we went to Spain, I knew they ate late, but I didn’t know how late until, starting about 8, I would descend from our Barcelona apartment and take a walk down the block, looking in restaurant windows – is anyone in there yet? Not at 8, not at 8:30. All still empty. Finally, at 9, I decided that this was ridiculous. I had a teenage daughter, an 8-year old and a 3-year old. The kids had to eat. Nine pm? Still no one in the restaurants. We finally settled on a Chinese place, where there were indeed a few occupied tables – perhaps we wouldn’t feel like complete idiots there. Except when I asked the server for napkins and she returned and tossed a stack of paper napkins on the table. Still in the plastic package. Um, gracias? 

So yes, when traveling, we eat lunch out, but dinners have been mostly takeaway eaten in the apartments we’ve rented, and that’s fine. Cheaper, too.

But this was different. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the guide. It’s not that he took us to every single meal, but with his help, we were guaranteed that at least half of our meals would be interesting and we would understand what we were eating, and do it right.

And it was also different because of the food. It was mostly just….good. Dependably good. It was fresh and freshly made, from the tortillas to the steamed or lightly boiled vegetables. The vegetables had not come out of a can, the meat had not been thawed from Cotsco bags. The meals were prepared, not warmed up, and the kitchens were in sight. It was farm-to-table, mostly open kitchen, but it was simple, not self-conscious, normal, not trendy, and offered with a sense of care and pride just because that’s the way you treat food and eating in this culture.

So, the week of eating. It started out fairly average then greatly improved as the week went on.

Sunday

On a Sunday evening in San Ignacio, there wasn’t a lot open. Actually, as I think about it, it was late Sunday afternoon, not evening – we hadn’t had lunch, so this was filling that gap as well. We ate at Tandoor Restaurant and Bar – Indian-owned, with a mixed menu. (There is a large population of Indians and Chinese in Belize. In fact, most small retail is owned by Chinese now, which is a whole other, interesting story) The place is on Burns Street, which has been closed to traffic, and as a pedestrian walkway is clearly party central. Buckets of beer on offer everywhere and so on, ready for the student/hipster/hikers back from their day of adventures.

I had escabeche – a traditional Belizean onion soup, that was..full of onions. Which it’s supposed to be! But they weren’t that strong, and the soup was very filling with good spice. My son had a chicken quesadilla, which he said was good.

Monday

Monday lunch was at El Sombrero, which is an ecolodge near the Yaxha ruins. We ordered lunch, and then took a boat ride out to the Toxopate ruins on a nearby island, then returned, where lunch was quickly presented to us. I honestly don’t have a vivid memory of the meal – it was late in the afternoon, we’d had a very bumpy ride in the morning in an unsuccessful bid to see one set of ruins (the roads ended up being impassible), then toured Yaxha, then the island ruins, with the drive to Tikal still to come. I’m pretty sure I had grilled chicken, served with the usual sides. It was tasty.

Dinner was at the Jungle Lodge, which, as I mentioned yesterday, has a very mundane menu. I had an antipasto plate which was well prepared – the eggplant clearly just grilled and so on – I don’t remember what my son had. I was mainly irritated at the menu. Onward!

Tuesday

Tuesday was Sunrise Tour day – meaning we rose at 4 am, met our guide at 4:30, walked through the jungle, and climbed up Temple IV for sunrise at 5:30 or so. So yes, by 11, it was time to eat.

Neart the hotel area at Tikal are several comedors or small, informal restaurants. We had a little bit of back-and-forth about the exchange rate, but that didn’t mar the experience of the food, which was very good. I had a chicken dish and my son had beef of some sort.

Here you can see the typical plating: the protein, rice, vegetables (carrots and a kind of squash), with tortillas and pickled carrots/onions/jalapenos.

 

The place, as they all are, is basically open air – there’s a roof, but no walls. One woman serving, the other in the kitchen. There’s a wait because they’re cooking the food, not warming it up. Very, very good.

The comedors aren’t open for dinner, so you’re stuck with the hotel restaurants. We ate this one at the next door Jaguar Inn, and the food was a little better than it had been at our hotel. I had a fruit plate – the best pineapple I’ve ever had and excellent other fruit.

Wednesday

We slept late on this day – rising at 6 am, not 4, so that was exciting. After a morning at Tikal and a bumpy ride around the edge of the park, we arrived in the village of Uaxactun, which features ancient ruins on both sides of the modern-day village which in turn is centered on a now-unused airstrip, built for the time when the surrounding jungle was harvested for chicle (the natural gum that was the original chewing gum – hence, Chicklets). Now, the forest is managed to harvest two resources: a type of fern that is exported to Holland for use in flower arrangements, and hardwood. We went into the small, quiet restaurant with chickens and pigs roaming around outside the door – quiet but for the moaning and chanting of prayers from the evangelical prayer meeting next door – placed our order for lunch, then toured the first set of ruins.

We had two choices: chicken or deer (hunted from the jungle). Of course we chose deer!

 

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Avocado and refried black beans also on the plate, in addition to the usual rice and vegetables. 

Dinner was in Flores that night. We wandered around a bit, saw a few possibilities, and then studied the menu outside of this one tiny place. My son was hankering for a hamburger, and this menu featured it. I have no idea what the restaurant was called. There were maybe five tables inside, and no customers. The cook/server/owner was an older woman sitting at a table with a newspaper, watching a telenova. She was very friendly to us, and didn’t seem to mind being interrupted – after she took our order, she changed the channel, presumably for Michael’s benefit, to some weird game-show type show featuring Vin Diesel in which cars were driven from second story windows and smashed up.

Anyway, Michael got his hamburger, and I got a very fine chicken soup. I’m pretty sure the vegetables had been prepared just for the soup – after our order, I heard the chef chopping away up there in the kitchen.

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In the corner of the tiny restaurant was this:

(Forgive the size – you can’t resize videos on WordPress, unfortunately.)

Thursday

Thursday was another adventurous day involving much boat riding. After seeing the Aguateca ruins, we returned down the creek to the town of Sayaxche to the Cafe Maya. No written menu, but five or six choices presented to us. I chose the local whitefish – Michael had shrimp.

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The cafe was filled with workers on their lunch break, most of them either medical people or telecommunications employees, judging from their uniform polo shirts. No McDonald’s for these folks, lucky them.

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On our way across the river to Sayaxche. It was a small boat. Two women with a motorcycle crossed with us. 

This was a long, tiring day, and lunch had been late, so when we returned to Flores at 7:30, neither of us were interested in a lengthy dinner, so we settle for tacos at a bar/cafe – no photos, but the chicken and pork tacos were very good.

Friday

Friday was our last day with our guide  – he’s been taking us to the Ixpanpajul nature preserve outside of Flores, then onto the Belize border. On the way, after the park, we stopped at El Porta del Yaxha – a restaurant built originally to serve the crew of Survivor Guatemala when it filmed at Yaxha for three months in 2005. It was a lovely, open-air restaurant right on the highway, complete with hammocks if you needed a power nap.

The food was great. We started with a simple soup served in these cups. Then I had pepian stew – a chicken stew with a spice and ground pumpkin seed base that was rich and fabulous. Accompanying the meal were the usual pickled vegetables, black beans, tortillas and fresh cheese. Our guide said I should be able to find the base for pepian in a good Hispanic grocery store, and since we have one of those, I’m hopeful.

Dinner – well, I had wanted to go here for dinner, but the kid was again hankering for a hamburger. It wasn’t just being an American kid – he was hoping that he’d have a hamburger made with Guatemalan beef and it would be amazing. So we stopped at this place – Ko-Ox Han-Nah (which means “Let’s go eat” in a Mayan dialect, I think.) I don’t know if what he got turned out to be exactly amazing, but he liked it. And he saw chili cheese fries on the menu, and wanted those. I had thought I’d go to the other place after he finished, but by then, I was tired and full from a cucumber/yogurt appetizer I’d had, so I decided against it.

Oh- one more thing from San Ignacio – the first night were there (Sunday) we’d had a bit of street food – a bit of meat and cheese freshly fried between tortillas. It was great. I could have eaten a lot more of those…

Saturday:

Time to go home! I wasn’t going to eat anything really, but when we got to the Belize Airport there was a sort-of cafe setup  – you ordered it from a woman standing at a booth, they cooked it somewhere, and then brought it back in take-out containers. They had some Belizean dishes on the menu, so even though it wasn’t in my plan, I thought it was my duty to try something – grilled chicken (I had wanted shrimp, but the woman said, “The shrimp is finished.” Poor shrimp.)

Look at this!

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A lot of chicken filets, rice and beans under there, good fresh vegetables, a grilled/baked plantain….excellent and a ton of food.

So there you go. I’m sorry I didn’t get to that restaurant in Flores, and our food explorations were limited by the fact that were in Tikal for two days, and food is not the focus of the Tikal experience. But I was struck by the food I was served in Guatemala and Belize. It was carefully and thoughtfully prepared. It was fresh. It was pretty balanced and healthy. In just those few days, what I think I experienced was a confident, authentic culture that is centered on the idea that if I’m going to serve you something to eat, it’s inhospitable to give you anything less than the best I can offer at that moment.

Gracias!

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Lunch for the tapirs and friends at the Belize Zoo.

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