Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Dark Side of The Land of The Free

image source: http://www.talkofthehouse.com

In Tahlequah, Oklahoma outside of Tulsa, a few weeks after Thanksgiving I met Tony. His ancestors originally lived in the Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina area along with about 125,000 others in the early 1800s. But many of their new neighbors that had moved into the area became jealous of the land they occupied and wanted it for their own. Their neighbors managed to convince their state governments and even then President Andrew Jackson to transfer thousands of acres of their land to white cotton farmers.

In 1831, President Jackson ordered the U.S. Army to evict the Choctaw Native Americans from their land and forced them to walk - some bound in chains and shackles - to the land west of the Mississippi River during winter without food or any assistance from the U.S. Government. In 1836, the President ordered the Army to force the Creeks from their land as well. Of the 15,000 that began the walk to Oklahoma, some 3,500 died on the way. The President then set his sites on the land of the Cherokee Nation - my friend Tony's ancestors.

Image Source: squarespace.com

After seeing what had happened to the Choctaw and the Creeks, a group of self-appointed representatives for the Cherokee Nation began negotiations with the U.S. Government. In 1835, these representatives signed the Treaty of New Echota trading the the Cherokee Nation's land east of the Mississippi River for $5 million, assistance with relocation, and compensation for their property. Approximately 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation signed a protest to the treaty as it was not initiated, agreed to, nor signed by the leadership of the Cherokee Nation.  The U.S. Congress denied the protest and approved the treaty. By 1838, the government decided they were not satisfied that only 2,000 of the 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation had relocated. President Martin Van Buren ordered the U.S. Army to speed things up. 7,000 soldiers led by General Winfield Scott forced the Native Americans into stockades while neighbors from the white community raided and looted their homes. The Army organized a march forcing the Cherokee Nation to walk the 1,200 miles to Oklahoma. 5,000 died along the way. In 1907, Oklahoma became a state and the state systematically began forcing the Cherokee to smaller and smaller plots of land than they had been originally granted in the forced relocation.

In the years since, the Cherokee Nation has worked to buy back its land in Oklahoma. As Tony drove us around and pointed to different parcels of land and noted, "We just bought that back." or "We are buying that back." I couldn't help but struggle to understand how a nation of people could be repeatedly forced off their land without just compensation. And then to have to purchase the land back struck me as an insult.

As I talked with Tony, I could sense his pride in his people and his respect for the elders. He works coordinating teams to replace roofs and install wheelchair ramps on homes of elders and those struggling to get by. As he talked about the work, I could sense his pride in making a positive difference in his community. I never sensed any hostility and anger for how poorly his ancestors had been treated, but a genuine interest in improving the lives of those around him. As I traveled home, I thought about his heritage, the unjust suffering of his ancestors, and his humility. I hope that I can learn from his example.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thanksgiving in the South

This year we made the 5 1/2 hour trek to the motherland where I grew up for Thanksgiving with the family, namely Mitchell County, in the Southwest corner of Georgia - a place where everything moves a bit slower and your choices for going out to eat are a bit slimmer. A place where when a car goes by, if you don't wave it raises suspicions.

My brother and his wife have a beautiful piece of land with a lake, two hogs, potbelly pigs, horses, miniature donkeys, goats, chickens and more chickens, six dogs, and I think the current count in 9 cats, a squirrel, and a rabbit. They both have a heart for animals and keep taking in the strays and giving them a loving home. It's the kind of place where you stoke a fire in the burn barrel and watch the stars come out while the frogs croak, the crickets chirp, and the fish splash in the dark.

We head down to a local restaurant of Thanksgiving dinner. When we arrive the parking lot is already packed with four wheel drive pickups and a line of gray haired people are waiting patiently on the porch to get in the door. Soon enough we get through the line at the counter to pay our way in and the buffet process begins. When everyone has piled up a plate, we sit down, give thanks and begin to eat. Halfway through the first plate, Mom arrives. We've come accustomed to her late arrivals and expect no less. She makes a plate and joins us at the table as some of the rest of the family begins work on plate number two or three.

At some point during the meal after repeating louder and louder to Dad, he says something about his hearing aids. Mom pipes up, "I lost one of my hearing aids. The other is in my purse." We laugh, but are not really surprised. If she has owned it. She has lost it a dozen times.

When everyone is sufficiently full, we head to the parking lot and load up the vehicles to return to the farm. We stop at the local Dollar General, because you can't waste a trip to town without stopping at Dollar General. On the way out of the store, I notice a old rusted go-kart sitting at the curb. It strikes me slightly odd, but I don't pay it much attention. I hear the store door open and a loud conversation. I turn to see two grown men walking out with two bags of items each. They crawl onto the single seat go-kart both of them hanging off both sides and ride off with their purchases. I grin. "Yup, We're in South Georgia alright", I say.

Coincidentally, this year my birthday has fallen on Thanksgiving day. Mom follows us back to the farm and presents a red velvet cake she has made for my birthday. She commandeers their kitchen to mix up the cream cheese icing and shortly we're enjoying a piece of cake. 

Friday we begin work on moving a shelter for the goats to a different pasture so they can begin cleaning up brush, blackberry vines, and poison ivy. We get the shelter unloaded and as my brother pulls away in the truck and trailer, I hear the big dual wheels fighting for traction. I turn to see the truck jump sideways in the Georgia clay and spin to a halt. His wife jumps on a four-wheeler and goes to get the Jeep. We begin digging out the log chains. After an hour or more of spinning tires, repositioning, and slinging mud, we free the big truck from its muddy grave and head for the house.

It's after 3pm and we haven't had lunch. We ride into town to discover four of the five restaurants are closed. Everyone must be Black Friday shopping at the Wal-Mart one town over. We finally settle on the one open establishment, the local pizza parlor. We practically have the place to ourselves eating pizza while being serenaded by Frank Sinatra music.

We return to the farm and begin trying to wrangle the three goats affectionately known as the Three Stooges to move them to their new pasture. But, they're having none of it. As darkness falls, we abandon the attempt and call it a day. My brother rubs the ears on the his 300 lb hog, Miss Piggy and she rolls over on her side to have her belly rubbed.

We have survived the typical family holiday drama, freed a stuck truck from the mud, and had a good time enjoying the quiet peacefulness of the rural countryside. It's been a good trip.

Monday, October 23, 2017

You'd be Angry Too If Your Name Was Irma

When the weather guessers began predicting that Hurricane Irma would impact the entire state of Florida, we took note. I was most concerned for our friends and acquaintances who live in the Florida Keys. On Monday, September 4th, my manager inquired on my family's plan for Irma storm evacuation. I responded that we would make a decision on evacuation on Thursday as the spaghetti model was at the time inconclusive. In fact it looked like a plate of spaghetti from Carraba's Italian Grill had be dumped on a map of the continental United States, but someone had somehow managed to salvage the meatballs. With the weather guessers continuing to say that even if Saint Petersburg, the Sunshine City, did not take a direct hit, we could see wind gusts over 100 mph, I took them serious.

I remembered when we bought our house the house flipper had installed the bolts and wingnuts it the exterior window frames and cut plywood for each window. I also recalled that he had not labelled them other than the guest bathroom window which is the smallest window in the house and quite obvious which board fits it. We contacted our friends that we had originally planned to hang out with at Disney on Saturday and cancelled. I figured Irma wanted to visit the Happiest Place on Earth worse that we did. On Wednesday afternoon after work, I elected to dig all those sheets of plywood out and begin the process of elimination of identifying which sheet was drilled and cut for each of the remaining dozen windows. I knew this would be time consuming, so I thought the more time I gave myself the better off we would be. I figured we would need to have the windows boarded up regardless of our evacuation decision. I went for the obvious win first by boarding up the guest bathroom window. and what do you know, it was labelled correctly and fit. I then spent the remaining four hours of sunlight figuring out the four other windows on that side of the house and labelling them accordingly. As I was proceeding with the task at work, I could not help but notice the looks I was receiving from passers by and some neighbors - glares of disdain as if I had forgotten my pants or was wearing a tinfoil hat.

On Thursday, the weather guessers had adjusted their models and were now honing their focus in on the eastern seaboard of the Sunshine state. I announced that we would not be evacuating since the storm's projected path would be 100 miles to our east, but that we would continue with our storm preparations. Thursday, I resumed my game of Which-Window-Does-This-Piece-Of-Plywood-Fit. As I was now working on windows adjacent to the street next to our house, the glares of disdain intensified. I ignored them and continued my work until all of the windows were boarded up with the exception of the front porch window. If we were staying, I wanted to be able to see out of at least one window. I picked up a case of water and began packing the freezer as full of bags of water and jugs of water as possible so that they would freeze and provide a solid blanket of ice around all the food in the freezer.

 On Friday, the weather guessers had once again readjusted the projected storm path and were now predicting it would pass between St. Petersburg and Tampa. They were also projecting it would continue due north and their map showed the entire state of Georgia and parts of Alabama in warning areas. We began to hear reports of people evacuating and the highways being jammed. A couple co-workers had spent 4 hours to go 4 miles and had run out of gas and the gas stations were all out of gas. We then began to here reports that there were cars littering the sides of I-75 to our north that had also ran out of gas. We decided that at this point the window of opportunity for evacuation had closed. I dug out emergency candles, coolers, checked flashlight batteries, and picked up an extra bag of charcoal for the grill. We received that all the area gas stations were out of gas and all of the grocery stores and big boxes were sold out of water.

 On Saturday morning, I loaded the coolers into White Lightning, my 1970 Chevrolet pickup and ran up to the corner 7-11 store. I bought 6 bags of ice and noted their gas pumps had bags over them and that their shelves were void of bottled water, Cokes, and bread. We took down the American Flag and carried in all of the flowers and plants from the front porch. I tied the front porch glider swing to a corner post with a ratcheting strap and secured the cover on the BBQ grill out back with bungee cords. Saturday evening we went out for dinner and the normally crowded restaurant was half empty. The wait staff announced that they were serving an abbreviated menu. We understood as many had evacuated leaving the restaurant with a limited staff. Sunday we filled the bathtub up with water. We piled blankets in the hallway and created sleeping pallets. We were watched the storm track on the Weather Channel and watched their reports of the storm's damage to the Florida Keys. A friend of ours was posting Facebook live video feeds from his home in the Keys and it looked devastating. The reports were predicting the storm to reach us between 8:30pm and 9pm. At 7pm the power went out. We lit the emergency candles, donned our headlamps and headed to the hallway. I began reading a book by the infamous Jack Riepe while we waited. Around 8:30pm the winds picked up and the noise level increased. The intensity of the wind noise and the noise of things hitting the sides of the house and the boarded windows continued.

Around 3:30AM on Sunday, I heard a noise which I was almost certain was a tree falling near our house. I donned a raincoat and ventured just out the back door and checked the back yard and side yard. All seemed well. There were a lot of limbs down but nothing significant. I returned inside the house and stepped out on the front porch and surveyed the front yard again finding no significant damage. I stepped off the front porch to check the side yard by the street and to my dismay found a tree had split and half of it lying across the hood of my truck. I ran out to survey the damage and was thrilled to discover all of the truck's windows were still intact. A city policeman in an unmarked car was coming down the street inspecting power lines and homes with a searchlight. He stopped and asked if everyone was OK. I told him we were fine, and thanked him for his service. He continued down the street driving over the curb on the neighbor's side of the street to maneuver around our downed tree. I retreated to the house to get out of the wind and rain.

By 8:30AM on Monday, we had clearing skies and reduced wind. I grabbed my sawzall and a couple batteries and began cutting limbs off my truck. After half an hour or so, I had the limbs cut away from the truck and could find no damage. The remainder of the tree was still lying across the street blocking traffic. I grabbed a cold drink and began taking down some of the plywood over the windows so we could get some air moving through the house. I heard a noise and looked up to see a random man getting out of a pickup that had parked just short of the downed tree. As I rounded the house I saw him retrieve a chainsaw from the bed of his truck. He gave the saw a tug, it fired on first pull, and he began cutting up the fallen tree. I grabbed a set of gloves and began pulling brush out of the street and piling it along the curb. After a few minutes, he shut the saw down. He told me he had been sitting at home bored with no electric and decided the quicker the streets were clear, the sooner the electric company workers could restore power. So he was just driving down the street, stopping at every fallen tree and cutting it up to clear the street. I thanked him for the help, and he headed off for the next one.

One of Allison's co-workers who lives in downtown St. Pete called to check on us. They had not lost power. When they learned of our situation, they began searching for ice. Finding all of the convenient stores still closed and all the grocery stores out of ice, they went to a neighborhood bar with a cooler and the owner sent us a huge amount of ice. We had our freezer packed solid and were not opening it. All of the refrigerator contents had been moved to coolers. So, we drained the melted ice in our coolers and repacked with the fresh ice. They invited us and our two dogs to their home to sit in the AC for a while which we gladly accepted.

Tuesday came and went with no word on power being restored. A friend called and loaned us a generator, so we were able to provide power to the refrigerator/freezer, run some fans,and have some lights. But we didn't have enough capacity to run the AC.

Wednesday we were both expected back at work. I tried working remote by going to a local Starbucks which was open and had power but no internet. I gave up and drove into Tampa. Another of my wife's co-workers invited us and our dogs to their house for dinner and to spend the night. I returned home to protect our belongings and keep the generator running.

Thursday after work, friends arrived with a portable AC unit. We plugged it into the generator and closed the windows for our master bedroom and it began cooling things down quickly. About an hour with the portable AC unit running, I heard the sounds of large trucks. I walked out to see four bucket trucks taking positions along the power lines on our street. All of their vehicles had Missouri license plates. I approached one of the supervisors and shook his hand and thanked them for coming down to help us recover. A few minutes later, they threw a disconnect on the pole and restored the power in our neighborhood. Neighbors came running out of their houses dancing and shouting. Strangers were hugging each other and hugging utility workers and tears flowed.

We were extremely fortunate to only have a tree that fell across the street. A couple weeks later, we had a tree company take the remainder of the tree down. We were fortunate to have power restored after 5 days. And we were very grateful. We learned a lot during the storm and recovery. One of the greatest things we learned was what a great group of friends and neighbors we have. We were blessed to have people checking on us, inviting us to their homes, finding ice for us, loaning us generators and portable AC units, and cutting trees out of the street for us.

We continue to pray for those in the Keys and in Puerto Rico that suffered devastating damage during Irma. And pray their lives are restored.


Friday, October 20, 2017

Guest Post: Andi Cumbo-Floyd - The Teeter-Totter of Discipline and Grace

Dear Beautiful People, 

For the first time in several months, I achieved my goal of writing 1,000 words a day on my work-in-progress this week.  Most mornings, I didn't want to do it. I had other things to do - things that pay me money and aren't as hard - but I did it.  Each time, it took me less than 30 minutes - I draft very quickly because I've practiced for years, but my revision process is quite slow - and when I was done, I felt great because I wasn't going to be carrying the burden of disappointment and guilt I feel when I don't write. 

For me, writing is a calling, a vocation, my life's work, if you can bear that level of grandioseness and not think it some sort of April Fool's Day joke.( I assure you, I'm serious.) So when I'm not using it, I feel a bit like that servant from the parable who buries the money in the dirt.  I don't like that feeling. 
Over many years of practice, after reading many books on writing, through listening to many friends who are further down the path of words than I am, I have learned that a real key to writing is discipline, a regimented putting-of-the-butt-in-the-chair.  I don't believe in inspiration. I believe in hard work, in showing up, in facing the page as often as possible to get the writing done. 

But I also believe in grace.  I believe that it's far more detrimental to my mental health if I walk around on the days I don't write feeling shameful about what I haven't done. I know that shame is too heavy a weight to bear when I need lightness to create.  I am certain that no good - and almost no writing - comes from feeling weighed down by what didn't happen. 

So here's how I keep the teeter-tooter of discipline and grace for myself. (By the way, I am coming to think of balance as shifty, not something you pin down forever like a beautiful butterfly, but something we dance through during the various days and periods of our life.  Hence, the teeter-totter metaphor.)
·         I have a regular goal for writing.  For me, that's 1,000 words a day five days a week.  That goal is achievable for me on a daily basis.
·         I have a regular writing time for each of those five days. Right now, that time is 6am because I can wake at 5, do a little reading, write, check email, and then feed the farm animals.  That time will shift as the sunrise moves earlier this summer.
·         I give myself time off. I don't write on weekends. That's my farm time, my time with Philip, my time to binge-watch Firefly. My time with family and friends.  If I'm making space for things I love sometimes, I don't tend to skimp on writing, which I don't always love, the other times.
·         I look ahead to how I will make this time given what's happening in the rest of my life. If I know I'm traveling - as I as this week - I evaluate whether or not I'll still be able to write that 1,000 words. If I don't see it as possible, I scratch that day off my calendar.  But just that day. By looking ahead at what might make my goals hard to achieve, I give myself the space to not hit the goal that day without derailing myself with guilt for many days.
·         When I miss a writing day unexpectedly, I look at why that happened as soon and as honestly as possible. Sometimes, I just don't get it done, and so when that happens, I take stock right away. Did an emergency arise? Was I sick? Or did I make choices that got in the way? If this was about choice, why did I make that choice? Am I okay with that choice? And if not, what will I do to make better choices to allow for my writing next time?  I find that 90% of my missed writing days were my choice, and most of those choices I would like to not make again.  So I adjust my schedule or my practices - like this week, I committed to not looking online until my 1,000 words were done.  It worked well for me.
For you right now, 5 days a week may not be possible; 1,000 words may be too little or too much.  Mornings may not work. You have to find what works for you.  

I believe you have to make a goal and set a schedule that work for you, and then do all you can to keep to it. And I believe this is possible for everyone most of the time.  You may be tempted to say that because you work a lot of hours you can't set a goal or schedule, or because you have young children you can't keep a schedule, or because you have a chronic illness you can't make a goal or keep a schedule, or because your second toe is longer than your big toe schedules don't work for you.  I get it. Life is hard for all of us a lot of the time and in a lot of ways.
Here's the thing though - people have written books while raising young children. People have written books while working to make partner at a law firm and working 18-hour days.  People have written books while battling cancer for their lives.  The way they do that may not be as fast as I do in my childfree, write-for-a-living daily life (which has it's own griefs and challenges, I assure you), but they do it.  And they do it by committing, by practicing, by prioritizing, and by giving themselves the grace to say, "Today was not the day, but I'll try again tomorrow."

So here's my NO FOOLIN' challenge for you.  
·         Make a weekly writing goal. 
·         Set a weekly schedule for achieving that goal. 
·         Celebrate when you meet your schedule. 
·         Evaluate when you don't and let the "didn't" go. 
·         Try again the next day.
What do you say?  Are you in?

Much love,

Excerpted from Love Letters To Writers: Encouragement, Accountability, and Truth-Telling by Andi Cumbo-Floyd – Forthcoming on November 14, 2017. 

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 4 dogs, 4 cats, 6 goats, 3 rabbits, and 37 chickens. You can read more of her words on writing at andilit.com.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Book Giveaway!!!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Awakened by Allen Madding


by Allen Madding

Giveaway ends September 22, 2017.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter Giveaway

Monday, August 28, 2017


Thursday night we had a planned maintenance at work which I was asked to be apart, so the workday went from 7AM until 1:30AM. Fortunately, I got Friday comped to recoup. Do I awoke Friday with a list of things I wanted to accomplish personally. Top of the list was getting some Advance Reader Copies (ARC) of Awakened mailed out to members of the launch team. I jumped in White Lighting (my 1970 C20 pickup) and rode over to Walgreens to pickup some padded envelopes as I had a depleted inventory. Much to my chagrin when i crawled back in the truck to head home with the envelopes, the starter refused to cooperate. It wouldn't even click.

I called State Farm Roadside Assistance and found a place in the shade beside the building to wait. before they arrived, a landscaper noticed the hood up and asked me if I needed a jump. He hooked up a jump box and said it showed the battery fully charged. White Lightning refused to budge despite the jump. I thanked him for his assistance and called State Farm Roadside Assistance back and advised a jump was no longer needed, but a tow truck.

I retreated to the shade of the side of the building and began to wait for the estimated 1 hour arrival. At first, I wanted to fuss about the list of things I wanted to accomplish and my predicament that had me stuck standing on a concrete sidewalk in the sweltering Florida heat. I quietly became a student of human nature or as my Granddad would have called it, I began people watching.

From my vantage of the corner of the building, I had a clear view of 54th Avenue and MLK Street as well as the main parking lot in front of Walgreens and their adjoining liquor store as well as the optometrist office to the back of the side parking lot. At 10:30am on a Friday, this parking lot was a hotbed of activity. A man passed by smelling of dried urine pushing a shopping cart full of empty cans and other collected items. Another man pulled up in a pickup and hurried inside only to return shortly and hurry back to his pickup for a few minutes and then back in the drug store. A few minutes later he returned carrying a small shopping bag and a large bag of diapers. A woman suddenly appeared smoking a cigarette nervously pacing back and forth. After six or seven trips past me she disappeared from my sight reappearing moments later on the other side of the street.

As I continued to wait for the tow truck, I began to hear rolls of thunder. I looked to the north and could see ominous black clouds, but the heat and humidity dissuaded from considering sitting in the truck.  When the rain began, I huddled closer to the building to take as much advantage of the narrow overhang as possible. A woman pulled up in a small SUV and made her way slowly into the drug store. While she was inside the rain increased in intensity. After a while, she returned from the store to her SUV with a small shopping bag in hand. She opened the door and disappeared from my sight. She was not seated in the vehicle but the driver's door was standing wide open in a Florida downpour. I could not help but wonder what on earth the was doing. After ten minutes or so, she popped up and headed back into the drug store with the shopping bag. After another ten minutes or so, she reappeared and returned to the SUV. Once again she disappeared from my line of sight with the driver's door open in the steady downfall of rain. Finally, she crawled into the driver's seat, closed the door, started the vehicle, and slowly drove away.

The rain began to let up and the sun began to break through. Within moments it was a light drizzle and then it quit all together. As the heat and humidity began to increase, the tow truck appeared.

Initially, I wanted to feel sorry for myself sitting three hours stranded outside Walgreens. But it gave me a chance to pause from my list of chores and the hectic busyness of my week and take a slow look around me. These are my neighbors. This is my community. These are the people I am called to love. It was a good reminder.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Inferno Films Producing New Documentary Entitled Community First, A Home for the Homeless

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For those who haven't heard, one of the biggest things I am excited about in the work to end homelessness in our country is a model community - Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Community First! Village in Austin, Texas which is a complete paradigm shift. Mobile Loaves and Fishes is an organization that has been serving the homeless community in the Austin are for years with an eye to restoring dignity. The Community First! Village utilizes RVs and Tiny Homes in a 27-acre master planned development in East Austin providing affordable, permanent housing for the disabled and chronically homeless in Central Texas.

Today, I am thrilled to announce that Award-winning director and filmmaker Layton Blaylock and the team at Inferno Films are producing a documentary entitled, Community First: A Home for the Homeless. The film follows the progress of Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Community First! Village in Austin. Production began in March 2017 and will continue through the remainder of the year. A Kickstarter to drive monetary support for the documentary project launches on Wednesday, August 23rd.

Here is a teaser for the documentary - Teaser (video)

Formed in 1999, Inferno films is headed by Director/DP Layton Blaylock and Executive Producers Quincy Lowman and Jeff Hastings. They have produced a wide variety of award-winning broadcast projects and television commercials. Their 2006 feature length documentary, Art From the Streets, has garnered several awards and played at over 30 film festivals around the world.

Community First! Village is a 27-acre master planned development in East Austin that provides affordable, permanent housing for the disabled and chronically homeless in Central Texas. Home to over 200 people including its formerly homeless residents, work campers, on-site missioners, and staff, the project aims to “heal the lives of the homeless through the transformative power of community,” says Blaylock.  The documentary follows this unique residential program as it provides a model of addressing homelessness by providing homes as well as personal care, community involvement,  an opportunity to earn a dignified income, and expression in the creative arts. Special events regularly occur on-site, such as family-friendly movie nights, art shows, tours, and volunteer opportunities that are open to anyone, allowing connections to develop between those who live inside and outside of the Village.

For more information on the documentary, and a link to the Kickstarter, visit www.communityfirstthemovie.com or facebook.com/communityfirstmovie. For more information on Inferno Films, visit www.infernofilms.com. To learn more about Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Community First! Village, visit http://mlf.org/community-first/.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Live, Laugh, Love, Love to Laugh

Image Source: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/explore/laughter-quotes/

From time to time friends will comment on my ability to bring laughter to any occasion. I freely admit that I love to laugh and firmly believe if you cannot laugh, you cannot enjoy life. I cannot take credit for my sense of humor. It is directly inherited. One of the funniest men in my life growing up was my Grandpa Madding. He was always up to something and all ways had a joke to tell.

As a small kid, I loved watching HeeHaw with Grandpa. Especially when they sang "Where, Where are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone? I searched the world over and thought I found true love. You met another and PFFFTT you were gone!" My Mom hated when I sang that and threatened to whip me. Grandpa thought it was hilarious.

 Our family loved to hunt and fish. My Dad had taken me and my brother hunting with him several time. He carried his shotgun, and we tagged along with our Daisy BB guns. He had taught us gun safety and things to be aware of in the woods. So when Grandpa came to town one Fall, we went into the woods hunting. When we came upon an electric fence, I froze in place. Grandpa took a look at it and declared it wasn't an electric fence. I pointed out the insulators on the post and argued the point. He scoffed, "Here I'll show you it isn't electric," he said. Unbeknownst to me, he had lightly grabbed a hold of the back of my belt. With the other hand, he grabbed the electric fence. I got a hefty jolt of electric fence charger while he laughed.

Many years later after I had moved into my first house, Grandpa Madding, Grandpa Jackson, and my Dad decided to tune up a push mower that Dad was going to give me to maintain my yard. both Granddads began to argue why it wouldn't start. Grandpa Madding suggested pulling the spark plug, laying it across the motor, and pulling the starter rope to see if the plug was firing. Grandpa Jackson quickly grabbed a ratchet and a socket and pulled the plug, carefully laid it so the plug was contacting metal to make a good ground and reached up to pull the rope. Unbeknownst to him, you guessed it, Grandpa Madding grabbed the back of his belt with one hand and the spark plug wire with the other just as Grandpa Jackson pulled the starter rope. He jumped and shouted and shook his head when he got the shock from the coil on the mower while Grandpa Madding laughed.

"I guess the plug and ignition module is good, huh Jack?" He laughed.

Before my daughter was born, my wife and I lived on 11 acres and had a small heard of goats to help with the mowing. He had came through an visited and headed out on an Airstream Caravan. One night all of the Airstreamers would gather and have a pot luck dinner. This one evening at potluck a lady stood at the microphone and introduced herself, named off all of her kids, grand kids, and great grand kids. When Grandpa Madding was introduced, not to be out done, he named his son, my brother and I as his two grandkids, and then said, "and I have a granddog Lugnut, and four grandgoats, Buckwheat, Barney, Betsy, and Coco."

Over the years growing up, I worked along side of him building additions on family houses, roofing houses, washing cars, etc. I learned a work ethic from him, and I learned that no matter how miserable the conditions hot or cold, not matter how hard the work, a little sense of humor and a good laugh makes the job a lot more enjoyable. And I have tried to carry both of those lessons with me.

These days I will crack a joke while working and will think how much it sounds like something he would say. I encourage you to laugh a little. It will do a lot for your overall disposition.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Little Johnny and Adventures on the Flint River

The Flint River (image source: wikimedia.org)

As a boy growing up in rural South Georgia, Mitchell County to be exact, I was introduced to fishing on the mighty Flint River. My Dad bought a 14 foot aluminum Jon boat and powered it with a 9 1/2 horse Johnson outboard that we called Little Johnny that he had gotten when my Granddad sold his Salt Water boat. On occasion, he would let me set at the back of the boat and pilot the boat. I remember the initial awe and fear I felt as I struggled to learn to turn the motor the opposite direction that I wanted the boat to head and becoming familiar with the less than raw power available at the twist of my wrist.

image source: smalloutboards.com

The Flint River was not a body of water to be taken lightly. I had sandbars, snags, and rocks to navigate past and spring holes that were hundreds of feet deep. It was a river to be respected and an appropriate amount of fear probably would be advised as well. Anytime Dad was piloting the boat on the Flint, I was instructed to sit to one side, so he could see the water ahead and avoid the rocks and snags that stuck up depending on the levels of the water. Anytime I piloted the boat, he sat up front calling out the dangers and giving directions on where to head for safe passage.

Amazingly, when my brother got his drivers license, my Dad allowed the two of us to take the boat fishing during the week after school while he was out of town on work. To this day, I am amazed that he allowed us to take his boat out. I am not sure if he suffered a head injury at work or just decided that he had taught us everything we needed to know, and it was time to let us spread our wings a bit.

So one gorgeous Spring day, we got home from school, ignored our homework assignments, hooked to boat up to my brother's car and headed for the Flint. We launched the boat and headed off down river as we had done a hundred times prior. I honestly don't remember if we caught anything that day or not. But I do vividly remember this - about an hour before dark, we decided it was time to head home. My brother tugged on Little Johnny's rope and the motor fired to life. We set a course upstream for the boat ramp. I quickly noticed something out of the ordinary. The river level had risen a good bit since we had launched. I recognized that to mean that the Georgia Power Dam flood gates north of us had been opened.

Georgia Power Dam on the Flint River (image source: cyclethunder.wormley.org)

With the rising level of water, there were less rocks and snags visible above the top of the water. My brother began to navigate from memory of where the rocks and snags were since they were not all completely visible. This instantly struck a bit of fear in my heart, because I knew if he missed remembering one rock that might now be just below the surface of the water, it could damage the boat or the outboard, and even worse throw us out of the boat or overturn us. I zipped up the zipper on the front of my life jacket and quietly checked to make sure he had his one and zipped.

It was then I noticed the second problem at hand. With the rising level of water, the current of the river had magnified. I could hear Little Johnny's hum and could tell my brother had the throttle twisted wide open. Looking out the front of the boat, I couldn't tell we were moving. I froze for a moment in fear as I thought about the possibility that the rising Flint River's current could by stronger than Little Johnny's 9 1/2 horsepower could overcome. I quickly quit watching for snags and rocks and began watching the shoreline.

My brother noted the change in my behavior and asked, "What are you looking at on the bank?"

I sheepishly admitted to my fear. "I'm looking at trees to see if we are actually moving forward!"

He laughed and then asked, "Well are we?"

I sat for a few minutes staring at a single unique looking tree. Slowly I could see it beginning to move to the South of us. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"Yes, barely but we are," I replied. "I hope we have enough gas to make it to the boat ramp."

He quickly looked down at the 5 gallon red fuel can that supplied Little Johnny the two-cycle gas and oil mixture.

"Three quarters of a tank," he called out.

We slowly made our way up river and finally arrived at the boat ramp. Our slow progress had put us behind schedule, and it was now dark. He quickly backed the boat trailer down the ramp, and we loaded the boat.

"That was some scary stuff there for a bit," I admitted after we were in the car and headed home. "I didn't think we were gonna make it up river."

I think back on that episode of my childhood several times as I get older. When I am working on a project or working on personal growth and begin to become frustrated with the progress, I remember that day on the waters of the mighty Flint River and looking to the shoreline for something to provide me proof that we are moving in the right direction despite the lack of speed. That experience has always helped me to remember to not focus so intently on the final destination but to look for progress. If I can see progress being made, I can then motivate myself to keep going.

How about you? Are you looking for progress - positive movement towards your goals? Or are you frozen staring at the final destination and overcome with defeat because of how far away it seems? Focus on signs of positive movement and keep on pressing forward.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Book Review: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Auggie Pullman was born with several "small anomalies". In fact his face was so disfigured from birth and numerous surgeries, his parents elected to homeschool him that is until 5th grade. Auggie is about to face his greatest fear, being the new kid at Beecher Prep. And everyone knows middle school kids are not the kindest and most considerate. Inside Auggie is just an  ordinary kid with ordinary dreams and aspirations, but he has an extraordinary face. He knows it will be a struggle to convince his classmates that he doesn't have cooties and that his disfigured face isn't contagious. But how will he do it? How can he convince his classmates that they can be brave enough to go against the popular culture of making fun of him and actually befriend him? There is only one way - to bravely show them what he is like on the inside.

Wonder is well written, has wonderfully and accurately created characters. I highly recommend it to parents and children of all ages. There are a host of great lessons to be learned from this entertaining read.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Dining Reviews Are Moving

I'm a very excited to announce a new venture with a very good friend and talented chef, Leslie Barton. We have launched a new website SlapYourGrandma.com. This website will provide restaurant and recipes so good, you'll want to, well, slap your grandma.

All dining reviews going forward will be found on this new website. I encourage you to bookmark the page and join us on this new adventure.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Great American Scream Machine - a Lesson in Overcoming Fear

Image Source: http://www.themeparkreview.com

I was probably around 10 years old when my family made its first trip to Six Flags Over Atlanta. The trip is a fond memory including bumper cars, log flume water rides, the Dahlonega Mine Train - which at that time was a wooden roller coaster that smelled of creosote and had an interactive animated "Buford the Buzzard" tossing insults at the waiting crowd in the queue line.

The event of the day the left an indelible mark in my memory from 43 years ago, was the Great American Scream Machine - a wooden roller coaster that had opened that year with a hill that was 105 feet tall and a top speed of 57 miles an hour. The restraints for the coaster consisted of a lap bar. Current day it utilizes a seat belt and a lap bar, but for the life of me I only remember the lap bar on my first ride.

As a 10 year old kid, I had seen the advertisements for the Scream Machine and had my hesitations. It was a mammoth site painted in gleaming white adorned with red, white, and blue banners.  Somehow my Dad performed a skillful job of talking me into it over the course of the day. As we stood in the queue line, I glanced up at the huge 105 feet tall hill and began to rethink my decision.

"I think I have changed my mind", I told my Dad.

He chuckled, "Too late now", he said pointing to the sea of people in line behind us.

I began to try to muster up all of the courage I could possibly find in my 10 year old being. I loved the Dahlonega Mine Train, so I told myself that maybe after the first hill it would be about the same. But somehow deep down, I knew that even if it was, it would be a heck of a lot faster. After several minutes, we took our seats about halfway back in the roller coaster. The lap bar came down about three inches away from actually touching my thighs. I took hold of it and decided holding on would probably be in my best interest for self preservation. Minutes went by as we set motionless in the roller coaster anticipating what was about to happen. Finally the high school kid at the console with all the cool lights and buttons pressed a button and our car began to roll out of the station and around a curve in the track providing a clear view of the huge hill of wood and track that stood before us like a mountain.

Image Source: http://www.themeparkreview.com

The car began to climb the hill with an all to familiar click-click-click sound. I could feel all of the courage I had mustered up in the queue line quickly draining out of my body, seeping into the soles of my shoes, and out the bottom of the car. As riders in front of me held up their hands to show the absence of fear, I increased by grip on the lap bar sitting several inches above my lap. After what seemed like hours, we reached the top of the huge hill. I looked off to the sides and marveled at how small everything below us seemed. The first couple of rows of riders and cars began to disappear over the peak of the hill and the screaming began. Then after a few moments, we were rocketing down the other side. I felt weightless. I could feel my small 10 year old butt leaving the seat of the car and my thighs rose to make contact with the lap bar. I struggled with what little strength my little bony arms contained to hold on to the lap bar and tried unsuccessfully to leverage myself back down into my seat. Looking straight ahead all I could see were the cars of riders descending the hill in front of us and the bottom of the hill which seemed miles away. In my mind, I could begin to picture myself floating completely out of the car and tumbling down in front of the coaster. I flexed all of my non-existent 10 year old not-going-out-for-football muscles and continued trying to hold myself in the car while clenching the muscles in my abdomen and holding my breath. My Dad sat laughing in the seat next to me unaware of his youngest son's impending death. I began to pray confessing every misdeed I had ever committed or even thought of committing over the last 10 years promising to read my Bible and study every Sunday School lesson every week.

When we finally reached the bottom and began to climb the next hill that paled in comparison to the first, I felt my butt make contact with the seat, and I began breathing again.

"Dad, you better hold onto me", I screamed, "I almost fell out on that last hill."

He smiled and chuckled seemingly unconvinced that I had just had a close encounter with death. The next few hills seemed enjoyable compared to the introduction with the Grim Reaper I had just experienced on the downhill of a 105 feet plunge to almost certain death. I managed to continue to breathe through the remaining hills until the car came sliding into a sudden stop at the station.

I quickly gazed around me and then performed a self inventory - all fingers check, all toes check, two legs, two arms check, no detectable dampness in my underwear and no unusual smells. Yes! I had survived and would live to see another episode of Emergency!

As we walked away from the station, my legs felt wobbly and my head seemed to be spinning. I stopped,turned, and looked at that menacing towering track and was amazed that I had done it. I had rode the Great American Scream Machine and had lived to tell about it.

Years later, I returned to Six Flags as a Junior in High School. When we unloaded the van, I glanced up at that same towering track and thought, "I rode that as a little kid no big deal". I rode it again but this time with my hands up. Six Flags had added a new coaster called the MindBender an all steel roller coaster. While not as tall as the Scream Machine and slightly slower, the MindBender completed two barrel rolls mid-track. And to grab your attention, the designers made sure you could see the inversions sections of track from the parking lot. We rode everything in the park that day, and I had successfully steered clear of the MindBender. But just after dark, two girls in our group asked me if I had ridden it. When I said no, they responded, "We rode it before lunch. Come on, you gotta try this!" What was I going to do, chicken out in front of two high school girls?

When we boarded the cars it was dark, and the operators had tied glow sticks to the front of the first car. As we rolled out and came to speed, I could see maybe 10 feet of track in front of the glow stick so every twist and turn was a surprise. Before I knew it we were inverted twice and sliding back to a stop at the station. As I stepped out of the car and onto the platform I felt slightly dizzy and began laughing.

I would return to Six Flags several times while living in Georgia. I reached a point where I skipped all of the other rides and spent an entire Saturday going from one coaster to another until I had ridden all they had to offer and some more than once. I now go to Disney World on a regular basis and ride any and all coasters they offer.

What got me to a point where I was not scared to ride a new unfamiliar coaster? What was it that got me over the fear of roller coasters? It is simple. I conquered the fear by pushing through it when I was 10 years old and agreeing to get on the Great American Scream Machine against all of my better judgement and a little 10 year old voice screaming inside my head "NOOOOO". Is not that the way we overcome any fear? It's the fear of the unknown. Despite seeing all the commercials and the watching movie at the Chevy Show just hours before getting on it that was filmed from the front of the first car on the Great American Scream Machine, I had no idea what it was going to be like. So, I was scared silly. But once I rode it, once I overcame the initial fear, the second time as a Junior in High School was not so bad, because I knew what to expect. I remembered the sensation of weightlessness and the lap bar actually touched my lap. So having that fear conquered, moving onto the MindBender was not as overwhelming. And after riding the MindBender, I had no fear of riding the Georgia Scorcher, Batman, Acrophobia, the Ninja, the Georgia Cyclone, or Goliath.

When I returned with my daughter around age 10, she quickly decline every coaster in the park. I spent countless Saturdays for two season with season passes with her. Finally, I talked her into it. She agreed to ride the Great American Scream Machine. When we stepped out of the car onto the platform, her words were "I'm glad that's over with!" Did I talk her into it, because I wanted to make her do something she did not want to do? No! I did it, because I wanted her to face fear head on and discover what a fearless and courageous person she could be come by facing her fears. Face your fears and free yourself from them.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Review: Real Artists Don't Starve - Jeff Goins

I have read several of Jeff Goins' books and follow him in social media as he has been an excellent source for strategy and encouragement for writers and bloggers. When I learned he was releasing "Real Artists Don't Starve", I added it to my reading list for a future purchase once released. A couple of weeks ago, Jeff emailed me and asked if I would like a pre-release copy to read and review. Being a budget minded avid reader, I of course took him up on his generous offer. Who would not, it is a free book after all that I wanted to read anyhow.

The book is an excellent read for anyone that writes - short stories, novelist, bloggers, poets, and other artists as well. Especially those who have been keeping you art under wraps and not putting it out for the public to experience and enjoy. Jeff sets to work immediately to dispel the ancient theory that to produce good art one has to starve. Right off the bat he user Michaelangelo as a prime example. He provides research that clearly shows Michaelangelo was not a starving artist despite what you might have been told in school. Through out the book, he provides numerous examples of artists who have not starved for the sake of art, but have worked day jobs while perfecting their art and then shuttered their day jobs once their art became a source of sustenance. 

Even better, Jeff goes on to provide recommendations for artists who have been perfecting their art on how to continue to make the next step. Instead of starving, he encourages the reader to thrive and provides solid recommendations on moving from starving to thriving. He provides a solid contrast between the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of a starving artist versus a thriving artist.

I found the book to be an easy and delightful read and a shot in the arm of encouragement. So the first book did not sell 10,000 copies and you were unable to retire to Key West on the profits? Go write another and another. Find some writers that have enjoyed some publication success and study up on what they are doing, follow them, hang out with them when opportunity arises and learn from them.

If you are a writer, a musician, a painter, or any other artist who has been quietly working at your art, may I make a humble recommendation that might just give you the shot in the arm you need to reach success? Buy this book, read it, contemplate his recommendations, and then in a few months read it again. I honestly believe you will thank me for making the recommendation.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cardinals and Blackberries

When I was around 4 years old, my family moved from Southern Indiana to South Georgia. My father had been working in Georgia for a few months before the move, and had been sending us reel to reel tape recorded messages describing the land down South. We left behind a neighborhood full of kids that were our friends and headed off into the unknown. My brother and I rode in the back of my Mom's Buick station wagon in the area behind the third seat on a set of large foam cushions that had been made to fit the area. This was a day before car seats and mandatory seat belts. While they drove down the interstate, we had our own private play area with huge windows that provided us ample opportunity to pump our arms at every passing semi in hopes they would sound off their air horns. 

Also left behind in the move were two sets of grandparents. Granny Jackson, my mother's mom, was not particularly keen on the idea of her only grand kids being so many miles away. She had lived hours away from us in Loiusville, Kentucky when we were in Indiana, but she had cajoled by Granddad into carrying her to see us on a regular basis. I fondly remember she made the most of every holiday on the calendar. We would awaken on Christmas morning to find them setting in our family room waiting to watch us open presents. She recorded ghost stories complete with sound effects rattling silverware to sound like chains for Halloween. Even at a young age, we knew we would miss her after the long distance move.

We moved into a rental house that I vividly remember to this day. There was not a blade of grass in the yard, just bare dirt and a huge Oak tree in the front yard. The day we moved in, my Dad checked out the washing machine sitting on the back porch and got stung by wasps. I specifically remember you could see the ground beneath the house through the cracks in our bedroom floorboards. In the Winter, we would go out to the hallway where there was a large furnace grate in the floor. We would stand on it until out socks got smoking hot and then run to our beds and crawl down in the covers.

When our house in Indiana sold, we loaded up the station wagon and began looking at houses. A few months we moved into what would be our family's home for my entire kindergarten through college years. Not long after we had moved into the new house, we received a surprise phone call. My Granny Jackson had been cajoling and pestering my Granddad to bring her to Georgia to see her grandkids. He was driving a truck for Meadow Gold Creamery and repeatedly refused her requests on grounds of his work schedule. She did not drive, so she had grown accustomed to utilizing taxis and the like when she needed. Much to our surprise, she got fed up with the waiting and bought herself a ticket on a Trailways bus and rode from Louisville to rural South Georgia. I am quite sure at the time, it did not occur to me what a major feat that was for her as it does now. 

Within a few months, we were given the news that they were moving to Georgia and they built a house diagonally across the street from us. Granny Jackson was a captivating storyteller. Around campfires or at the side of our beds, she crafted stories that held our attention and unlocked our imagination. She loved music and loved to sing with the phonograph in the big console television that sat in their living room. On grand occasion, she would pull out her guitar, and play and sing Pasty Cline songs for me.

Her house was always filled with the smell of home cooking. She made soup beans and ham in an cast iron dutch oven and cornbread in a cast iron skillet. Coffee was made in a percolator on the stove. During the Spring and Summer, she would lead me out to the backyard, and we would pick wild blackberries. She wash them and bake a blackberry cobbler in a cast iron skillet and serve it up with a scoop of ice cream. To this day, I still think it is perhaps one of the greatest desserts known to man. 

When her diabetes reached a point where she could not longer hold down a chord against the frets of her guitar, she gave it to me. I tried to resist accepting, but she would have no part of it. I had taken piano lessons for years up until that point. I promptly quit piano lesson and took up the guitar. 

When I was in high school, they bought a piece of land just outside of town, and my brother and I helped my Granddad build their new house there. There land backed up to woods and the blackberry picking was even better than at the other house. Once I was old enough to drive, many a weekend, I chose to stay at their house. 

While off at college, I got the news Granny had experienced a stroke and had been rushed to a hospital in Tallahassee. I drove home and accompanied our family to visit her in the hospital. I was paralyzed with fear as I watched her roll a Get Well card someone had sent her like a two year old might. I cried huge crocodile tears, stroked her hand, kissed her cheek, and prayed with every fiber of my being that she would recover. And recover she did. Several weeks later, I called her at home. She had some trouble speaking, but I could tell she was just happy to hear my voice. I soon learned that she was leaving the cane the doctor sent her home with lying beside her chair and moving around the house without "any of that foolishness". But the stroke had severely affected her vision to the point she could only show shadows. I continued to call and check in on her and encourage her. A few days later, I received a package through the college mail - a package of homemade brownies she had baked for me with a note that she was worried that I was not eating well with that college cafeteria food. Stunned that a recovering stroke victim that could only see shadows had baked me brownies, I sat in my dorm room and cried grateful tears for a Grandmother that loved me so selflessly. 

Several weeks later, I walked out of a college class that I was certain I was failing and looked up to see the campus pastor from the United Methodist Wesley Foundation. He invited me to lunch which of course I gladly accepted considering my options at the college cafeteria. Over lunch he broke the news to me that Granny Jackson had suffered another stroke and had passed away. The 4 hour drive home was a blur punctuated by a flat tire in the rain. That was 31 years ago.  I remember it vividly as if it were yesterday.

I have always heard that if you see a cardinal (red bird) and coincidentally the state bird of Indiana, that it is a late relative coming by to check on you. While I do not necessarily buy into the whole concept of reincarnation, it is a pleasant thought. Since we moved into our home here in Florida last Summer, there has been a Cardinal that visits our bird feeder in the front yard just outside our picture window. I smile and say, Granny is checking in on us. While that might not really be the case, I do know I carry her around with me. My love of hearing, reading, writing and storytelling are gifts she gave me. Her guitar hangs in a case in my office. Every time I pickup a guitar and play, I think of her. And whenever I find blackberry cobbler on a menu and I order it, I always catch myself thinking, Granny's was better.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Book Review: Ten Beach Road - Wendy Wax

Three women who are total strangers wake one morning to find their live savings have completely vanished victims of a Ponzi scheme. The three are awarded co-ownership of a seized asset - a beach house in Pass-a-Grille, Florida. OK, so she had me hook line and sinker at this point, because we live maybe 15 miles from Pass-a-Grille. When the three women descend upon the house to try and determine how they can quickly liquidate their shared asset and recover some of their lost savings, they find a house in disrepair and neglect. The three set out on a journey to live in the house while renovating it to improve the marketability and profitability.

This is a great summer read and even better if your vacationing at the beach. Wax does a masterful job of defining the characters and the interactions will keep you entertained from cover to cover. She has also done a commendable job researching construction and other details to make the story believable while entertaining.

I recommend it to anyone who is heading to the beach, lives at the beach, or even dreams about the beach.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Book Review: All Over But the Shoutin' - Rick Bragg

The autobiography of Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Rick Bragg who grew up in rural Alabama the son of poor parents struggling to earn a living. His mother picked cotton in the fields by hand and his father struggled with demons of war and alcoholism. Bragg tells the story of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s when children spent their time outside climbing trees, playing in creek beds, and racing old bikes down red clay dirt roads. At night they fell asleep listening to crickets while Faron Young and Little Jimmy Dickens sang on the radio. He tells the vivid details of his father's raging anger and abandonment of the family while his mother wore worn out pants and shoes, eating the leftovers after feeding all of her children dinner. The story paints a sharp contrast of his father's self focus versus his mother's dedication to her family. While it seemed that young Rick would follow in the footsteps of every other male in the area down a path of a lifelong career at the mill, sentenced to a penitentiary, or submitting to alcoholism, he instead became a journalist and escaped the bonds of rural poverty.

It is a well written story accurately portraying the rural South in the 60s and 70s detailing the struggles of poverty and racism and the beauty of the love of a mother.  

I highly recommend this book. I found myself aggravated every time I had to stop and set it down.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Country Mouse Goes to London

For our vacation this year,we were fortunate enough to schedule a trip to London, England which had been a dream trip for me for years. We were scheduled to fly out Saturday evening and arrive in London on Sunday. Unfortunately, Delta Airlines had other plans for us. A thunderstorm in Atlanta where we were to catch our connecting flight prevented us from taking off for over an hour. By the time we arrived in Atlanta, we had missed our connection and Delta failed to re-book us on the two subsequent flights that night. They left us in the Atlanta airport without hotel or meal vouchers and told us to "fend for ourselves". So we spent Saturday night and all day Sunday in the airport in Atlanta.

Lesson learned for the day: Choose a nonstop flight to London or Don't use Delta

We departed Atlanta 9PM Sunday night and began the 8 hour flight to London. the whole time change and flying across the country has some surprises accompanying it. For instance, somewhere around 1AM Eastern Standard while most everyone on the flight was trying to sleep, someone opened a window shade and the sun was up. Trying to sleep in an upright seat is a bit daunting despite the blinders they pass out and earphones or plugs. I slept on and off maybe 30-45 minutes at a time.

We arrived at London's Heathrow Airport around 10:30 their time on Monday very tired and longing for a bed. It took approximately an hour to get through Customs due to the massive amount of humanity in the queue lines. The process itself was painless and their Customs agents were very pleasant.

We grabbed one of London's legendary black cabs and took off on a grand adventure to our hotel. We encountered stopped traffic on the M4 motorway which reminded me of the traffic in Atlanta. The cabby quickly began hurdling down side streets and through residential areas and one hour later, we pulled up to the front doors of the Park Grand London Paddington.

(photo courtesy: Hotels.com)

We paid the cab, checked in and fell into the bed of our room and slept like the dead until around 4PM their time. We took showers in the ultra small water closet and made several interesting observations. Apparently they are really cheap on toilet paper purchases and opt for the single ply sand paper versions. Also, apparently it is not customary in England to provide wash clothes. I take some exception to this as there are some areas of my body I don't prefer washing with my hand, but that is just me.

We ventured out around the area on foot and found a local pub - The Leinster Arms.

 I had a delicious and much anticipated Guinness and a mouthwatering Beef Pie. I am here to testify that any pot pies that you have ever been served in the United States is a sham - a horrible impostor to the Beef Pie that I was served. It was everything a Beef Pie should be. Swanson should be ashamed of what they turn out and call a Beef Pot Pie compared to the masterpiece I was served in that pub.

Lesson learned for the day: Bring your own roll of Charmin toilet paper and your own washcloth when visiting England and Guinness Beef Pie is amazing.

When we rose Tuesday to questions if we were alright and how far we were from Manchester. We quickly took a look at the news and discovered that while we had been sleeping there had been a terrorist attack at a concert in Manchester. Fortunately for us, we were 4 hours away from Manchester. We had scheduled a tour for the day with Golden Tours to see Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Oxford. After breakfast, we grabbed a cab and headed to meet our tour bus. The driver did not get the address straight and first tried to drop us off at Buckingham Palace. We repeated the address to him, and he took off again. About two blocks from the address for the tour company, we encountered heavy traffic, and he elected to drop us off to fend for ourselves.  When we finally found our destination, it was barricaded off with crime scene tape and police vehicles. We inquired and learned that someone had discovered an abandoned backpack and with the heightened alerts due to the events at Manchester, police had sealed off the building. We finally found an impromptu meeting area that had been arranged by the tour company and were led a few blocks away to our tour bus.

Our first stop of the tour was Windsor Castle sitting some 25 miles or so outside of the city of London.

 Windsor Castle was constructed in 11th century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror who built a ring of castles around London situated roughly 25 miles apart. Beginning with the reign of Henry I, Windsor Castle has been used as a residence for the Royal family. Henry III constructed the palace inside the castle and Edward III had even more construction completed.

Queen Elizabeth II elected to utilize the castle her weekend retreat. She commissioned having the State Apartments renovated and modernized. The Queen, Prince Phillip, and their two children subsequently took up residence in the State Apartments after renovations were completed.

Around 500 people live and work in the castle making it the largest inhabited castle in the world and the longest-occupied palace in Europe.

As you may remember, Windsor castle was heavily damaged in a fire on November 20, 1992. The fire raged for 15 hours and took 200 firefighters to suppress the flames. A political debate broke out over who should pay to repair the castle with the press arguing heavily that the Queen should pay for it from her private income. The Queen resolved the issue by opening Buckingham Palace to the public and introducing fees for the use of public lands surrounding Windsor. Repairs were completed in 1997 costing 37 million pounds. 

Within Windsor Castle is St George's Chapel. Henry VIII's tomb is within St George's Chapel.

Back on the bus they provided box lunches featuring a "Ploughman's Sandwich". What is that, you ask? Well it is a sandwich consisting of wholemeal bread, a mild white cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, cucumbers, and "Branston Sweet Pickle" which is like a sour jam or jelly. I have to admit I wasn't a big fan of the flavor, and it left me thinking of the old lady in the Wendy's commercials from the 1980s. if you don't recognize the reference, this video will help:

Our second stop of the tour was Stonehenge.

Believed to have been constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC each standing stone is around 13 ft high, 7 ft wide and weighs approximately 25 tons.

 Many theories surround Stonehenge including claims by the History Channel that they are works of aliens. The countryside surrounding it is covered in burial mounds and two miles away, another monument was discovered in 1926 dubbed Woodhenge which is timber circle.

 In 1966, another timber circle of comparable size was discovered. Dubbed the Southern Circle, it lies inside of what came to be known as the Durrington Walls henge enclosure, located 230 ft north of Woodhenge.

Our final stop on the tour was the city of Oxford situated 52 miles south of London. Oxford is the home to  University of Oxford which is the oldest university in the English-speaking world made up of some 38 colleges and six private halls. According to our guide, The university maintains the largest university library system in the United Kingdom housing 11 million volumes on over 120 miles of shelving. However, I was unable to confirm if Shaken Awake was on their shelves. Oxford University Press publishes more than  6,000 new books a year making it the largest university press in the world.

Those who have studied at Oxford read like a Who's Who of the World while 58 Nobel prize-winners have studied or taught at Oxford.  T. E. Lawrence, Sir Walter Raleigh, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, T. S. Eliot, John Wesley, John Wycliffe, Edwin Hubble, Stephen Hawking, Hugh Grant, Dudley Moore, and the infamous Bill Clinton are just a few notable names that have studied at Oxford.

We returned to London after the day's events and had dinner at the hotel before heading in for the evening.

Lesson learned for the day: Ploughman sandwiches aren't very tasty, bring your own bologna or snacks. 

Having not slept well on the plane and struggling to adjust to the time difference coupled with the necessity for an early alarm to make the day's tour, we elected not to set am alarm before we went to bed thinking we would wake around 8:30 or 9 AM. Much to our surprise we did in fact wake the next morning at 8:30 AM, but U.S. time not London time. It was 1:30 PM their time when we awoke. Surprisingly breakfast was no longer being served at the hotel.

We opted to purchase a two day pass on the Big Bus Tours which provide access to all of the sites of London and hop on hop off service allowing us to decide what we wanted to do. As we had a late start, we elected to sit on the upper level of the open air bus and take in the sites and snap pictures.

The London Eye

We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the city from this vantage and planned out the next day's adventures.  Once we returned to our original stop, we found a Steakhouse close by where the bus dropped us off. I was surprised to find the steak rather bland as it had been cooked without any seasoning what so ever, but it was tender and juicy.

The following day, we awoke early enough for breakfast and again hopped on the Big Bus Tour. We got off at the Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge (not London Bridge)
We took the tour which took us up 5 floors to the walkway high above the bridge with glass floors allowing you to see the cars crossing the bridge and boats crossing beneath them, and at the same time providing a gorgeous view of the skyline of the city. We were given a history of the bridge and saw videos on the construction of the bridge built between 1886 and 1894.

Tower Bridge (not London Bridge)

Many people think that Tower Bridge is called London Bridge, when in fact they are two different crossings, my sister being one of them.

You can see the London Bridge from the Tower Bridge, but it is less impressive to see. I include it here for my sister's sake.

For Jennifer,  the London Bridge. You're welcome.

 The tour also provided a look at the old steam engines that originally powered the draw bridge before it was converted to electricity.

After a quick lunch in a pub underneath Tower Bridge which served Cheeseburgers that were part beef and part soybean, we then made our way to the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. Officially known as Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London, the first tower, the White Tower, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078. It was used as a prison from 1100 until 1952 while also serving as a royal residence. Over the years, it has housed the Royal Mint and a public record office, and still serves as the home of the Crown Jewels of England.

Anne Boleyn second wife of Henry VII was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1536 for treason as was Lady Jane Grey in 1554. Queen Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII also beheaded on Tower Hill. Others included William Hastings, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford (by order of Henry VIII), and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. 

Farquhar Shaw and brothers Samuel Macpherson and Malcolm Macpherson were soldiers in the Black Watch Regiment from the Scottish Highlands. They were charged with mutiny and executed at the Tower by a firing squad.

This monument marks the area where it is believed these executions took place.

The Jewel House
The Jewel House houses the Crown Jewels - the royal regalia, including jewels, plate, and symbols of royalty such as the crown, sceptre, and sword. Sorry, I have no pictures of the Crown Jewels as they prohibit photography inside the Jewel House.

We completed our day by returning to the The Leinster Arms where we enjoyed another tasty dinner accompanied by a pint of Guinness. 

Lesson learned for the day: The Tower Bridge is not the London Bridge and it is unhealthy to be married to Henry VIII.

Fortunately, our flight home was uneventful compare to the trip over and we have been working at catching up on our sleep.

Suggestions for those traveling to London: 
  1. The weather is a huge surprise so pack for anything. The week before we left, it was high 50F low 40F. We packed long sleeve shirts, blue jeans, and rain coats. The entire time were were there it was high 86F and low 77F.
  2. Pack snacks. We did and were glad we did.
  3. They utilize 220 volt household outlets versus U.S. 110 volt outlets. You will need a converter to charge smartphones and tablets without issue as they are all designed with dual voltage chargers. However you cannot use your curling iron, blow dryer or electric razor, so don't even pack them. 220 will smoke them in short order.
  4. I highly recommend not renting a car and either utilizing cabs or the Tube (their subway) as the traffic is the equivalent of Atlanta or lower Manhattan with smaller roadways. Forget it. It's nuts and the bicycles and motorcycles lane splitting and ducking mirrors make for a huge liability for your auto insurance policy.
  5. Take a tour outside of the city. We did and loved it.
  6. Get a pass for one of the hop on hop off bus tours in the city. It's easy, convenient, and allows you to get off and investigate as much as you want.
  7. Learn the difference between Tower Bridge and London Bridge
  8. Finally - try to book a non-stop flight...you get the point