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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Book Review: Ready Player One - Ernest Cline


OK, I know I am late to the dance on this one as it was published in 2011, but I just read it this week. The year is 2044, and the world is deep into a huge energy crisis. Huge amounts of the population have abandon their homes in the suburbs and rural country side do to the lack of energy and have swarmed to the cities. The resulting scramble for housing has caused some creative solutions. Mobile home trailer parks have been converted to "stacks" - trailers on scaffolding five and 8 stories high. A virtual world has been created called OASIS, where people escape the miserable conditions of the modern society. The virtual society relies on virtual reality goggles, gloves, and chairs. When the creator of OASIS dies, he leaves a message to everyone with an OASIS account that he has created an Easter Egg within OASIS. The first one to find the Easter Egg wins inherit his estate - a huge fortune and OASIS. 

The story focuses on Wade Watts an aimless teenager living with his aunt in the stacks. When he is not in virtual high school in OASIS, he is an egg hunter. The closer he gets to finding the egg, the more the multinational corporation that provides Internet services sets their targets on the teenager,  and they will stop at nothing to bet him to the egg so they can capitalize on ownership of OASIS.

Halfway through the book, I had a hard time convincing myself to set it down and go to bed. It is an excellent read with a well crafted story line and well developed characters. If you grew up in the 1980s, you will recognize all of the video games mentioned. I enjoyed every page and highly recommend it.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Book Review: Unthinkable - Scott Rigsby with Jenna Glatzer


18 year old Scott Rigsby had completed another days worth of working mowing lawns and was riding on the toolbox on the back of a pickup when the trailer they were pulling was struck by a tractor-trailer attempting to pass them on a narrow bridge. Scott was thrown from the truck, wedged under the trailer, and drug down the asphalt for over 300 feet. His right leg was amputated at the hospital. After several years of battling infections, his left leg was amputated as well. 

Scott spent several years wandering aimlessly struggling to keep a day job and to find his way in life. He struggled with alcohol and depression along the way. Despite it all, in 2007, some nine years later, he became the first double amputee to complete an Ironman competition - a 140.6 mile course combining swimming, biking, and running. He completed the course in 16 hours, 42 minutes, and 46 seconds. Scott now devotes his time inspiring physically challenged individuals and students to overcome the obstacles and challenges to pursue their dreams to do something amazing.

Once I started this book, I could not lay it down until I had finished it. I highly recommend it to everyone at any age.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Update on Awakened


In case you were wondering, I have not fallen off the face of the earth or fell asleep at the switch. I have been writing, and I am happy to announce that I have completed the manuscript for the sequel to Shaken Awake which is entitled Awakened. The editing process is now under way, and I am shooting for publication early this Fall. All of your favorite characters have returned. For those of you who said Shaken Awake ended too soon - your voice was heard, and your concerns have been addressed. You will be able to see into the lives of everyone that was impacted by the storm in the original book. I think and I pray that you will enjoy this book, and it will spawn many honest conversations and give folks a great deal to consider.

Stay Tuned!


Allen

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Yak and Yeti Restaurant - Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom

(photo credit: the author)

Nestled in the Asia section of Disney World's Animal Kingdom sitting in the shadow of Mount Everest, is the Yak and Yeti Restaurant. Whether you have a small appetite, or are hungry from a day of adventure,we have found the menu to provide delightful selections. Our small plate favorites are the Pork Pot Stickers (dumplings) either pan seared or steamed served with soy lime dipping sauce and the Firecracker Shrimp which is lightly fried and tossed in what I refer to as spicy fire sauce served over Asian slaw. The slaw is just the right mix to control the fire that ignites in your mouth.

From the Wok, we can solidly recommend the Korean Beef wok fried with peppers, onions, pineapple and Korean barbecue sauce. On a recent visit, they had added a specialty selection of chicken and waffles that they were trial running. Apparently it has made such a smashing sensation on all who have tried it, the waiter admitted it would soon be included as a staple on the menu. One of our party ventured out and tried it and gave it rave reviews. I have personally eaten at the Yak and Yeti twice now and am planning on returning to try more menu items as there are so many entries that sound delicious. 

As always reservations are recommended. They do accept walk-ups and we have had success getting seated for lunch as a walk-up, but that may vary depending on the busy season.