Tuesday, August 28, 2012

No Brag, Just Fact

My nephew is brilliant. He is two years old, won't be three until the end of September, and is already computer literate. I recently spent several days visiting my brother and his family and came away amazed by this child. 

Let me say that he has the benefit of an older brother and sister (12 and 15) who spend a lot of time with him. They are both very tolerant and attentive, which is wonderful to see. Big sister, Katie, has an iPod touch, on which she has loaded numerous apps for "the Baby," which is what everyone, including himself, calls him. His real name is Andrew. Whenever Andy is bored or needs entertaining, he says, "Tatie's pod?" and immediately starts to play. He knows which apps are his, knows how to open and play the games, knows how to change his avatar if necessary. 

Staying occupied at Cracker Barrel

While I was visiting, he discovered my iPad and was instantly intrigued. "Net Net's pod?" he asked. I cautiously handed it to him.

Andy and brother discover Net Net's pod.

Lest you think we had to tutor him, let me correct that notion. He knew exactly which apps were games or kid stuff and went right to them. He played the games by himself, loudly refusing any assistance. A few times he mixed up the "play" and "menu" buttons, but quickly learned the difference. One time he opened a spreadsheet function by mistake, but knew he wanted out of that one. 

He grinned up at me and said, "Baby likes Net Net's pod." One afternoon he found me, sitting on my bed, checking my email. He stayed at the door and just stuck his head in. "Hi Net Net." "Hi Baby, what are you doing?" I replied. "Net Net's pod?" he asked with a grin. Who could resist that face?

He's a genius. No brag, just fact. Just had to share. 

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In Flanders Field

A little over a year ago I spent some time in Germany, visiting my niece who is stationed there with her husband. I wrote about some of our sightseeing at the time, but held back from writing about our visit to the Flanders Field portion of Belgium until I had more time to digest the devastation of World War I. I've been thinking about that visit a lot lately and am ready to share some of my impressions and photos. It was a very moving day for me. 

Prior to this trip I really didn't know much about World War I other than the basics. In this country we get much more teaching and television time about World War II, so the history I learned in Belgium was eye-opening for me. WWI, The Great War, The War to End All Wars, came at a time when the world was shifting from 19th century views of imperialism and power to a modern 20th century of industrialization and democracy. The war combined the worst of both. Many of the generals were old-world leaders who viewed soldiers as expendable commodities, sending millions of them to die, ill-equipped in the face of new-world weapons and tactics. I have learned since my return that many of the acts committed during this war would, under today's standards, be considered war crimes.

Flanders Field is a crescent-shaped area of 25 square miles between the cities of Paschendale and Ypres in Belgium. It is a low-lying coastal plain along the North Sea, with a major port at Nieuport. This area was held by the British, French and Belgian forces; Germany occupied the remaining 90% of Belgium. To slow the German progress across their country, the Belgians destroyed the system of dikes, flooding the land and making the mud one of the major obstacles in the war. Because the land is flat, even ridges of 10-12 feet elevation were significant and intense battles were fought to defend them. The British/French/Belgian forces had to hold this land because it was their only port to supply the troops from England. Today it looks much like this.

But in 1917 it was a very different story. Imagine no green, no structure standing anywhere and nothing but a sea of mud and standing water. These next photos show specific spots today and in photos of how they looked in 1917.

Memorial atop Tiger Mound

Tiger Mound during 1917

View of countryside then (front) and now.

Gas was first used in this war by the French, rather unsuccessfully, then taken up, improved and used by the Germans. All the countries involved used gas. In fact, the British used ten times more than the Germans because they had the prevailing coastal winds at their backs. The winds often hindered the Germans because they would blow the gas back on their own troops (who at least had gas masks.) It took a while for the British to develop the gas mask technology to protect their troops. 

"Iron Harvest" is the term for recovery of unexploded shells (regular and chemical) that continues today. Billions of shells were fired during WWI and fully 1/3 of them did not explode. Each year Belgians encounter hundreds of shells as they plow fields or otherwise disturb the soil. They are supposed to leave the shell where it is and call the police, who then call the Army unit charged with disposal. This may take months, so usually the farmer puts the shell by the side of the road and goes on with his work. The Army or collectors will eventually pick up the shells. Here is a photo of some the shells found by a local farmer.

Last year over 700 shells were "officially" found. Belgians estimate that at the rate the diffuser group works today, it will take another 90 years to diffuse the shells that have been found so far. One village, Poilaplie, used spent shell cases to melt down and forge the bells of their village church. It took over 16,000 pounds of metal casings. Belgium spends millions of dollars each year on WWI shell recovery and disposal.

By 1915 there were no structures left for shelter, command centers, etc. in Flanders. In was all mud and destruction. Thus was born the system of underground tunnels throughout this area. A few sections have been preserved just outside Ypres, but most are filled with water and underlie everything in Flanders. It is not unusual for structures to partially shift or collapse because their foundations are compromised by the tunnels. Here are some photos of the restored trenches near Ypres now and during the war.

Over 65 million men were deployed (on all sides) during WWI. The British and their Commonwealth nations lost a generation of men. Over 250,000 of them are buried in Flanders, in 174 cemeteries and mass graves. Ten million (on all sides) were killed in this war and they estimate that only one third of the bodies in Flanders were identified. All the memorial cemeteries here include headstones identifying the man's nationality and regiment, with no name, only "Known to God." During this war they did not send bodies back home for burial, hence the many cemeteries. Here are some photos from Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest of the Commonwealth cemeteries. It includes the names of 35,000 "missing" carved on the walls. The soil in Belgium is topsoil with underlying clay. Soldiers reported that men would be wounded, fall face forward and disappear into the mud. Skeletal remains are still found frequently and the remains are buried with ceremony. Representatives of all the involved countries attend these funerals. 

The city of Ypres was an 11th century walled fortress that was completely reduced to rubble in the war. Their buildings were historically restored from architectural drawings afterward. The appearance today is of a medieval city, but no buildings are more than 80 years old.

Ypres as seen through the WWI memorial.

Ypres appears medieval, but is totally rebuilt.
Dr. John McCrae was a British surgeon stationed in Flanders in 1915. His first aid station was Essex Farm, just behind the front lines. Part of the aid station, adjacent to a cemetery, has been preserved for visitors.

John McCrae wrote what is, arguably, the most famous poem about WWI, "In Flanders Fields," written at this aid station. With a little literary license, that poem is presented here, more in a prose style than in the typical poetry line and stanza form. I think reading it as prose, trying to forget about rhythm and meter, makes it more meaningful.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow beneath the crosses. Row on row that mark our place.
And in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly; scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved. 
And now we lie in Flanders Fields. 
Take up our quarrel with the foe. To you, from failing hands, we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep. 
Though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.

This tour of Flanders Field had a big emotional impact on me. I continue to read and learn more about this war, which, like all wars, was full of horror and atrocities. I hope you haven't found this post too depressing. If so, I do apologize. I needed to write about this experience and I appreciate your stopping by to share it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Silent Spring

I've been absent from this blog for a long time and, unfortunately, it's not because I've been doing other productive writing or activities. Since April I have been riding a wave of illness and disappointment that took a large toll on me. I just didn't have the heart or energy to write. But I'm feeling better now, at last.

Shortly after we returned from our vacation in March, my husband and I both came down with a stomach virus. It hit me harder than it did him and took about a week for me to recover. Another week or two passed and I still was not at the top of my game. Then I started running fever and really feeling poorly, along with experiencing some fairly yucky intestinal symptoms. I went to my doctor, who told me he suspected something called post-infection colitis, which happens when your digestive system has a hard time getting back to normal after an illness.  I took a round of antibiotic and felt better for a few days. Then the infection must have re-bloomed because all the symptoms came back with a vengence, with a UTI on top of things. I was in a lot of pain, hence another round of antibiotic, this time piggy-backed with a pain reliever to make me more comfortable. I finished the last of the antibiotic last week and soon started feeling better. I don't think I'll have another "bloom" so a lot of anxiety is gone as well, plus, I'm almost pain-free at this point. I still have a little trouble at the end of the day. Now I'm just working to get my stamina back without overdoing it. I'm struggling to find that balance.

Physically, I'm on the mend and doing much better. But emotionally? Not so good. In the middle of my extended illness, we learned of a betrayal by someone very close to us. It involved the death of our son and other long time wounds. We were devasted and even now, I feel nauseated when I think about it. I'm sure it did nothing to improve my health, but it's something we have to come to terms with. 

So I'm recovering on both levels, but still have a way to go. I think it's a good sign that I felt like writing this today because so far, it has been a very silent spring.

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Top 5 Reasons Why I Changed My Hair

Yesterday I had scheduled a routine hair appointment for highlights and a trim, but when I sat down in the chair, something came over me. It had been building for a while, whispering in my ear, but now it announced itself. "I want to do something different." I ended up like this.

The difference is still a little shocking to me, but I like it. At least today I do. As my hairdresser said, "If you don't like it, we can always put color back in." So it's nice to have an out.

It leaves me asking myself why I went totally white. Here's what I came up with:
  • It's almost summer; everyone has a summer hair fling.
  • I went to Mt. Sinai for vacation and saw a burning bush.
  • I'm showing solidarity for the vanishing habitat of polar bears.
  • I wanted to look even more like my mother than I already do (yeah, right.)
  • I was feeling old.
The last one is the real truth, of course, and I'll tell you why I was feeling old. It had to do with an incident from our recent vacation. Scott and I spent a week in Puerto Rico and then cruised from there around the Caribbean for two weeks. One evening during the second week of cruising, I was walking on the pool deck about 9:30pm. It was basically deserted and crew members were cleaning the pool and washing the deck. There were two teenagers, a boy and a girl, sitting in the deck chairs talking. You could tell that they had recently met and there was a lot of "flirting" going on. Just as I reached where they were sitting, they jumped up and dashed across the deck, crashing right into me. The young lady stopped and apologized and I told her I was fine. Upon hearing this, the boy, who had not stopped, turned around, looked at me, turned back to the young lady and said, "You don't need to apologize to her; she's just an old lady."

Now this stunned me on several different levels. First, I couldn't believe how rude it was; second, I couldn't believe that young people have that much disrespect for older people; and third, it really hurt my feelings. I just kept walking to my cabin, but by the time I got there I had worked up a head of steam, which I promptly unloaded on my poor husband. I thought it blew over after that but, over the ensuing days and weeks, I kept looking at myself with ever critical eyes. I did look old and I didn't like it, so it was time to do something radical. VoilĂ ! White hair. If I'm going to look old, it's going to me on my terms.

I know, pathetic isn't it? So much for aging gracefully. I don't care. This white hair makes me feel powerful, like some coldblooded Scandinavian killer in a Die Hard movie. "Hey smart-mouthed kid on the ship, if you're reading this, look out. Next time you call me 'old lady,' I'm going to kick your ass." I know I should be practicing forgiveness and kindness, but I think the Universe will thank me for this one.

Let me know what you think about the hair. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, April 13, 2012

I'm a Little Cranky

I know that those of you who follow this blog are expecting me to write about my great Caribbean trip and show some photos. I'm working on that but, in the process, have gotten delayed by illness. My husband and I both contracted (he from me) a stomach flu that has laid us low for most of the week. I just haven't felt like writing all week.

But today I woke up feeling a little better and had the strength to dress, go to "town" and get a few errands done. Totally worn out by the time I got home, I proceeded to sit on my reading porch and read around on the Yahoo! News site for a few hours. It is so easy to get in the middle of this practice and lose hours at a time going from one link to the next, but today I didn't care. I just wanted to sit there and do nothing particularly productive. 

I needed some time out of bed, since I'd been there almost exclusively since Monday night. I'd gotten up and dressed, makeup, jewelry and everything, so it seemed a waste just to go straight back to bed. I was also tired of watching TV. Wednesday and Thursday I watched the entire season (12 episodes) of the Showtime series "Homeland." I hadn't heard of it until I saw this month's Vanity Fair - the annual Television edition, and stuff about "Homeland" was all over the place. It stars Claire Danes as a manic/depressive CIA Analyst who is convinced that a returning POW/hero was turned during his eight-year captivity by the Taliban. Each episode is about an hour and a half long, some are two hours, so after watching all 12 (I got hooked,) I was looking for something other than TV. (Here's the link to the "Homeland" website in case you're interested. http://www.sho.com/site/homeland/home.sho)

OK, so here's why I'm cranky. While reading around on Yahoo! News, I saw an article on Yahoo! Shopping entitled "Black Workout Pants for Every Body." Since I'm always searching for pants to wear to yoga that (a) hide my Buddha belly and (b) are stretchy enough that I don't constantly have to pull them back up after doing a pose, I clicked on the link. The article described the best pant for different body types -- boy-shaped, bottom-heavy, long & lean, big belly, etc.-- and linked you to the shopping site for the type of pant which would look best on that body type. One of the categories was "If You're Plus Sized" which proceeded to describe and recommend a great pair of pants by Reebock. Intrigued, I clicked on the shopping link which took me directly to Reebock's site, not some retailer who may not have a complete stock. I read Reebock's spill and decided, OK, I'll bite. Now remember, these pants were recommended for "If You're Plus Sized." I clicked on the size pull-down and found that these pants are available in small and medium only. This from the manufacturer. Don't you think the writer from Self could have done a little better on the research? If you're going to recommend something for big size people, doesn't it make sense that the product should be available in large sizes? Small and medium...I'm just a little cranky.

Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Spring Has Sprung

Wow, three weeks in the Caribbean and when I get home, Spring has arrived. Our whole yard exploded in green and in blossoms. Trees that were still bare with buds just beginning to show are now fully leafed out. Fortunately we had someone tend to the yard while we were gone and she kept it mowed and trimmed. Otherwise we would have come home to a jungle.

The same is true throughout the Texas Hill Country. After almost two years of severe drought, there was enough rain this winter to bring back our sentimental favorite, the Texas bluebonnet. My sisters informed me as soon as I got home that, if I was going to see how beautiful the bluebonnets are this year, I had better get myself out there this week. The blooms were at their peak and in some places, were beginning to fade. So even though my suitcases are still not unpacked and the laundry hasn't even been started, Scott and I packed up a picnic lunch and both dogs yesterday and started driving northwest. 

Our route took us toward Johnson City and Marble Falls before we turned off on RR 1323 toward Willow City and the famous-for-its-wildflowers Willow City loop. It is very hard to photograph on the loop because it is a private road with no shoulders and signs posted by the owners to stay on the road. I tried a couple of shots, but didn't have much luck. 

From Willow City we traveled on to Llano and had our picnic at a park under the Llano River bridge.

The dogs were not thrilled to be tethered too far away to beg easily for lunch, but this was a very nice spot for a picnic. 

It is so good to see the rivers flowing again after almost every one in the hill country was dry or nearly dry during the drought.

After lunch we took RR 2323 out of Llano toward Prairie Mountain. On this quiet road we had much better luck stopping to take photos.

It is a rite of passage in Texas to have your photo taken in the bluebonnets as often as possible. Dogs have that right, too.

Indian Paintbrush


Agarita in barbed wire. Can't get much more Texas than that.
 I love it when you can see blue along the road, as far as the eye can see.

Soon we reached the little community of Prairie Mountain. The school there was once the school, church and community center for the neighboring German farmers and their families. It is now a historical site, complete with marker. On weekends, volunteers at the school are happy to tell you about the history of the community. They told my sisters that they had never seen the proliferation of white prickly poppy like they have this year. 

I agree, the prickly poppy is everywhere; I've never seen it like this. As a biology student, I have to guess that the drought and extreme heat of the past summer must have triggered some dormant seeds. Whenever I think of prickly poppy, I think of my college days at Texas State University. (It was Southwest Texas State University then.) There was a lab instructor in the Biology department named Ruth Cressen. The subject of her master thesis was the white prickly poppy. Let's just be kind and say Ruth knew everything there was to know about this flower and would share her knowledge with you. To this day I cannot see prickly poppy without thinking of her. Ruth, if you're out there, please tell me why we have such an abundant crop this year.

We left Prairie Mountain and headed back home, down Hwy. 71 to Hwy. 281, Johnson City, Dripping Springs and Wimberley. Since it is always a little warmer here than in the counties we visited today, our flowers are mostly gone or past their peak, except for the ever-present yellow composites and the humble prairie verbena.

The verbena is also thicker than usual this year, especially in my front yard. Since it looks so pretty, I am not going to mow for a while, at least until the verbena fades. At least that's the excuse I'm giving. I won't even think about the yard until I get my suitcases unpacked, laundry done and photos of the Caribbean uploaded. Stay tuned for at least a couple of blogs and photos about that trip. Until then, stay safe and enjoy the beautiful weather. It will be too hot too soon. 

Thanks for stopping by.


Friday, March 9, 2012

On My Way to Paradise

No, I'm not dying; far from it. My husband and I are leaving next week for the longest vacation we've been on together -- three weeks in the Caribbean and I can't wait. It hasn't been much of a winter here at home, but today it is rainy and cold with nothing but the same in sight for several more days. Come Tuesday I'll be boarding the plane for San Juan, Puerto Rico where we'll stay the rest of the week. Then we board a cruise ship for two weeks. The first of those we'll stop at Grenada, St. Lucia, Antigua, St Croix and St. Thomas. The second week we'll see Tortola, St. Maarten, St. Kitts, Dominica and Barbados. 

We have been to Puerto Rico before and really enjoyed it. That's why we scheduled almost a week there prior to the cruise. We'll be staying at a hotel on Isla Verde beach, which is the beach you see in your mind when you think Caribbean. Here are a couple of photos from the last time we were there.

Isla Verde Beach viewed from our hotel room.

Rain storm approaching the beach.
 We also hope to make another visit to the only rain forest in the the U.S. National Forest system -- El Yonque, located in the mountains of Puerto Rico, north of San Juan. I have a better camera now than I did then, so I'll come home with much better photos. Here are some shots from the first visit. 

Our guide made his hat from one giant leaf, secured with the stem.

One of the waterfalls in El Yonque.
 As for the stops we'll make on the cruise, of the list, I've only seen St. Thomas and Dominica before. The rest will be surprises for us. The ship travels at night and docks while everyone is asleep. So every morning when you open your curtains, the view is new and spectacular. 

The soundtrack in my head has been playing the Alison Krauss tune "Oh, Atlanta" all week. Not because I'm thinking about Atlanta, but because of the line that says, "I-I'm on my way-a back to-oo Georgia."   Except, when I sing it, it comes out "back to paradise." Either way, hope you enjoy it. . . .

So stayed tuned; I'll be back with photos and stories in a few weeks. For those of you who may be worried that I have, with this post, told the "thousands" of criminals that scan the internet that I'll be gone for three weeks, don't worry. I have a house-sitter who will be here all the time. She's armed and will have three ferocious dogs helping her protect the house. 

Wouldn't you be scared?

Thanks for stopping by today. Until the first week of April, when you think of me, if you think of me, picture me like this....

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why I Love Yoga

I have come to the point in my life where exercise is no longer an option, it is a requirement. I can't just associate exercise with weight loss anymore, which was one of the bigger mistakes of my youth. I only exercised regularly when I was dieting or attempting to "get in shape" for something special. Now regular movement and activity is essential for all kinds of reasons in my aging body, but the main reason is that I want to avoid knee surgery. 

I live in a town where there are a lot of "seniors," and many of them have gone through knee-replacement surgery. Some just breeze right through, while others suffer months of rehab and never quite get back to where they where before the surgery except that they don't have the constant pain. I want to avoid all that and try to keep my muscles strong and my body flexible, which is a challenge when, deep down, you hate exercise like I do. That is why it is so astonishing to me that I love yoga.

I've been attending yoga classes at a local studio for about three years now, which makes me qualified, in my own mind, to tell you what yoga is all about. And the answer is: I don't have a clue. All I know is that it makes me feel really good. 

I do know that yoga is an ancient practice developed in India and there are those who get completely wrapped up (aka lost) in the details. There are Sanskrit names for all the poses which are named after the things in nature that they resemble, such as cat, cow, tree, etc.  A good teacher will instruct you in the correct way to position yourself in each pose so that you are doing no harm to your body, but building core strength, flexibility and balance. You also practice slowing the mind down and breathing deeply so that your body can absorb the full effects of your time in the studio. 

That said, as with anything that attempts to link the wellness of your mind and body together, there are followers who go off into the deep end of the spiritual aspects. I don't get into the spiritual side of yoga at all, apart from the relaxation and slowing down of my mind, trying to concentrate on what's going on in the moment and not what I'm missing out on outside the studio. In that vein, I have classified three levels of yoga practitioners and put myself solidly in the first camp. 


Group 1: I'm just here for Savasana. Savasana is the "corpse pose" that you lie in for several minutes at the end of the yoga session. It is comfortable and quiet and the goal is for you to think about how good you feel right now, so that, as you leave the studio and get stressed in your daily life, you can take a moment to relive how wonderful it was to lie there like a corpse. This group of people comes to yoga because we need the exercise and we love the way yoga makes us feel - stronger and in control of our bodies. It's hard to get us to meditate, but we'll try for five or ten minutes, maybe. Don't even suggest chanting or anything else too woo-woo.

Group 2: Suckin' on the Pixie Sticks. Do you remember the straws filled with Kool-Aid we had when we were kids? Where I lived those were called Pixie Sticks. So in my yoga analogy, it's not quite "Drinkin' the Kool-Aid" (group 3,) but it's on the way. This group likes to chant, reads Yoga Journal, keeps up with everything going on in the "yoga world," knows the names of all the different types of yoga and dreams of having their own studio someday. They attend workshops and retreats and come home feeling good, fairly buzzing with goodness. I will admit that I have put my toe in the waters of this group a time or two, and it doesn't feel too bad. I kind of like the cherry Pixie Sticks, but I'm really more comfortable in Savasana.

Group 3: Drinkin' the Kool-Aid. These folks have wholly embraced both the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga. Chanting and meditation are second nature to them. They are probably certified instructors and use only the Sanskrit names for poses. They have studied the writings of all the great yoga gurus throughout history and dream of going to India. They are probably the happiest, healthiest, kindest and most accepting people you'll ever know. 

And THAT is why I love yoga. No matter what your physical shape or condition is, there is something in yoga for you. No matter what level you want to practice, no one makes fun of you or tries to make you feel guilty for not loving the Kool-Aid, at least not here in the Heart of Texas. Things might be different and more competitive in the big cities, but I gave that up years ago anyway. Yoga makes me feel graceful and in control of my body. I can do things today that I probably could not have done in my twenties. And best of all, I can go through a whole class and never break a sweat. (You know how I hate to sweat.) No one could ever say that about Jazzercise!

So if you've been thinking about trying yoga for a while, don't let the strangeness of it stop you. Based on my experiences, I feel sure you can fit right in. If you live near Wimberley, TX, stop by the Heart of Texas studio and talk to Becky or check the studio's website. You'll be glad you did.

Thanks for stopping by today; it feels good to be writing again.