24 December 2014

Musings on Christmas

Image source: http://www.disclose.tv

NB: This is a slightly modified post from years past that I wanted to reuse for Christmas.

It's a little out of character for me to write a blog post that is about neither books nor travel.  But there's a Christmas song lingering in my mind right now that I have been listening to more or less on a loop for the last couple of days.  I love sacred Christmas carols, though I'm not Christian. Agnostic, I suppose is the proper term.  Perhaps a cultural Episcopalian is a little more specific. A lapsed Whiskeypalian if you want to get playful with it.   Whatever spark of the sacred that remains buried in me always feels deeply disheartened by the relentless commercialism of a secular Christmas; thus, my recent soundtrack  Loreena McKennitt's performance of Good King Wenceslas.

As far as I know, it is the only Christmas carol that remains as relevant today as it ever did.   So... regardless of any divine stuff,  a couple of millennia ago, give or take, this guy Jesus did some pretty revolutionary stuff.  I'm prepared to accept that at face value, if not his divinity.  But what does the celebration of his birth mean for the world today, all those angels and mangers (bacon creche?) and glorias in excelsis deo*? For my money, it's the et in terra pax ominibus** that is so important, so relevant today, yet so sorely lacking in our current times where grace and graciousness are endangered species.  

With the changing of just two little words so the song is non gender-specific or non-religious specific, Good King Wenceslas is what speaks to me tonight and all year 'round: give of yourself, give of your time, share what you have, even especially if it takes you out of your comfort zone.  It's pretty simple.  Here are the lyrics, with my slight modifications in place.  Maybe they will speak to you, too.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
Where the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling--
Yonder peasant, who is he? 
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence,
By St. Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine, 
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bring them thither."
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together.
Heedless of the wind's lament
And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night grows darker now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how.
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page.
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shall find the winter's rage
Freeze the blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, all good folk, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing:
You who now shall bless the poor
Shall yourself find blessing.

Here's a link that will take you directly to a YouTube video that uses McKennitt's haunting song. It's not just the song, for me, but also the arrangement that is so important.  I love the melding of a traditional western carol with Celtic and Middle Eastern musical elements and the instruments you don't normally hear outside a medieval/Renaissance festival. The Middle Eastern aspect actually places the song in a historical context like never before,

I hope, wherever you are, that you find peace in your heart during these darkest days of the year.

* Glory to God in the highest
**And on earth, peace to all people

(Edited to add: it seems that since I first wrote this post, the link no longer is available in the US.  So here's a link to the carol, sung by the Irish Rovers.  And here is a link to Loreena McKennitt, so that you can imagine the carol sung in her style. This one is "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.")

(Edited again to add: one of my commenters found a working link to the McKennitt version of Good King Wenceslas.  Yay and thank you!)

20 December 2014

Secret Santa-ing: Part I

I may or may not have most of my Christmas shopping done (hint: I do not), but one thing that I don't procrastinate about is shopping for my Secret Santas.  I participated with two of them this year and they were the MOST FUN EVER to shop for.

The photo above shows what I sent to my recipient for The Broke & the Bookish's annual Secret Santa exchange.  I can post the photos here because that blogger doesn't know me or follow me and thus I am not spoiling any surprise for her.  In case you cannot tell from the photo, there are three books, one bar of chocolate, some maple candy that is locally made where I work, a Moleskine-esque notebook, and a book tote.  Also, the cutest holiday giftwrap in the world.  Pretty much nothing is cuter than owls wearing Santa hats and ear muffs.  Unless it would be hedgehogs, but that option wasn't available.

I cannot share photos of my other Secret Santa swap because she does know me (Virtually, anyway. Not IRL), and I'm pretty sure she hasn't received my package because she lives far away.  I may not have procrastinated with my purchases for this person, but I definitely dragged my feet on actually mailing it.  This, for whatever reason, is very difficult for me.

What I can show, however, is the package that I received from Shannon at Shannon's Book Bag last night when I got home from work.  She was my Secret Santa through Broke & Bookish, and she really came through for me.  The timing couldn't have been better.  Yesterday was the twelfth day in a row that I had to work, and it was also the day when I had my first truly abusive customer during this blessed retail season.  So coming home to a package of books and gummy candy really was enough to make me cry.  Thank you, Shannon, for making my day!

Three books that I've been wanting to read but haven't managed to purchase yet. A lenticular bookmark with a totally groovy pattern.  Piles of gummy candy.  (I actually consumed two bags of it before I remembered to take this photo.)  This is a seriously great haul.  Holiday retail aside, this just might be the most wonderful time of year after all!

19 December 2014

Putting the Science Back Into Science Fiction: The Martian by Andy Weir

I don't read a lot of science fiction.  A bit here and there, sure -- my reading dabbles into just about every genre eventually-- but probably not more than one book every couple of years or so.  And since I'd already read Lexicon in 2014, I figured that would be it for a while.  Then I heard that my colleagues at the indie bookstore called Fiction Addiction were using this book as a "trust fall" with their customers.  Those clever folks were selling this book to customers who didn't know what they were purchasing, only that the store was endorsing it with a money-back guarantee if they ended up not liking it. Pretty cool eh?

And then the people I know on the inter webs were putting this book in my face.  First Sarah Says Read  wrote a long and passionate rave for The Martian. Then The Terrible Desire and  What Red Read took up the mantle and that was apparently the tipping point for me.  So I asked my sales rep to send me a paperback copy to read on vacation last month, and he very obligingly did so.

I find that the comparisons that the publisher's marketing department come up with for new books are almost always bogus: It's Gone Girl meets The Goldfinch or it's The Da Vinci Code meets Goodnight Moon, or whatever.  With this book, though, they got it right.  It really is Apollo 13 meets Castaway, though it's curious to me that the publisher chose movies for their comparisons and not books. That those two movies both star Tom Hanks, doubly so.

Mark Watney is alone on Mars. You see, a dust storm engulfed him and the rest of the crew, and he was impaled with some equipment that breached his space suit and blown away.  The crew searched in vain for him but had to make the difficult call of leaving his body behind in order to save the mission.

But then Mark wakes up, and BECAUSE SCIENCE is still alive.

Kinda like that. Except with vacuum and torque and pressure and whatnot.

As the internet meme says, I fucking love science, and this book is chock full of it.  Using only his own ingenuity and the equipment left behind by the crew, Mark must figure out how to survive on Mars for a long time.  He lacks direct radio contact with earth, and everybody else thinks he's dead, so he realizes that he must contrive food and water for himself for about four years, which is when the next Mars mission is scheduled to land.

Mark's dual background of engineering and botany serve him well, but it's really his sense of humor that becomes his own (and the reader's) saving grace. Mark narrates most of the book through journal entries, and there are dozens of times when he nearly dies.  You see, all of his knowledge, while extensive, is mostly theoretical when it comes to the ways things will work differently on Mars, and this makes things complicated and frustrating and dangerous.  Thank goodness he's got a limited supply of 1970s sitcoms to watch and a lifetime supply of snark to employ in his commentary.

In the meantime, some lowly person back in the US is monitoring satellite images of Mars when she notices that some things on the surface of the planet seem to be moving around. She hazards a guess that Mark actually still might be alive, and instead of cutting the tension, that knowledge actually seems to ratchet it up a notch. Now Mark and the rest of the world are working from two different ends, trying to meet in the middle to achieve a single goal, and still TONS of things go wrong.

As they should.  Being a pioneer on Mars and using your knowledge experimentally should not be easy.  But if there's one thing I grew a little weary of in this book, it was not the long scientific explanations of stuff, but the dozens of crisis moments and near-death experiences.  I would have preferred fewer of those and more character development.  Or even any character development would have been nice. This book is so focused on exposition instead of narrative that it necessarily breaks the old writing adage of "show, don't tell."  However, there's a nice mix of men & women, and if judging by surnames is reliable enough to go by, then there's actually a racial mix among the astronauts, too.  For a genre that is so dominated by white males, both in the writing and in the content, this is very refreshing.

This is a book that will find, as it did with me, a wide readership even among those who don't self-identify as readers of science fiction.  It's very plot driven and cinematic, and it's no wonder that the film is currently slated for a 2015 release.  The cast sounds great, but if the director sacrifices the two best things in the book -- the real science that drive almost every plot point and Mark Watney's sense of humor -- for a big-budget, special effects extravaganza, it will be a seriously wasted opportunity.

But that will be then.  For now, just take a gander at this fascinating book.  I'm sure glad that I did. And if your science background is more like this:

...Don't worry!  Just skim some of the science-explanationy-things and keep your eyes on the prize of the storyline.  

16 December 2014

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Good-bye...

Morning on Barnes Bay     
So...when I last left off with my Anguilla trip reporting, we had had a very full day: visiting with friends, eating, paddle-boarding, kayaking, and shopping. And that was all before dinner!  Though DH and I couldn't promise Ava another meal of her favorite lasagna, we had saved something special for our last dinner -- night of live music with Omari Banks at Veya.

Omari Banks
Carrie Bogar, the chef, was very accommodating in my advance email reservation requests, answering my questions about live music, which dates, which tables to request, etc, and we enjoyed chatting with Jerry Bogar and the rest of the staff while we enjoyed our cocktails and perused the menu. We've visited Veya enough times that I think we sampled just about everything on their menu, so DH and I revisited some old favorites while Ava had a difficult time deciding.

We started with the calamari and grilled watermelon for the table, followed by the shrimp entrée (DH), the red snapper entrée (Ava) and the Moroccan shrimp cigar appetizer (me).  Full disclosure: this appetizer does contain cilantro, and I could occasionally taste it, but the flavor is so perfectly balanced among various spices that the foul herb which is usually so offensive to me was, in fact, mild.

The calamari
Grilled watermelon w/poached shrimp
Red snapper
Shrimp w/ corn fritters
Moroccan shrimp cigars
We enjoyed all of the food and were tickled to sample the amuse-bouche: a skewer with okra and a bit of local pepper, something that is stronger than a bell pepper but much milder than any hot pepper. We were even more tickled when, after the meal, Jerry stopped by the table again with a different menu, saying,"Take a look at this and tell me what you think."  It turns out that in a very short while, Veya will be offering a casual, small-bites kind of bar on the lower level where the Veya Cafe used to be.

If I am remembering correctly, they will be keeping later hours than the restaurant and will be offering dishes similar to these sample menus of small bites that are more diminutive in portion than tapas. Meze (or mezze).  I can't wait to give it a try the next time I'm on the island!

Though we had a relatively early reservation for dinner, our meal lasted longer than usual -- something that I noticed on this trip in general.  I reckon that having three people at the table makes for a bit more conversation than DH and I usually have, just the two of us. After Ava polished off her malted chocolate mousse bars, we were surprised how late it was!

We got up early the next morning to pack, then we all piled out onto the beach for one last walk.  And one last hundred (or so) rocks to skip.  The wind and waves had really picked up, and the sand was so soft & mushy, even several feet up from the waterline, that I sank into it up to the bottoms of my capri pants. Ellen came outside to say goodbye when she saw us, and I finally remembered to get a shot of the two of us.

It was nice to have our feet in the sand one last time, and the weather gods were kind enough to provide one last rainbow before we had to load the car up and drive away.

We stopped at Geraud's for breakfast (and for a trio of take-out sandwiches for later) and arrived at the airport for our Anguilla Air Services flight.  Even if DH weren't such an airplane buff, we'd still prefer to fly between Anguilla and St Maarten for the ease of connection and for the simple joy of seeing Anguilla from the air.  We had the plane to ourselves, so The Kid was thrilled to be invited to sit up with the co-pilot.

We traditionally do our sad-face pose here, but the trip
was so spectacular that we couldn't help ourselves

We even got one last rainbow while we were in the air.

St Maarten looked greener than ever as we landed.

Lines for immigration were short, and we popped into the little side area for American Airlines ticketing, where something strange happened.  Even though our e-tickets had us all booked together in one row and our itineraries were linked, and EVEN THOUGH we had paid the extra fee for sitting at the front of economy with extra leg room, the ticketing agent for AA gave us boarding passes in three separate rows, all in the back of the plane.

We didn't notice this, however, until after we'd already gone through security upstairs.  Ugh!  DH and Ava weren't eager head out of the secure area to go back downstairs to fix it, but luckily there was a gate agent working a different AA flight who was willing to help us out.  I had to show her my printed-out itinerary with all three of us confirmed in the Economy Plus section (or whatever it's called), and she gave us a puzzled frown for about 5 minutes and asked a colleague to help before we got it all straightened out. Luckily for us, she was patient and willing to spend a little time fixing it.

Flights home were long but uneventful, and even transferring in Miami wasn't terrible this time around. All in all, this was a great trip.  Anguilla is our favorite place for a vacation, but this trip was a great reminder of how much fun it can be to introduce it to a newcomer.  This was the third time we've done so -- twice with our granddaughters and once with my mom.  Ava loved every bit of it, and seeing the island through her eyes was a real treat.

Right before she fell asleep in the car on the ride home from the airport, she said the sweetest thing. "You guys," she said. "I feel like if I kept saying 'thank you' every time I was thankful for something on this trip, I would have been hoarse after the first day."  She's a good kid, that one.

I hope I can manage to put together a book review or two before the end of the year of the books I read on vacation, but it keeps getting harder to make myself do it with the limited spare time I have this time of year.  Travel blogging is SOOOOO much easier than book blogging!  But thanks for reading and traveling along with me, nonetheless. 

08 December 2014

Making the Most of our Last Day on the Island

It's hard to believe that Monday is our last full day on the island.  Time always goes by quickly when we're on vacation, to be sure.  But it seems to be especially fleet when it comes to vacation in Anguilla. That morning, since Geraud's is closed, we take the easy way out and head up the road to Straw Hat for breakfast.

It was a gorgeous morning, sunny and bright, and the view looking over Meads Bay was really lovely. Ava had the pancakes, DH ordered some poached eggs & toast, while I opted to try the scallion potato pancakes à la Benedict.  It was a very satisfying breakfast and I loved the texture in mine.  The pesto Hollandaise wasn't bad, either!

After breakfast, we headed back to Caribella because we had a date with Ronnie Bryan to settle up about our rental car.  Ava entertained herself skipping rocks on the beach while we chatted with Ronnie and admired the photos of his newborn son that we made him promise to bring.  After that, we packed up our beach bags and headed out for Irie Life so that Ava could do a bit more shopping for her family and so that DH and I could pick up a few things for our housemates, too.  I also lightened my wallet buying an Omari Banks cd and a new beach cover up for myself while I was at it.

Leaving Irie Life, we saw a pretty big boat at anchor in Road Bay -- much bigger than anything we'd seen there before.  We also happened to see a very pretty cow, too!

It was a little early for lunch, but at 11:30 we headed to Ocean Echo anyway because we had a gift for our friend Andrea, who works there, and we thought we might as well sit and chat with her at the restaurant instead of just driving around. As we were the only people there, she was free to visit for quite a while, and we had a fun time just sitting around in their club chairs, gabbing away.

Looking west, toward Viceroy, from the bar at Ocean Echo
The comfy club chairs 

I don't understand why Ocean Echo doesn't ever seem to be busy when we're there.  Admittedly, we only travel in low season (or as in this trip, shoulder season), but it's a great location, with a varied menu. Good food served at reasonable prices.  AND they offer complimentary beach chairs with the purchase of lunch -- and it must be said that these chairs are nicely padded and among the more comfortable ones available around the island. On top of all of that, Ocean Echo honors the Anguilla card!

The comfortable-looking, lie-flat chaises available at Ocean Echo
The view from our lunch table
Around 12:30, The Kid said she was feeling hungry again, so we grabbed a table to order some lunch -- we chose a table a little farther back to catch the best breezes.  Sometimes the sand on Meads can radiate some real warmth toward the restaurant.  DH wasn't feeling so great, so he only had his iced tea, but Ava ordered the vegetable panini with fries and I had the vegetable stir fry, which was a pretty different choice from my usual luncheon fare. Both were quite fresh and tasty.

We'd debated over lunch about what to do with the rest of the afternoon.  Ava and DH were thinking maybe we should just set up shop right there at Ocean Echo, take advantage of Andrea's company and the chairs & umbrellas, but I had a card up my sleeve.  I'd remembered that Davida had kayaks for rental on Crocus Bay, and I had the dimmest of recollections that they also offered stand up paddle boarding.  When I casually mentioned that there was a chance of doing some SUP once more, Ava's face lit up.

So onward to Crocus Bay we went.

Davida is one of those places on Anguilla where I'm *really* glad we gave it a second chance.  Our first visit there was not good, but we went again last year to meet Andrea for lunch because it was convenient to her house, and now the rest is history.  We liked the location, the food, the service, the ambience, you name it.  Complete turnaround from our first time there.

Just chilling at Davida
When we arrived, we told the nice server that we'd like to rent some beach chairs & umbrellas because we wouldn't be having lunch, but she very sweetly informed us that there would be no charge anyway. This was welcome news, as the beach chairs at Davida are the most comfortable ones available to the public on the island, and their umbrellas are the most generously-sized, too.  We told her that we'd be happy to start a drinks tab and that we would eventually rent some equipment, then headed to our chaises to read for a while.

There was a motor boat really close to shore, but we didn't really give it a second thought until the guy tried to leave.  His hull was stuck in the sand, and the situation got dicey quickly.  One by one, people got up to help the guy get out of the sand, and their group efforts nearly resulted in capsizing the boat more than once.  There were maybe 10-12 guys out there pushing and giving directions, and then, I kid you not, one of the ladies on the beach got up and started helping and the boat immediately got free. Just sayin'.

The boat went from this...

...to this
After an hour of reading and enjoying a refreshing cocktail, Ava and I got up for our little sea adventure.  I knew better than to try the SUP again, so I started off with a kayak. The beach attendant, whose name eludes me right now, got us fitted with everything we needed and off we went to explore the beach immediately west/southwest of Crocus.

What I could not tell from my position in the kayak, however, was how rough the water felt to Ava, who remained in a kneeling position the whole way down and back. By the time we got back to the beach in front of Davida, her legs were shaking so we trade her SUP for a second kayak and headed off to the east, checking things out along the rocks.

MUCH better!
The kayak was much easier, and we were maybe 1/4 of the way towards Little Bay when it started raining.  Actually, not just raining, but pouring.  It rained hard enough and long enough that everybody on shore scurried for cover and the beach attendants put away all of the umbrellas and cushions.  Ava and I, on the other hand, just lay back in our kayaks and let the rain wash over us, enjoying the sensation of the cold drops on our faces while trailing our hands through the warm sea.

After about 45 minutes, we paddled back in, as we were one of only two parties still out on the sand and we got the feeling that maybe the folks at Davida would like to close up for the day.  When DH paid the bill, we got a pretty big surprise.

Now, I don't mean any disrespect to Anguilla Watersports when I share this, as they provided a service with their SUP by delivering all of the equipment to Rendezvous Bay, providing a quick lesson, and then returning when we decided for them to pick everything up again.  That kind of service comes at a price (and you can see their price on the website, if you care to see it), and we paid it and were happy with the service. Fair enough.  In fact, we *still* are happy with the service, even in retrospect.

But our water sports bill at Davida was only $20 for the entire time, for the SUP rental AND the two kayaks rental.  They charge $10 per hour per piece of equipment, but I'm positive that we were out for at least 90 minutes, and by my reckoning, they could have charged us $40: for the time and because we had three pieces of equipment all together. My bottom line is this: even with a 100% tip to the watersports guy, our bill at Davida for SUP was less than a third of what it was the day before.

So if you're thinking about doing SUP on Anguilla, my recommendation to you is this: If you want to try it for the first time because you're not sure if it's for you, drive down the hill to Crocus Bay and give it a whirl for $10/hour.  If you already love SUP and want to do it in your favorite location anywhere on the island, and if cost is immaterial, try Anguilla Watersports.

Smoothie perfection -- no artificial flavors or colors!
In the meantime, all of this activity was generating a pretty powerful thirst, so after settling the bill, we packed up the car again and headed to Sea Spray to see Pamela one last time, enjoy a smoothie, and to lighten our wallets once more. I ordered the White Sands again to share with DH and I can't remember what Ava ordered, but while I was waiting for it to be made, I made some photographs of Pamela's shop, including the hand-painted Christmas ornaments that she makes.

Hand painted shell bottle openers
One of two main jewelry displays

This report really is getting long in the tooth, so I believe I will end it here and pick up with our fabulous dinner at Veya in my next installment.  Here's a pretty beach video to play you out: