kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years Eve, 2010

I'm not big on late-night parties, crowds of people, noise. But there's something about the New Year holiday I love. It's like a gift from the calendar. A clean slate. A fresh start. A new beginning. There's something forgiving about turning the page and putting the past behind. Like most folks these days, I shun resolutions, but around this time of year, I tend to think about how I might do some things differently, how I might change a pesky pattern of behavior. I want to be less critical of myself, and at the same time, I want to be better organized and more efficient with my time, especially the time devoted to writing.

But I'll think on that tomorrow. Tonight we say goodbye to 2010. And dream wishes for 2011. We've become so accustomed to staying in and celebrating the New Year with the boys, it's hard to imagine doing anything else.

How do you celebrate and what are your dreams for 2011? Whatever they are, I wish all of you a very blessed and Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Learning to Drive

My sons are presently attending drivers’ ed. So far it’s only the classroom instruction; they’re not yet on the road. That comes the week after Christmas. Curiously, I’m not the slightest bit worried about this. Aren’t I supposed to be concerned? Somewhat nervous? But no, I’m not. Although I do foresee a whole new lineup of prayers on my horizon. Maybe I trust the boys and feel confident they’ll be good drivers? Maybe I trust the driving instructor? Maybe I’m delusional?

What a right of passage – learning to drive and getting a license. Does anything say freedom more to a teenager than a driver’s license? I remember my father, never one to procrastinate, taking me out when I was 13 or 14 years old to a dirt road way out in the country and teaching me to drive his puke green vintage 1957 Ford pickup truck. I liked it better when Grandma Lowdermilk let me drive her red 1976 mustang. When I was in college, Grandma sold this car to Mom -- for me -- for $1,000.00 and a waterbed. I loved that car and drove it till it rusted away beneath me and left me stranded on the roadside one too many times.

After getting my permit, I wasn’t a bad driver, but I recall side-swiping a telephone pole once. And there was the time I got a flat tire and didn’t realize why the car was swerving erratically until I arrived at my destination. I was a pretty good driver, but I failed my driver’s test first time around. In Pennsylvania, rather than take you out on the road to see if you really know how to drive, instead there’s a little maze behind the DMV that a driver-candidate must navigate through. Parallel parking and three points turns, no problem. But since I knew there were no other cars in the maze, I didn’t see the point of stopping at the stop sign.

How do they test in Louisiana? I don’t even know.

So tell me. Got any good learning-to-drive stories?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Getting in the Spirit

After this weekend, I am officially in the holiday spirit.

It actually started last weekend, when Eric was home and we pulled out all our Christmas CDs, put out a few decorations, and decked the tree. Thursday at Sam's Club, I got my first whiffs of fresh pine from the trees and wreaths. Friday I started holiday baking by making two kinds of biscotti; cranberry pistachio and chocolate walnut. Saturday, I shopped, listened to the music, and watched the holiday bustle. Evening found Bob and I at Lake Charles' annual Christmas boat parade and fireworks display. We capped the night with a drive down Shell Beach Drive to gasp at the dazzling light displays.

It's a start but there's so much more; cards to send, gifts to wrap, more cookies to bake. The Moss Bluff Christmas parade (featuring SHHS's Pride and Spirit Marching Band) and a couple parties to attend next weekend. And Eric comes home for a month! I love Christmas. And in the midst of enjoying all the sights, sounds, and scents of the season, I take time to remember the Reason we celebrate.

How about you? What have you been doing to get into the holiday spirit?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving in Louisiana -- Vive la difference

I love to compare and contrast the cultural differences between my home state of Pennsylvania and my new home here in Louisiana. I love the culture here and find it fascinating because it's so different and new to me.

Naturally, I've been thinking lately of holiday variations. Of course, there are many similarities between Thanksgiving here and back home. We are, after all, still in America. I have to remind myself of that occasionally. For example, most people try to connect with family, if travel and distance are not prohibitive. The holiday generally focuses around eating a large meal together. Sports fans rally 'round the television and watch hours and hours of football. And people go crazy to start Christmas shopping the day after. But that's about where the parallels end.

Here are some interesting differences I've discovered. Please keep in mind, these are purely my own observations, they're certainly generalizations, and there are always exceptions to any rules.
  • While turkey seems to be the protein of choice on Thanksgiving day, in Louisiana, folks seem to be more open-minded to other options. I don't think it would be uncommon to find something a hunter may have bagged, such as duck or venison, a nice pork loin or beef brisket. A little boudin on the side. Or a turducken.
  • A turducken is, as far as I know, a uniquely Louisiana delicacy . . . a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey. All de-boned and stuffed again with dressing, usually rice dressing. I'd never heard of this until moving to Lake Charles. Our first Thanksgiving here, we bought one out of sheer curiosity. Frankly, we were not impressed. Not that it was bad, necessarily, but it just wasn't . . . good. And it was a mess. There was no way to slice it neatly. It just sort of fell apart on the platter. Since then, I've never heard anyone say they actually like turduckens. Yet thousands are sold this time every year.
  • Yes, Louisianians eat stuffing, or dressing, but it's usually rice. Maybe cornbread.
  • For some Louisiana families, Thanksgiving dinner is a big pot of gumbo and some pecan pies. Can't argue with that.
  • In Pa., from the time I was a kid, Thanksgiving break was always a long weekend, Thursday-Monday. Here, the kids are off the whole week. Add the two weekends on either end, and that's nine days off. Makes traveling for the holiday a lot easier.
  • In Pa., if I'm not mistaken, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving starts "hunting season." Lot's of men take this day off work, making the weekend just a little longer. The hunters in Pa. hope for a dusting of snow, so they can more easily track the deer. Snow tracks do not cross a hunter's mind in Louisiana. And in La., (I know this can't be true but it seems to me) it's hunting season year around!
  • Shorts and t-shirts. 'Nuff said there.

How about you? What are some of your Thanksgiving traditions, where do you go to celebrate, and what's on your holiday table?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Celtic Nations Heritage Festival

Here in southwest Louisiana, we celebrate just about anything and everything, especially all things Cajun French. But Irish, Scotch, and Welsh? Yes, indeed. I went to the Celtic Nations Heritage Festival today in downtown Lake Charles.

Two outdoor stages provided continuous music and entertainment. Note the leprechaun leaning against the tree.

Vendors sold all things tartan, should you want a scarf . . .

or a custom-made kilt . . .

so you can dress like these gentlemen. I do love a man in plaid.

There were coats of arms and Celtic crosses . . .

bobbles and bangles . . .

a bakery booth that sold shortbread, “eccles cakes,” which are small round puff pastries filled with raisins and spices, and “drunken Scot” bread pudding, glazed with a deliciously sweet whiskey-laced sauce.

I watched a harp demonstration . . .

and a sheep herding demonstration. See the border collie in the background? They sure kept those sheep in line.

This was a popular tent.

I’m sure there must be folks in the area with some Irish heritage, but I can’t say I know any. I do have friends here whose mother’s maiden name was McDonough. But they’re Yankees like me.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day -- 2010

I’d like to recognize and pay tribute to all veterans today. Your service is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

My Grandpa Lowdermilk served in WW II. He never talked about the war. But I remember him sitting silently in his chair Saturday afternoons watching war movies. I have photographs, awash in duotone sepia and beige; Grandpa’s arms behind his back, hat cocked slightly to the left, his mouth stern, pensive -- he was so handsome in his uniform.

Andrew and I went to Graceland-Orange Grove Cemetery today to see the bi-annual Avenue of the Flags. It’s an impressive patriotic sight; a sea of 700 or so veterans' flags proudly waving in the soft breeze of a perfect fall day. Avenue of the Flags is the largest display of veterans’ flags in the country.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sowing Seeds, Practicing Patience

I took advantage of this sunny pleasantly cool fall day and planted 80 iris and daffodil bulbs throughout my yard. Can't wait till spring to see them in bloom. Talk about your delayed gratifications.

Which got me thinking of all the things in life that teach us patience. As a child, we go to bed Christmas Eve and wait for Santa -- could there be a longer night for a kid? As teens, we get our driver's permit at age 15 and wait till we're 16 to get our license. We take a test, such as the ACT, and wait weeks for the score. Later on, we apply for a job and wait for the phone to ring. We conceive a child and wait nine months to meet him or her. We're in a hurry to get in to town and wait for a train to pass in West Lake. We writers send off manuscripts and wait for editors' replies. Doesn't it seem we spend half our lives waiting? We plant all sorts of seeds in our lives. We wait. And watch them slowly grow.

What's been teaching you patience lately?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hodges Gardens State Park

Have you ever been caught off guard and surprised by a place you’ve never been before? Maybe you heard of a destination, considered going there for a length of time, but were always too busy or forgetful to make the journey. Once you finally get there, you wonder why you didn’t make the effort sooner.

This is why I love to travel and explore new (to me) places. Invariably, it will be different in some way than I’d imagined. Like reading a book with a fascinating unexpected twist, I almost always marvel at some unique discovery; a quirky gift shop or bookstore, a quaint main street, a unique character, a charming coffee shop or restaurant, a little-known tidbit of history, an irresistible photo-op. A fig tree.

And so it was Thursday when I motored north to bring Eric home. My dad and step mom are visiting from Pennsylvania this week, and I enjoy showing out of town guests this beautiful state. We started with lunch at Fat Boy and Skinny’s in Leesville. I highly recommend the freshly made hand molded hand cut hand scooped burgers, fries, and shakes at this gas station-turned-gastronomic heaven.

As we continued on to Natchitoches, we took a detour and went to Hodges Gardens State Park. It’s on the right hand side on Route 171 north, just before Florien. Built and opened to the public in 1956 by businessman A.J. Hodges, this Louisiana gem was donated to the state in 2007.

I’d read about this garden in my local newspaper, and assumed it would be nice. But its size (700 acres) and intricacy went beyond my expectations. The garden is beautiful. Even in autumn, so many flowers in bloom. The hills and lush pine forest of west central Louisiana take my breath away. And if Hodges Gardens can be this lovely in October, I can only imagine how stunning it must be in springtime.

Butterflies fluttered all over these pretty pink flowers. See the blue?

Here’s a shot of Dad and me.

And me, feeling happy to be in the woods. Where makes you happy or what places have you recently discovered?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sixteen years ago . . .

Is it possible it's been sixteen years since my sons were born? Apparently, yes. Sixteen years ago today. I remember the day, every detail, as if it were yesterday. Fortunately, the recollection of pain tempers over time. And all that's left is the sweetness. Does a mother ever forget the thrill of gazing into those precious eyes for the first time? Of kissing their button noses? Holding them close and never wanting to let go?

But let go is exactly what I've had to do. I've been missing Eric for two months now. And today all the moreso. I simply wasn't prepared to send him out into the world so soon. Is any parent ever ready? I've been reminded lately of Hannah in the Old Testament (I Samuel 1), and how she said goodbye to her son, "young as he was."

Eric is doing very well, thriving really, having fun and learning more than I'll ever learn in my entire lifetime.

I'd post a birthday photo, but Eric isn't home till next weekend. And Andrew has a recent aversion to cameras pointed in his direction.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

DeRidder, La.

I attended a writing workshop on plot this morning in DeRidder, Louisiana. Coincidentally, Andrew had a band festival this afternoon in same town. In between the two events, I had a couple sunny hours to explore!

DeRidder is the parish seat of Beauregard Parish, one parish north of my own Calcasieu. Like so many Louisiana towns, DeRidder grew up around the railroad tracks.

The original train station is now the Beauregard Parish Museum. In addition to loads of pioneer and 19th century memorabilia, this museum is home to an incredibly large doll collection. DeRidder has an annual doll festival. If you’re into that sort of thing.

The workshop was held in an art gallery, RAD, short for RealArt DeRidder. Several local artists have their works displayed there.

I ate lunch at Cecil’s Cajun Kitchen. I love chicken and sausage gumbo and wasn’t surprised to find it on the menu. The roux was thick and savory, plenty of good spice. But there was way more sausage than chicken, and I prefer the opposite ratio.

Of note is the architecturally Gothic jail house, built in 1914 and in use until 1984. On March 9, 1928, two murderers were hung from the top of the three story spiral staircase, hence the nickname, the hanging jail. Naturally, supposedly, the jail is haunted. Look at the bars on the windows. Imagine the inmates calling out to the townsfolk passing by. The building is currently under restoration.

Next door to the jail and connected by an underground tunnel is this impressive imposing courthouse.

Ha ha, it’s only October and Santa is spying on DeRidder already.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

Today I have a guest blogger, my friend Karen Raduenz. Like many of us, she had a child. A daughter, Heidi. But now she doesn't. Here's Karen's story in her own words.

It was around 9 am on Sunday, November 2, 2008. My husband had gone fishing with my father, and my mother and I were planning to attend church.

As I was getting dressed, I heard my doorbell ring. It was my daughter’s best friend, she was screaming and crying. I told her to calm down and tell me what was going on. She told me my daughter had been in a bad accident. She had been getting calls and texts saying my daughter had died.

She proceeded to tell me about the Halloween party my daughter had attended in Ragley. She then said that a group from the party was supposed to be going to eat at IHOP, around 3 am. Since there were too many people to fit in one vehicle, they took several. All the cars had arrived at IHOP except the one my daughter was riding in. The other friends were waiting for them to arrive, but when they didn’t arrive, or answer calls or texts, they went back to look for them.

When they got back to Ragley, they came upon a wreck site. They recognized the car as the one my daughter had gotten into. The State Police would not let them near the car or the wreck site.
I called my husband and told him what was going on and told him to come home. My thoughts were that she was really OK, she is somewhere else, safe and sound. After all, she was supposed to be spending the night at a good friend’s house. My neighbor came over to check on me. Other friends of my daughter began driving up and asking if the rumors were true. I had children all over my driveway, crying and distraught.

Moments later, two State Troopers pulled into my driveway. My heart sank inside my stomach. They proceeded to walk me into the house. My legs felt like Jello. We all sat down and a State Trooper handed me a cell phone. I picked up the melted phone and just looked at it, I was so confused. Then I saw her picture on the screen.

After that, my body just went completely numb. The State Trooper expressed his condolences, and told me that telling someone that a loved one, especially a child, had died, was the hardest part of his job. They remained with me until my husband got home.

The next few days were like a fog. I had never known what real pain felt like. Everyday, day after day, you wait for your child to walk through the door and tell you about their day, their problems, or just spend time and hang out. It feels like your heart has been ripped out of your chest. You blame yourself for not protecting them. You have bad dreams, and cannot sleep at night. You hear a song that reminds you of her, or you see her friends and wish things could go back to the way they were.

I know one thing for sure, you are never going to be the same person again. When you lose someone, it opens your eyes to love more, understand more, and never take life for granted. In the fraction of a moment, four children died in that tragic car accident caused by a drunken driver.

I am writing this story to go out not only to the young people, but also to the adults and parents. If you have been drinking, don’t drive. If the person you are riding with has been drinking, don’t get back in the car with them, and don’t let them drive. It could not only save your life, but possibly theirs or someone else’s life also.

There are always special events coming our way. Homecoming, Christmas, New Years, Proms, are but a few. Parents, please take the time to talk to your children about what to do in these situations. Tell them they can call you anytime, and you will go get them. Yes, it may not always be convenient, but it sure beats the heck out of not getting to ever see or talk to them again.
Parents, don’t be naïve, and think that your child will never do anything wrong. You must let your child know that you will love them no matter what, so that they will make the right decision when the time comes. And young people, don’t think that just because you’re young, that you are invincible, you’re not. Please think about the pain and suffering that your family will go through if something were to happen to you.

I hope my story encourages parents and children to communicate, and that friends will also think about the possible pain and agony that can result from letting someone do something that you really knew in your heart, wasn’t right in the first place.

May God Bless everyone who reads this, and guide them in their hearts, as to the right path to take, when faced with this type of decision.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Leesville, Louisiana

On my way north to pick up Eric Thursday, I stopped to visit Leesville, Louisiana. This small town grew up on the lumber and railroad industries in the 1800s. It seems to be on a thriving upswing, beating the blight that has plagued Smalltown USA for several decades.

Leesville is home to Fort Polk, an army base housing 22,000 soldiers and their families. Economically, this is great for local businesses. I arrived in Leesville around lunchtime, and saw several men in uniform milling around, giving the town a patriotic feel.

The historic district, centered around Third Street, was once a bawdy, rambunctious thoroughfare, thanks to the military base. But the town washed its face, so to speak, and sent the rowdies over to Highway 171.

I ate lunch at Leesville Café, ordering the plate lunch (daily special, for my northern readers. Took me years after moving here to figure out plate lunch.) Beef tips, mustard greens, yams, cornbread – all good except for the cornbread, which was salty instead of sweet. I’d asked for the beef tips over rice, but the waitress brought them on mashed potatoes. Oh well. Must be my yankee accent. The topping on the apple cobbler so reminded of my grandmother’s – a sweet memory.

Then I set out exploring. The crown jewel of the town is the Vernon Parish Courthouse, built in 1910. Love the architecture.

I really liked this weathervane atop the Police Jury building.

The Imperial Hardware Store, in business since 1955, attracts a lot of customers. With its myriad of necessities and curiosities, it’s the kind of place I peruse in five minutes, and my husband an hour.

I was surprised to find a chic upscale boutique called Threads. Not my style of clothing and accessories, but interesting nonetheless.

There’s one art gallery called Gallery One Ellleven – no, not a typo, 111 is the address on Third St. – but despite the sign saying it should have been open, it was decidedly closed. Disappointing.

Another restaurant of note is the gas station-turned-burger joint Fat Boy and Skinny’s. Having some time to kill, I went there for a root beer float (with chocolate ice cream, of course). If I hadn’t been full from the beef tips, I’d have eaten a second lunch. The burgers smelled delicious, and the fries were fresh cut. I can’t wait till next time I have to pick up Eric, so I can stop there to eat.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rita Who? . . . Five Years Later

Today marks the five year anniversary of Hurricane Rita. "Hurricane who? What? When did that happen?" my northern readers might ask. Rita was the fourth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, at one point a category five; a category three at landfall. She devastated southeast Texas/southwest Louisiana; Lake Charles and coastal Cameron Parish in particular. And who, besides the people who lived here and either survived or suffered evacuation even knew about it? No one. Why not? Because Miss Katrina slammed into New Orleans just a few weeks prior. The country was still reeling from New Orleans' devastation, still glued to the horrific television images of people crowded at the Super Dome and the Convention Center, of folks stranded on rooftops, babies dying in the streets, the Lower Ninth Ward submerged. The country was so overwhelmed with Katrina's nightmare, no one noticed Rita. She and her path of destruction were, for the most part, ignored by the national media. So how could we have known?

I moved here in 2007; two years after Rita blew through. I remember being shocked that there could still be so much visible damage, even two years later. Blue-tarped covered wind-damaged roofs. Billboards and business signs blown out. Once vibrant shops and storefronts boarded up. In Cameron, we saw hollowed out houses, shredded remnants of curtains fluttering in busted out windows; bare cement foundations which used to support homes; small cottages and vehicles tilted askew, abandoned, in the middle of marsh grass. And I remember feeling guilty, because I never knew. I prayed for the victims of Katrina. But I didn't know about Rita. I sent money to help the victims of Katrina. But I didn't know about Rita.

Most every resident has a horror story to tell. Of flooded floors and ruined furniture, lost pets, tree limbs shoved through living room walls. Of sitting in traffic jams for hours during the massive evacuation, cars running out of gas or breaking down, blocking the roads. Of returning to stinking freezers full of rotting food, and dealing with overwhelmed, overworked contractors, and FEMA, Road Home, and insurance nightmares. No electricity for weeks. Schools closed for a month.

For many residents, it's hard to believe it's been five years -- I'm hearing that alot. For some, it still feels like yesterday. One can still see a blue roof here and there around town. A few FEMA trailers still dot the landscape. But for the most part, Lake Charles and Cameron have done an amazing job at recovery. My previous post is testament to that. And certainly, there has been some help; church groups and college students spending spring breaks to work on damaged homes -- thank God for them. But by and large, these resilient people of southwest Louisiana brought about their own recovery, neighbor helping neighbor. Because the rest of the nation simply didn't know.

For my Louisiana readers, what are some of your memories of Rita? And let's hope we don't see another hurricane like Rita, or Katrina, in a very long time.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Grand Reveal

Friday night, Lake Charles hosted the grand re-opening of the Lakefront Promenade and dedicated the new Speckled Belly geese fountain and Bord Du Lac marina.

There was always a walkway there, along the seawall, at least as long as we’ve lived here. And while the lake has always been lovely, the lakefront was rather plain and functional. The city of Lake Charles decided to spruce it up a bit.

Just as Pittsburgh years ago had to overcome its negative image of a grimy soot-belching steel mill town by focusing on technology, healthcare, and culture, so too Lake Charles strives to downplay the petrochemical plant image and does a good job emphasizing its southwest Louisiana cultural heritage through the art community, food, music, theater, and festivals.

So in the name of city beautification and I imagine tourism, they barricaded the walkway behind chain link fence running the length of Bord Du Lac (the street parallel to the promenade) and set to work. One year and 4.9 million dollars later, the fence came down and the palm trees went up. The city hired excellent contractors. It really is beautiful. Boaters used to have to tie up together along the sea wall for events. Now they have this terrific marina.

They hired a local iron artist, Josh Guillory, to make these creative lampposts, benches, and tables. Decorative pole lights glow at night in alternating multi-colors, pretty as Christmas.

In addition to all the cool new stuff, there remains many nifty older attractions; fishing piers, Millennium Park, the amphitheater, the PPG fountain (not quite the PPG fountain in Pittsburgh, but there are always kids playing and cooling off here in the summer.)

. . . the war memorials – this helicopter Vietnam War memorial is fairly new.

I love this giant American flag overseeing the east end of the lake.

To all my out of town readers, come visit so I can show off the new Lake Charles Promenade!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

He is the Egg Man

We’ve all heard the reports about horrific chicken farms, birds living their entire lives in tiny boxes, fed unnatural foods, for the sole purpose of laying large numbers of eggs. And the stories of old eggs touted as “farm fresh,” sold far beyond their sell by dates. It’s enough to make a person build a chicken coop in the backyard. Or, if that’s not possible, find a local egg man.

It required some time and effort. For awhile, I took my chances on finding fresh eggs at farmers’ markets. But by the time I got there on a Saturday morning, the eggs were often sold out.

Then I discovered that a friend of mine from the gym sells eggs. How convenient.

Gary Brown lives three miles down the road from me on five acres. He cares for 70 chickens, plus a slew of baby chicks. “I’m from the country," he says. "I grew up with it.” Gary, originally from Singer, has lived in southwest Louisiana his whole life.

Gary feeds his chickens twice a day . . .

. . . and collects the eggs each afternoon. The number of eggs laid daily depends on the time of year. In winter and spring, the hens might lay up to four dozen. In the heat of summer, only about one to one and a half dozen. The chickens roost at night in the hen house, and roam outside, free range, during the day. Gary buys his feed from a local farmer, so depending on how the farmer grows his corn, rice, and other chicken scratch, I’d like to think the eggs are “organic,” but more important to me is knowing that the eggs are fresh and not from a disease-ridden fowl prison.

One of the biggest problems in chicken farming is dealing with predators. Fox, coyote, raccoons, opossums, owls, and chicken hawks. Gary tells a story of the time he once collected the eggs in the dark. He stuck his hand into a nest to pull out an egg, and grabbed a black snake instead. He once scared off an owl by setting off firecrackers. He’s shot raccoons and relocated chicken hawks (they’re endangered and thus protected.) A hurricane fence keeps out the fox and coyote. In case a predator sneaks in during the night, Gary keeps a baby monitor in the coop.

Does Gary eat the chickens? “I can sell a chicken at auction for $17.00, and buy a fryer from the butcher for $3.00.”

In addition to the chickens, Gary keeps a couple of turkeys . . .

a bunch of ducks and a peacock . . .

an emu . . .

two dogs, a black cat . . .

and a horse named Cinnamon.

From the Egg Man’s farm . . . to my kitchen.