kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

Friday, December 27, 2013

Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, Arizona

Music is the language of the soul.

The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona is possibly the most entertaining and engaging museum I have ever been in. Built in 2007, this unique museum houses nearly 15,000 instruments and showcases the music and culture from every country in the world.

Here, I am looking down from the top of a spiral staircase onto the floor below, with a map of the world inlaid with marble.

Visitors wear ear phones with a device that allows them to not only see the instruments, but hear them played on the video screens at each display. Music and instruments from around the world are featured in five Geographical Galleries.

My favorite part of the museum was the Artist Gallery, featuring stars of many different musical genres -- John Lennon, Elvis, Eric Clapton, Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Santana, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and ukelele player Jake Shimabukuro were a few I especially enjoyed. Also in the Artist Gallery, we found a drum (below) used in the impressive Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Bejiing.

There's a Mechanical Music Gallery, featuring calliopes, automatons, player pianos, and those music boxes  that use the large metal discs. I loved these mechanical singing birds.

One could easily spend two days taking in all this museum has to offer. We were there for a full afternoon, and couldn't begin to see it all. Moving from one exhibit to another, we were reminded that music is universal. No matter what language we speak, music connects us. We use music to celebrate, to communicate, to entertain, and to express every human emotion.

If you are ever in the Phoenix area, I highly recommend you take the time to visit MIM.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rest in Peace, George Rodrigue

George Rodrigue, creator of the beloved Blue Dog, passed away yesterday. Learning about this artist and his quirky canine was part of my orientation upon arriving to Louisiana over six years ago. My first introduction to Rodrigue's prolific Blue Dog paintings was a dinner at the Blue Dog Cafe in Lafayette. His paintings naturally adorn the walls of this restaurant. Then on a family trip to New Orleans, I happened upon one of his galleries on Royal St. A few years after that, one of Rodrigue's traveling shows came to our Imperial Calcasieu Museum here in Lake Charles. I was thrilled! You can read that post here. To learn more about Rodrigue, visit his website here.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Eight Things I've Learned Since Moving to Louisiana

I read this article recently on Huffington Post; 8 Things I Learned in the South. And it occurred to me, well, yeah, I've learned a few things since moving to the South, too, right! And that got me thinking. 

Here’s my list of 8 things I've learned since moving to southwest Louisiana. It’s a partial list. Surely, I could go on all day.

Mardi Gras – Yes, Mardi Gras season will soon be upon us. Lake Charles will be awash in green, gold, and purple. One of the biggest cultural revelations upon moving to Louisiana for me was that Mardi Gras is not a DAY (Fat Tuesday). It’s a SEASON of balls, parades, and a myriad of other festivities. The season begins each year on Epiphany and culminates/ends on the Tuesday before Lent begins, called Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. I've posted many pieces here about Mardi Gras, because, especially at first, I was fascinated by it. Your can read  them here, here, and here.

Kayaking – In Pennsylvania, kayaking is a daring, adventurous, often dangerous sport. It is almost always associated with river rapids. I’m adventurous, but I’m also chicken, and I would never consider kayaking on white water. Here in Louisiana, there is A LOT of water. And it's all quiet and slow moving. We have tranquil lakes, peaceful bayous, and rivers that move with the tides – a perfect place for me to kayak! This is a shot of me kayaking last January.

It’s not always warm here in the winter. While it’s often possible to wear shorts and a t-shirt on Christmas Day, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, that pesky jet stream dips all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Like lately. It’s been cold here on and off, mostly on, since around Thanksgiving. It’s in the high 20s at night and only in the 40s during the day. After living in Louisiana for several years, one becomes accustomed to being warm, and 40 degrees is COLD! But the truth is, the cold rarely lasts for more than a day or two. Then it’s back to balmy. And I always say, I’d rather be hot in the summer than cold in the winter.

People around here will eat just about anything. I guess it’s the French influence, but nothing goes to waste here. They eat the craziest things. “Cracklins" are a very popular snack. It’s fried pig flesh, people! I refuse to eat it. But I do eat boudin, a type of sausage made with "parts" and a spicy rice mixture. We make jokes about roadkill gumbo (possums, armadillos, and raccoons are the most common), and speaking of roadkill, I know people who have accidentally hit a deer with their big truck, turned around, picked it up and tossed it into the truck bed, took it home, and processed the meat.

If it exists, there’s a festival somewhere for it. Every kind of music (Cajun, zydeco, jazz, swamp pop are popular), every type of food imaginable, and any Louisiana animal you can think of, and there’s a festival for it in some town somewhere. I've written more posts about festivals that I could list. But here's one from the very first festival we went to after moving here -- the DeRidder Watermelon Festival. 

I thought there would be more snakes, but I never dreamed there would be THIS many mosquitoes. I rarely see snakes. I've never seen one in my yard. I've never seen one out in my kayak. I have seen a few when hiking through the woods. And dead ones on the road. But I thought I’d see more. On the other hand, no one could have prepared me for the nuisance of mosquitoes. All the horror stories in the world could not have convinced me of the extent of this pestilence. The degree of annoyance varies – it’s worse after a lot of rain. It’s less so after the mosquito fumigator truck goes through the neighborhood. Sometimes, they are so thick in the air, you simply can’t be outdoors without getting "eaten alive".

The humidity takes some getting used to. We moved here in June 2007, and I was unprepared for the heat and humidity. But mostly the humidity. The air gets so heavy, it feels like you are breathing water. But I acclimated to it. (I grew gills.)

A unique balance of industry and the arts. The first time Bob brought the boys and me to Lake Charles, naturally, we drove in from Houston. We saw the signs that indicated we had arrived in Lake Charles, and the very first thing we saw from our view on I-10 was industry. Plant after plant after plant. And that was our first impression (post here). My heart sank. What kind of town was he moving us to? But while, yes, the town thrives and bustles because of the booming industries, I gratefully learned that Lake Charles also has a marvelous thriving arts community. Theater, ballet, symphony and other musical events, visual arts, museums, parks . . . it’s all here. And we have a great time!

So, though I had no idea what to expect or what life would be like in southwest Louisiana, I've learned that Lake Charles is a terrific place to live!

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Thanksgiving Getaway

Don't we all need a break now and then? A break in the action. A change of scenery. A getaway.

When I think of a traditional Thanksgiving, thoughts of "home" come to mind. Sitting around the dinner table with family and feast. But I discovered this year that the Thanksgiving break can be a perfect time for a family getaway. Quite unexpectedly, a dear friend offered to let us stay at her lake house last week. Nothing like a little spontaneity to break the routine!

It was cold last week! And I don't want any of my northern readers to roll their eyes. It dropped to 28 degrees at night and only inched into the 40s during the day! Maybe that's why the fish weren't biting. But we had a good time anyway. We played Scrabble, watched movies and the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and cooked a traditional Thanksgiving meal together. With the boys in college now, it was some much-needed family time.

Where do you go to get away?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

In Search of the Pink Dolphin: Part Deux

About a year after we moved to Lake Charles in 2007, I heard rumors, read news articles, and saw photos of a rare albino dolphin in the Calcasieu River ship channel in Cameron, Louisiana. Naturally, I’ve been curious and eager to see this animal ever since.

In May 2012, my kayaking club ventured to Cameron for a paddle. We saw lots of birds and shrimp boats. And even a few dolphins. But no pink dolphin. You can read about that trip here.

A few weeks ago, the club returned to Cameron, and they did see the pink dolphin on that trip! Naturally, I was in Pennsylvania.

This past weekend, Bob said it was a good time to go sailing. We’d wanted to take an overnight trip to Cameron for quite some time, so off we went. It took us about four hours to meander down the ship channel from Lake Charles to Cameron where the Calcasieu River meets the Gulf of Mexico. It looks like this most of the way.

Sea gulls and pelicans flock behind the shrimp boats. Easy pickins.

When we arrived at the inlet where we anchored for the night, a lone dolphin greeted us. No sign of the pink dolphin.

But we saw lots of jellyfish the size of turkey platters.

We saw the moonrise . . .

and the sunset . . .

and the sunrise the next morning.

Despite the gentle lulling sway and rock of the boat, I didn’t sleep well. We anchored across from an industrial port and heard the drone of diesel engines from big ships and the beep beeps of construction-type vehicles throughout the night.

The next morning, Bob and I naturally wanted coffee. We remembered to bring coffee, but we forgot the cream and sugar, and neither of us drink coffee black. Bleh. The only sweetener I could find on board was some M&Ms in a bag of trail mix. So I doled out about eight salty M&Ms into each cup and we poured the coffee over them. And stirred. I was temporarily baffled as to why just one of my M&Ms wouldn’t melt. 

Until I realized it was a peanut.

I can honestly say that was the worst cup of coffee I’d ever drank in my life.

Then I decided to fish for awhile.

It was a little foggy that morning.

A month or so ago, Bob and I bought fishing licenses. We have yet to catch a single fish. The thing is, I think most of the fish like to hang out in the shallows along the shoreline. Our boat drafts 5.5 feet, so we have to stay in deeper water. Excuses, excuses . . .

Once the fog burned off enough to see, we set off for the jetties. Now here, we saw countless dolphins! For some reason, dolphins love to swim alongside boats. These amazing creatures are playful, and apparently, it's fun.

Check out this video I took.
But no pink dolphin.

This is what it looks like when you are out in the middle of the Gulf.

Well, maybe not the middle. We were maybe a mile or so out. But we couldn’t see land.

So I held out hope that we’d see Pinkie on the way back through; but alas, we did not. So my quest continues.

If anyone wants to take me fishing where I can actually catch some fish, please let me know!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Autumn in Southwest Pennsylvania

I love Louisiana, but there are many things I miss about the northeast. Fall foliage is one of them.

For the first time since moving to the Bayou State six years ago, I returned to Pennsylvania during the peak of autumn. I timed it perfectly. When I landed in Pittsburgh on October 24, I was shocked by how much green I saw. And I had worried I missed it! Over the course of two weeks, I watched green ease into gold, red, and orange.

Seems it can transform almost overnight. When I return to Lake Charles in a couple days, I suspect the trees here will be nearly bare. It all happens so quickly. One night of wind and rain gives the demise a big boost.

Throughout my visit here, I've collected a few of the prettiest leaves I found and pressed them into a notebook. I’ll lay them on my dining room table when I get home, as a reminder of the beauty of southwestern Pennsylvania this time of year.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dallas, Texas

We visited our son Eric at the University of Texas At Dallas (UTD) last weekend. Dallas is a cool city. From what we saw, it's clean. The buildings are newer, glistening, and architecturally interesting.

Even the concrete of the highways is aesthetically pleasing.

But they drive like maniacs.

Thank goodness, Dallas has a fantastic public transportation system called DART. Eric has it all figured out and can go pretty much anywhere in the city. Fare is free for students. We took the light rail (he calls it the Tram) from Richardson into town. First we visited the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. This a a fabulous place. We spent hours there. Highly recommended.

We ate lunch at a Tex-Mex place across the street called El Fenix. Also highly recommended.

Then we went to the Nasher Sculpture Center. We lucked out -- free admission that day. The following photos were taken in their outdoor gallery.

Other random thoughts:

  • If you neglect to make hotel room reservations and just wing it, you might save yourself a lot of money. The first place we went to, a Courtyard Marriott, gave us a room on the spot for $60.00 a night.
  • I love Waffle House.
  • East Texas Arboretum in Athens is a treasure. And a great place to stretch your legs on the drive to Dallas.
  • If I had to describe Dallas women's fashion sense in one word, it would be BOOTS.
If you've been to Dallas, what is your favorite thing there?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge

Okay, just one last post from our Gulf Coast vacation last month. Bob and I both love "nature" things. So when I read about this wildlife refuge, a visit was in order. Located just off I-10 near Ocean Springs, Mississippi, it's an easy stop.

This 19,000 acre refuge was established in 1975 to protect the endangered Mississippi Sandhill Crane and it's unique and disappearing pine savannah habitat.

The refuge boasts a fabulous visitor center -- clean and tidy, very interactive for the younger set, a wonderful short film depicting the plight of these elusive birds. There's a library and a gift shop, free posters, and a patio that overlooks the savanna.

Near the visitor center there's a well-tended walking trail. We saw trees, tall grasses, palmettos . . .

lots of wildflowers and carnivorous plants like this Pitcher Plant . . .

and butterflies . . .

 . . . but did we see cranes? No! This was disappointing, but I didn't feel so bad after learning that the gentleman who manned the visitor center (and had for several years) had never seen a crane at the refuge either. Apparently, they are very private birds. Here's a photo I found on the Audubon website.

The Refuge has this website, but it is currently unavailable due to the government shutdown.

Here are some interesting facts about the sandhills:

  • Sandhills are large birds. They stand around 3-4 feet tall and have a wingspan of 6-8 feet.
  • They mate for life and rarely lay more than 2 eggs a year. This contributes to their endangered status. That, and their disappearing natural habitat.
  • They eat just about anything and search for food in shallow water.
  • They currently live only in Jackson County, Mississippi, but their original habitat stretched across the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle.
  • In the 1970s, only around 30 of these birds existed. Through the concerted efforts of the wildlife protection folks, they now number around 200.
  • Sandhills live up to 20 years in the wild.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bellingrath Gardens, Theodore, Alabama

One of the most beautiful places Bob and I visited on our vacation early last month was delightful Bellingrath Gardens.

In the late 1930's, Walter and Bessie Bellingrath owned a humble fishing camp along the Fowl River near Theodore, Alabama. They loved nature and the beauty of the outdoors. Walter made his fortune in the Coca-Cola company, and over the course of several years, the couple built a lovely home on the property and developed 65 acres of exquisite gardens around the home.

Eventually, they opened their home and gardens to the public for tours. I'll let the photos tell the rest of the story.

They boast a bloom every day of the year, but spring would be the ideal time to go, when the thousands of azalea and camellia bushes are at their peak. Bellingrath Gardens is also well known for their ambitious Christmas light display. It's definitely worth a stop if you are traveling through southern Alabama on Interstate 10 or Highway 90. For more information, here's a link to their website.

Do you have a favorite garden somewhere? Shangra La, over in Orange, Texas is very nice. Here's their website. But I have to say my favorite garden is Phipp's Conservatory in Pittsburgh. Not only is it positively lovely, but Bob and I were married there.

Friday, September 27, 2013

McGuire's Irish Pub and Brewery, Pensacola, Florida

Feasting, Imbibery, and Debauchery  . . . oh yes we did! At McGuire’s Irish Pub in Pensacola, Florida.

This popular restaurant has a brewery onsite that makes a pretty good Irish Red Ale. Their website suggests you “stop in for a tour,” but don’t be fooled. This brewery gives new meaning to the word micro. (The beer that is sold outside of the restaurant is made off-site at a normal-size brewery.)When we asked these two brew masters for the advertised “tour,” they just looked at us like we were crazy. They said, “This is it,” with a sweep of their arms. After I pointed out that the website mentioned a tour, they invited us backstage, so to speak, to get a closer look. And they briefly explained the process.
Beer aside, it was Tuesday, and Tuesday is “half-price martini day” at McGuire’s. I couldn’t resist that offer, and had a chocolate martini. It was fabulous, with Bailey’s Irish Cream, a chocolate liquor, and a cinnamon stick.
I apologize for the poor photo quality. It’s a dark pub! Tough to take good pictures. That, and I probably had the camera on the wrong setting. It was so dark, I couldn’t see to set it.
Another unique feature and tourist attraction is the over one million dollar bills signed by patrons, stapled and dangling from the ceiling. I’m sure there was a reason as to why the tradition first started, but at this point, it’s just a curious gimmick.

And of course, there’s food. We tried a new-to-us appetizer called boxstys. I don’t get the name, but they are golf ball size orbs of mashed potatoes breaded and fried. Delicious! They must be quite important in Irish cuisine; the menu says, “Boxsty on the griddle, boxsty in the pan, if you can’t make boxsty, you’ll never get a man.” Okay . . .
And we ate what surely was the best Reuben sandwich either of us had ever enjoyed. And we love Reubens!

What’s your favorite Irish food?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Schurr Sails, Pensacola, Florida

Have you ever wondered how they make those giant sails on sailboats? No, I hadn’t either, until I heard a recent conversation about a sail manufacturer, Schurr Sails, in Pensacola. Knowing that Bob and I would be staying in Pensacola for part of our vacation, I put a visit to Schurr Sails on our itinerary.

Schurr Sails is owned and operated by Hunter Riddle and his wife, who bought the business from Alfred Schurr in 1998.
The business is located in a quiet part of Pensacola, on L Street. It consists primarily of one very large room with a super large floor area. The floor is varnished every year so the sails glide over the floor easily. The floor is pockmarked with ice picks that hold a sail to the floor when necessary.

The most fascinating aspect of the process is the way the ladies sew the sails from inside a depressed “pit.” The sewing machine is flush with the floor, so the sail can spread out over the floor. Gina has been sewing sails for 30 years. Here, she sits in one of four pits and sews some large banners for the city.

Gina’s sister Sue also works at Schurr Sails. She’s been in the business since 1974.

The Riddle’s son Derek helps out by “plotting” the sails. Using the assistance of a computer, he draws diagrams of the sails and makes templates for the material, most often Dacron.

The company makes approximately 100 sails a year. They also do sail repairs. For more information, see their website here.