I Triple Dog Dare You!

The hustle and bustle of the holidays is through and the new year has begun, full of resolutions for the future. I’m not sure why this is the time we stop to think about what we want to change about how we live our lives. Is it because we see a new year as a good place for a new beginning? Or is it because in the deafening silence that follows in the wake of the holiday season, we actually have time to sit and think about what we want for ourselves? Maybe it’s a little of both.

What I do know is that New Year’s Resolutions rarely stick. Life gets busy and any plans we had to: eat better, exercise more, call our family, etcetera, etcetera, get derailed. I decided that first, anything I promise I will do differently this year, can’t be so radically different from my normal routine that it becomes impossible to uphold. Secondly, the best way to stay on track is to take someone along with me on the ride.

So when I saw a 2015 reading challenge on Popsugar.com, I thought this was just the thing!

 

 

I already read, but I used to read much, much more. Not only do I miss escaping into a good book but according to Stephen King, and I have to agree with him, reading is fundamental to my writing. In his book “On Writing,” which I would highly recommend all writers read, he says,

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

So part of my plan to work the day job less, and write more, must include the goal to read more. As much as I enjoy reading, I know that life will get busy. The dishes need to be done, the dog needs to be walked, the chicken coop needs cleaning… If all I tell myself is I want to read more, then I know I will fall into the trap of saying to myself – I will! Just as soon as I have the time.

I came up with a plan. I printed three copies of the challenge, and went to my two adult children and dared them to take it with me. We’ll all work on our own lists. Whoever completes their list first, wins. The two losers each cough up $25 to buy the winner a $50 gift card of their choice. And the race is on!

It was fun to watch them search for books that would fit the categories. The only rules are that we cannot use a book we’ve read before (unless the challenge category requires it), and one book cannot count more than once. So my first book I finished was “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. It could count as: a Pulitzer Prize winner, a book that was turned into a movie, or a book that made me cry. I must choose which category it will be used for, it cannot count for all three.

 

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Not only is this a good thing for me, it’s a good thing for my kids. Can I count that as being a better parent for the new year? Why don’t you try this with your kids? If this list isn’t appropriate for their age range, make one up. How about categories such as: read a Caldecott Award winner, read a book about an animal, read a book in which a girl is the hero…I’m sure you can come up with some great ideas of your own!

In conjunction with this, I plan on reviewing the books I read. I will post each review here, as well as on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, Booklikes, and Librarything. I’ll post it on Facebook, Twitter, and Google +, as well. I encourage everyone to do that. Reviews are essential to authors. Do you want to take the challenge? If you do let me know. If not, but you just love reading, or happen to read a book you just love (or hate), tell me about it. Word of mouth is also essential to authors! I can’t wait to hear what you’re reading. Go on – pick up a book, READ – I triple dog dare ya!

 

No Moment Wasted

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This post was actually written on 5/13/14 – I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to post it.

 

Today’s been emotional.

It was the first day I’ve had free in longer than I can remember. I started the day with a to-do list, that never got done. The first thing that happened was that I opened my computer to check my facebook page. I was intending to get back on top of my Charles Dickens Project, which has been woefully neglected while we were busy renovation the mill house (not that we will ever be done renovating).

I came upon a link to a blog written by a mother, who right now is sitting next to her little boy, Ben, waiting for his last breath. She’s struggling with how to help her other children (including Ben’s identical twin brother) cope, when she’s not sure how she will cope. The words brought every memory and emotion back like it was only yesterday when I was doing the same thing.

The logical part of me screamed to turn the computer off. I had no delusions that I could read her blog and not bawl my eyes out. I read every post, from his diagnosis until today. Today, when all that was left was pain medications, holding hands, and waiting.

But that wasn’t all. I lost all ambition to do anything I had planned for today and stayed glued to my computer and read more stories.

One was of a 13 year old girl in Illinois, who carried her twin sister on her back for 370 meters after her sibling collapsed during a track meet. Helping her sister to finish the race meant ending any chances of finishing with a medal for herself. More tears for me.

I watched a video in which a sportscaster expressed his disgust for the uproar over Michael Sam. It was nice to see the support for a nice young man, who simply shared his joy of getting drafted into the NFL with the person he loves most. Best of luck to you, Michael. For every negative comment I saw, I read many more positive ones. The video showed a clip of Michael in tears. I joined him.

I watched an episode of Dancing With The Stars in which Paralympian Amy Purdy danced better than I could ever dream of dancing. Amy lost both her legs from the knee down after nearly losing her life to meningitis at the age of 19. She received a standing ovation.Yep, I cried.

I even teared up over Clydesdales. Yes, the horses, the ones made famous by Budweiser. I watched a video in which the Budweiser team was involved in an accident where the harness apparatus broke while the team was moving in a tight circle. It resulted in several of the horses falling down. Being extremely well trained, the rest of the horses stayed calm. The ones on the ground stayed down, keeping still, instead of struggling to get up. All of them were still tethered together. Had any of the horses panicked, the ones that were down would have been trampled. The handlers ran out and carefully untangled the mess. When the last horse stood back up, unharmed, they too received a standing ovation.

I made sure to dry my tears, and clean up a bit before my husband got home. I could hear him in my mind saying “Why read those stories if they make you cry?” and “You’re just wasting your time when you could be getting something done.” What he doesn’t realize is that I was getting something done. I was experiencing a range of emotions that inspired me to do some writing. Nothing big, just a couple of pages. Maybe they will grow into something, and maybe they won’t. Even if they only stay a couple of pages stored on my hard drive, the feelings I went through today: heart break, pride, joy, relief, will all come into play one day. I will draw on those feelings when I need to have a character face a loss, or watch a child do something extraordinary, or overcome a challenge.

All of these stories had happiness and sadness in them. The mother who was losing her son, took joy in her other children and in her faith. The girl who helped her sister may have lost her race, but she won so much more. The young athlete, who is facing bigotry and hate, is also being surrounded by love and support. The woman who has lost both her legs has proven that grace comes from within. What looked to be a horrific accident, showed what even animals can do when they trust the people who have cared for them.

This is how I learn to write better. I take in all I can, even if it’s painful. I let myself laugh, and yes, cry. I learn by living and also by observing other’s lives. And despite what my husband might think, or that long list of jobs that has to wait for another day –  I didn’t waste my time. Without even getting out of my pajamas, I had a very productive day. When you’re a writer, no moment is wasted.

Update: Little Ben passed away only a few days later, at home, surrounded by those who love him. Rest in peace, Ben, and all the best wishes for peace and strength to your family.

Still Writing

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As you know, things have been quiet when it comes to my writing. Some days it makes my stomach clench so hard, I feel nauseous. I wish I had time to write, but at the moment renovating our old house has to be the priority. I keep trying to hold on to the image of my soon-to-be office, complete with antique fireplace, where I can finally settle in and get back to the thing that makes me happiest. When people ask me how my writing’s going, it feels like I have to admit to a horrible crime. I don’t even like to admit to myself that I haven’t written anything in months, much less to anyone else. It’s not like I’m not writing because I’ve lost inspiration, I just don’t have the time right now.

Today, I made the realization, that although, on the outside, it seems as though I’m not writing, I am actually writing – everyday.

When I first started writing, I read every book I could find on how to write. Most books on writing are little more than those motivational speakers that corporate CEO’s hire to try to increase productivity in their employees. They say things like “just write,” and “anyone with a pen can write.” And then there’s the practical advice like “show don’t tell.” While all of these statements are true, it’s too abstract to someone who has never written before. I   remember wondering what the heck “show don’t tell” meant. I had no clue how to do that. Aren’t you supposed to “tell” a story? I didn’t need a cheerleader, I needed a tutor.

Every once in a while, I’d find a small nugget of information that would actually help me. One such nugget was the suggestion that the prospective writer, sit in a room and, in their head, describe their surroundings. Of course I started out with green curtains and beige walls, but that was pretty boring. Over time my descriptions became more detailed and creative until I was trying to describe how the sunlight shining through the window was like a stage light on tiny dust dancers as they pirouetted through the air. It was great practice, and I did it every chance I could.

Driving to work on a foggy day, I’d see the fog as a cold dark creature, clawing at the earth, trying to hold on and fend off the approaching sunrise. I saw the rain as tears washing away the sorrow of loss.

At first I would rush to write down my thoughts, but this broke the spell, and everything that had been on the tip of my tongue one moment, would vanish. Now I realize that Allen Ginsberg’s motto “first thought, best thought” is accurate. The thought is good, but not necessarily the exact words. So now I just let the words flow through my mind. When the time comes that I need to describe fog, or rain in a story, I can think back to that moment and the feelings that the event evoked, and come up with even better words. Perhaps my character would see the fog with a sense of security, as a place to hide from terror, instead of a horrible creature.

It was just this morning, when I was reading a story that brought tears to my eyes, that I realized I still do this without even consciously thinking about it. I was fighting the tears, with that familiar burn in my eyes and lump in my throat. But that’s how everyone describes the feeling of struggling not to cry. So in my mind, I wrote. I wrote what I felt. It took a moment for me to recognize what I was doing. It made me smile. It turns out I never stopped writing after all.

Living in a Fairy Tale – Part 2

…now for the rest of the story. For those of you who are already lost, just go to the first part here: Part 1 then when you’re finished, you can read this post. This is a bit of a longer post, okay, it would be classified as a short story, but trust me, the ending is worth it!

So, this wasn’t just any old estate sale that my husband and I went to. Maybe I need to start at the beginning.

 

Once upon a time…well, just about!

This story started many years ago, somewhere around 15 years ago. I’d been shopping with a dear friend at Monches Farm, in Monches, Wisconsin. Monches is a small township straddling the border between Waukesha and Washington Counties. To the south is North Lake and Merton, to the North, Erin and Holy Hill. If you’ve never been to Monches Farm, I highly recommend it! It’s garden center/nursery combined with antique shop.

They had, sitting on their counter, a card for a B&B just up the road that served lunches. I took one of those cards, and it sat, pinned by a magnet to my refrigerator for over a year. Finally one day, I called that same friend and asked if she wanted to try the place. It was a little different than your usual restaurant. There was no menu to choose from. You would be served whatever they made that day, with ingredients fresh from the garden. The timed reservations were very specific, they had limited space. The meal was a set price, which if I remember, at the time was only $7.00 per person.

 

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From the front entrance we were guided into a bedroom/sitting room to the right of the foyer. The sun poured in through the large windows and door that opened onto a second story porch. We were served a non-alcoholic aperitif in antique glasses. I’m pretty sure it was white grape juice and ginger ale, but the light, sparkly beverage was perfect. There were two other women seated in the room with us, and we all talked about how lovely the inn was, and how nice it would be to stay there.

Once our table was ready, we were led through the foyer into an open room graced by a huge fireplace. Our table was alongside the wall opposite the fireplace, next to more large windows overlooking a pond. From where we were seated we could also see out to a rustic outdoor porch. We had mentioned to each other that although the room we were in was beautiful, we would have liked to sit out on the porch. I have since learned that the porch in question has acquired the name “The Forbidden Porch” because all the lunch guests wanted to sit out there, but none were allowed.

The first course was a salad, followed by soup. I can’t remember what soup we were served, but I do remember that we enjoyed it. The main course was an herb quiche that I later tried to reproduce because I liked it so much. There were fresh baked rolls and, for a beverage, we had Russian Spiced Tea over ice. I had been making this same spiced tea mix as gifts for years. Dessert was a homemade lemon sorbet.

After lunch, the gracious server encouraged us to explore the grounds. There was a picnic table and a canoe along the shoreline of the pond. We walked brick pathways through the gardens. We wandered past the tennis court and peeked into the barn, which actually had a romantic rustic bedroom set up in one end.

 

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“Wouldn’t this be an amazing place to live?” We absolutely loved it and vowed to come back.

But life got busy. I kept that creased card, that I had picked up at the nursery, clipped to my refrigerator for years. It moved from refrigerator to refrigerator, as we moved. Truth be told, I think the card finally got tossed in this last move. I figured if I ever got the chance to go back, I could look them up on the internet.

And I did – just last year. When I was planning on taking time off to finish writing a book, I considered finding a room in a B&B. Sometimes my family doesn’t understand that even though I’m home, I’m really at work. I was disappointed when I couldn’t find a website.

Fast forward to this June. I was getting ready for work when my husband, Jim, who was looking at available properties for work on the internet, called out to me. “Hey, didn’t you and Marlys eat at the Monches Mill House once?”

“Yes, and it was wonderful!” I replied.

“It’s for sale,” he said, “and at affordable price.”

I ran into the living room, still dripping from the shower, to look at the pictures over his shoulder. It hadn’t changed. I pointed out the room we first sat in, and the room we had lunch in. “Buy it for me!” I squealed.

I was serious with my request, yet didn’t think he’d really consider it. We had just bought the house we’re in two years ago. I asked if we could go in and get a look at it anyway. So he called our real estate agent, and friend, and set up an appointment.

The first time we went through, I went with a vision of the property I’d seen years earlier. In reality, it hasn’t changed all that much, although time has had it’s effect. I realized just how big the property was, and although I loved it, wasn’t sure I wanted to take on such a large project at this stage in my life.

The next day, as my husband and I talked about it, it was clear he was hooked, and I quickly followed. We talked, and we talked some more. In the end, we knew we’d always wanted an old house. Usually old houses come with a list of negatives that aren’t things that can be changed. They are generally located on busier roads, or their floor plans are totally dysfunctional. Either they’ve been updated poorly, loosing their original charm, or they are in such bad condition the task seems insurmountable. If they have been updated correctly, the price tag is through the roof, and there is nothing left to do.

This house is in a quiet town, right where we wanted to be. We lived most of our adult lives in the Merton area and were hoping to eventually get back there. The house is original – every bit of charm still intact. It needs work, but isn’t ready to fall down. It’s sitting on 2 acres, with gardens, a barn, gazebo and tennis court and is situated next to a mill pond. Even the floor plan is great. If we didn’t try for this old house, then there would be no old house – ever.

So we decided to go for a second showing with the intention of putting an offer on the house. Just  before the showing we found out that the owners had just accepted another offer. We went anyway. After we looked at the house a second time, Jim started to look into financing hoping that we could put in a better offer. The bank wasn’t as in love as we were. It seemed it was not to be.

We put the house out of our minds the best we could and continued working on our current house. Then one day, Jim drove past the house on the way back from a job site. The shortest path between where he was and where he was heading, led him right past the Mill House. I still remember the excitement evident in his voice over the phone. “You’re not going to believe this, they dropped the price!”

We figured that the offer they currently had, must not have been that good of one, if they were lowering the price while under contract. We called and set up a third showing. This time we secured  financing before we went. It turned out that the first offer was contingent on a sold subject. In other words, the buyers had a house to sell before they could finance and close on the Mill House. There is a bump clause in the contract, so if the seller accepted our offer (without that contingency) the other buyers would have 72 hours to drop their contingencies and go to closing. We offered cash, no contingencies other than a septic inspection.

Again, just before the showing, we got bad news. We found out that the first buyers had just gotten an offer on their house. We weren’t completely defeated, they would still have to feel confident enough in their offer to drop the contingencies on the Mill House purchase.

Our offer never made it that far. The sellers had developed a bond with the first buyers and wanted to give them a chance. We were rejected.

By this time we had been trying for this house for three months. It was time to give up. Jim started looking at properties, but I couldn’t even consider them. I told him that until the house was absolutely sold, I couldn’t commit to anything else. “It isn’t over, until it’s over,” I told him.

Jim drove by the house several times, once seeing the vehicle of the potential new owners – no doubt there to take measurements for renovations.

September arrived and I receive an e-mail from the same nursery that started all of this, that the Monches Mill House was having an estate sale. It felt like the last shredded strand of hope was gone, there was nothing left to hold onto. If they were selling all the furnishings, they must not need to keep the house staged. The deal must be going through.

I wavered back and forth. I wanted to go to the sale – the house was filled with gorgeous antiques, but I knew it’d be a stab wound to my heart. Then again, maybe I needed to say goodbye to the house, and the dream. My husband made me promise not to pout while we were there.

 

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The estate sale was amazing and we bought quite a few items, including some larger pieces, necessitating several trips. I was moping a bit during one of the trips. Jim tried to tell me that I needed to get over it. I told him, “You never know, the sale might still fall through.”

When we returned one of the sellers, who is the daughter of the woman who ran the inn, helped us to load our vehicle. She asked if we were antique dealers since we had purchased big items, and we told her we just loved antiques and the history behind them. We told her we didn’t even have a place for the 1800’s highboy dresser we bought. I would need to decide what piece of furniture to get rid of to fit it in.

The woman said she hoped we’d find a spot for everything. I replied that we just needed to find an old house to put it all in. She said, “There’s plenty of old houses out there.”

That’s when I broke my promise. “I really wanted this one,” I answered … with a pout.

“Did you hear? Our offer fell through,” she said.

I’m pretty sure there was dirt clinging to my chin after my jaw hit the ground – hard. The first question that popped into my head was, “Why didn’t your real estate agent call our real estate agent?” What came out of my mouth was “OH MY GOD!” Then I said, “We were the people with the cash offer.”

Now that the first buyers were out of the picture, I figured we could go back to resubmitting the offer that we’d submitted earlier.

What I got in reply was a stutter and a puzzled look. I turned to my husband who had returned from the other side of our car. He had been standing there, listening to our conversation. What I didn’t know at the moment, was he was holding his finger up to his lips, cutting off the seller from saying anything more. Finally in the awkward confusion, he just shrugged and said, “My wife doesn’t know anything.” Then he said, “We’re the people with the above asking price offer on the table now.”

“WHAT???”

My husband had submitted a second, higher price offer without telling me. By total coincidence, he put the offer in just hours after they had found out the first buyer’s offer was in question.

I gasped, I laughed, I cried.

We were introduced to the other two sisters, and various family, and friends. We hung out at the estate sale for two days. We felt as though we’d been adopted. The sisters even gave me a bowl that their mother had hand painted because, “they wanted me to have it.”

It turns out I look just like their mother, and their aunt’s name was Dody. It seemed like it was all meant to be.

Ha! It may have been meant to be, but that doesn’t mean it got any easier. It took another month of wrangling with lawyers and the county about easements and driveways, and the first buyers were still technically under contract even though the offer on their own house had fallen through – but it’s finally happened. On October 2nd we got verbal notification, and on October 4, 2013 we received the paperwork, our offer was accepted! We still have a septic inspection and the closing to get to, but barring any major calamity we hope to start renovations by the end of the month.

So in the end, we went to the estate sale, and bought the estate!

 

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Living in a Fairy Tale

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Although this blog is intended to be related to my writing, in the end, everything that happens in my life is related to my writing.  That couldn’t be more true than this weekend. It was a fabulous weekend, almost like a fairy tale.

Summer is waning and there is the nip of autumn in the air. I love this time of year. Autumn is especially nice in the country. It draws up images of pumpkins and scare crows, hay bales and country barns framed in russet leaves.

I grew up in the city, and although my husband and I have spent all our child raising years in the suburbs, pretty far out in the suburbs, I wouldn’t say we lived in the country. This weekend, we got a real taste of country life.

On Friday, we went to an estate sale at a 171 year old house, which is unquestionably out in the country.  Where as I’ve had a variety of stores within a short distance of anywhere I’ve lived, this township has no store. The nearest one is in a neighboring town almost ten miles away along a winding country road.

Despite the previous chilly night, the sun came out and the day was warm. The estate sale was incredible. There were tents covering tables of smaller items, and a barn full of furniture. There were people everywhere. It almost seemed like a competition, people racing to tag something before anyone else did. The items for sale were of high quality, and priced to sell. We had to take two trips to bring home all our purchases, even though we drive an SUV.

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Among our treasures is an 1800’s Chippendale highboy dresser, a wicker chair, a fireplace screen, an antique folk art table, a huge oriental rug, an antique handwoven wool rug and a 3 quart Le Crueset Gratin that was priced at only $5.00.  For those who don’t cook, or don’t know Le Crueset – trust me, that was the deal of a lifetime. For those of you who do understand –  take some slow, deep breaths –  and please don’t hate me.

Saturday morning, the sun returned, chasing away the morning chill. I started my day by hitting the local farmer’s market. There was everything from brightly colored vegetables, to fresh baked bread, to golden honey from local bees, and buckets overflowing with sunflowers. From there I went to a house just out of town from where I live. The woman who lives there raises chickens, and I was hoping for some fresh eggs for breakfast. Luckily she had just collected a dozen. You can’t get any fresher than that.

My husband and I were going to be having dinner at another couple’s home that night, and I still needed to make a dessert.  My “egg” lady also happens to have several apple trees. I asked her if she ever sells her apples. She said she just didn’t have the time to bag them and sell them. Then she said, if I  wanted some, I could pick as many as I’d like, no charge. She also pointed out which tree had the best apples and assured me that she didn’t use any pesticides, but I wouldn’t find any worms in her apples – she  sprays them with mineral oil. She also said that the apple tree I was picking from was called a Wolf River apple, and that the semi-dwarf variety isn’t available anymore, so if I wanted to, I could save some seeds and plant trees of my own. I took a grocery bag, and picked enough apples to fill it.

I made it home just as my family was waking up. I whipped together a breakfast of fluffy ham and cheese omelettes, bacon, toast with jam, coffee and orange juice. Then I went to work on my dessert. My egg (and now apple) lady was right, the apples were huge –  almost a pound each, and not a bug or worm in sight.

 

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I threw together an apple crisp – nothing is easier than apple crisp. I didn’t even follow a recipe, but I can share my non-recipe with you.

 

Apple Crisp

4-5 lbs. of apples,peeled, cored, and  cut into chunks (this is a guess, I just filed the pan – the $5.00 Le Crueset one.)

juice of half a lemon

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla

Toss together and place in ungreased 9 x 13 pan or 3 quart casserole .

In another bowl mix together:

2 cups old fashioned oats

1 1/2  cup flour

1 1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

2 sticks butter, melted

Spread over the top of the apples.

Bake at 400 degrees (Fahrenheit) for one hour.

Serve warm with ice cream.

 

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While my crisp was baking, my husband and I went back to the estate sale, this time joined by our best friends. By this time the family running the sale knew us. They shared the stories behind each item we picked out. They told us how the antique chamber pot I purchased was used by their grandmother, when she was a little girl, and how their mother hand painted the folk design in  a wooden bowl that will be displayed with honor in my home. To those items we added an antique candle stand, a lamp, two ladder back chairs, a federal style mirror, a Victorian boot jack, and a shabby chic metal menu board.

Before we left, our attention was drawn to the water’s edge where a man in a pumpkin boat was making his way down the river. I don’t mean a boat that looked like a pumpkin. He was sitting in a ginormous carved out pumpkin, with a trolling motor mounted on the back. He was also paddling. I can’t imagine a pumpkin is very easy to steer.  The bridge over the river was crowded with people, cheering the pumpkin captain along. Then, like something out of a movie,we heard the clip clop of horses hooves. Along came a carriage full of people, lead by two beautiful black horses.

 

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It seemed like the tiny township was putting on a show, just for us.

We finally said goodbye to our friends, both old and new, and tore ourselves away. We had to get ready to go to dinner with our other friends.

 

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Drinks on the patio, a delicious dinner of prime rib, and relaxed conversation made for a very enjoyable evening and a great end to the day. The dessert was a hit, and the crisp looked so pretty in my $5.00 Le Crueset pan. Yes, I’m gloating!

 

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Sunday morning  was cold and rainy, but we didn’t let that dampen our weekend. I made a large batch of Tex Mex chili topped with sour cream, cheddar cheese, and onions. We drank apple cider, and made a second batch of that yummy apple crisp – and yes, I did save the seeds. I just might plant myself an apple tree or two. Maybe this “country” weekend is the start of something. I kind of like this country girl thing. I do believe that this fairy tale  isn’t over yet. It’s very much a case of –

to be continued…

 

 

Have you seen the Muffin Man?

 

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The number one rule of writing is, write what you know. Since the first novella I published is told from the point of view of a male retired cop, I guess I must be a rule breaker. I’m a curious person by nature, which is probably why I love the research that goes with writing something I don’t know. It makes telling the story more interesting when I can share some little nugget I learn with my readers.

I’m so curious that any mundane activity has the ability to get me to run to my computer to look something up. I do love the internet.

One morning I was making myself breakfast. I was just popping an English muffin into the toaster, when I started to wonder about the hole-filled breakfast food. Is the English muffin really English? Is it related to the crumpet? How did it come about? As soon as I could lick my fingers clean, I was on my laptop giving Google a work out.

The first article I found said the English muffin was indeed English. In Victorian times it was a food created from leftover bread and biscuit dough scraps along with mashed potatoes. The batter was poured on a hot griddle, creating light, crusty muffins for the servants. When the well-to-do upstairs discovered the tasty treat, it became a popular pastry, especially during tea time. It became so popular, that English muffin factories began to pop-up and men carrying the baked good to sell on wooden trays could be seen walking the streets. This is what the song “Do you know the muffin man…” refers to.

So I was slightly confused when the next link I clicked on claimed that the English muffin was not English, but an American invention. It turns out that the credit is given to Samuel Bath Thomas who immigrated from England in 1874. Thomas, who worked in a bread bakery, opened his own bakery in 1880, It was there that he took his knowledge and created the modern day, Americanized English muffin. It is a Thomas brand English muffin that started me on this quest. Thomas English muffins have since made their way back across the pond to Britain. Talk about full circle!

So, although the English muffin you buy in the store today was technically invented in America, it was done so by an Englishman who brought with him the knowledge and history of the muffin of Victorian England as well as the crumpet.

As for the crumpet, it is a very similar type biscuit credited to the Anglo Saxons, only it’s holes are on the outside, not the inside, so a crumpet is not split. Both are a griddle cake but unlike the English muffin the crumpet holes come from adding baking soda. Crumpets are made with milk, English muffins are not. The texture of a crumpet is spongier than the English muffin.

So here’s my conclusions based on what I learned. Crumpets were around forever. The British upper class favored them. The poor servants were hungry and invented their own version out of the bread dough scraps they could get from the kitchen. The aristocrats, not wanting the servants to have something they didn’t, started eating their “muffins.” Mr. Thomas, a baker from England, came over to America. He saw that we didn’t have anything similar, so he decided to take what he knew about making crumpets and muffins and invented the modern day English muffin that can be heated in a toaster.

I say the English muffin is indeed English. Just because I may put slightly different ingredients in my version of spaghetti sauce doesn’t mean that spaghetti sauce is American and not Italian. When we say a food is Italian, or Mexican, or English, we are talking about it’s origin, not just of a particular recipe, but of the food itself. It seems to me that what we call an English muffin today is just the progression any recipe goes through. Thomas did name his product an English muffin for a reason after all. Regardless of how it came to be, I can’t deny that those crags and crevices filled with melted butter and jam taste terrific!

Now for the french fry…not French at all. The french fry originated in Belgium, but that’s for another day.

 

Having a Drink with Hemingway

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Last night I went to Shaker’s Cigar Bar in Milwaukee. The bar, once a speakeasy and brothel, built over the site of a cemetery, is said to be haunted. They have discovered quite a few spirits. There is eleven year old Elizabeth, thought to be pictured below, who broke her neck in a fall from a tree when it was a cemetery in the 1800’s  (ladies, be careful – she’s known to haunt the woman’s restroom).

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There are two ghosts of unnamed women who worked the brothel and committed suicide on the property, and one of Molly Brennan, a woman of the night who was murdered by her lover. With two murder victims buried in the basement, and an unknown number of bodies that were not moved when the building was constructed over the cemetery, there are plenty of restless spirits roaming the property.

The building was also once owned by Al Capone. He even left behind a safe. The current owner has elected not to break into said safe. Probably a good idea, just ask Geraldo Rivera.

 

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Any of you who know me, know this is right up my alley. Just check out my other blog posts “Spiritual Journey” and “Life Imitates Art, Art Imitates Life, Life After Death“. I am not a skeptic when it comes to ghosts and the spirit world. Despite my desire to meet someone from the other side, we did not have any supernatural experiences while on the tour. As the tour guide will tell you, ghosts don’t perform on command. The history and architecture alone were interesting and worth the ticket price.

Another attraction of the bar are their cocktails featuring, the once illegal, absinthe.  For those of you who don’t know what absinthe is, it’s a liquor made from anise, fennel, and wormwood. Once called the “Green Fairy,” it was first produced in Switzerland in the late 18th century.  It became very popular in Switzerland, France and the United States, especially in the early 1900’s. Unfortunately for absinthe, it got a bad rap. There is a chemical in wormwood called thujone, that is not only poisonous, but thought (at the time) to be a hallucinogen. It’s no wonder that J.K. Rowling made one of the main ingredients in her Draught of the Living Death potion.

Of course, serving hallucinogenic alcohol to the customers, has nothing to do with anyone possibly seeing ghosts on the tour!

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During it’s heyday, absinthe became the drink of the creative crowd; the writers and the artists. French poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud were absinthe drinkers. So were artists  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, and Vincent Van Gogh. The authors that favored the licorice flavored beverage included Oscar Wilde, Alfred Jarry, and Ernest Hemingway. These are just a few of the artistic minded that preferred to partake in absinthe.

Hemingway loved absinthe and even created his own cocktail. He mixed absinthe with champagne and called it “Death in the Afternoon” after his book of the same name.

I have to admit, I have yet to  read Hemingway. I know…  his books are Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning classics, but I was initially turned off by the idea of over 100 pages of an old man sitting in a boat. That being said, his books are on my list of books to read, but I have a lot on that list, and I’m still in the midst of the entire works of Charles Dickens. Sometimes I feel like Henry Bemis in the Twilight Episode Time Enough at Last.”

“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock”

I can understand Mr. Bemis – so many books, so little time! So Hemingway, along with many other greats, are on the ever increasing, impossible to complete, “to read” list.

Regardless of the fact that I cannot call myself a fan of Hemingway, as an author, the man is an icon. So I raised a silent toast to his creativity and success (and secretly hoped his spirit would bestow just a bit of it on me) as I sipped on a glass of the cocktail he created. I do hope I enjoy his books more than I did his cocktail.  Just a note, I did try a sip of absinthe served the more traditional way, with water and a sugar cube. I found that to be much more palatable than Hemingway’s drink.

Unfortunately Hemingway, along with absinthe, met a tragic demise. Hemingway committed suicide, and absinthe was made illegal. It was blamed for crimes, immoral behavior, and murder.

Here is a quote from Oscar Wilde on the effects of absinthe.

“After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were. After the second you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world. I mean disassociated. Take a top hat. You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t because you associate it with other things and ideas.If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you’d be frightened, or you’d laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad. Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust.The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses, sprang up, and made a garden in the cafe. “Don’t you see them?” I said to him. “Mais non, monsieur, il n’y a rien.”

Now absinthe is back. Yes, thujone is poisonous, but you cannot consume enough absinthe to reach toxic levels without first dying of alcohol poisoning and the new liquor contains less thujone than the early versions. As to it’s hallucinogenic properties –  despite Van Gogh and Hemingway’s known mental instability, and regardless of Oscar Wilde’s tulips, it is not proven that it has any hallucinogenic effects at all.  I certainly didn’t see any ghosts after imbibing  my “Death in the Afternoon” cocktail.

Absinthe is not all innocent though. It has a very high alcohol content (110 to 144 proof) which may have enhanced  the genius and creativity of those who used it , but also, most certainly, aided in their eventual deaths.  Besides Hemingway and Van Gogh’s suicides; Wilde, Lautrec, and the other artists I listed, (with the exception of  Rimbaud who died fairly young of bone cancer) all suffered from poor health that was attributed at least in part, if not completely, on drug and alcohol addiction. So although absinthe is  not the creator of visions that drove men to kill, it still had the ability to kill. To be honest it still does, but only as much as any other alcoholic beverage. One only needs to practice moderation, as with anything else to avoid it’s curse. At Shaker’s there is a three absinthe drink limit for any customer on any given evening.

As for me, I’m glad I tried it, but I think I’ll just have to find my creativity on my own. I may not win a Pulitzer, or recreate the magic of a starry night, but I may live long enough to enjoy the things I do create.

Besides, I want to remember, in vivid detail, any ghost sightings I may have, and not wonder if it was just a hallucination! And if the ghost of Hemingway himself ever visits me? I will thank him for a pleasant evening, sharing his drink, even if it wasn’t to my taste.

 

 

 

 

 

Road Trip Day 12 and 13

This is the last leg of our journey across the U.S.  We left Tunica, Mississippi, drove back through Tennessee, and north into Missouri. We only had one stop planned for this state – The Gateway Arch which is the centerpiece to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

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I had a feeling of nostalgia when we arrived. I’d been here once before. I was only two years old, but I have a distinct memory of my father holding me in his arms and showing me the newly built arch. I also remember that we couldn’t go up in the arch because it wasn’t actually finished. I was interested to find out if this memory was correct. It turned out it was. The arch was completed in 1965, but  was not open to the public until the tram that takes visitors up the arch was installed in 1967. I would have visited in 1966.

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I wasn’t the only one who had been here before. Charles Dickens  visited St. Louis in 1842. The Gateway Arch a memorial to the westward expansion of our nation. It’s where Lewis and Clark started their expedition in 1804 to explore and map the west. To Mr. Dickens, St. Louis was the west.

Here are some of Dickens’ own words about St. Louis.

“In the old French portion of the town the thoroughfares are narrow and crooked, and some of the houses are very quaint and picturesque: being built of wood, with tumble-down galleries before the windows, approachable by stairs, or rather ladders, from the street. There are queer little barbers’ shops, and drinking-houses too, in this quarter; and abundance of crazy old tenements with blinking casements, such as may be seen in Flanders. Some of these ancient habitations, with high garret gable windows perking into the roofs, have a kind of French shrug about them; and, being lop-sided with age, appear to hold their heads askew besides, as if they were grimacing in astonishment at the American Improvements.”

During his stay, Mr. Dickens went on a jaunt to see the prairie (Looking Glass Prairie in Illinois, but in the end was anything but impressed.

“It would be difficult to say why, or how—though it was possibly from having heard and read so much about it—but the effect on me was disappointment.  Looking towards the setting sun, there lay, stretched out before my view, a vast expanse of level ground; unbroken, save by one thin line of trees, which scarcely amounted to a scratch upon the great blank; until it met the glowing sky, wherein it seemed to dip: mingling with its rich colours, and mellowing in its distant blue.  There it lay, a tranquil sea or lake without water, if such a simile be admissible, with the day going down upon it: a few birds wheeling here and there: and solitude and silence reigning paramount around.  But the grass was not yet high; there were bare black patches on the ground; and the few wild flowers that the eye could see, were poor and scanty.  Great as the picture was, its very flatness and extent, which left nothing to the imagination, tamed it down and cramped its interest.  I felt little of that sense of freedom and exhilaration which a Scottish heath inspires, or even our English downs awaken.  It was lonely and wild, but oppressive in its barren monotony.  I felt that in traversing the Prairies, I could never abandon myself to the scene, forgetful of all else; as I should do instinctively, were the heather underneath my feet, or an iron-bound coast beyond; but should often glance towards the distant and frequently-receding line of the horizon, and wish it gained and passed.  It is not a scene to be forgotten, but it is scarcely one, I think (at all events, as I saw it), to remember with much pleasure, or to covet the looking-on again, in after-life.”

Despite his disappointment in the area, Mr. Dickens had planned on visiting St. Louis again during his second trip to America in 1867/68, but poor health and weather prevented the excursion.

 

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So, I’ve brought Mr. Dickens to St. Louis now, and I have to wonder about how the area, that seemed rustic and uninspiring then. would amaze him now.

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Back to the Arch. It is a feat of engineering, and amazing to visit. The tram system is not for those who suffer from claustrophobia, and remind me of Star Trek style escape pods. The ride up is jerky as the pods need to travel in a stair step fashion to make it up the curve of the arch. Once at the top, the view is amazing.

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In lieu of the recent tornadoes in the area, we asked one of the guides about storms and how they affect visitors to the Arch. The gentleman told us that they only close the Arch if there is a tornado warning, although the streamline aerodynamics of the Arch means it really isn’t affected by them. Only steady, sustained winds affect the Arch giving it a sway of nine inches in either direction.  He told us that thunderstorms were fun to watch from up top and he had been up in the Arch during a lightning strike. Where as my friend was adamantly shaking her head no at that idea, I was thinking – cool! I just may have to plan a trip down there when thunderstorms are expected!

We were able to get a good look at the Mississippi River, now flooding it’s banks. At the bottom of the stairs there is a tree-lined sidewalk that is completely under water.

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The white rectangle in the center of the picture is actually the top of a tent that normally overlooks the river.

 

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After coming back down, we checked out the Lewis and Clark museum, and did some shopping. There is one store called the Levee Merchantile that features items that would be available circa 1870. I’m sure Mr. Dickens felt more comfortable here. I couldn’t resist picking up this feather quill. I also bought this Christmas cookbook – not for the vintage recipes, but because the cover looks so much like the cover of my book, Christmas Carole.

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Christmas Carole Cover Design kindle

Did I tell you it looked just like my book cover?

How crazy is that? Not only does it look similar but there’s a quill on my cover and Charles Dickens within my pages!

Tomorrow we’re homeward bound.

Road Trip Day 10 and 11

Day 10 was a all day driving day. From Albuquerque we had driven to Amarillo, Texas for the night. From there we drove through the rest of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, finally spending the night in Tunica, Mississippi. Although we thought that this long leg across the panhandle of Texas and Oklahoma were going to be flat and boring, it turned out it was hilly and tree-lined. We could have been convinced we were back in Wisconsin.

Our only order of business once we arrived was to eat, maybe do a little gambling, and get some sleep. We ate at Paula Deen’s Buffet at Harrah’s Casino. We all agree it had to be the best buffet any of us have ever eaten at. But after eating grilled oysters, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried green tomatoes, cheesy grits, cheesy biscuits, and hoe cakes (just to name a few of the selections) I had worse indigestion than when I ate the spicy food in Albuquerque! It was worth it though.

We gambled a little (and actually won a little) then crashed for the night.

 

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Day 11 started with breakfast and a drive across the river into Memphis, Tennessee. Our first stop –  Graceland.

It’s funny how one can have false perceptions of the places they have never been. First, Graceland is tucked tightly into a pretty depressed neighborhood. In fact, if it weren’t for the iconic gates, and 101 large signs, you could drive right past it. It does have over 13 acres, but from the front entrance, that’s not obvious.

The Graceland Mansion, is certainly large, but by today’s standards, the rooms are small. One must also remember that Elvis lived in this home from 1957 until 1977, which leaves the decorating … let’s just say, if it wasn’t the home of the King, and it was just a house, almost any new owner would start gutting and updating the interior. But it IS the home of Elvis, so it’s unusual, outdated decor takes on a whole new meaning, and we couldn’t help but wander through it with a sense of awe.

 

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I think Charles Dickens would have liked Elvis. In a way they had quite a few similarities.

Elvis, like Charles, came from poor beginnings. Vernon Presley, like John Dickens, wandered from job to job, without ambition. Both fathers spent time in jail.

This affected both Elvis and Charles Dickens, compelling them to do better. Both men were quirky and enjoyed music and entertaining. Both were driven in their careers. Mr. Dickens and Elvis  were both a bit obsessive compulsive, and both would rearrange hotel rooms to suit their obsessive needs.

Both worried about the success of their careers, pushing themselves to the point of poor health.

Although cast in singing roles in movies, Elvis, like Charles Dickens wanted to be taken seriously as an actor.

Just like Mr. Dickens, when sales started to fall,  Elvis  decided to do something to boost his career. In Dickens case it was a Christmas book, for Elvis it was a Christmas television special.

Finally, despite failing health, and those around them imploring that they take a break, both men insisted on pushing themselves to embark on a tour of live performances, which inevitably added to the stresses that eventually ended their lives.

So, although time and culture made them very different people (I can’t imagine how Elvis’ gyrating hips would have caused an uproar in Victorian England) in essence they were in many ways the same.

Back to Graceland. Here are a few pictures from inside the mansion.

 

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This first picture is the living room.

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This is the kitchen, as I mentioned, not overly large by today’s standards of enormous granite-covered islands and restaurant sized stoves.

 

 

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The ever famous “Jungle Room.”

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This is the last piano that Elvis ever played. He performed “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” for his cousin, Billy Smith and Billy’s wife, Jo just hours before his death.

 

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The resting place of “The King” is in his meditation garden, alongside his mother, father, and grandmother. There is also a memorial plaque for his twin brother, Jesse, who was stillborn. I’ve since found out that just one week before our visit, Sir Paul McCartney was here and left a guitar pick on Elvis’ grave.

 

After departing Graceland, we made another pilgrimage of sorts. We live in the Waukesha, Wisconsin area and are very proud to be the home of Les Paul, as well as the site of Gibson Guitar Town for the second year running (only Waukesha and Los Angeles have ever had that privilege). So we couldn’t go to Memphis and not stop in at the Gibson factory.

 

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Although this plant is not the one that produces the Les Paul guitar, it was fascinating to see how each guitar is made individually, by hand. There are no stencils used –  all paint jobs are done free hand which means there are no two alike.

Also, they do not mass produce any guitars. They don’t start building a guitar until there is an order placed. Each guitar is meticulously inspected. If there is any flaw, even if it’s undetectable to the average person, the flaw is either repaired, or the guitar (even if it’s complete) is cut up on the band saw. There are no seconds.

 

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Our last stop of the day was Beale Street. On the way, we drove past the famous Sun Records, where Elvis got his start.

 

Beale Street, for those who don’t know, is a street that is known as the home of the Memphis Blues. It has been frequented by blues legends such as Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and Roscoe Gordon, to name a few.

It  now has the distinction of having another famous visitor! I have to believe that Mr. Dickens would have enjoyed the intensity of the place and the liveliness of the people here.

 

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We arrived just as a parade, or so we thought, was making it’s way down the street. A gentleman, overhearing us wonder out loud as to what the occasion was, told us it was the funeral procession for Silky O’Sullivan, a well loved and respected club owner. We just happened to be standing next to his club.

 

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When Beale Street says farewell to one of it’s own, it’s anything but a somber affair. What we were lucky enough to stumble upon was a celebration of  life – Mardi Gras style!

Beale Street is filled with music, food, and an energy that is tangible.

The smell of BBQ is enough to make your nose twitch and your mouth water. The soul-filled riffs of street musicians fill your ears. The spirit and vitality of the people and the place fill your soul. Beale Street was  not created by someone to be a tourist attraction. As my husband said – what’s so great, and feels so special about Beale Street is that this place is real.

Of course we had to sample the flavors of Beale Street and sat down to eat  a platter filled with barbecue ribs, smoked chicken, pulled pork, beans, coleslaw and onion rings at “The Pig”. It was a beautiful sunny day, so we sat outside where we could hear live blues being played right across the street. DSC00355a

After stuffing ourselves, we wandered up and down the street, browsing the shops. Of course we had to stop in at Schwab’s which is a Beale Street mainstay. The general store is the only remaining original business on Beale Street.

Established in 1876, the store has never lost it’s charm. We strolled the creaky wood floors and stairs to check out all of it’s quirky merchandise. I purchased two small charm bags, one for creativity, and one for success, from the Hoodoo section of the store. When on Beale Street, it can’t be wrong to buy myself some good juju!

Our last stop, was to get some fresh beignets . When I say fresh, I mean fresh! We watched as just enough dough for our order was made from scratch. Skilled fingers mixed, then kneaded the dough. Hot from the fryer and dusted in powdered sugar, they were the perfect finish to our visit to Beale Street!

 

Road Trip Day 9

On to Albuquerque. I must confess, this trip has been immensely educational. Not only am I learning about the history and stories of the places we visit, but I now can spell Albuquerque!

We arrived in Albuquerque late in the day, tired and hungry. Of many of the places we’d planned to stop along the way, we hadn’t done much research on what there was to see, and really only thought of it as a stopping point to spend the night. Sometimes it’s nothing more than how tired we are and how many miles before the next hotel – and in the western plains, it can be MANY miles before the next town, much less one that has a hotel.

We’d found a hotel on the iPad while in the car, and called to book a couple of rooms. We asked the person on the phone for a good place to eat. We always ask for a restaurant that will provide an authentic taste of the region. We were given three recommendations, and decided to stop at Church Street Cafe. We were so happy we went there. The atmosphere was fantastic. as was the food.

The restaurant is in Casa de Ruiz. The house was built during the founding of Albuquerque in the early 1700’s, which makes Casa de Ruiz the oldest residence in Albuquerque and one of the oldest structures in the state of New Mexico.

Unfortunately, I took some pictures of the courtyard we dined in, but I used my phone and had obviously (by the resulting blurry pictures) touched the lens with my enchilada covered fingers. Here is a link to their website: Church Street Cafe.

This is a picture which I found online. I’d give credit to the photographer, but it only came up as “unknown Google User.” This picture looks like it was taken from the table in which we were seated.

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We arrived just as the sun was setting, and day was giving way to night. The courtyard was just the right size to feel cozy, and there was a comfortable breeze.  The building and courtyard had adobe walls, with a rustic timber pergola over a portion. Plants and southwest antiques were perched here and there. As the daylight dimmed, strings of lights overhead gave just the right glow. The sound of water tumbling gently over a stone waterfall eased our road-weary minds. A mariachi band strolled between the tables.

The food was spicy, and the cause for many a pit stop for the next few days on our road trip, but it was delicious! I had a combination platter which had a chicken enchilada,  a tamale, and a chili releno. I chose the squash (sauteed zucchini and corn) to accompany it. The meal was finished off with warm sopaipillas with honey. Although the food sounds like any Mexican fare,  the dishes of New Mexico have a slightly different flavor, and a different type of spiciness to it.

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After spending that little time in Old Town. We decided to shift our plans a bit. Instead of leaving first thing in the morning. We decided to hang around a bit and check out the many shops.

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Old Town, is exactly what it says. It is the old town of what now is Albuquerque. It is comprised of historic adobe buildings that were built when Albuquerque was founded in the early 1700s. The buildings have been converted to restaurants and shops and surround a main central plaza.  The oldest building is San Felipe de Neri Church. We spent half a day wandering through the shops before it was time to get back on the road.

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On the way out of town we found a great roadside store. My husband and I had been looking for the perfect chiminea for our patio. We found a New Mexico version of Pots ‘R Us. Not only did we find the perfect chiminea, but we also picked up some beautiful Talavera pots.

We were all pleasantly surprised with Albuquerque, and glad we stayed, even if it was only for a little while.