Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Travels with Dad: Cliff at the Cliffs

Lovely weather, but windy and cold on the cliffs!
My Dad's name is Cliff. So a stop at the Cliffs of Moher was certainly in order while we were in Ireland.

Now Dad doesn't get around so well, anymore. He can walk with a cane for balance just about the length of a parking lot to a sanctuary without getting too winded, but beyond that, he can only go for very short distances without stopping for a breather. Which is why we have rented a wheelchair for us to use when we stop at a tourist attraction that requires a lot of walking.

The Cliffs of Moher require, as you might guess from the background of that top picture, a LOT of walking. I will give the people who lead, plan, and manage the attraction big marks for making it as handicap-friendly as possible. What they have not managed so well is the placement of the wheelchair ramps. Specifically the steep angles at which they rise and decline. To use a wheelchair at the Cliffs of Moher you either have to rent two strapping young lads to power the thing, or be pushing a hamster.

We did neither of those things, so our time at the Cliffs was not as extensive nor as enjoyable as it could have been. However, to be fair, I realize that this is nature right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and there's only so much terraforming possible to accommodate the tourists and maintain your environmental responsibility to the Cliffs' natural majesty. So Dad enjoyed what he could and, as you can see, he did get a pretty good look at things. We payed our respects to this wonderful piece of Irish geography, payed even more with a gaggle of souvenirs at the gift shop, and took our leave. A few more pictures, as always, are at my Facebook Page.

LAHINCH

From the Cliffs, we made an all-too-brief stop at St. Brigid's Well, which is a sacred place of quiet contemplation in a cemetery behind a pub. Quite lovely and peaceful, really. I would have enjoyed it more had I not missed the turn and not seeing a place to turn around quickly, I stopped in the middle of the road, backed up, pulled forward, backed up, pulled forward, backed up, and finally was able to complete the turnaround. All under the watchful eyes of a lorry driver, who patiently put on his hazard lights for the motorists behind while he enjoyed the show. To be fair, there wasn't ANY traffic on the road when I began this foolhardy maneuver.

At any rate, we eventually found ourselves in Lahinch, where we met the daughter of my good friend Tim - Amy - and her toddler daughter Estlin. Because you can't go all the way to Ireland and not stop to see someone you know from back home.

I had known Amy as a young girl and had watched her grow up into a lovely, charming, and intelligent young woman. She eventually found herself living in Portland, Oregon, where she met the sister of her husband, Helen (who was here for a visit and kindly snapped this photo for us). It was through Helen that Amy and Vinnie met and their relationship blossomed into marriage and now Amy lives here in Ireland, in a nearby town, with Vinny and Estlin and they are making a happy home for themselves. By the way, Amy is one heck of a wordsmith herself and writes deeply and passionately about her life at her own blog - I Will Arise and Go Now. Recommended! And, by the way, the Cliffs of Moher are the background on her page.

ON TO COUNTY CORK

Then it was a nearly three-hour drive down winding Irish roads (with a gorgeously wide 20-minute divided highway segment) on to Cork and, more specifically, the "biggest little village in Ireland," Blarney.

One word to whomever it is that plans and signposts Irish roads. You do not need this sign:
That sign, which we see every few miles, is totally superfluous. This sign is, in essence, merely a drawing of the entirety of Irish roads. It is, you could say, the natural state of things here from inside a motor vehicle. What the Irish need - really need - is this sign:
Now *that* is a sign to inspire hope, stir the heart, and bring audible sighs of relief to any who sit behind the wheel of a car on the Emerald Isle. Traffic Engineers of Ireland - make it happen!

P.S. - No washcloths in our hotel room tonight. I'm starting to think it is the main difference between a four-star hotel and a five-star hotel.

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Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: Blarney Castle!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Travels with Dad: Connemara, Kylemore Abbey, and Car Trouble

Today we drove up into Connemara, which is west and northwest of Galway. Here we encountered the infamous roads of which we were warned. Narrow, winding this way and that, uneven, bumpy, no shoulder and always on alert for wayward sheep. BUT ... they were all well-paved!

And the drive was certainly worth it. We drove the road cut through the Twelve Bens (Pins) mountains. I suppose some might call them really large hills - the highest being 730 meters (about half a mile) - but the Irish call them mountains and who are we to argue? They are certainly gorgeous. Our hotel concierge told us he thought this was the prettiest part of Ireland and he wasn't far wrong.

At first it reminded us of Michigan's Upper Peninsula but by the end of the drive, we were into a section that reminded us more of a dry western part of the U.S. Everything was brown, lots of scrub grass, rocks, and sheep. They call them the Twelve Bens because there are a dozen mountains, rising to points, good hikes if you're into that sort of thing. And they were the reason the road was so dang windy and uneven, as the engineers simply cut in between and around the hills.

I must admit this driving from the other side of the car on the other side of the road carries with it a certain element of ... fun. It's just such a huge change in perspective that it's challenging and I find myself rising to the challenge each day. There is, however, also a very real element of ... terror. Serious, bone-gnawing anxiety. Not since I was 16 years old and behind the wheel of a car for the first time have I kept my hands at "10 and 2" so often for so long.

In Connemara, Dad and I found ourselves driving slow. As in, really, really slow. Not only was Pop wanting to snap photos often, but the nature of the roads kind of demanded you keep your foot on the brake as much as on the accelerator. And then those little fluffy roadside umm, "speed bumps" (see photo) would be lurking around the corner and force you to slow down. 

Our route was sign-posted at 100 kilometers per hour. That's about 63 m.p.h. Yeah, sorry. No. No. Way. Only a fool, madman, or the Irish would drive that fast on these roads. Today was, in my mind, known as "you show me a straight stretch of road, I'll show you a bunch of angry Irish motorists passing me."

KYLEMORE ABBEY

We were told that, for the most part, Abbeys fell into disuse as religious fervor waned and they were eventually purchased by a rich nobleman who turned the place into a castle. In this case, the reverse happened.

Mitchell Henry, an Englishman (whose family was from Cork so he always claimed Irish allegiances) would frequent Connemara and stay at Kylemore Lodge, a hunting cabin on Kylemore Lake. He fell in love with the area and when his father passed, he received a large inheritance and purchased 13,000 acres of land and built Kylemore Castle. 

He developed the land and invested heavily in economic reforms in the area, eventually becoming an M.P. (Member of Parliament) for Galway. The castle was finished in 1871. At the same time, he built a Victorian Walled Garden, the largest of its kind (6 acres) in Ireland. Just three years later, his wife died of dysentery while they were vacationing in Egypt. Deeply in love, Henry had the same architect that designed the castle build an accompanying Gothic Chapel in honor of his wife. Eventually, Henry went broke from losing money on his local investments and maintaining the property and sold it to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1903.

The Duchess was an American woman and her father, Eugene Zimmerman - a wealthy businessman - bought the place for them as her dowry. The Duke, however, was a gambler and in 1914 he lost the castle and grounds in a game of cards. A caretaker was installed and the property was eventually purchased in 1920 by the Catholic Church on behalf of an Irish arm of Benedictine Nuns, who have their own interesting back story. You can read more about that here by scrolling down just a little.

So that was how (and when) a castle become an Abbey. There are about 20 new photos up on my Facebook Page with more from the Glenlo Abbey, some views from Connemara, and Kylemore Abbey (with the Victorian Walled Garden).

CAR TROUBLE

On the way back to our *other* Abbey, suddenly a trouble light chimed and began flashing at me from the dashboard. We pulled off the road and yanked out the owner's manual to discover it was a "glow plug" (spark plug) issue, and we were advised to proceed immediately to the nearest repair facility.

Fortunately, we had just gone through Oughterard (about 15 minutes from Galway) and went back to a petrol station. They let us use their phone to call the rental company and get authorization for a garage to take a look at it. We were directed to a place just one block away where a fella named Gary Higgins took a hard look at things. If you're ever in trouble with a vehicle and near Oughterard ("oot-a-rard"), stop at the Esso Station and ask for Gary.

He checked. And checked. And fiddled with some things inside the engine. Checked again. Then took it for a drive. Later, my Dad explained something to me that made more sense of what Gary told me. Our car, you see, a Skoda Octavia, used a diesel engine. Dad informed me that diesel engines are "workhorses" and need to be driven hard.

What Gary said to me, after all this checking and a test drive, was, "It's not the glow plug. I think it's a sticky EGR valve. It just needs revs, yah?"

Revs. Revolutions. The engine needed to turn over faster. In other words, on these narrow winding Irish roads, I needed to be driving *faster.*

Ulp.

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Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: the Cliffs of Moher!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Travels with Dad: Rumors, Ruins, and the Road

Dad in his Ireland green.
Had to get a chuckle here yesterday. Dad had picked up a rumor online while doing his Ireland trip prep. He had read that visitors should bring their own washcloths, because the hotels in Ireland don't provide washcloths.

My response was, "Dad, we are staying in four- and five-star hotels, for goodness' sake! Of *course* they're going to have washcloths!" He said he'd pack a few, just in case.

Heritage Golf and Spa Resort? In County Laois? Five-star hotel with three restaurants, huge spa area, fantastic golf course, live music in the lobby as the guests registered and all evening, fireplace in a comfy lounge area off the lobby where guests could mingle and relax with a refreshing drink? Yeah, that place. In our room there was a gorgeously appointed, large bathroom with a separate large bathtub, large towel-drying rack, large fancy shower with glass doors, huge sink and counter with all the amenities ... and not a washcloth in sight. I am still getting the taste of crow out of my mouth. (And, by the way, the crows here are HUGE. I think they've been genetically modified.)

After saying goodbye to The Heritage, we made our way down into and through Portlaoise, and thought about stopping at the Methodist church in Mountmellick, which was just a lovely little town, but we were there about an hour after service started. It was Palm Sunday, after all, and we knew there'd be no time for a service on Easter, which is when we have to fly home. Then - thanks to our trusty GPS unit - we went looking for and found The Rock of Dunamase, also known as Dunamase Castle.


I've put up plenty more photos on my Facebook page, but here's a selfie as I climbed up and into the castle ruins. This is what's left standing of the Barbican Gate with the Main Gate in the background.

This fortification was built by Christians in the 800s and later pillaged by the Vikings, then taken over by the Normans, who held it for many years. Later it was forfeited to England, then eventually returned to the Irish O'Moore family, who essentially ignored the holdings and they were abandoned. You can read a bit more about it from the County Laois Council.

From there it was on to Galway, on Ireland's west coast, where we will spend the next two nights. Not being dead on my feet, it turns out, greatly improves my ability to drive a car, and we arrived safely (thanks, Garmin) without a single person honking at us. It probably helped that it was Palm Sunday afternoon, and you could count the number of cars on the road at any one time with two hands.

I must give a shout out to whomever is responsible for the condition of Irish roads. Every one we have been on (so far) - even the narrow, windy, country lanes where we traveled a bit when we missed our turn while getting to know the Garmin - have been in *excellent* condition. I think we've seen ONE pothole, and the roads and countryside have been immaculate. No litter. And not one. Single. Billboard. On the whole, the choice to drive has been a solid one and the beautiful thing is we can stop whenever we want, with no timetable or tour schedule to keep.

Full disclosure - I did train postal employees how to operate a right-hand drive vehicle and taught refresher driver training courses for almost 20 years with the Postal Service, so I am definitely seeing where that experience has given me an edge in driving here.

GLENLO ABBEY

When we arrived in Galway, our next hotel was the Glenlo Abbey Resort in Bushy Park, which could not have been more distinctly different in scope and feel than The Heritage. Where The Heritage felt nearly brand new, the Abbey is built on the grounds, site, and remains of a monastery created in the 1700s. Several of the rooms used in the 1700s were simply refurbished into a Business Centre, Library, and Lounge area.
A testament to the age of the Abbey - they still use real room keys!
Out behind the Abbey they have placed four antique railroad cars that have been remodeled into a diner. These railroad cars were once used on the Orient Express. And, of course, Ireland wouldn't be Ireland without the requisite golf course at the resort. All in all, it's lovely and some of the doorways still have the pointy arched lintel that marks it as a former House of Worship.

And yes, they provided washcloths.

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Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Tomorrow: Up into Connemara!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Travels with Dad: The Trip Over

We left East Lansing via Amtrak at 8:45 Friday morning. It's the only way I will go to Chicago, anymore. Round trip was around $135 for Business Class, which is the only way to go if you travel with Amtrak. It's a pleasant enough 5-hour trip, and completely stress free. Comes with a free beverage from the dining car, as well. Both Dad and I knew it was going to be a long plane flight over to Ireland, so we wanted the early leg to be as easy and simple as possible. So far, so good.

Our original plan was to take a taxi from Union Station in Chicago out to O'Hare Airport. That looked like it was going to cost about $60, maybe more, and Dad's Scottish Ancestors began kicking him in the back of the wallet. So he did some looking before we left and stumbled across the idea of taking the El (elevated train) from downtown Chicago out to O'Hare. He raised it with me on the train and running with his idea, I did some online research with my phone (thanks, Amtrak, for adding WiFi), and discovered that there was a Blue Line station just three blocks from our location and the best part was the cost: Just $3.00 per person! Unknown to us at the time, this would start a series of "Good News, Bad News" situations for the rest of our journey to the Emerald Isle. It took a little longer (half an hour via taxi vs. nearly an hour via commuter train), but again - stress free!

And so it begins....

GOOD NEWS: The train took us right to O'Hare.
BAD NEWS: Dropped us off nowhere near the International Terminal and Dad doesn't walk far.
GOOD NEWS: We found a wheelchair.
BAD NEWS: Eventually.

GOOD NEWS: We saved more than $50 by taking the commuter train instead of a cab.
BAD NEWS: We lost it all in converting our American dollars into Euros. (And then some.)
GOOD NEWS: We purchased a day pass for the Aer Lingus Lounge and it was a little slice of heaven. Quiet, comfortable, and everything was free (food, drink, snackage, newspapers).
BAD NEWS: There was still a 5-hour wait to endure before the plane would take off.

GOOD NEWS: The plane left on time!
BAD NEWS: The seats were so small and narrow, Dad's elbow was in my lap and I was anxious that my elbow would be in the lap of the person to my left.
GOOD NEWS: Turns out I didn't need to worry.
BAD NEWS: A toddler was sitting next to me.

GOOD NEWS: He was one of three small children traveling together with Mom and Dad, including his older sister and a baby. The airline moved the family so they could all sit together.
BAD NEWS: They were moved to the row RIGHT IN FRONT OF US.
GOOD NEWS: It wasn't great, but certainly not as bad as we feared, either.
BAD NEWS: The small seats and the length of travel had both our muscles tied in knots by the end of the flight.

GOOD NEWS: We arrived safely and half an hour ahead of schedule.
BAD NEWS: We slept for maybe two, three hours on the flight. Maybe. By the time we got there we had been up for nearly 24 hours, with only a short nap.
GOOD NEWS: The wheelchair was waiting for Dad at the plane.
BAD NEWS: Our luggage wasn't.
GOOD NEWS: After the carousel stopped and we were about the only people left standing around it, it started up again and our bags *finally* showed up.
BAD NEWS: We were told we could find a wheelchair rental facility at the airport. There wasn't one.

GOOD NEWS: The rental car place found us one.
BAD NEWS: The car reserved for us would barely hold the two of us and our luggage. No room for a wheelchair.
GOOD NEWS: They had a larger vehicle available.
BAD NEWS: For several hundred more Euro. Plus the wheelchair rental.

GOOD NEWS: Dad always expects financial issues and carries extra travel money.
BAD NEWS: We had to go way out of our way to find the wheelchair rental company.
GOOD NEWS: I adjusted much quicker than I feared to a right-hand drive vehicle operated on the left hand side of the road.
BAD NEWS: By now Dad and I have been up for about 30 hours and I'm bone tired and nearly asleep at the wheel.
GOOD NEWS: We found the wheelchair rental!
BAD NEWS: The wheelchair had two flat tires.
GOOD NEWS: They had another one available.
BAD NEWS: By this time I am even more tired and not able to concentrate really well on the road. I was honked at.
GOOD NEWS: Only once! (My goal while driving is to make it through the week without anyone calling me a "fecking idjit.")

After the wheelchair rental, we made our back into downtown Dublin and visited the Guinness Storehouse, which came as part of our tour package.
After a bit of trouble getting the help to recognize my father was in a wheelchair, we got in and started our self-guided tour. It was Saturday afternoon, local time, and the place was absolutely packed; nearly shoulder-to-shoulder.

Sadly, although we could have spent hours learning about the history of Arthur Guinness and his magnificently stout beer, by now Dad and are looking at not having eaten in about 16 hours and all we want is to find one of the five cafes and restaurants inside. For your edification, you can read a timeline PDF provided by Guinness here.

We did make it up to the Gravity Bar on the seventh floor, where the crush of people was even worse, and it was nearly impossible to maneuver a wheelchair around inside. The unique point to the Gravity Bar, as anyone who has been there can tell you, is that there is clear Plexiglas opening onto a nearly 360ยบ view of Dublin. See the photo below. You may be able to click for a larger image.
The green roof and steeple is Trinity College, where you will find the Book of Kells.
I enjoyed a glass of Stout. It was thick, it was creamy, it was dark, and there was the bitter aftertaste that let you know you were drinking a *real* beer, by God. Dad even had a sip, and he's been a teetotaler for years. He explained to me, "Well, you can't come all this way and not at least have a taste!"

So we didn't take the full trip. Maybe next time I make it back to Ireland. Using the GPS we rented, we began making our way to our first hotel - the Heritage Resort Golf and Spa, a five-star hotel in County Laois. (Pronounced, I'm told, "Leash.") This place is nice. You look up "swanky" in the dictionary and there's a picture of it, as the saying goes.

A word about driving in Ireland. The GPS kept telling us to "take Slip Road" and exit to the left. Our tired, fuzzy brains eventually realized they meant to take the exit ramp off the freeway. Not sure where the etymology comes from, but I'm betting it has something to do with being able to "slip off" the freeway.

Also, Ireland is *lousy* at street name signage. If you're extremely lucky, you'll see a street name not up above the traffic, like we have in the States, but at eye level directly in front of your vehicle as you need to make your turn, praying you have chosen the right lane. Normally when we drive places, one of us will drive and the other nap. Not this trip. I am the only driver and Pop is desperately needed to read, follow, and listen to the GPS unit. We learned quickly not to look for street names, but for Pop to watch the GPS closely and when we get to the actual turn, tell me which street to take.

It's a Garmin unit, and it highlights the route in a bold, thick, pink line. I had to keep telling Dad, "don't tell me the street name, tell me when the pink turns!"

GOOD NEWS: We eventually got the hang of it.
BAD NEWS: I think.

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Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. At five hours ahead, we will have to get up at two or three o'clock in the morning to make the free breakfast that came with our tour package. So I'll be asleep by 8:00, y'all.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Travels with Dad: The Emerald Isle

My beloved stepmom, Hazel, passed away in the summer of 2011. Dad told me that her wish was that he continue to travel and see all the places they would have seen together.

And thus began a series of father-son road trips that have left an indelible mark on my memory. In the fall of 2011, Dad and I cruised Norwegian to Alaska. It was a trip that my wife and I had taken in 2008 and I raved about it to everyone I knew, saying, "God was having a good day when He made Alaska." So for our first trip I took Dad to see Alaska.

Or, more appropriately, he took me. My father and I have a rather symbiotic travel relationship. At his age (he'll be 82 later this summer), he can't travel without my assistance and, quite frankly, I can't travel without his financial munificence. It's a combination that works well for both of us.

In the summer of 2012, we went to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, which is just about as far east as you can go and remain in North America. And we drove there and back. All day long, every day for two weeks straight, stopping only long enough to take in some sights, and then on to the next town, hotel, and tourist attraction. It was the longest trip we had taken, and I remember that we grated on each other's nerves a bit. But we made it. 14 days, 12 hotels, and roughly 2,500 miles. Would I do it differently if I went again? You bet. Would I exchange the experience and memories we made? Never!

In the Spring of 2013 we spent two weeks with some of Dad's Florida friends and drove down to Key West. I think, for that trip, we got it just about right.

And then, last fall, we returned for a second cruise to Alaska because yes, it *is* just that beautiful.

For our next and possibly final travel adventure, Dad and I had kicked around an idea for the "Great American Road Trip" where we would practically navigate the perimeter of the West Coast, hitting Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the San Diego Zoo, then up along the western seaboard into Washington and back to Michigan ... eventually. We thought, "we've been to the northwest corner of the U.S., we've been to the northeast corner of the continent, and we've been to the farthest southeast point of the country ... all that's left is the southwest."

However, a couple of months after that discussion, I received an e-mail from a travel company, offering a fantastic trip for a fantastic price - less than what Dad had spent on Alaska, certainly - so I pitched the idea and we both fell in love with it.

Which is how we now find ourselves leaving tomorrow for the Emerald Isle -- Ireland. Our trip is highlighted just there.

What's interesting is that we are *driving* once we arrive. A right-hand drive vehicle, on the left hand side of the road.

Should be interesting. And slightly terrifying.

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Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Erin Go Bragh!

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Mark at the Movies: Captain America - The Winter Soldier

Full disclosure: I collected Marvel Comics when I was younger.

Well, not *that* much younger. I was a college student, okay? Collected for years. Sold them all for $500 when I was raising money to take my wife with me to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a conference. But that's another story.

When I first began reading comics seriously (rather, let's say, "as an adult") I sampled both Marvel and DC, which were and pretty much still are the two mainstream production companies. After a very short time, I realized that there was a fundamental difference between the two approaches to comic storytelling. DC was all about action and art. The plot and backstory of the titular hero was secondary to the flow of the pages.

Marvel, on the other hand, would routinely spend a page (and often several) on our costumed hero's personal life. Marvel was all about character development. Not just the "what" and "how" of our heroes and villains, but the "why" was nearly always included. Marvel Comics were driven by the deeper elements of a story, and that's what appealed to me and why they received the bulk of my dollars.

Now, having said all that as preface, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is a movie that would make DC proud. You'll find very little in the way of character development or, indeed, much of a humanizing element here at all. What you will find is non-stop storytelling, action scenes, plot twists galore, and a smattering of wisecracking humor. You will be engaged and most likely enthralled from the beginning until the very last credit rolls. You will get your money's worth.

I walked away from this film marveling - no pun intended - at the overarching achievement of creating the Marvel Universe in cinematic version and of how tightly every single movie (and even the television series) is dovetailing one with another.

I cannot use my usual review format here for fear of giving too much of the film away. Let's just say that any solid familiarity with the Steve Rogers/Captain America story and history will serve you well to understand some deeper character connections being made. Plus you'll get a glimpse of Wanda and Pietro, two characters who will eventually become ... well, you'll see.

The bulk of the screen time is shared between Chris Evans (Captain America) and Scarlett Johansson (The Black Widow). Samuel L. Jackson has the largest role he has played to date with his Nick Fury character. And you know Marvel's stature has come up in the world when you can sign Robert Redford to be in your film.

Captain America will return for his third solo adventure in May, 2016. In the meantime, Marvel Comics lovers will have another Amazing Spiderman with Andrew Garfield in the lead role, an upcoming X-Men film that will combine the "First Class" cast with the older cast, and a "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie which, while not necessarily set in the Marvel Universe we have seen so far, is still a part of it but - to paraphrase a Star Wars line - takes place in a galaxy far, far, away.

And next year we will have our Avengers sequel in "The Age of Ultron." But for now, go see Captain America and try to gather all the threads woven into this story. I bet it'll take you two hands.

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Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761.  As you watch, remember that Cap was sweet on Peggy Carter in the first movie. This sequel introduces us to Sharon, known by Cap simply as "Neighbor."

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Harold's Act of Love

Yesterday we laid Harold Foley to rest. I wouldn't call Harold one of my friends, but he was a well-known member of my church and he loved our worship band and my wife and I would make sure we gave him a hearty greeting every Sunday he was able to be present. Yesterday I had the privilege to play with an "unplugged" version of our band at Harold's funeral. A few days earlier - the day after he passed away - we heard this story from the family that I just had to share with you.

We first got to know Harold about three decades ago when his son, Al Foley - one of our peers at Calvary Church when we first began attending - was in the final stages of cancer. Al passed away far too young. It hit Harold hard but he had come to be in a relationship with Jesus Christ through his son's testimony and witness, and so he was able to endure the loss. Harold was a large man, standing well over six feet tall, but his love for Jesus turned him into a "gentle giant" and he gladdened the hearts of all who knew him.

Eight years ago Harold was also diagnosed with cancer. The doctors gave him two years to live, but his faith and determination were strong and he well surpassed that estimate. During the last couple of years of his life, he was pretty much confined to an easy chair in his living room, with several professional caregivers coming in to provide care, housekeeping, and medical support. With each one, as soon as they'd arrive, Harold would take them by the hand, converse and chat for a bit, and then pray with them. And so his faith continued to influence those around him.

Whenever Harold needed some kind of attention from one of his caregivers, he had a small bell on the table next to his chair that he would ring. One of the caregivers would come running from whatever task they had at hand to see to his needs.

One of his favorite's was a woman named Carla. Carla had three children of her own, as well as two foster children, and worked two jobs to make ends meet. She was a person of great compassion (as most caregivers are), and through Harold's testimony, patience, and faith, Carla's spiritual life experienced a new awakening and she returned to the church, bringing her children with her.

A few weeks ago Harold confided in another caregiver that he was tired, and ready for the journey home to heaven. Last week the family could tell that he was near the end ... but his vital signs were still strong, and it was clear to all that Harold still had several days left. Last Wednesday Carla finished her shift with Harold and went home, exhausted from another very long day of working those two jobs, watched as her husband stoked the fire up in the family fireplace, and fell into a hard, deep sleep. A few hours later, as Wednesday turned into Thursday, Harold's wife held his hand in his chair as he fell asleep. He did that often, now. And in the blink of an eye, Harold was gone.

Carla, sound asleep in her bed, was having a dream. A very vivid dream, of Harold standing at the foot of her bed - sound, hale and whole - ringing his little bell for all he was worth, calling out to her, "Carla, you've got to get up." Carla refused, saying in her dream, "No, Harold, go away."

But dream Harold refused to be denied. He kept ringing that bell, saying "Carla, you've got to get up, now." Again Carla refused, "No, Harold, my shift is over. I'm tired, I'm not getting up." Again Harold tried and again Carla refused, but at last she could not suffer Harold's insistence as he just kept ringing that darn bell. Finally, she awoke with the vivid memory of a healthy Harold ringing his bell at the foot of her bed.

It was then that she noticed the smoke permeating the house. An errant spark from the fireplace had set their home on fire. The family escaped safely, and the fire department did their work. When Carla and Harold's wife later compared notes, they realized that Carla's dream had happened shortly after Harold passed away.

Did Harold give up his last few days to save the life of one he loved? No one this side of heaven will ever know for sure. But I have a feeling that when you get close to death, the veil between the two becomes more and more transparent, and you get a glimpse of the bigger picture, with larger perceptions and understandings. 

I do know that Harold was a believer, that he had found new life and faith through Jesus, and that he understood John 15:13 - "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends."

Rest in peace, Harold Foley.

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Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761.

Friday, December 13, 2013

World Stats, Real-Time

So I ran across *this* the other day (click the columns on the left for further mindblowing statistics, or just wait for the app to automatically scroll through them)....


World Clock by Poodwaddle.com

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Mark's Musings is published on a semi-periodical basis that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. Facebook link is over there to the right. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Answer: Silver salmon, also known as Coho salmon. (See previous entry's fine print for the question.)

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Garden Saved By Two Dead Ducks

Dad and I spent our final day of the cruise on a shore excursion to the famous (though we had never heard of them) Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island in British Columbia.

Victoria is a lovely city bordered by mountains on three sides with extremely mild temperatures. We were told it seldom gets warmer than 90 degrees and hardly ever goes below 32. Snow usually melts within 12 hours. Our guide joked that it's an island of "flower beds, newlyweds, and nearly deads." He told us that one newspaper quipped, "Victoria Island is where the elderly go to spend time with their grandparents."

Robert Butchart and his wife, Jennie, began manufacturing cement in the late 1800s and became the largest provider of the material on the West Coast. They moved to Victoria in the early 1900s because Robert had discovered a limestone quarry - an essential element in cement manufacturing in those days - and they built their home on the property. The story, passed down to his grandchildren we were told, goes that Robert enjoyed collecting birds. He had a favorite pair of Woodland Ducks that he had purchased and transported all the way from Germany.

One year, while traveling in Europe, the family received word that both of their Woodland Ducks had died after an eagle attack. Since they were already mostly there, Robert insisted on going to Germany to purchase new ducks.


Jennie would hear nothing of it, insisting that if they went, they would miss their steamship home. Robert put his foot down and insisted and off the family trekked to Germany. After making his purchase and arranging for the ducks to be sent back to British Columbia, the family rushed back to England only to find that they had missed their boat by two days. So they had to make alternate travel arrangements.

What boat did they miss? The Titanic.

And that's how two dead ducks saved the Butchart Gardens. What happened is the quarry turned out to be not all that large and Robert opened a new one a few years later, leaving Jennie stuck with the problem of a huge, empty quarry in her backyard. One day a friend remarked to her that she would *never* be able to do anything with that eyesore and Jennie Butchart took that as a challenge. She had farmers truck in tons and tons of fill dirt and began planting flowers, of which she was something of a collector and aficionado. She hung by her toes to plant ivy along the sides of the quarry walls.

For the first few years, the family would allow whomever wanted to stop by the gardens and admire them, and the family even served them tea.

In 1921 Jennie finished her floral remodeling of the quarry, calling it her "Sunken Garden." In 1926 they took out their tennis courts and used the space for an Italian garden, and three years later the couple transformed their vegetable garden into a rose garden. Ownership of the grounds has remained in the Butchart family ever since.

I've put many photos of what are possibly the most colorful and diverse gardens I have EVER seen on my Facebook page. Now, mind you, I'm not a flower guy. I know pretty much nothing about them. If you ask me what my wife's favorite flower is, I'm likely to say, "Pillsbury." But these gardens were just lovely to gaze upon. A balm to the soul, even.

We're told that during the tourist season, the family now employs 600 people. 100 of them are gardeners and 55 of those are *master* gardeners. The head gardener and his assistant live right on the grounds. They change the displays five times every year - once each season and a second time between Winter and Spring.

= = = = =

Pop and I fly home tomorrow and I may add a few more photos I took with my cell phone but have no way to get them onto a computer while I'm in digital roam. So check back at Facebook in a day or two.

It's been a great trip. I've eaten at least three kinds of chowder, had so much salmon I feel like swimming upstream, had a taste of kelp marmalade, and ridden on two boats, countless buses, and one tram. I've hiked halfway up the side of a mountain, pushed my father in a wheelchair around 55 acres of gardens, and walked at least three miles around the ship. I've seen so much beauty in the wilderness that my eyes may never hurt again, and I've heard so many foreign languages I feel like we've visited the Tower of Babel.

And none of it would have been possible without the kindness, generosity, and genuine love for family shown by my father.

Thanks, Dad.

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Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. Pop quiz: What kind of salmon does the ring finger signify? Told you I'd be testing!

Thursday, September 05, 2013

My Way, Your Way, Skagway

Today the Alaska weather we expected all along returned. On the dock in Skagway, at sea level, there was a heavy overcast of clouds and a steady surge of 35-mph winds, though the temperature was mild. Skagway, originally called Skagua by the Tlingit, means "wind and whitecaps" and the town was working hard to live up to its name today.

This was one of a small handful of places people came to in the mid-1800s for the Gold Rush. The town has a population of only about 850, but there were over 100,000 here when many used it as a base to launch their trek into the Yukon in search of gold. (For further reading, see my blog entry from 2008 on Liarsville.)

Sarah Palin lived here until she was six years old. Her father taught at the only school in town. Milk is more expensive than gasoline. Many of the people who came for the gold couldn't read but wanted to go to church on Sunday, so each church was painted a different color so folks would know where to go. A few years ago, we were told, the Methodist church painted their building a different color and the town council came along and forced them to paint it back to the original color as it was a historical site. The Tlingit people still own most of the land and rule with a stern, strict hand.

There were two heavily-traveled paths up into the Yukon: The Chilkoot Trail, which was steep and difficult and you had to make approximately 20 trips to get all your supplies to the top. The other was the Whitepass Trail, which was advertised to be easier and more pack animal-friendly, but the fact is it wasn't. A local man was quoted as saying that no matter which trail you took, you wished you'd taken the other. The Whitepass Trail, in fact, killed over 30,000 beasts of burden and became known as "Dead Horse Trail." When the railroad came to Skagway, it appropriated over 80% of the Whitepass Trail for its tracks.

When you reached Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would weigh your goods and foodstuffs. If you didn't have at least one ton (2,000 pounds), you weren't allowed to go on. So many prospectors were dying of the elements and starvation that they had to impose this rule to do what they could to insure a person's survival.

Today Pop and I climbed onto a tour bus and took a 40-minute trek up the Klondike Highway, through Canadian customs, and into the Yukon. We started at sea level and ascended to 3,292 feet. Interestingly, the weather at the summit was almost the opposite of dockside. The sun was out and the wind was slight, but it was quite cold! (See the photo of the day up top.)

We had come to walk across the suspension bridge over the Tutshi (pronounced "too-shy") River Canyon. The River is considered Class III whitewater ("Difficult") with some Class V Rapids ("potentially fatal"). The government completed the bridge in 2006 and it was purchased by a private owner in 2011; the same man opened a restaurant on the property.

After crossing the gorge and kicking around a bit, we were treated to a bowl of Bison chili (the owner also owns a bison ranch) and a gigantic homemade dinner roll that, frankly, was the best tasting piece of sourdough and carbohydrates I have ever put in my mouth. The chili was too spicy for Pop, and the hosts graciously supplied him with a bowl of chicken noodle soup to go. Sadly, cruise officials made us throw it away and would not allow it to be brought onboard. We knew there were regulations about taking food *off* the ship, but this caught us completely unaware.

When Dad and I were here two years ago, Mom had just recently passed away and Dad, wanting to signify a new chapter of his life, traded in his wedding band for a new ring of gold, onyx, and mother-of-pearl in a triangular design. He wanted to get a "companion ring" to wear on his other hand with a similar design to commemmorate this trip, which he believes will be his last. Well, though small, Skagway has a ton of shops in town and every other one sells jewelry and diamonds. (Pop jokes that "people in Alaska are still mining for gold, but now they're looking for it in the pockets of the tourists.")

He found his ring. It's a silver and onxy beauty with a triangular design. One triangle on each ring points left, and another points right. He says they remind him of Philippians 3:13 - "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead." The verse reminds him of his life after Mom's passing. You can see the rings on my Facebook page.

We had lunch at the Sweet Tooth Cafe in town while waiting for his ring to be sized. This is my third trip here, and I've eaten there each time. It's a great place and everything on the menu is homemade. I highly recommend it. It's become a bit of a Skagway tradition with me. But there was one funny thing that just goes to show what taking three meals a day on a cruise ship will do to you. At the end of the meal, Pop got up and walked away, right out of the cafe. I was inadvertently stuck to pay the bill. (To be fair, he was incredibly embarrassed about the whole thing.)

He's in getting his last acupuncture treatment while I write up this draft, and I sure am praying they work as well as they did on our last cruise together. He deserves it.

We are both a bit flagged after a week of shore activities and are looking forward to our day at sea tomorrow. I'll probably give the blog a rest for a day and come back late Friday night (early Saturday morning for most of you) with a report on our activities at Victoria Island, British Columbia.

We are having a great time and making some fantastic memories together!

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Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. There's gold in them thar hills!

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Juneau What I Mean

 We pulled into Juneau, Alaska just after sunrise this morning. Juneau is Alaska's capital city and has about 30,000 people living here. It is located on the mainland - unlike so many other cities - and is large enough to have an actual highway running through it. Ketchikan, on the other hand, is on an island and has one road that goes 38 miles in either direction and then dead ends.

Today's expedition was a ride up the Mount Roberts Tramway to a nice plateau with a Nature Center and some hiking trails up and down a good part of Mount Roberts. They also showed a lovely 18-minute documentary about the Tlingit people, who populated this part of Alaska (long before the white man) after migrating north from British Columbia.

The photo up there is a selfie of me on the trail with Mount Juneau in the background.

Joe Juneau and Richard Harris were the two explorers who were first led to the gold in the area by a friendly Tlingit chief. For a brief time, the city was known as Harrisburg, and then Rockwell, and then in 1881 the miners met and voted to name the town after Juneau.

The AJ Mines (Alaska, Juneau) were built into the side of Mount Roberts and we were told today that before they closed in 1944 they pulled $88 million worth of gold out of the hills, or about $5 billion in today's economy. For every ounce of gold discovered, 200 pounds of rock and earth were moved. The mine doors have since been sealed over but there are still 300 miles of tunnels inside the mountain.

The tram we took (see picture) was opened in 1996 and ascends from sea level to 1,800 feet

in six minutes. It is the steepest tram run in all of North America. At the top is a snack shop, an extensively stocked gift shop, a small movie theater, a restaurant, and a Nature Center with additional gifts and maps of the trails. Pop walked about a quarter of a mile but found the ascent too steep for his 81-year old using-a-cane-gait. So he rested and shopped while I did the half mile ascent and loop on my own.

After lunch and his second acupuncture session, we stood on our balcony while the ship entered the Tracy Arm of the Inside Passage and slowly progressed to the Sawyer Glacier at the end of the Arm. Let me tell you, the Inside Passage is so jaw-droppingly beautiful it's nearly worth taking the cruise just for that.

I have been putting up photos on my Facebook page. Click the link in red here or the "badge" over to the right. The photos just don't do justice to the majesty and awesome beauty of this land.

Everyone should come to Alaska. Just looking at the views are good for the soul.

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Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. I tell people "God was having a good day when He made Alaska.".

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Play Misty Fjords Me

We arrived today in Ketchikan, "Alaska's First City." Now it's the fifth largest, but still the "Salmon Capital of the World."

And the salmon are running, inexorably fighting their collective way upstream to spawn and die. You can see them jumping up out of the rivers and streams here all day long. Every part of the salmon is used, even the heads. (They are crushed and pressed down into Omega-3 oils, what the natives call "liquid gold.")

There are five different kinds of salmon and they each go by two different names. We were taught an easy way to remember them (see photo).

  • Thumb - rhymes with chum. (Chum Salmon) And your chum is your friend. And a man's best friend is his dog (Dog salmon).
  • Index finger - you can use your index finger to "sock your eye out" (Sockeye salmon). Doing that would leave your eye red (Red salmon).
  • Middle finger - your middle finger is the longest. It's the "king" of fingers (King salmon). It could also be called the "chief" of your fingers. The word for chief in the native tongue is Chinook (Chinook salmon).
  • Ring finger - you wear a ring on this finger, and it's often made of silver (Silver salmon). The Lone Ranger's horse was named Silver. So think, "Coho Silver, Awaaaaaay!" (Coho salmon)
  • Little finger - also called your pinky (Pink salmon). This type of salmon is also called Humpy salmon. There's just no mnemonic for that one, sorry.

So today we went out into the Misty Fjords National Wilderness Monument. That's Dad and I on the boat up top. Check out my blog's Facebook link (at far right) for more pictures. We left early in the morning and were afraid for quite awhile that they would be the "Foggy Fjords." (See other photo)
 

President Theodore Roosevelt declared this part of Alaska a national wilderness in 1940. By doing so, no humans are allowed to live there. Man is only a visitor here. Explorer George Vancouver first charted these waters, looking for a passage to the Northwest in the mid-1800s. His maps were so accurate we were told they were used until GPS services made them obsolete a century later.

It was unnaturally bright, sunny and warm day in Ketchikan. The city gets between 200-300 days of rain every year. The two previous trips I've made here were always overcast, misty/rainy and quite gloomy. Today we were told the natives prefer their gray, "watercolor sky" to this sunny stuff. Two weeks of no rain here officially qualifies as a drought and the streams dry right up and it's very, very bad for the salmon. And what's bad for the salmon is bad for Ketchikan.

Back onboard, Pop got his first acupuncture treatment, which has become a bit of a cruise treat for him (and quite efficacious, as well). While I was waiting for him, I sat in the card/game room and read and thought a bit and just observed. A cruise ship is a whole lot like a mini-United Nations without the politics. I watched a Chinese couple play Chinese Checkers, an Indian family play Monopoly, and a Korean pair play cards. The crew is equally diverse. I make it a point to read everyone's badge, which lists their home country. I've seen South Africa, India, Thailand, Philippines, Canada, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, and just about every place in between.

Forget America ... if you want to experience a *true* melting pot, take a cruise.

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Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. There will be a pop quiz on those salmon names at the end of the week.


Sunday, September 01, 2013

More Travels with Dad

Courtesy of Dad's travel bug, I find myself once again on a cruise ship with my now 81-year old father, making our second - I may as well call it a pilgrimage - to the fair Alaskan cities of Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, with a run up the Tracy Arm of the Inside Passage and a final stop at Victoria Island in British Columbia.

I love it.

We've only been onboard for two days and already I've eaten enough fish that I have the urge to go look for Nemo.

We left Seattle, Washington this past Saturday afternoon. We have spent today on the Pacific Ocean. This time around Pop sprang for a stateroom with a balcony and let me tell you, I will never cruise again without one. It's heavenly and we've already spotted two whales (for free!).

The only downside is the bed situation. The room is fairly crowded with two beds, a sofa, a coffee table, a small desk, and a nightstand. And about 12 inches of room between the end of the beds and the wall, and between the two beds, themselves. Let me give you an idea of how close together we are sleeping: I could reach over and wipe Pop's nose. And vice-versa.

Now my father is a generous, kind, loving and compassionate man with a terrific sense of humor, so believe me when I say that this one quirk of his does nothing to detract from who he is as a person ... but he is a snorer.

No, let me rephrase that. He is a world class manufacturing plant of snore. If snoring were an Olympic event, my father would be awarded the Gold Medal every time. Some of his snores would register on the Richter Scale. He is to snoring what Bill Gates is to Microsoft. If he's sleeping, he's snoring. If he's not snoring, in fact, I worry that he's not sleeping well.

And it's all about 12 inches from my ears. Yeah.

Fortunately, I have my own defense: I snore, too. Or so I've been told. (My wife's all, like, "Hah! How do *you* like it???" No sympathy from that quarter.) The only reason I know so much about Pop's nighttime malady is he goes to bed before I do while I stay up and do this Internet thing and not waste his valuable time waiting for me to do it while he's awake.

So we are once again on the road, reliant only upon the grace of God, Norwegian Cruise Lines, and each other. More as the days go by. Stay tuned.

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Mark's Musings is published on a periodical basis - right now on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/markmusings. This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. On cruise ships, you don't greet each other with the standard "how are you?" You begin with, "So where are  y'all from?"