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Friday, July 31, 2009

ALCATRAZ--YOU GET OFF WHEN THEY LET YOU OFF

No one thinks of famous prisons without thinking of dreaded Alcatraz. There on a rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay, sustained only by importing every daily necessity from the mainland, some of the worst and varied lawbreakers spent parts of their lives. Books were written and movies made about this infamous prison known as “The Rock.” If you spend any time in San Francisco, a trip to this fascinating landmark should be on your agenda.

Today Alcatraz is part of the National Park System, and as Rob and I always find, the National Park Service provides a first rate attraction with excellent guides and presentations. Before 1973 when the Park service opened the island for tours, no visitors were allowed. Visitation was not a prisoner privilege. Today more than 1.3 million visitors arrive each year. Few are disappointed.

Alcatraz was a prison almost from its inception when in 1859 eleven soldiers were confined there, but it was in the 1930s that it became a high-profile, maximum security Federal Penitentiary. Most of the prisoners were men who were problems in other prisons, but its fame came from some super notorious inmates: Al “Scarface” Capone, “Doc” Barker, George “Machine Gun Kelly” and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Rule #5 at Alcatraz reads as follows: You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Everything else you get is a privilege.”

No one ever escaped from Alcatraz. Fourteen attempts were made, and in 1962, three men got into the water using raincoats as life vests. Never heard of again, their bodies were never found. In fact, Alcatraz was so secure that the families of the prison guards living on the island did not even lock their doors. Alcatraz was closed as a prison in 1963.

I’m including so much history because as I looked back across the 1.5 miles to San Francisco I was startled by my feelings of isolation. Rob and I took the Night Tour. It was very dramatic. Being at Alcatraz at the close of day, we could see this magnificent city, and I imagined the prisoners locked in their cells or able to see the twinkling lights of a civilization that was beyond their reach for an average of eight to ten years. Animals do not inhabit this rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The only four legged animal living on the island is the deer mouse. Alcatraz does have one of the largest western gull populations on the California coast, however, and is home to many other birds that fly in and out with the winds exhibiting an unabashed freedom the men at Alcatraz sacrificed through their behavior. Even as a visitor, I was unable to shake the feeling of cold isolation from a warm world.


The Night Tour included a narrated boat tour around the island, a guided tour from the dock to the prison—a steep ¼ mile walk equivalent to a 13-story climb. Electric cart rides are offered to those who cannot climb. Prisoners always walked, chained, and the long, slow trek up to the top of the rock where the prison buildings sit was a slow march into a new reality.

In the prison we took a detailed audio tour including narration from former prisoners and guards who explained what it was like to live and follow the rules at Alcatraz, and when we walked back to the dock in the gathering darkness, we observed as birds flew home to roost.



Inside the prison we faced the stone cold facts of prison life. We visited the cell blocks, dining facilities, and other areas used by the prisoners.

We saw how some prisoners decorated their cells with the results of hobbies, etc. Eerily we learned about the lockdowns and how security within the prison worked.


The inevitable question seems to be “Where did Al Capone live?” The answer is that no one knows the exact cell. He spent part of his time in a hospital isolation cell. Bubbles burst as we learned that The Birdman of Alcatraz never had birds at Alcatraz; he had canaries while he was an inmate at Leavenworth.

We stepped inside cells; we walked the halls (streets) in the prison; we viewed the city from outside the prison building; we saw where the men worked; we looked at the “recreation yard”; we learned how the guards and their families lived on the island. We came away stunned.


The boat ride back to San Francisco’s lights with views of The Golden Gate Bridge in one direction and the bridge to Oakland in the other emphasized the loneliness of this place where no one escaped except, perhaps, the five suicides and the eight murder victims.





LADY MENDL'S TEA SALON--A REMARKABLE EXPERIENCE









Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon
56 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003
212 533-4466
www.innatirving.com

Let’s go to New York City and a special place in the historical Gramercy Park section, the Inn at Irving Place. In this lovely and very romantic historic townhouse built in 1834 is Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon, an extraordinary oasis of charm and comfort.

Before I tell of this marvelous spot, I’ve got to give some background information for the fabulously interesting Lady Mendl. She is too New York City. If you know a bit of her history when you enter the Inn and see the Victorian architecture and furniture, you will allow yourself to slip back in time to another world. It’s all quite enchanting.

Born into a wealthy New York family, Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) was educated in Europe, had her entrance as a debutante in the court of Queen Victoria, and when her father died, debt-ridden from gambling, Elsie became an actress to support herself. She also became the lover of Bessie Marbury, one of the most powerful women in New York. But Bessie’s a whole ‘nother story. Their home stands diagonally across the street from the Inn at Irving Place. At age 40, her acting career over, Elsie retired from the stage to become an interior designer—in fact she practically pioneered the art of interior design, and her books became text for those who followed. At age 60, she married Sir Charles Mendl for his title and continued her association with Bessie.

Among her many accomplishments, Lady Mendl held salons on weekends for the rich and famous in NY theater and art—Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Arden, and Cole Porter who included Lady Mendl’s name in his witty lyrics in Anything Goes—invented the Pink Lady cocktail, invented blue hair rinse for graying ladies, wrote books on interior design and eventually her autobiography.

So, walk up the steps to enter this beautiful home. Turn left and enter the parlor, and then to the tea room, magnificently set with fine china service, a sugar cube decorated with a rose sitting on the saucer. You have come for a five-course high tea.


You choose your tea from a wide selection, and your waiter brings a fresh, crisp, mixed green salad with vinaigrette dressing. Undoubtedly you sigh deeply. You’re meant to be pampered. You converse unhurried through this course. Your tea cup may be refilled if necessary.

The wait staff offers you tea sandwiches: smoked salmon with dill cream cheese on pumpernickel, cucumber with mint crème fraiche on brioche, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes on 7 grain, and smoked turkey and cranberry on brioche. Choose as many and as varied as you wish, and when you finish, your waiter will offer more. You eat slowly, enjoying the relaxing ambiance and the good company and conversation. You understand how lovely these mid-day breaks can be. More tea?

Your third course consists of scones with Devonshire clotted cream and preserves. If you think of the most delicious scone, the most sensational cream, and the freshest, fruitiest preserves you’ve ever eaten, ratchet it up a notch. This is heaven.

Your next course is beyond belief. This is a “cake” comprised of layers of thin crepes separated by layers of custard. Everything was so tight and light that it stood no higher than a slice of pie. Stunning! My sister, Robyn, at the end of the day, went into the kitchen to get the recipe for this gustatory delight, and they shared it with her! By the time we finished this exceptional course, we could not believe there was anything more to enjoy.


But wait. The last part of the tea was presented on platters—fresh cookies and chocolate covered strawberries. Voilá!

Picture yourself here for a special afternoon. You will not be disappointed. I’ve been here twice. The second time was a bridal shower. Marvelously done. The atmosphere, the furniture, the tea service, and the wonderful food made this a shower to remember. Even the lavatories are in keeping with the Victorian era. My first visit around Christmas brought me to another room where a beautiful tree was decorated with china tea cups. Lovely. In New York City, jump back in time and be pampered—as you well deserve.




Tuesday, July 28, 2009

IN WACO I'M A PEPPER; YOU'RE A PEPPER












Here's a place I bet most of you don't know exists, but you very well might be a fan of this product. If you are a fan, you certainly don't want to miss the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas. Waco is a name out of cowboy movies and the “old west,” so I liked the idea of simply going to the city memorialized by its wild ways. Dr. Pepper was certainly never on the Most Wanted list—except by zillions of soda drinkers.

If you love Dr. Pepper, you know how this special soda has a cult following, and this museum traces its creation and its rise in popularity in a very entertaining way. Even the salespeople who popularized this little soda to people across the nation and the world are part of the museum. People with only one product and a big mission performed a miracle. They are examples of a combination of hard work and the opportunities afforded by free enterprise, and the upper floor of the museum houses The W.W. Foote Free Enterprise Institute to support this noteworthy combination. Dr. Pepper is the proof that a combination of free enterprise and hard work brings out man's creativity and ingenuity. The man who really sold the public on Dr. Pepper did it simply but persistently. He offered samples of this unusual beverage to the man -on-the-street. The unique taste caught the public's imagination, and Dr. Pepper's popularity soon spread. Here's a bit of the hologram presentation.

videoThe first time I tasted Dr. Pepper many years ago on my first driving trip south with Rob, we filled up the trunk of the car and brought six-packs back to New York; Dr. Pepper didn't sell up here yet. That's hard to imagine today, but it's true. This soda had a great and surprising taste, and I became a fan.

In addition to tracing the history of Dr. Pepper which had its origins in the combinations of flavors behind a drug store soda fountain, visitors can see how it is bottled and shipped. I got a kick out of a video that demonstrated how cans of soda are put together. I never really thought of it before.







I never thought about the evolution of can and bottle shapes and some of the reasons why companies decide on a particular style to attract customers. Marketing professionals certainly have an interesting make or break job! How's this for a marketing tool—the Dr. Pepper slogan: 10, 2, and 4. Studies showed that workers begin to drag at those times, so the company promoted Dr. Pepper breaks. It was just the pick-me-up to get the adrenalin pumping again. Companies adopted that Dr. Pepper break, and some even supplied the soda for their employees. A taste for the soda spread rapidly.

Also intriguing was the variety of soda machines displayed in its own section of the museum. We all laughed at some of these, and it was quite a jolt to see how far back our own memories went because those soda machines really were old!!!! (although we ARE NOT old)







The pièce de résistance, however, was a horse made of Dr. Pepper caps. Really














One huge disappointment in this tour. No sampling! Though there is an admission charge similar to ones at wineries we've visited, the only Dr. Pepper offered came with a price tag. This missing piece really surprised us. It would have been fun to end up in a “tasting room.” Available in the gift shop was every possible Dr. Pepper souvenir imaginable from post cards, magnets, neon clocks and signs, clothing, picnic bags, winter jackets and windbreakers. Some of these were ridiculous, but they made the gift shop fun. Had we had a tasting opportunity, I might have been more amenable, but two post cards later...





If you remember “I'm a Pepper; you're a Pepper,” if you like that special Dr. Pepper flavor, or if you're in the mood for something a little different from ordinary tourist haunts, find yourself in Waco, Texas, and ask for directions to the Dr. Pepper Museum.






Friday, July 24, 2009

THE BEST BRISKET AND BURGERS IN TEXAS!


Andice General Store
FM 97
Florence, TX 76527
254 793-3971


When you're told that you can get the best burgers and brisket in Texas, how can you resist making a short trip for lunch? We couldn't, so five of us headed to the Andice General Store, a little place where the road makes a T (as in Texas). There's no way you can miss it. Andice seems to consist of the General Store and a post office. Population is about 25.

Picture in your mind's eye the general store of movies and books. Picture the store of days gone by with its shelves of everyday necessities. Andice is no modern convenience store. It is as laid back, casual, and friendly as one can imagine. You can buy cold coke in the bottle. I'm sure the “regulars” sit and talk, and because I sometimes live in that “movie” world, I might even look for Ike Godsey behind the counter. We did, indeed, chat with the owner, Alan Thomas, behind the counter. He stood beneath the huge blackboard listing the burger and brisket variations and all the other things we could order. Lots of hard decisions to make there because everything is so tempting. We finally do decide, place our order, and take bench seats at one of the long, vinyl-covered picnic tables that make up the middle of the store. Condiments are kept in empty oil cans. Wall decorations are old-time gas station accessories. It's wonderful.

While we wait for our lunches, we might wish to visit the lavatories, but don't look inside the building. Outside, at the back of the property is a two-sided building and I think I am heading back to an old fashioned outhouse. Thankfully the inside is modern! But it does give us a start.

Back inside our lunches are ready. Rob and I ordered the brisket. I love brisket. I loved my mother's and I love New York deli brisket. Texas brisket—or at least Andice Country Store brisket—is different AND BETTER than any brisket I have ever tasted. It arrives in a plastic basket lined with white waxed paper. The brisket is superbly seasoned, slowly cooked until it is tender and succulent without being the least bit stringy or overdone. I put my own condiments on it. I'm a NY ketchup person which I believe goes against the grain here in Texas, but it is obvious that the Andice General Store does not have to smother its meat with some kind of sauce. The meat speaks for itself. On the table are several choices if that's what the diner requires.

Barbara, Stan, and Michael order some variation of burger. Each burger comes with a different collection of toppings. Texas is beef country, and these burgers are big and hearty, each cooked exactly as ordered, and each juicily delicious.

The owner had suggested we try the cole slaw or potato salad or the special onion rings, so of course we did. Normally the baskets come with fries, but the onion rings I had rated way up the list. The potato salad, too, was excellent. The owner was right to be proud of what he served. Everything was scrumptious.

The Andice Country Store is not on a main road, and maybe you will never be in that part of Texas. But if you are, stop in. You will be visiting one of the many hidden treasures tucked all over this country. Whenever you spot one of these treasures, make sure you stop in.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT--A New #1 Ladies' Detective Agency winner!

Like a meeting with an old friend I opened Alexander McCall Smith's latest installment to his #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. It is glorious to read about Precious Ramotswe's latest intrigues and to reacquaint myself with the novels' other characters—all introduced and further developed through the last nine books.

If you haven't delved into the lives of the only female detective in Botswana and her friends and relations, you're missing something quite wonderful. These books are a delight. Precious knows she cannot solve all the world's mysteries and headaches, but her mission is to help people solve the everyday problems that occur in all our lives. As she does, she acts with a wisdom, kindness, and understanding of humanity that is both touching and interesting. Read these books; you will not be bored.


At the center of Tea Time for the Traditionally Built as with all the other novels in the series, is the importance of core values: family, loyalty, honesty, friendship, and love of country. Set in Botswana, the characters' love of their country and pride in their history inspires them, helps set the tone of their interactions, aids in solving the problems brought before them at the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and gives the rest of us an insight into aspects of Botswanan culture. Each book ends with a diamond shaped picture spelling Africa. There is an appreciation for fulfilling life's basic needs and appreciating everyday beauties.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built is not a sappy book. The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency attracts interesting clients. A local football team owner, a strong-minded man, hires the agency to solve a problem with his team. His winning team has become a losing team, and he wants to know why. With the most unusual case so far for this very non-sports-minded detective, Precious attacks as she approaches all the others. She is methodical, and she listens (a dying art) so she gets to know and understand people.



Even when people aren't real clients but friends, it's intriguing to see how we all have mysteries to solve in our lives and to understand that what we observe on the surface may be a ruse to hide the truth—good and bad. We learn more about the tender feelings between Precious and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. In the last book we learned a bit more about Charley the apprentice, and in this book we gain insight into Fanwell, the younger, shyer apprentice. McCall crafts characters with layers we can peel away as we journey through the world he creates. He always hints at the possibilities hidden beneath the next layer. The evolution of Mma Makutsi and Phuti's relationship continues. Even one very different “character,” the little white van, takes on a new importance which, I suspect, will be very important in the next novel.


I do love these novels. Can you tell? As such an avid fan, I tried the HBO series but must confess that my imagination's creations did not jive with the series' creators. That's my non-recommendation. Get your own imagination in gear, and you'll see some wonderful things.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

STAYCATIONS--A CLOSE TO HOME VACATION TRAVEL TIP

Robert Brault said, “Appreciate the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” Take a moment and think close to home. Magazines keep touting “staycations” as an alternative for folks who can't travel far. I don't agree. Staycations are a lot of fun, and they can be done almost any time. As with every vacation, planning and preparing will be the key. Here are some tips for a great vacation at home.

 Forget any chores you have. Forget the lawn, the flowers, the apartment, the laundry or anything else that you might do as household routine. Prepare as if you're going away—laundry is done so you have what you need on your “trip.” I like to leave my home clean with fresh linens and towels awaiting our return home.

 Forget your phone. That means your cell phone as well as your landline. You're away. People will leave messages to which you can respond when you “return home.”

 Decide beforehand how you'll do your meals, and make sure you've shopped beforehand. Rob and I like to have breakfast and lunch at home and go out to dinner. Try to dine differently. Picnic. Have your breakfast in bed. Have complete meals delivered, but don't limit yourself to dinner. Try breakfast or lunch, or pick up a prepared lunch to take with you. Whatever you do, make it unique and special.

 Plan daytrips. If you're fortunate enough to be near a beach, pool, lake, park, or other natural area, and the weather is right, take advantage of it. Try kayaking, hiking, or fishing. Rent a boat or ride a bicycle. If you're a golfer, try a new course. If you're new to your selection, take it slow. But you may find yourself a new hobby. Google the names of nearby cities or towns, and you'll probably find places to visit you never knew existed. Visit museums and special indoor attractions too. Do things you've always planned on doing but always easily put off because they're so close to home.

 Relax. You're on vacation. Make sure you have a good book to accompany you.

 If you take travel photos, take them now too. Treat your time as special, and you'll see it will be.

A staycation can be any length. Sometimes a weekend is a perfect length. It's actually a pretty good thing to take periodically. It gives one time to focus on what is important. Remember Dorothy said it best, “There's no place like home.”

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