Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

May you and your family have a peaceful, joyous Christmas.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas at Crossroads

Tonight I went to Christmas at Crossroads with some close friends and their three kids. We had a blast! If you've never been there, Crossroads Village is a mini-Greenfield Village with 34 historical buildings from all over Michigan assembled into and 1800s farming community, including a carousel, a railroad, and a paddlewheel boat on Mott Lake. For Christmas everything is covered in lights, there are crafts, a music show, and other activities. The only thing missing this year was snow.

We enjoyed walking around the village, admiring the lights, riding the carousel, talking to the Blacksmith, and riding the train. The train ride is about 45 minutes, with lighted decorations to see along the way. The conductor narrates the tour and we sang along with the Christmas carols during the turn-arounds.

We ended the evening by attending a concert in the Opera House. To my delight, the musicians were The Collecting Consort (Anne & Gary Wakenhut). I love hammered dulcimer and Irish harp music, so I bought one of their Christmas albums last year in Traverse City on a whim. I love it so much it's on my iPod, my laptop, and in my living room stereo. What a nice surprise that we got see their last show of the season at Crossroads! It was a half-hour show that included music and storytelling. HK and I really enjoyed it and even talked to Anne afterwards to thank her.

Every year I say I'm going to get to Crossroads and this year I finally did. It was a fun, Christmassy evening and I'm so glad I went! If you would like to go, it's not too late. Normally you have to walk around the village but on Monday nights and Christmas Eve (5-9 p.m.) you can drive through to see the beautiful lights. After that the village will be open to pedestrians Dec. 27-30 (4-9 p.m.).

Friday, December 22, 2006

Saffron the Cookie Thief

My little orange cat, Saffron, loves people food. She will eat just about anything we eat and begs any time we are in the kitchen. Her favorites are chicken, turkey, steak, pork, cheese, and potatoes of any kind, especially Arby's homestyle fries. What I didn't know until recently is that she will do anything for sugar cookies!

A couple of weeks ago, I made Michigan-shaped cookies for Roger's Michigan History class. I have lower- and upper-peninsula-shaped cookie cutters and between those and Pillsbury, I had cookies in no time. I put the first batch on wax paper on the kitchen table to cool. When I went to take the second batch out of the oven I heard a "Mur" (Saffron's most frequent vocalization) and looked over to see her standing on a chair, her front paws on the kitchen table, licking a cookie! I was stunned. She's never done that before! I nearly burned the second batch chasing her away from the first one. Needless to say, the cookie she licked was then hers alone. (Yes, I know I reinforced bad behavior.) I probably haven't made cookies since last Christmas, so decided that maybe they were just a novelty that she found interesting.

Today I made my grandma's date-filled sugar cookies. The dough is less sweet than regular sugar cookies but apparently Saffron's attraction to sugar cookies is not NOT a novelty. This time, while the cookies were cooling on wax paper, I sat between them and the buffet behind the kitchen table (where Saffron likes to perch). Poor Saffron paced up and down the buffet, begging for cookies and pawing me like a dog, but I was strong and didn't give her any cookies. Imagine my surprise when she leaped over me, over my laptop, and landed amist the cookies without touching anything in the process! I quickly scooped her off the table and put the cookies in a Rubbermaid container. She's not dumb; every time we open that container she appears, begging for sugar cookies. She wins. Like everything else I eat, I give her a tiny bit. I just wonder how a cat who eats so much never gains weight. Must be nice!

My friend's cat, Mia, loves Twinkies (the cake, not the creamy filling), but I had no idea sugar cookies were so appealing to cats!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Winter Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. It may be the first day of winter, but it doesn't feel like it! Despite the warm weather, I'm still hoping for a white Christmas.

Welcome to winter in Michigan! If you don't like weather, just wait a few minutes, it will change.

Beautiful Manistee

After leaving Chicago, we went to Manistee, MI. For those who are not familiar with our state, Manistee is a Victorian port city on Lake Michigan, between Ludington and Traverse City. According to the Cities Unlimited web site the population of Manistee is similar to Davison, but Manistee is bigger, older, and tourist-oriented. We drove through on our way home from Traverse City in early Oct. and wanted to go back and explore this pretty little town.

We enjoyed the downtown stores and I was especially delighted with the Manistee County Historical Museum. It's in an old store front and is remniscient of an old-fashioned general store, only better! Here's a map, and picture of the building, and a link to their impressive genealogy collection.

The entrance fee is only $2 and you can wander around by yourself, or a volunteer will show you the exhibits. A nice man showed us around and I was glad because he told us a lot about the special Christmas exhibits. The Christmas exhibits are so popular that the museum's busiest months are July, August, and December.

The main room, which looks like a general store, featured a Victorian Christmas tree. The oil lights had been converted to electric but there were still some (unlit) clip-on candles to convey the sense of what the original tree looked like. In keeping with the German tradition, the full-sized tree was sitting on table:

Under the tree is the "putz" or Christmas Garden which features the Nativity:

In America we changed the tradition: we put the tree on the floor and updated the village to reflect a Victorian or modern look, often with trains:

I never knew that this German tradition was the origin of our ceramic Christmas village!

After visiting the museum we had a delicious Italian lunch at the Tuscan Grille, then visited one of the downtown antique stores before driving home. It was a nice getaway but we were tired and glad to get home, where our cats were very glad to see us (despite good care from their human grandparents).

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

King Tut

Today we visited the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibit at The Field Museum. Although it did not include the famous gold mask, sarcophagus, etc., it was still well worthwhile.

The exhibit started with a short video and the first few rooms explained Egypt in Tut's time. These rooms features artifacts of Tut's parents and grandparents. For those who know little about Egyptology it might be overwhelming, but people were taking their time, reading everything, and pouring over the artifacts. It was elbow-to-elbow standing room only, sometimes several people deep. The man who sold us our tickets said 10,000 people had been there ahead of us, so apparently this exhibit is always crowded!

I like seeing Tut's family's stuff, but Tut's treasuers were the best. I can't remember everything we saw but we liked the pectoral amulets, dagger, diadem, walking sticks, gold box with engraved scenes of Tut and Ankhsenamen, the cosmetic box with a lion on the lid, box with carrying sticks, the golden coffinette (which once contained Tut's liver), Akhenaten's head from his collosus at Karnak, and the forsenic analyses. The latter included Tut's facial reconstruction based on CT scans of his skull. It also included the latest theory about his cause of death (a broken bone and subsequent infection), so the info was very current!

As an amateur Egyptologist, words escape me when I try to tell you how much I enjoyed this exhibit. I've seen much of Tut's stuff in books and on TV but actually seeing it is a completely different experience, even if you can't touch anything. When you think about how old it all is, it's amazing that it looks brand-new and you can't help but wonder how they could make such exquisite things with what we consider primative tools. Then, when you realize Tut died unexpectedly at a very young age, you wonder how they got so much done in time for his burial, and what must the tomb of an old King, with many years to prepare his tomb goods, have looked like? It's just mind-boggling.

The Field Museum has a nice exhibit web site, but I don't know how long it will remain active. National Geography has permanent Tut exhibit site, which isn't surprising since we noticed they produced the exhibit catalog/book and DVD. After the 70s they said Tut's stuff would never leave Egypt again, so if you get a chance to see this exhibit, be sure to do so!

The Field Museum itself it worth the trip to Chicago. This was my second visit and I still haven't seen it all. I like the Egpytian exhibit, the dinosaurs, and the labs where you can watch scientists at work (it is a working musuem). We are planning another trip so we can spend a couple of days enjoying The Field Museum and The Museum of Science and Industry.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Night in Chicago

We are in Chicago to see the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum (more about that tomorrow). Tonight we are staying at the Hotel Blake in downtown Chicago. It a great location! It's in Printer's Row, minutes from the Loop, the Magnificent Mile, museums, and more. We can see the beautiful Chicago Public Library from the hotel. It's hard to miss:

The Hotel Blake is three-and-a-half star hotel in what used to be the Morton Salt building. According to the Hotel-Rates web site, it's done in modern decor remniscient of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School. I don't like modern, but this is classy and attractive.

Our room is not the $500 a night kind but it is nice. It has a full-sized desk, an armchair with a footstool, a very comfy bed with a down comforter and bench at the foot, a plasma TV, a cordless phone, another phone in the marble bathroom, and an iHome clock radio with an iPod dock! I've always wanted to stay in the kind of hotel that includes bathrobes, but when I saw the iPod dock, I forgot all about the bathrobes! Needless to say, the first thing I did was see it my Nano worked with it -- and it did. :)

After we got settled in our room, we decided to walk around the neighborhood before dinner. We headed up State St. to the Loop where there are lots of stores. I was impressed with the Macy's. It reminds me of the actual department stores I vaguely remember in downtown Flint before everything moved to the mall, but it was even better, and huge! Not only is it multi-floored and beautifully decorated for Christmas inside and out, it connects to an underground pedestrian walkway, similar to the underground mall in Toronto. Speaking of Christmas decorations, downtown Chicago is stunning at this time of year. Even the subway entrances are decorated! I took this picture from our car, so it's a bit blurry, but you get the idea:

We ate dinner at Custom House, Hotel Blake's restaurant. It's a gourmet restaurant "showcasing a delightful fusion of contemporary American cuisine and Mediterranean influences," according to their web site. It was expensive but definitely worth it! For our appetizer we had steak tartar which I've always been curious about but never tried. It came with poached eggs the size of Robin's eggs and a basil sauce; it was incredibly delicious! For our entrees, Roger had roasted lamb and potato fingers with Black Truffle essence; I got the New York strip steak with sun-roasted tomatoes and Pommes Anna (thinly sliced potatoes with bacon). All were outrageously good and far more than we could eat. Their breakfast menu looks equally delicious and equally expensive, so I think we'll have breakfast elsewhere tomorrow.

Update Dec. 22: I added a picture of the choo-choo decorating a subway entrance. I also realize I forgot to mention that when we were walking aroud in the Loop we passed the Palmer House Hilton where I attended an academic conference a few years ago. I didn't know it then, but it's where my Uncle Jim stayed for Army basic training during WWII; they did their calisthenics in the nearby park.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Celebrations Everywhere

Yesterday was a day of full of Christmas celebrations.

In the morning I attended the Christmas program (a contada) at my friend's church. It was a beautiful program that included adults and children and I really enjoyed it.

Last night I went to St. John's to see the living nativity. Kids dressed as Mary, Joseph, an Angel, Wise Men, and Shepherds -- and the shepherds had a real live donkey and several sheep! It was warm enough that they didn't have to wear coats or snowmobile suits under their costumes so it looked really great.

Inside the church there was a display of nativity sets from around the world. Some families brought very old and cherished sets to display. There were crowns for kids who wanted them, so the living nativity had many more than three Wise Men, but who cares? It was lots of fun.

I ended the day thinking what nice celebrations these were. Today I read an article published a few days ago in USA today, Gift of wreaths touches nation, about an even more touching celebration. I wish I were in Washington, D.C. so I could see it in person. The photos in the article are wonderful, but I'm sure they are a pale reflection of the real thing.

If you haven't thanked a soldier lately, you can do so on-line at Let's Say Thanks. It's too late to send Christmas cards to our servicemen and -women, but it's not to late to keep them in your prayers this Christmas season. Remember that while we celebrate a season of peace, love, and light, they remain on duty, protecting our freedom to do so.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Holiday Eating Tips

Yesterday I finished my Fall semester grading, turned in my grades, and returned all my students' papers. At first I was too tired and in too much pain from my #$%^& tennis elbow to feel relieved. Today it's slowing dawning on me that I'm FREE! I don't have the weight of a bzillion ungraded papers hanging over my head. Let the holidays begin!

To celebrate the holidays here's a cute e-mail I got from my niece:

Holiday Eating Tips

1. Avoid carrot sticks. Anyone who puts carrots on a holiday buffet table knows nothing of the Christmas spirit. In fact, if you see carrots, leave immediately. Go next door, where they're serving rum balls.

2. Drink as much eggnog as you can. And quickly. Like fine single-malt scotch, it's rare. In fact, it's even rarer than single-malt scotch. You can't find it any other time of year but now. So drink up! Who cares that it has 10,000 calories in every sip? It's not as if you're going to turn into an eggnog-alcoholic or something. It's a treat. Enjoy it. Have one for me. Have two. It's later than you think. It's Christmas!

3. If something comes with gravy, use it. That's the whole point of gravy. Gravy does not stand alone. Pour it on. Make a volcano out of your mashed potatoes. Fill it with gravy . Eat the volcano. Repeat.

4. As for mashed potatoes, always ask if they're made with skim milk or whole milk. If it's skim, pass. Why bother? It's like buying a sports car with an automatic transmission.

5. Do not have a snack before going to a party in an effort to control your eating. The whole point of going to a Christmas party is to eat other people's food for free. Lots of it. Hellllo?

6. Under no circumstances should you exercise between now and New Year's. You can do that in January when you have nothing else to do. This is the time for long naps, which you'll need after circling the buffet table while carrying a 10-pound plate of food and that vat of eggnog.

7. If you come across something really good at a buffet table, like frosted Christmas cookies in the shape and size of Santa, position yourself near them and don't budge. Have as many as you can before becoming the center of attention. They're like a beautiful pair of shoes. If you leave them behind, you're never going to see them again.

8. Same for pies. Apple. Pumpkin. Mincemeat. Have a slice of each. Or if you don't like mincemeat, have two apples and one pumpkin. Always have three. When else do you get to have more than one dessert? Labor Day?

9. Did someone mention fruitcake? Granted, it's loaded with the mandatory celebratory calories, but avoid it at all cost. I mean, have some standards.

10. One final tip: If you don't feel terrible when you leave the party or get up from the table, you haven't been paying attention. Re-read tips; start over, but hurry, January is just around the corner.

I don't know who wrote it, but the advice is right on. Don't ruin your holidays trying to diet, just relax and enjoy yourself: you deserve it! Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Tragic Accident

After a three-year investigation, Scotland Yard concluded that Princess Diana's death was a tragic accident, not murder. You can download the full report in pdf format.

My heart goes out to Diana's sons who lost their mother far too soon, thanks to a mix of the French paparazzi, a drunk driver, and unused seatbelts.

I also feel sorry for Mohamed al Fayed who still believes Diana and his son, Dodi, were murdered. Maybe it's easier for him to believe than the awful truth: they might have survived if they had been wearing seatbelts; the crash probably would have not happened had the driver been sober; the chase wouldn't have occurred if not for the paparazzi.

Personally, I blame everyone involved. It was senseless of human life, one that will haunt Diana's sons for the rest of their lives. What a sad reminder of common sense: don't drink and drive and always wear a seatbelt.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Christmas at the White House

Some year I want to go to Washington, D.C. to see the White House all decorated for Christmas. In the meantime, every year I enjoy pictures and any TV coverage of the holiday preparations. The gingerbread White House is always impressive! To see the decorations and for a quick link to Barney's Holiday Extravaganza (2006), visit Holidays at the White House.

For more on Barney and Miss Beazley, the Bushes' Scottish Terriers, visit Barney's page (and all the First Family's pets) in the Kids' section of the White House web site.

Barney Cam is a yearly holiday movie featuring Barney, Miss Beazley, Willie (aka Kitty), the President and Mrs. Bush, and members of their staff. Seeing the White House and its Christmas decorations from a Scottish Terrier's point of view is a hoot! This year's movie even has a transcript. Past Christmas videos and monthly photos are available on Barney's page.

Can you believe someone has a job taking pictures and making Christmas videos of the First Pets -- and it's not me?! I'd do it for free just to get to see the White House and play with the dogs!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Helping Hands

Yesterday I met a capuchin monkey named Gregory. He came to visit a linguistics class taught by one of my colleagues. Gregory has been to Monkey College and is trained to assist a disabled person but is retired due to health problems. In college he learned to cook food in the microwave, serve it, wash a human's face, brush a human's hair, and fetch and carry objects. He has a 500 word vocabulary and can provide love and companionship for 20-30 years.

I had never heard of this wonderful program, but if you would like to learn more visit Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled. There is also a nice article in in Greater Boston: Monkeys Assist Disabled.

If you are looking for a charity to donate to this Christmas, this is a worthy cause!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Damn Weather!

I hate our weather. It's been warm, rainy, and dreary. The National Weather Service got my hopes up with a winter storm warning. Cold and snow at last! Except they were wrong (again). Instead of 5-9" we got ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

Yes, it got cold enough to freeze all the rain, so the ground is now frozen and ready for snow, but the stupid snow went around us (again). I was disappointed to get a big snow on a weekend (thus missing a chance for a snow day), but no snow at all is even worse. I just want some pretty, Christmassy snow to cover up everything and look cheerful.

At least sun is shining today. It's much better than the weather had for November. Faced with another week of grading, followed by exam week (and even more grading), I need all the cheer I can get. I want some snow!