Friday, December 31, 2010

About Last Year

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind?

Well, to answer Robert Burns's most famous question, I don't think it's a case of "should" for me any more. No, much more like "Can auld acquaintance be remembered?"

Either way, the year is ending and I have watched the last sunrise of 2010 from my home. That hasn't been the case for most of the year, as we traveled and visited -- partly because we had to wait to get into our new house but partly because we just love to travel and visit anyways. But in the end, as we walked into our house on Wednesday night, it was pretty clear to me that one of the great joys of traveling is getting home again.

As this is the last day of the year, it seems the right time to do the Year in Review that every other lazy site does. But, hey, it's the holidays so why work too hard? Anyhow, here goes:

The big news of 2010, of course, was moving house from Sydney to Hobart - along with all the disruptions that caused. But if there was any obvious trend this year, it was that for one year, at least, we became nomads.

For the year, we slept in our own bed 130 nights, which means we didn't sleep in our own bed for 235 nights - and 41 of those nights were aboard ships or ferries.

We went around the world twice. We boarded planes 34 times, embarked on boats 9 times. We took trains and subways and buses. And we drove on enough road trips to keep the oil industry in business.

We we were in 16 countries, five of them Muslim. We were in 5 Australian states and territories and seven US states.

We were in the desert in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. But mostly we were on water. Our travels included the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans. We were in the Andaman, Mediterranean, Aegean, Red and Dead Seas, as well the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal.

And we were on islands. We started the year in Oahu and by year's end we had been on the South Island of New Zealand, Singapore, Phuket in Thailand, Mykonos in Greece, Malta, Vancouver Island in Canada and Orcas in Washington state. And oh yes, Tasmania and that big island to the north, Australia.

We saw lots of old things - Ephesus, the Pyramids, Carthage, Petra, the temples at Luxor (and even stayed at the Luxor in Las Vegas).

None of this could have happened without the generosity of our family and friends. We stayed (quite often) with Peg, Shirley, Bob and Deb, Walt and Terry, and Robert and Jaki. We were fed (quite well) by those folks, by Sandy and Dave,  my mother and father, and Jason and Lora.

And Caroline pitched in by taking care of Streak for us.

We have had the sort of year that few could even dream of. I do believe it even took care of LK's wanderlust - well, at least for a few months.

And now we are ending this amazing year in Kingston Beach, our new hometown. Yesterday a trio of brilliantly colored parrots landed in the tree outside our window and feasted on its flowers. This morning I peeked out the bedroom window just before first light. Sitting above the bay in the dark gray sky was the waning crescent of the moon and just below it was the brilliantly shining morning star. And this afternoon will be a sunny, warm summer day.

It's nice to know that even when we get home, we're still in a fantastic place.

Thanks to everyone for making our amazing year happen and for sharing it with us. Happy New Year to all.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Battle of the Dyer Girls

Peg's eyes got just a little teary on Christmas Day as she told us that one of the greatest achievements in her 91 years was that her two daughters were so close and cared about each other so much. It would be only a few hours later that those same daughters proceeded to do everything they could to disabuse Peg of that notion.

For Linda and Sandy are not just Peg's kids. They are also Steve's kids. And from their father, these two women have inherited what may just be the world's most aggressive competitive attitude. When they play, they play to win.

The Battle of the Dyer Girls started out innocently enough. We had all decided to play a little Wii Bowling, and most of us had a go at it. While Sandy finished cooking the dinner, Dave, Linda, Jordan and I played. So far, so good. But then it was decided that after dinner it would be fun for Sandy to play Linda.

It was a match made in heaven (if you like fierce competition) or hell (if anyone thought the spirit of Christmas was going to linger by the fireplace while these two swung their Wii controllers). The scene was probably set when Jason called from Oz to wish us all a happy holiday.

While Sandy was on the phone with him he told her that if she really wanted to have a merry Christmas, she would let Linda win on the Wii. Which may have been good advice from his perspective as LK's son, but perhaps not such good advice when you've been LK's little sister for more than 50 years. Christmas cheer be damned, Sandy was not about to let her big sister win.

As sporting events go, it was a classic match. LK - very experienced at Wii bowling but coming off a long layoff - versus Sandy - the relative newcomer with the home field advantage.

The first game was all LK's. When she is in the groove, she can string strikes together like there's no tomorrow. By the last frame Sandy couldn't win and it was the visiting team with the W in their column, looking like an overwhelming favorite to win the series.

But the second game showed why you should never bet the house on a sporting event. Epecially when the one you're betting on has a Wii controller in one hand and a Johnny Walker Black Label in the other.

Suddenly LK's strike ball was coming in a little high while Sandy found the mark and started stringing strikes together herself. The hometown crowd started shouting "Yeah, baby!" as she built up a big lead. When LK missed a spare in the 7th frame, Sandy punched the air in triumph and let out a "Yeah, baby!" of her own. The match was tied.

And Peg was starting to get a look on her face that said "It doesn't seem fair that I am about to lose one of my proudest accomplishments on Christmas Day!"

As entertaining as Wii Bowling is to watch (well, as entertaining as it is to watch while drinking vodka), there does come a point to set a finishing time. Which is to say, some of us could see the sisters swapping wins as the contest moved from Best of 3, to Best of 7 to Best of 25. It was agreed the third game would be the decider.

The tension showed in both bowlers. Strike balls were just a little too high on the head pin. Spares were made by the narrowest of margins. Scores were down. Even the crowd was reduced to only a few "Yeah babies" as the sisters duked it out.

Slowly Sandy built up a slight lead and by the 9th frame, she had a chance to to take an insurmountable lead if she could strike out. She only made a spare. LK made a strike, but victory was still within Sandy's grasp with a strike or a spare + 9 in the last frame. She missed her spare.

The room gasped. An LK fan considered yelling "No, baby!" but decided I might be hit in the head with a Wii controller, so I reverted to sports commentator instead. "Linda needs a strike or a spare + 8 pins to win."

LK made her spare. The room grew quiet. Peg seemed to close her eyes. Sandy turned away.

LK needed 8 for a win, 7 for a draw. Anything less was a loss. She started the ball rolling down the alley. It was clear right away that it was not a strike ball. Would she get enough pins for victory?

In 1953 Eddie Erdelatz, the coach of the Navy football team uttered a line that has gone down in history. His team was playing Duke that day, and neither side scored during the entire game. "A tie is like kissing your sister," he said.

And so it was that on this Christmas Day, the Dyer Girls gave each other a symbolic kiss. Unlike Erdelatz, both sisters declared the tie was the perfect ending for the Christmas Day match. Peg smiled, secure in her family's harmony for one more year at least.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holiday Cheer

What a great holiday! Christmas Day itself was wonderful - LK, Peg and I drove over for gift-giving and breakfast with Sandy, Dave and Jordan, then back to Peg's for a couple of hours so LK could start packing for our departure on Boxing Day. You know, stuff like underwear, shirts, two rugs, rug pads and curtains for every window in our house. We are traveling light this time.

Then back last night for a gourmet feast. LK made the soup, and Sandy outdid herself with a roast tenderloin, super yummy brussel sprouts, potatoes that would make Dr Agatston blanch. Dave made very large martinis to start and we drank some great wine - barolo and brunello de montalcini. It was all so good, but I am still trying to figure out why I have this newfound love affair with brussel sprouts.

The evening was capped with a great sporting event. No, not the Heat beating the Lakers - and we won't even mention the Celts losing to the Magic. Nope, this event was the Dyer Girls going one-on-one in Wii Bowling. But that is worth another post.

And the very best part of this Christmas was that we talked with so many people we love. Over the two days we connected with Ben, Tom, Matt, Jason, Lily, Rachael and of course my folks in Rutland. Gotta love this time of year.

Today we are scheduled to fly back to Oz. The only problem is that we are set to fly into Washington for our connection, and it is on the edge of what is shaping up to be one monster blizzard. We keep monitoring the situation, and it looks like we can get in and out. But in a winter where Team Mother Nature has built up a huge first quarter lead, I am not sure our side can rally.

Let's just say that if we do get in and out of Washington, we should make our LA flight. In which case, no more posts for a day or two.

And if we get stuck in some airport for the better part of a day, then expect a post only slightly shorter than War and Peace as I cope with the grinch of winter weather. It is a case where no news will be good news.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Johnny Has Left the Building

It's nice to know we can make a difference.

The latest proof comes from two different news stories. In Australia - which we left on November 10 - the retailers are reporting a sharp decline in holiday spending. In the US - where we arrived three weeks ago - retailers are reporting a strong surge in holiday spending.

Coincidence? I think we all know better.

Even at the local level we can see our impact. Monday I went to Mendon Liquors, the bottle shop we have been using, and scoured the shelves for Johnny Walker Black Label, LK's brand of choice. When I finally asked the guy at the register, he told me that there had been unusually strong sales of this brand and they were temporarily out of stock.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

Actually, that stop at the liquor store was the last errand on a quick trip. First I went to the supermarket to pick up some crusty bread and bread crumbs since LK was making Italian wedding soup for dinner. That's the one with lots of little meatballs.

At the store, I saw that crackers were on sale, so I got 2 for $5 and went to the checkout. Bread, bread crumbs and two boxes of crackers. Hmmm, I said to the kid at the checkout, looks like I'm not on the South Beach Diet this week.

"Nobody should ever have to be on that diet," she said. Then she looked at me, and we both knew she was thinking she may have spoken too soon.

Anyhow, the market was the first stop. I walked out, put the grocery bag in the car and then drove half a block to the service station. There I went inside and paid for a bag of ice we needed. Then I got in the car and drove to the liquor store. And then I got back in the car and drove to another liquor store where I could get Johnny Walker Black.

That sounds normal, I suppose, but those of you who paid close attention may have noticed a slight hiccup in that routine.

I didn't even realize it until I got back to Peg's. I brought in the grocery bag and then LK asked me where the bag of ice was. It was only then that I realized that I had indeed walked into the service station and paid for the ice, but I had then just driven off, walking straight past the ice freezer without grabbing a bag.

Over 60. Drinking Mendon dry of Johnny Walker. Paying for items and forgetting to take them.

Coincidence? We all know better.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Naming Rights

What is it about the common cold that makes us spend so much time tracing its lineage, assigning ownership and blame?

Now that LK has discovered the joys of sneezing and wheezing and coughing, she has declared to me and anyone else who will listen, "Don gave me His Cold."

I have reminded her (gently, for she was not feeling well) that I would never "give" her something so vile as a bad cold. She must have taken it from me. In fact, probably while I was asleep.

I don't think my arguments are having much impact, though, for later in the day I heard Peg on the phone telling her sister that LK had "Don's Cold." Seriously, it's not mine. I only borrowed it for a while. From Walt.

Even LK saw that when I first became ill, telling me that I must have caught Walt's Cold. So, let's stop this Don's Cold stuff and keep this ownership issue straightforward:
1. The cold is Walt's, not mine.
2. I didn't give it to LK. She took it.

There is one other thing. If Peg, Sandy, Dave or Jordan starts feeling a scratchy throat or noticing a runny nose this week, they should know. It's LK's Cold they have caught, and they should feel free to tell everyone that Linda gave them her cold.

I mean, it's not like they've seen Walt lately.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Presents

Thursday we continued a tradition. Every time we visit Peg's, we also make another visit - to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store to get our Apple laptops repaired.

In this case, it was LK's 16-month old Macbook Pro which made itself more or less a decorative item when the trackpad became insensitive to touch and the cursor would not move. While we were in Vermont, the laptop was repaired and once back in town we went to the mall to pick it up.

At the mall, we pretty much followed our normal routine. First we bought a couple of duffels to take home the stuff LK had bought here in the States. Then, after a brief (but not brief enough) visit to the Pandora shop, LK made what for her amounted to a surprising tactical error. Because she wanted to go to another store to check out fabric colors, she gave me the receipt for her Apple laptop and asked me to pick it up for her.

And that's how I ended up alone in the Apple Store.

Now, given that most of my trips there have been to fix broken Apple products, you might think that would discourage me from buying more. But if you think that way, then you are obviously immune to the power of Apple marketing, for this is a company that has perfected the art of getting you to forget how crappy their stuff is that you've already bought and instead focus on how cool and wonderful is the stuff that you are going to buy next.

Fortunately my Macbook Air was working this time so I was not in the least interested in swapping it for a new one. You cannot play online poker on the iPad, so that is off the wish list, and having to pick up a Macbook Pro that wasn't built to last kind of killed the urge to look at one of those.

But this is the holiday season, and what better time to buy great gifts for that someone special.

So I bought Apple TV for myself. 

Despite its name, this is neither a TV  nor an Apple, but a tiny black hunk of electronics that hooks to your TV. You can buy or rent movies and TV shows from iTunes with it, or use it to wirelessly play stuff on your computer on the bigger screen. So cool and yet under $100!

Now that I was in the spirit of the season, I thought I would do even more shopping for the one I love. This time I bypassed the Apple logo and bought myself an accessory from Jawbone named the Jambox.

No, I have not painted my nails gray. This picture of the Jambox is from Jawbone's website.
And what is that, you ask. Well, it's simply the smallest, best sounding wireless speaker and speakerphone on the planet. Those are the company's words, mind you, but I can confirm they are accurate.

I can confirm it, of course, because I tried it out when we got back to Peg's.  Super small, no wires, enormous sound with great clarity playing the songs from my iPod which is across the room from it.

If I hadn't been so eager to check my new gifts out, I could have looked like a great guy and given them to LK as Christmas gifts, but now they have to go on the list as my gifts to myself.  Watching me open them up and fool around with them, LK obviously thought of the things she had chosen for herself at Tiffany a week ago.

"At least I haven't opened one of the boxes my presents came in," she sniffed.

I suppose she's right, but since I bought them myself it's not like I'm ruining my Christmas morning surprise. Besides, it's that time of year. What kid, no matter how big, wouldn't open up their gifts early if they could get away with it?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Post Scripts

Yo, LK! What's for dinner?

Last night it was chipped beef on toast - a cream sauce with dried beef ladeled over toasted white bread. It's also known as SOS in the armed services.

My Aussie friends probably don't know about chipped beef, since it isn't sold there. So allow me to explain using the Chipped Beef page in Wikipedia. (Yup, chipped beef has its own page.)

Chipped beef is very thinly sliced dried beef. And it is verrrrry salty. Probably the most telling part of the Wiki information is this statement from Hormel, which makes chipped beef. They describe it as "an air-dried product that is similar to bresaola, but not as tasty."

Which does make you wonder why you wouldn't buy bresaola instead. But that's another issue. Anyhow, when the grocery store didin't have all the ingredients LK needed for the dish she intended to make last night, she shifted gears and made chipped beef on toast - an American classic that we hadn't eaten in more than 20 years since we moved to Oz. And it may not be the most lovely dish in the world, but it is tasty and even saltier than I recalled.

But no, this is not becoming a food blog, although it surely would be more popular if it did. The heading, picture and description of our dinner is an affectionate allusion to LK's cousin Jo who does write a food blog. LK is hooked on it and on more than one occasion she has been known to get friends to sit and look at page after page. Caroline even said she was going to bookmark it.

And speaking of Caroline and blogs, yesterday LK got an e-mail from our friend who wrote that she had been reading my blog. And she couldn't resist adding, "Let Don know ... he needs to stop whining about the cold!"

Gee thanks, Caroline. I appreciate this constructive criticism. Could you let me know if you mean the cold temperatures outside or the head cold I have. I have been whining about both, and I will stop whining about whichever you are referring to.

I also got a little kick in the blog pants the other day when Judy commented on my post after I hadn't written anything for four days. "Thank god!" she wrote. "A new blog. Was starting to wonder if you' died."

So now Jude has joined my mother and wife as people who try to guilt trip me if I don't post often. But I know what they mean. I get frustrated when my favorite bloggers don't post for a while.

Lately, I've been reading the new blog of my friend AB and I was starting to wonder when the next post would appear after he skipped four days. Not-so-creatively titled "My Blog",  I enjoy keeping tabs on him and his family. And unlike certain people I know, I would never dream of suggesting to Andrew that he stop whining about his diet. No, Caroline, I would never do that.

But since this has been one of those dreaded blogs about blogging, I guess I should end by adding one more wonderful thing about Judy. I was looking at her Facebook page the other day and discovered that she obviously had heaps of spare time and had just completed a 4Q Marathon:

I have just spent the last couple of days reading a friends blog. . . This is one of the funniest, most heartwarming stories I have ever read. We have learned so much about this warm, funny man, his wonderful, practical wife and amazing family and friends. Thank you, Don, for allowing us to be part of your story.

Well, if that doesn't make me go all gushy and gooey. And it certainly earns Jude the right to nag me about posting any time she wants.

But I couldn't help noting that after she wrote that entry on Facebook, one of her Facebook friends started this exchange with Judy:

Georgia: "You write lots of words"
Judy: "Would have written more, but they have a limit."
Georgia: "Hahah aw that's sad."

See Jude, once you write online, everyone becomes a critic.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


The Aussies have a phrase for it - put the mocker on. I guess the Yanks would say "jinx".  So depending on your hometown, I either put the mocker on my cold or just plain jinxed myself by writing in my last post that I had the kind of cold that "won't get serious enough to make you really sick for a day or two and then leave."

On Tuesday night my cold did get serious and I ended up looking like those guys in the cold remedy commercials - coughing, wheezing, eyes running, nose bright red and sore. That night I took an expectorant, a bronchial dilator, a medicated throat lozenge, an antihistamine tablet, nasal spray, aspirins and two glasses of wine and went to bed.

I wondered briefly about the interaction of all these things but felt so lousy that I figured it would either cure me or kill me. Of course, it did neither. While I slept like a log for a few hours, I was up before 5 when the cough returned and made sleep impossible.

All of which would not be such a big deal but Wednesday was the day to drive back to Pittsford New York from Vermont. The night before we had thought we may have to postpone a day or two, but the early morning travel advisories basically said to get on the road now and beat the storm.

Packing the car reminded me that while I HAD a cold, outside it WAS cold. The temperature was 8 Fahrenheit, but felt like -2 according to the weather web site. I won't convert this to Centigrade for the Aussies because none of you would even be able to comprehend how cold that is. Let's just say, I discovered that at this temperature I no longer coughed. I think that's because the crap in my lungs just froze and waited until I got inside again.

After too quick a good-bye to my Mom and Dad, we hit the road and decided to make the 5-hour drive straight through in case the snowstorms came in earlier than forecast. LK acted as co-pilot and chief medicator for the trip, handing me lozenges, inhalers, water or whatever else I needed when a coughing fit hit.

Which it did quite often.

During the trip my cough, which had been dry and rasping, loosened up considerably.  I used the opportunity to clear the mucus from my lungs - which is a neutral way to describe that disgusting noise you make when hawking up a pearl as you imitate a cat trying to get rid of a 2-pound hairball.

"That's good," I said to LK as we neared our destination. "The mucus is getting much looser and I am really able to clear it from my lungs."

She paused a moment before replying, "The problem is you've been saying and doing that for about five hours now and I've had to sit here and listen to it over and over again."

Which only goes to show that what seems like good news to the husband may some times have a downside for his wife.

We're back at Peg's through Christmas, then back to Oz on Boxing Day.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Driving in a Winter Wonderland

Which would be worse - being in Oz and overdosing on Oprah Winfrey and her traveling road show or being in Vermont overdosing on snow and cold? Believe me, as much as I don't like the show I would sit through 12 straight hours of Oprah rather than deal with this wintry stuff that I have all but forgotten about. At least Oprah might send us to some place warm.

My wife and mother are both calling me a big wuss, but I am not handling the freezing temperatures very well. Not to mention all the other nice things that come with this season, such as a noncommittal head cold. You know the kind - it won't get serious enough to make you really sick for a day or two and then leave, but instead remains at the annoying level of runny nose and scratchy throat for day after day. And all the while you can see everyone calculating how far away from you they need to be.

And then there is winter driving.

It's hard to believe that I lived my first 40 years in this type of weather and would not have been fazed at all to take the car out on a night like last night. But no more. LK and I stopped by Bob and Deb's last evening, and our visit hadn't even lasted an hour when I noticed the concern on Linda's face as she kept looking out to see the swirling gusts of snow, which was coming down pretty heavily.

I may not always be good at noticing her body language and its message, but this time the thought came through loud and clear. It's tough enough to drive in these conditions when you're out of practice, but I really did not want to be stuck in a ditch listening to LK explain that she had urged me to leave earlier. We left early.

Which was good, because last night was my first chance in 20 years to drive on snowy roads with ice in spots underneath the snow. I didn't do too badly, although it's hard to screw up driving when you're only puttering along at about 25 miles per hour and there are only a handful of other cars stupid enough to be out at that time.  A few times I could feel the car skidding a bit as I braked, and that led me to start slowly braking about a block from any intersection. As I said, several people have begun to notice that in the winter I become a wuss.

Of course, there is an upside. Winter in Vermont can be postcard pretty, and after a big, fresh snow the landscape is gorgeous. No need to drive far today, thank God. And tomorrow we should have clearing weather when we begin our trip back to Pittsford to Peg's. Of course, the way the weather has been behaving so far, there's no guarantee that forecast is going to hold, either.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday on Ice

I awoke from a scary dream this morning.

I had been at a Willie Nelson concert, and really liked a song he did about Texas. After the show Willie kindly took me for a walk so he could show me the best parts of Texas.

Eventually Willie led me out on a frozen lake. "Willie, some of this ice is pretty thin," I said, at which point big cracks started radiating out from under my feet.

Recalling some probably wrong boys' own lore, I immediately lay down on the fragile ice to spread my weight around. ( In my sleeping state, I think I had confused quicksand with frozen lakes.)

I was just getting around to figuring out how to actually wriggle my way to shore when I woke up.  Most likely because I was wriggling my way out of bed and ready to fall on the floor.

OK. Let me try to figure this dream out.

First, it's easy to explain Willie. In the hour before we went to bed, LK was reading Rolling Stone and said she was surprised to learn that Willie had written the great Patsy Cline hit "Crazy".

I was surprised, too, and I looked Willie up on Wikipedia where it confirmed that he did indeed write the song and that he was born in Texas. It also pointed out that Willie is 77 years-old. Which has nothing to do with the dream, but it will explain why Willie and Texas were rattling around my subconscious as I dozed off.

So that explains Willie. And I guess I should be grateful that I didn't hear "Crazy" over and over again my head during the dream.

But let's get to the real meat of the dream. Why, Dr Freud, did I dream I was on thin ice? After all, there really is nothing happening in my life right now where I feel like I am "on thin ice".

Well, as intriguing as it may seem to psychobabblers, some times ice is just frozen water. The simple fact is that winter has hit us very early here in upstate New York with a vengeance. Here in Pittsford, we've had quite a bit of snow, but none of the record snowfalls in Buffalo to the west and Syracuse to the east.

And it is absolutely freezing. When I finally untangled myself from the bedclothes after my nightmare, I got up this morning to discover that the temperature is 8, but with wind chill it feels like -2.

For my Aussie metric friends, 8 Fahrenheit equals -13 on the Centigrade scale, and -2 becomes -19. As Kurt and his new best friend sang last night on Glee, "Baby, it's cold outside."

Every morning I check out the Kingston Beach weather, and so far this year it has mostly been cool for the first month of summer. But sitting in an ice box makes Tassie temperatures look positively tropical. And even in our first Tasmanian winter where the temperature never visited negative numbers, I never dreamed of walking on ice.

This has all made me remember last December when we were visiting here. At the time, LK and I agreed that there were 12 months in which we could visit our families, and the three winter months were probably the worst choice warm-bloods like us could make.

Yet somehow, here we are again decking the halls and seeing our loved ones. Besides, there's an upside to all this cold weather. If we hadn't come now, I probably would never have had a chance to go for a walk with Willie Nelson.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A New Facebook Face

I am not a good Facebookie. Although I look at my friends' comments nearly every day, I seldom write anything myself and only occasionally comment on something one of my friends has posted.

I'm not sure why I haven't done much on Facebook. Anyone who reads this blog would know it is not because I am jealously guarding my privacy. My main hunch is that I haven't figured out how to write short, brief comments that my friends would all be dying to read. Again, this blog probably shows that my short-form program is not my strongest suit.

Anyhow, today I changed my Facebook picture. I had seen five or six of my friends change theirs, and it turns out they were changing their face to cartoon characters in order to fight against child abuse.

This is when Good Don and Bad Don had a little conversation on my shoulders. Good Don said, "You, too, should fight against child abuse. Change your picture to a cartoon, Don." But in my left ear Bad Don was whispering, "Just how do you think putting up a cartoon image for a few days is going to help stop child abuse?"

Surprisingly, Good Don won. So this morning, with only a few hours left in the movement, I changed my picture.

And that may tell you why I do not like Facebook all that much. Because it was very, very difficult for me to choose a cartoon character to represent me.  Among others some of my friends had chosen Cinderella, Popeye, and Jessie the Yodelling Cowgirl. It became obvious to me that this selection of cartoon characters was pretty revealing about people's self-image, kind of a Rorschach on cels.

So how did I want my Facebook friends to see me? Well, I thought for a while and tried to remember some of the characters I liked as a child. The problem was that all I could remember was superheros and villains. 

I did not think it would be a good move to tell my friends I thought of myself as Superman, Flash or The Atom. And as much as I liked the Plastic Man, I didn't think it was a good match for me today.

Moving away from the superheroes, I thought of the bad ghosts from Casper, Moose from Archie, and finally got one for my shortlist - a cartoon character from my youth who would still fit with my current image, Little Lulu's boyfriend Tubby.

But then it occurred to me that as much as it may be true, it was bound to distress some of my friends who would begin worrying about my self-esteem, such as it may be.

And then I thought of my absolute favorite villain from Superman, Mr Mxyzptlk. 

I think it was my love of words that made me like him so much - for here was a villain who could only be defeated if Superman could get him to say his name backwards. A difficult task since it is all but impossible to say his name forward. 

I think I also liked Mr Mxyzptlk because he really wasn't all that evil - not the blow up the universe or slip Superman a red kryptonite enema during his Super Colonoscopy. Nope, Mr Mxyzptlk was just a practical joker, a guy who liked to make trouble. But not that much trouble.

But of course that, too, could send the wrong message to my Facebook friends. I could practically hear them thinking, We always knew you were a pain-in-the-butt who liked to make trouble. And some of them would also note that there were often nights when I couldn't pronounce my name, either.

So, I switched tack. Who, I thought, is my all-time favorite cartoon character? And that answer was easy:

But you can only imagine what my friends would think of that choice. Especially those who saw the movie.

So finally I opted for the easy way out. This particular morning I was in below-freezing New York. My beard was white, my face was turning blue, and I was wearing a doofy cap.

That sure sounded a lot like Papa Smurf to this tubby, practical-joking devil. 

But I see that everyone else has started to revert to their real pictures. I guess I would have been better off just making a quick choice and getting on with it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Feeling of Christmas

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks,
Dressed in holiday style.
In the air, there's a feeling of Christmas.

Children laughing, people passing,
Meeting smile after smile,
And on every street corner, you'll hear

Silver Bells, Silver Bells,
It's Christmas time in the city.

Silver Bells
By Jay Livingston and Raymond Evans

Well, the busy sidewalks bit was accurate, but children laughing? Smile after smile? I don't think so.

Nope, with Christmas only three weeks away, this Saturday around Rockefeller Center was more like the "Run away! Run away!" scene in a monster movie than some Norman Rockwell vision of the happy American town out looking at the shop window decorations.

We had started out the day with lunch in Little Italy about seven blocks from our hotel, and then we grabbed a subway uptown. Not our best tourist decision.

It was bad enough that the famous 750-foot high Christmas tree just went up earlier this week (OK, it's more like 80-feet) and it seemed like everyone in New York with a pre-teen wanted them to see it. Making it worse was the fact that Radio City Music Hall, just half a block away, schedules extra performances of its Christmas Spectacular for the weekends, disgorging a thousand Rockette fans all at once every two hours.

And then there were gazillions of tour buses making sure that all the out-of-towners had a chance to rub shoulders (and hips and butts and who knows what else) with thousands of total strangers. Nope, children weren't laughing, people weren't passing (but perhaps a few were passing out) and what may have seemed like smile after smile were more like grimace after grimace. I think the only feeling of Christmas I experienced was being hit on the legs by all those shopping bags.

We did work our way up to the edge of the skating rink - you know, the one that features in any movie set in New York City in the winter.

Surprisingly it was fairly empty, prompting LK and me to consider renting skates just to escape the crush of the crowds.

Stop laughing at the image of me skating, please.

Just when I was reaching the limits of my ability to cope with the crowd pressing in on me, there  occurred one of those inexplicable breaks, and suddenly there was empty space and no one moving toward it.

"Quick!" I yelled at LK and sent her scurrying for the one photo op we would have all day where no one else was in the picture. Well, no one except the Toy Soldier, and we wanted him there.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Italian Feasts and a Paler Shade of Blue

LK finds her perfect ad for the holiday season in the subway

Yesterday was a subway day as we wanted to check out a place that sounded like foodie heaven and then do a little holiday shopping (but more about that in a moment).

So we walked the two blocks to the F Line and rode up to the Gridiron district to check out Eataly. That's the combination food-and-wine marketplace and restaurant courts bearing the name of celebrity chef Mario Batali.

Hitting it just around lunchtime was probably a tactical error, as this massive place was shoulder-to-shoulder with shoppers and diners. The line for the pasta and pizza eatery was very long, but we were able to get only a 30-minute wait time for the fish section so pesce it was.

Now, half an hour away from eating. Hungry already. And wandering around a store crammed with some of the yummiest foodstuff in the world. We committed the mortal sin of shopping for food with our bellies rumbling.

And the food was our sort of stuff - yummy cheeses, sausages, crusty breads. Remember how we found a great dinner for less than $50 the night before? Well, even though we ate these Eataly goodies instead of going out to dinner last night, it was still twice the price!

What happens, of course, is that when you tell the clerk to cut a wedge of cheese a certain size you don't factor in the fact that diamonds cost less per pound. Picking little loaves of bread from the bakery ignores the fact that they average slightly more per slice than, say, macarons.

Oh, by the way, it was worth it. The food was delicious and we overbought so badly we have at least one more meal out of it plus gifts with use-by dates for most of our family  and friends.

By the time we had got to the lunch table we were ravenous, but showed great restraint in only sharing a starter and ordering two whole-fish main courses. They were outstanding and very creative dishes, which made it all the more remarkable that we were sitting in what was essentially a food court. You gotta love New York.

LK splashes out on my gift
Outside again, it was starting to get pretty cold. LK insisted on buying me a cap to keep me warm. She then suggested we jump back on the subway and go up to 57th Street to shop at a place called Tiffany & Co.

And so I did my first real Christmas shopping at the Pale Blue Palace. It was only my second time here, but I think I impressed LK by remembering a way of getting to the counters while avoiding the crowds squeezing into the elevators. Which probably says heaps about what I was paying attention to last year.

On the premise that it's the thought that counts, I don't know how much my gifts are going to count since LK picked out what she wanted and my contribution was to take the credit card out of my wallet. The clerk asked us to choose which ribbon we wanted on the box, and I didn't even get to make that choice.

That's all right. At least I know she won't re-gift my present or tell everyone about what an awful gift I bought her for Christmas - as she still does when telling people about the pasta maker I gave her more than 20 years ago.

So there you have it. I got my present, and she got hers.

It will be a blue Christmas for LK

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Georgia's On My Mind

It was dark in the room - about 4am - when LK semi-woke up. "Where are we?" she asked. "New York," I said, and she went back to sleep mumbling something about too many beds in too many places.

We arrived in New York late yesterday afternoon. The sun was shining, but the temperature was chilly as rode the cab back to the Blue Moon Hotel on the lower East side, where we stayed a year ago.

And once the sun went down, the air chilled enough for LK to say, "It never gets this cold in Hobart." Actually it did get this cold about 13 years ago and it set the record for the lowest temperature ever. But for the northeastern US, this is just the beginning of winter and it will get much colder.

Or, as LK also said, "Every time we come in the winter, we say we won't come back in the winter. Why can't we remember that when we book our trips?"

With only the night to do anything - and a chilly night at that - we decided to walk a few blocks to a restaurant LK had found on the web. It looked exactly like the sort of place we would love. Small and casual (that picture shows you all of its tables), it's called Georgia's, and it features that classic New York cuising - barbecue.

OK, maybe it's not classic New York fare, but it was really, really good food. The highlight of their menu, which I've copied at the top of this post, is really their side dishes. We both ordered the pulled pork dinner, which gave us both more meat and coleslaw than we could possibly eat.

Especially with the two side dishes each. I got collard greens and green beans cooked with bacon. LK got pickled beets and brussel sprouts. Without going all vegetarian on you, I've got to report that we couldn't stop eating the veggies. They were absolutely delicious - and after a couple of weeks of tourist buffets in Egypt and Jordan, it was heaven.

We had a great New Orleans beer with our meal. And, get this, in New York we had a fantastic dinner for two with a drink for under $50. I didn't think that could be done. And you can guess where we're going back before we fly to Peg's on Monday.

After dinner I stopped at a wine store to pick up a bottle for the room. And it is the perverse nature of buying what you know that I got a New Zealand sauvignon rather than experiment with stuff I didn't know. Besides, it was only $13 in our night of culinary bargains.

Actually, the culinary bargains didn't last long. While I was buying my wine, LK was looking in the window across the street. It was a shop that specializes in macarons.

That's not macaroons, the cookies, but the French confectionery, which is actually two wafers of flavored meringue with a filling in the middle.

That's a picture of their salted caramel, which is described as "Smooth golden caramel salted with flakes of French sea salt."  LK insisted it was delicious and that I would love it, but I gave it a pass. Although it probably says something about my taste that the salt part sounded better than the caramel part.

But, as you can imagine when things are described with words like smooth, golden and flakes of foreign sea salt, this was not the cheapest snack in the world. In fact, half a dozen cost more than the pulled pork dinner with two side dishes we had just eaten a block away or the bottle of imported wine I bought across the street.

Oh well, it's New York. I knew the bargains wouldn't last forever. And at least everything we had rated a big thumbs up from two tough foodies.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Throne on the Nile

That's the view of the Nile we had from our hotel room in Luxor.  As the sun set, we would watch the sailboats move lazily to make shore, occasionally scooting out of the way of one of the stately river cruisers that bring tourists from Cairo down to this tourist hotspot. It was tranquil, relaxing and quite lovely, and in the back of my mind I couldn't help but think that here I was sitting along the banks of the mighty Nile River.

Which is why it is probably a bit of a let-down when I tell you the very most interesting thing we saw in our hotel room was the toilet.

For here in this ancient city, home of centuries-old temples and tombs and statues, we discovered a 21st Century marvel. We had an electric toilet.

When we first saw this modern take on the age-old necessity, it was not obvious that it was anything special.

Sure, it seemed a bit odd to see a rather lengthy set of safety warnings on the underside of the lid. After all, I thought, I seem to have more or less mastered how to use these things without having to read guidebooks before and whatever injuries and discomforts I may have incurred couldn't really be blamed on the toilet.

But closer inspection showed an electric wire leading into the back of the toilet and a very complicated control panel on the wall, just above the unautomated roll of paper. And on that panel, among other options, were buttons for Wash, Dry and Massage.

It was time to read the instructions.

The good news is that they were so funny that they made me pee, but I was in the perfect spot for that to happen. So, without further ado - but with a warning that you may want to consider where you are when you, too, read them - here are the electric toilet's instructions (and I have typed them exactly as they appeared):



1. Don't throw the burning cigarette or flaming stuff into the bowl, or possibly incur the dangerous fire.

2. In order to avoid electric shock, don't use in the place where it is prone to splashing the toilet body with water or in the rather quite moist conditions.

3. The electric shock will possibly take place, when removing the plug off with wet hand.

4. Set the temperature at low level prior to use for children, the older, and the handicapped to be free from damage to skin by high temperature.

5. Avoid keeping the heavy substance or human stand-up on the bowl body, toilet seat, or their top covering, or possibly bring the damage to operation system.

6. Keep the hand or something off the outlet of dry air in order to avoid the injury caused by high temperature of electric shock.

7. Water resource is limited from tap water supply, or possible get the skin diseases, such as skin irritation.

8. Don't flush other things down the toilet, besides feces, urine, and toilet paper.

9. Don't use at zero Celsius degree or below, or it is possible to make the inner component parts break down due to water frozen.

10. Cut power and water supply off for a long time of un-use.

11. Cleaning with the neutral detergent, don't use the following items, toilet cleaning agent, alcoholic cleaning solution, volatile solvent, and brush, avoid damage to the toilet seat surface.

12. Forbidden to use the cement on the bottom of Ceramic body, its inflation nature will lead to cracking to the body. Manufacturer will be irresponsible for any problem caused by using with cement.

In order to operate this item quite well, it is advised to read the user's guide closely ahead of operation.


Sadly, I never did figure out how to actually make the thing work so it just became a throne without a royal flush. But I felt really good just knowing that this hotel in the middle of Egypt had tried to enhance our holiday experience by making a visit to the loo a bit of an adventure. This was especially true because after the hotel buffet, I really did need to throw flaming stuff into the bowl. Fortunately, nothing untoward occurred, probably because I was careful not to flush other things down the bowl.

And as a postscript, I should add that in the morning I was sitting in the room when a wet, naked LK bolted out of the bathroom. "Can you please come in and help me figure out this shower," she pleaded. "It's all high-tech but I can't figure out how to adjust the temperature or control the flow of water."

So in I went. I studied the various knobs and controls for a second. When I leaned in to try to sort it out, she said, "Don't turn that knob up. I did, and all it did was make cold water shoot out straight at me."

Of course, I registered what she said just a split second after turning that knob up. And no, we never did figure out how to make the shower work properly, either.