Thanks for checking into my blog!

As a "recovering" middle school teacher with a unique outlook on life, I stopped active teaching in 2010 and moved into another career path... writing! Here goes! In addition, I am a travel buff, forever baseball addict, movie fan, music fan, foodie extraordinaire, NCIS devotee, gardener, and more.

Just love writing for kids, travel writing and basic journalism. Pretty unusual, since I taught Home Economics! But there's a story here too - a non-fiction one or more...

Friday, October 19, 2012

A September to Remember...

Rule # 41 – When all else fails, hang on tight!

Toyota is famous for their Christmas time ads, “The December to Remember” sales pitches. The other 11 months should be slightly ticked off with this. What makes you think it’s only December that’s worth remembering?

My whole summer was filled with ups and downs. For the most part, it was good ups and downs. Hub and I were busy, that’s for sure. We got the kitchen finished, painted the dining room, had visitors, made plans to travel, got the travel set up, then went on vacation in August and had a ball. Our only really down note was losing our 18 year old dog. Even today, neither of us is truly beyond that need for fur in our daily life.

But then came September…

You could probably tell from the number of postings that something was up. It’s not like I’ve forgotten my readers. The roller coaster that is life really had us on some serious peaks and valleys. I’m just now able to catch my breath after being sucker-punched by life.

It started just before Labor Day. My annual mammogram showed another abnormality so I was off to get that biopsy done. That came back 100 percent benign – praise God – so now it was time to start climbing the “up”.

We were leaving for a 2-week road trip to visit Hub’s cousins in Oklahoma and Texas, with a side stop to his niece in Dallas. A few days before we left, Hub’s sister called.

“Our house finally sold, can we move in with you until we leave finally for Texas?”

We said yes, got the timeframe settled, brought a copy of our house key over, and then packed up to leave on our trip. (up, down, up, down) It was going to work out ok, since we were officially to have house sitters for a few days while we were gone. But, I needed to let my neighbors know what was going on, since the sight of a U-Haul in my driveway might have Hub’s sister and brother-in-law U-Hauled to the pokey.

We finally head west at o-dark-thirty on a Monday morning. Such a peaceful, beautiful drive we had through the Maryland and West Virginia Mountains! It was a great time to ride shotgun to Hub’s driving and take pictures. We passed the exit for an asylum that was investigated on Ghost Hunters. I made a mental note to check it out further when we got to the hotel that evening. We made really great time the first day. It was also comforting to see that the DC Metro area is not immune to horrible traffic problems at rush hour. We hit Louisville, KY, at the rush and tried to get to Indiana, to a hotel we already stayed at before. It was bumper to bumper on some of the roads at that time of day. We joked that all the traffic was heading north, so that it would be Indiana’s problem from there on. Serious “up” at this point…

Hub normally likes to do all the driving. I don’t mind that. Same thing occurred this trip, too. He drove the first day. He was a bit stiff and sore at the end of Day 1. So we both did some time on the exercise machines in the hotel. As we finished our drive, I found that I was racking up lots of blog material from this trip. I started to organize it into blog topics to focus the writing a bit more. I did some driving at points on Day 2.

Oklahoma was a bit of a surprise. We crossed the border and did not see a “Welcome to Oklahoma” sign where we crossed. We saw “You are now entering the Cherokee Nation”. Hub’s cousins were so glad to see us. We relaxed, did a bit of touring in Tahlequah and Claremore, relaxed some more, talked until wee hours of the evening, relaxed and then finally agreed to do this again in the spring. Now it was off for a day’s drive to Dallas, to bunk in with his niece for the evening.

After spending the night with his niece, and catching up on the life and craziness of 2 teen girls with 2 working parents, we headed south to San Antonio to catch up with Hub’s other cousin and her hubby. He made it through cancer treatments and was doing really well, staying cancer free. Hub drove most of the way while I handled the navigation duties. Hub was very sore and stiff after all that driving. He’s not the best passenger, either, especially if I’m driving. There was a lot of side-seat driving and arguing going on when I was behind the wheel. But what else is new? More “ups”…

We got a chance to remember the Alamo – literally visit it. Lucky for us we went on a really rainy day. Almost no one was touring that day. So we had free reign of the site and could check out so much!! We walked around the tourist area surrounding the Alamo, checked out some shops, and made plans to take a Riverwalk cruise the next evening. That is, until we pulled into the driveway and my cell phone went off. Get ready to dive down the big hill.

My daughter called, so upset she could hardly talk, to tell me that my aunt passed away suddenly that morning. She didn’t know too many details at the time… she couldn’t convey them if she did, anyway. So later in the evening I made a few calls and got the details. Turns out she was killed in a freak accident in her church parking lot. People were in the process of being notified and funeral events were scheduled for the end of the week. This gave us time to get home.

We were over the “up” and now heading for a bunch of “downs”.

I drove most of the way home. Hub was stiff and sore in his back. Sometimes he would move and yell in pain. He sure wasn’t sleeping well. So we made a straight shot for home. We took Interstates all the way. As a side note, there are some places on the Interstate system that require a large bladder in your body. You can drive for hours and not hit anything resembling a rest area, unless you are a guy. This is true of some spots in Mississippi and Alabama. And don’t go getting hungry for anything other than fast food. When you do find a stop or restaurant, it usually has golden arches or a freaky-looking king nearby.

Hub is in some serious pain now that we are home. We schedule a doctor’s visit… then the doctor’s office cancels us and reschedules. We start on the funeral process; all the while Hub’s pain is visible on his face. He’s more comfortable sitting down, but chairs in funeral homes are not always easy to get in and out of. He was having a harder time getting up and down. Churches need to rethink straight wooden pews, too.  He had a hard time sitting through the Mass, and not just because he’s not a Catholic. He made it through the viewing, Mass and the burial on the third day.  Then he got to see our doctor, who began treating him for back spasms.

Now the calendar is in the last week of September. His pain is still high on the scale. The spasm meds are not doing what they should. And he is having a harder time walking. We go back to the doctor, who gives us heavier pain meds. They seem to work some. In the meantime, we need to get some tests done. He now has a referral for a spine doctor and more tests than a Maryland school kid.

In between, I am helping my cousins clean out my aunt’s apartment. They set a date of the end of September to have the place emptied out, so they didn’t need to pay another month’s rent. My aunt told my cousin on several occasions before her passing, “You will rue the day you have to clean out my house.” She did. My daughter was helping us on one of the days. She reminded me to take care of my stuff now. She’s right. I need to do that. But first, let’s get the Hub pain free.

It’s half past October and we are finally getting some answers for Hub’s back. We see another doctor today, who should have some definitive word for us. Somewhere in there, I need to concentrate on writing. Right now, this blog could be one of my mental therapy sessions. Now to keep myself calm and get him off to the doctor’s appointment…

Notes to self:
  • Blog about doctor’s offices and gatekeeper/office personnel. Try to be kind.
  • Blog about the Alamo and Oklahoma touring portions of the trip.
  • Don’t forget the notes on restrooms on interstate highways you made on the trip. That’s worth a blog post too, even if the potty subject is a bit middle school.

Ups… downs…ups… downs… right now I could use a merry-go-round. Just for a bit. And a whole lot of sleep…

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's "Another" Day...

Rule #3 – Experience everything.

History – if we don’t learn from it, we are doomed to repeat it. These aren’t my words. They come from Greece long ago, in one form or another. Winston Churchill said something similar. George Santayana did, too. It’s a phrase that’s been used and reused, parsed and re-parsed, and in the end, proven correct. We all need to study history, and try to experience it as much as possible in our current day, so that we not only honor those in our past, but understand their vision for their future. We are living in “their vision” as we speak and what are we doing differently? How are we doing it differently? Are we doing anything differently, really? And, why?

These are questions that rolled around in my head after visiting Montpelier, James Madison’s home, in Orange, Virginia. This may sound like a strange reaction to visiting a historical mansion, and viewing the daily life of one of our “founding fathers”. But James Madison was not so much a founding father of our country, like Washington, Adams (Sam or John) or Jefferson. He was truly responsible for a lot of what we live today. James Madison is the architect of our U.S. Constitution, the major document that drives the laws in our country. It’s also THE document that’s had its relevancy challenged in the recent American press and courts. With 2012 being a Presidential election year, I wanted to visit Mr. Madison’s home to see what he was “all about”.

I went into the visit with some prior knowledge of Madison’s professional career. He was our fourth President. His wife’s name was Dolley. He was president during the War of 1812, and was the first to have to evacuate the capital city for the safety of the government. Dolley Madison was also the first to serve a new French concoction called iced cream. Being a Philadelphia native, I remember the brand “Dolley Madison Ice Cream” from when I was growing up. Beyond that, nothing stood out in my mind. Politically, he was sandwiched between Thomas Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase) and James Monroe (Monroe Doctrine).

Now his home is a National Historic Trust site. The restoration work is as recent at 2003. The goal for the restoration is to bring the home back to the post-Presidential period of Madison’s life.

There is a long, winding drive from Route 20, Constitution Highway, up to the Visitor’s Center at Montpelier. From here, you can see that this home was at one time a working farm. You can also see how subsequent owners put their own stamp on the land. The last private owner, Marion DuPont Scott, bred horses for racing. You drive past a track and can occasionally see a horse work out with the sulky for harness racing.

View from the front of the Montpelier Mansion

Pull into the Visitor’s Center lot and catch your breath, as I did, with the beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The day I visited was hot, but the haze did not impede the view at all. You can imagine the colors in autumn. In the Visitor’s Center, I could use one of the many Smartphones with self-paced audio tours on them. These tours also have apps that visually give plenty of background for each stop on the tour. These items are free to use, just leave a deposit at the desk. Before you go a-wandering, you might want to get a snack or drink at the Courtyard Café. There are two galleries in the Visitor’s Center to check out, too. One holds items from the DuPont era; the other focuses on Dolley Madison. Now let’s go to the theater to view the film and “meet” our host for the day.

Montpelier, Orange, Virginia
Our group walks up Madison Road to the front gate of the house where we meet our tour guide for the house tour. She explains that the house we see before us was, at first, a smaller version, then expanded, then “duplexed”, and finally returned to is current look. We walked up to the porch, with a floor surface of marble, which keeps the porch 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the house in the heat of the summer.

Inside, our group tours the first floor living spaces of our fourth President. It shows the residual of when the home was a duplex, with Mrs. Madison, his mother, and her staff on one side and Mrs. Madison, his wife, and family on the other. We learn that Mr. Madison thought ahead of the territorial egos of the two most important women in his life.

As we tour the second floor, we learn more about the archeological investigations and the restoration process. The master bedroom gives you a good look into the lives – and hygiene opportunities – of those living at that time. We move into the library space, a precious location for Mr. Madison, since all of his treasured books were here. Since the books were sold off after his death, we don’t see the actual books, but we have the view of the mountains to inspire us, and a multi-media reflection on his greatest work, the drafts of the Constitution, to view. Brace yourself, too, because at the end of the presentation comes my personal favorite part: “The Constitution… Read it. Cherish it. Protect it.” Brace yourself for the cheers from those of us who want people to really READ the document.

Our tour group then moves to the grounds of Montpelier. Some of us choose to investigate the formal garden. Others check out the slave quarters site. The rest of us head into the side office where a reenactor – or “James Madison” himself – was available for discussions. Mr. Madison sits at his desk and fields questions about the reason for the War of 1812. There is a spirited discussion between the audience of now and Mr. Madison of then. We get a chance to look into how decisions of such magnitude are made. Another audience member asks about his courtship of Dolley. We find out there was a substantial age difference between them, and that Mr. Madison was truly smitten with his wife. He blushed as he described his courtship and the long lasting love he had for her. I personally, spend the greater part of an hour in the company of this gentleman.

View of the slave quarters site just outside the main house

President James Madison and yours truly after a long discussion in his office
Due to the rising heat and humidity of the day, the visit is shortened. I walk around the house grounds, and through the slave quarters area and take pictures of the site. I walk over to the area near Dolley’s kitchen where the staff demonstrates cooking techniques of the time period. There is a chance for youngsters to help in the kitchen too, with hands on demonstrations. I walk over to the other hands-on tent, where you can learn wood crafting and needlecrafts from the Madison era. I did not hike to the Forest Walking Trail, over to the Archeology Lab, or down to the Family and Slave Cemeteries. That’s for my next visit, in cooler weather.

Mr. Madison's "Temple" over the year-round ice house

Bronze rendering of Mr. and Mrs. Madison

View of the walled formal garden from the slave quarters
I really need to return to Montpelier. There is so much to see and more history to absorb. And my questions are still not completely answered. So much to learn about history…so much to learn from history…

What a view from the front porch!
 All photos are the sole property of Marge McGugan. No reproduction or reuse without permission.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Confessions of the Epicurially Challenged

Rule # 46 – Learn something from every experience.

Day 1 of vaca:
Scene – Massanutten Summit unit with sister-in-law. Brother and Hub are in the background, “discussing” the political news. We are perusing the weekly events calendar for the site.

S – Let’s do something different.
Me – You don’t want to hit the winery tours?
S – No, we’ve seen them all and no one has invented a new way to make wine.
Me – Ok, so what haven’t we done around here? We are all a bit too decrepit for rafting down the Shenandoah again.

We look. We both agree it must include the lovely fermented grape juice.

Me – How about this? The Winemaker’s dinner? What do you think?
S – Expensive.
Me – Yes, a bit. But what else are we doing to stimulate the local economy around here?

Enter Brother.

S – Yo, what do you think about the Winemaker’s Dinner?
B – How much?
S – (quotes price)
B and Hub – WHAT???!!!
S – But it sounds interesting.
Me – It sounds fattening too. Yeah!
B and Hub – Hmmmm…..
B – What the heck! Let’s do it.
Hub – Make 4 reservations.

And so we did just that.

Fast forward to day 5:

We all arrive on time for the meal. We pay for the experience (ouch!!!). And we enter the dining room.

S – Welcome to the Titanic!
B – Holy crap! This all for me?
Hub – What the….?
Me – Just start on the outside and work your way in.

Seriously, we entered into a dining room set with the high formal table settings. We were anticipating a five course meal with wine. What we got was an experience fit for kings and queens, or at least Food Network exec chefs.

The Winemaker’s Dinner at Massanutten features a local winery and a local chef, who focuses on local ingredients. It’s not a dressy dinner, but the table setting alone reminds you of those company manners your mom taught you all those years ago. The “dressy” ambiance brings out the “polite and civil” in everyone.

We were seated with another couple from Michigan and the six of us bonded immediately… over baseball and football. The evening began with lots of friendly conversation, talking about kids, where we are from, do we own there or trade in. Then, our master of ceremonies began the evening’s educational program by introducing the chef and the winery representative. The chef was an executive chef from one of the onsite restaurants. His credentials were impressive and his training – well, it reminded me of the chefs I brought into the high school classrooms to talk about the career. He described how he shopped at local farms for the ingredients for the evening’s meal. Our winery representative was from Stone Mountain Vineyards. I’ve seen the signs for the vineyard as we drove around the area, but I’d never experienced their wares until this year. Both people gave us an overview of our menu of food and wine for the evening with an approximate timetable. They also explained how the food and wines were matched up. And they introduced us to the kitchen staff, a clear nod to the teamwork that is a professional kitchen.

Then the chef introduced the first course – an appetizer of garlic flan, with a mushroom salpicon. Fresh garlic was used for the flan. The mushrooms were rendered in a wine and butter sauce. It was presented with a garnish of greens. This was paired with a 2011 Pinot Grigio from Stone Mountain. The wine has a gentle taste, for a Pinot, and blended perfectly with the appetizer. The portion size was a small 4-ounce serving placed in front of the individual diner. No sharesies here! And no wine in any glass after the course was finished.

Our second course was billed as a tomato soup with cilantro and jalapeño oil. It was paired with Stone Mountain’s 2010 Chardonnay. The soup was served cold, very appropriate for the 97 degree day. It was also not a smooth puree, like a gazpacho would be. You could see the chunks of tomato and onion in your bowl. The jalapeño oil was lightly drizzled on the top of the presentation. The taste was refreshing and surprising… almost needing nacho chips, but not quite. The white chardonnay set off the spicing in the soup. There was a nice balance of zest between the two menu items. And again, there was no leftover wine.

Then… the salad course. I’m used to a tossed salad with lots of flavors mixed together, with no dressing. We were presented with a small plate of fresh spinach greens, with a generous portion of fresh onions roasted in a berry sauce. This was topped with gorgonzola cheese and roasted pecans, with a bit more berry flavoring for a dressing. It was time for a more imposing wine flavor, so Stone Mountain brought out their Maquillage. This wine was a rose` blend that took our taste buds to a new level. It was a gentle wine that added a bit of punch to the flavors of the berry sauce and gorgonzola cheese. The wine tempered the strong flavors of the food and allowed all essences of the course to blend perfectly. This was, however, our third glass of wine and you could tell a buzz was setting in. Conversations were becoming louder and there was a real party atmosphere developing in the room. Small amounts of wine were left behind, not because of flavor, but in the interest of sobriety.

The main course was next. All the other courses could be deemed vegetarian friendly, but not the main one. We were treated to braised Angus beef shanks with apples and a side of fingerling potatoes.  The beef, apples and potatoes were braised together with fresh roasted garlic, onion, and slight spicing. The food was served “dry” (no gravy, although there was some natural juices on the plate) and presented with a garnish of greens and apples. This was hearty fare, not for the small of appetite. It was paired with a very hearty red wine, Massanutten Mosiac. This wine was a blend specifically for Massanutten Resort and is only sold at one location on the property. It was a smooth compliment to the hearty flavors of the meal. The red wine drinkers among us had no problem finishing our glass and looking for more. The white wine drinkers… not so much. But there was no wine left at the table when the course was finished. All abandoned red wines found a suitable home.
Braised Angus shanks with fingerling potatoes and apples.

Me – Now I know how my Thanksgiving turkey feels… so stuffed.
S – One more course to go. This is going to be a pain to figure the Weight Watcher points for this meal. Oh well, get back to it tomorrow.

Last but not least was dessert. After all the heady flavors we consumed before now, we were all looking for something a bit light and sweet. We were not disappointed. The chef presented us with a slice of apricot pie, garnished with a brandy glaze. Apricots were blended with vanilla custard and placed in a baked pie shell and served cold. Apricot brandy was rendered into a glaze and drizzled over the serving. As stuffed as we were, we had to try it. Does the phrase “epicurial heaven” sound appropriate? It just melted in our mouths. We were served a yellow branch cherry wine as an accompaniment. This was a sweet dessert wine, designed to be sipped in small amounts. The wine was a bit too sweet for my tastes, but the white wine aficionados enjoyed the lightness on the palate.

I look back on this event as a real educational experience. Like I used to do in my classes, I needed to sit and reflect on what I learned for the lesson. Let’s see…. I learned:

  1. You can eat well, eat healthy and eat delicious all in the same meal. (Ok, I knew that already as a teacher… prior learning)
  2. You need to take your time eating a great meal. Savor the flavors. Enjoy the company. Drink wine if you can.
  3. Put yourself out of your comfort zone. I’m not a formal dining person, but I think I held my own through the evening.
  4. Chefs like to talk about their products. They like compliments. They are not just kitchen gnomes, to be hidden and ignored.
  5. Kids need to experience this event too, without the wine. They could learn formal dining manners, an appreciation for the work in the kitchens, and that food other than Big Macs really do taste good.
  6. They will also learn visual portion size. They will learn when enough food is enough – you know, pacing. They will see teamwork in action, in a venue that doesn’t involve a ball.
  7.  I want to do this again… and soon.

S, B, Me, Hub - Very soon….

Check out Stone Mountain Vineyards at their website:

It’s worth the trip!