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...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Lighting my fire

Rule #20 – Draw inspiration from anything and everything.

     We turned the page on the calendar. It’s now the end of December. November flew by too quickly, but not without some productivity. Ok, so I haven’t really blogged in a while. November was rough for me emotionally with the first year of Hub’s passing under my belt. People keep reminding me to be good to myself, take care of myself. And I’ve been trying to do just that. It’s time to add a few things to the daily mix of stuff to do. To get my head back in the writing game a bit more, so to speak.
      I got a fantastic opportunity to do just that on October 27. My regional SCBWI chapter hosted a local event for authors to kick off PiBoIdMo and NaNoWriMo. We got together in Annapolis and psyched each other up for a 30-day romp through creativity. We practiced some exercises to change a POV of things, people and animals.
     Teacher-brain alert – define the acronyms. Self, you’ve hung out with military and federal workers way too long.
     PiBoIdMo is Picture Book Idea Month. It’s the brain-child of Tara Lazar, blogger of “Writing for Kids while Raising Them” and author of “The Monstore”. The challenge for authors is to come up with an idea a day for the thirty days of November, then spend the next eleven months developing these ideas into picture books. It’s a great chance to raise some of those ideas from the dust pile of my desk (or brain) and play with them. Just what could these ideas become?
     NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The goal here is to write your novel’s first draft in thirty days. Then you are to spend the next eleven months polishing, editing, and pitching the novel for publication.
     SCBWI is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This group is a professional organization for writers in the very broad children’s literature field. I say it’s a broad field because it covers everything from “Pat the Bunny” to “Twilight”, fiction and non-fiction, picture books, graphic novels, and some young adult work.
     POV is – here, at least – point of view. In some circles it’s also a privately owned vehicle. But for our purposes, a change in POV means to take our brains for a drive down different roads to see sights from another perspective. For instance, one exercise we did was to pull an item out of a box. We held it for a few minutes and imagined what we could do with it in a story. I pulled out a mustache… then imagined my 5-year old boy character and the people he could become if he put the magic muzzie on his mug or on his dog.
     I found out I have an imagination that maybe shouldn’t be allowed out in public without a chaperone.
     Thanks to Sarah Maynard and Lisa Perez for getting the creative juices flowing. Together they hosted a PiBoIdMo kickoff event at Annapolis Public Library. There were about twenty other children’s authors and illustrators on hand, all trying to get past the holidays and get into inspiration. Some are already published authors. Some of us are not. But we all tried to come up with ideas for picture books or novels for kids that could be morphed into manuscripts or illustrations…. That could morph into published works and money.

Sarah Maynard signing in participants for the Kickoff

Lisa Perez, ready to help NaNoWriMo participants

Lisa and Sarah get the Kickoff under way
     Both writers share their writer inspirations, from Corey Rosen Schwartz to Roald Dahl. We all participated in conversations, when, after a specific time period, we were asked to pull inspiration from what we discussed. It was amazing how many of us took the question “Where are you from?” and let it run wild with ideas.
Participants come up with ideas on the fly
     We also discussed a variety of organizations schemes for this project. Many of us have files, notebooks, notepads, and sketch books. But we were challenged on how accessible are our ideas. Can we reach an idea and let it take hold? Do we even open the file drawer? What gets us started? What do we do when writer’s block sets in? How long is too long to rest a draft? When is enough rewriting enough rewriting? How can we be inspired by the internet? So many questions - and so many different ways to answer those questions!

Time to share some inspiration

Items in the hand inspire creative ideas
       That’s when I made up my mind that this was the year. I was going to sign on to the Facebook page and join in the challenge. I found some index cards, thanks to my good buddy. The color coding fit my organizational scheme, too. If I pull out a yellow card, I am developing a character. Blue cards are story lines… and so forth.
What organizational style works for you?
     The crazy thing about this challenge is how successful it was. I have more than 30 ideas now. I got inspired by some unusual things. There was a YouTube video that gave me inspiration on how children feel safe in their environment. There were old character friends that I revisited and punched up their back stories. There was an idea a garden club buddy gave me about light and darkness. My little buddy, David, now has some more wild and wonderful adventures to enjoy. Plus my traveling… where can my beloved coffee mug rest this time?
     Sarah closed the event with a fantastic quote from Roald Dahl’s writings. The participants swapped business cards. We all committed to the month of ideas and seeing it through.
Sarah shares a closing quote
     But… the ideas are only the beginning. What we do with those ideas will be the payoff. We all have each other to help bounce ideas back and forth. We are our own support group. Add chocolate and it becomes a therapy session. We can do this. We know we can. We know we can.
     So now, on the brink of 2014, the commitment is made. Ideas will become manuscripts. Manuscripts will become books. Books will always be timeless and our personal gift to the future.
     Self, make it so.

 All photos are the property of Marge McGugan and may not be reused or copied without written permission.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Help! I've fallen off the face of the earth!

Rule #3 - Experience Everything

Wow! Does time fly!

There has been so much happening, I haven't had a chance to write it all down yet. Since the last post I've done a lot of traveling. I never once thought I'd get tired of packing myself up and taking off for parts unknown. But - believe it or not - I have. It's mid-December and I'm home. I'm tired. I need to get ready for the holidays.

But, I have been sticking to my rules. In the past month or so, I managed to do the PiBoIdMo (more later) and now I have an index card file of ideas, characters, character profiles, and story lines for kids' books. I drove by myself to Ohio. Got a chance to spend some serious q-time with my brother and his family. We found another winery (this should surprise NO one). Massachusetts played host to me for Thanksgiving. Then, it was back to Williamsburg for the Grand Illumination. More on all of this later.

In between all of this, my furnace decided it needed work. One new oil tank later - and a surprise greeting of 43 degrees in the house upon return from Virginia - I am back giving thanks and praise to the gods of central heating. With doors open and weather getting colder, guess which of the animal persuasion decided to bunk in for a while? You guessed right if you guessed mice. There was quite a lot of evidence of Mickey's presence in various areas of the house. Oh Mickey, it's not fine! You're in my house, which blows my mind. No, Mickey! Go, Mickey! Traps, baits, and poisons used - and now I hope he's gone to the Great Cheese Factory in the sky.

Add to this, all the events, meetings, discussions, and paperwork that goes with my church work. Our parish is in the process of consolidating with another local parish. There are deadlines set and they need to be met. I plan to do the best I can with this stuff. The timing stinks on all of these deadlines.

Guess all of this was Karma's way of keeping my mind busy through a rough anniversary. Yes, it's been a year since Hub passed. The professional pundits were right - the first year SUCKS! All the paperwork and decisions that need to be made - it all came crashing down around my head. Now, as I go into year two, I find myself trying to redefine myself as a newly minted single. It's now time to start actually cleaning out Hub's things. It's time to get back to work writing seriously. It's time to take a few more steps toward moving on. Ok, year two REALLY SUCKS!

Now I need to get some things taken care of around the house - like housework. My pet dust bunnies - Kevin, Stuart, Ted, and all their friends - took over parts of the house. I need to sweep them out. Time to finish Christmas shopping, then wrapping. Time to decorate for Christmas. There are some people who still don't know that Hub is gone, so I need to remedy that.

Someone said that sleep was overrated. I will debate that issue, but right now I must buy into it. I really need to organize myself a bit better. Here's hoping it can happen.

I have to make it so... Christmas is coming!

Breathe, Self! Now pay the bills, and get cracking... Where's the coffee?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

NOW it's the end of summer... and baseball

Rule # 53 – Keep an attitude of gratitude always.

     At this time period, October is over. Baseball just finished its second season with only two teams remaining in the end. Alas, not my Orioles or Phillies. Not this year. I sat back and watched Boston jump all over St. Louis for the World Series. 
     But keeping to the rule, with the O’s not in the postseason, what on earth do I have to be grateful for from this past year in baseball? So much… way too much is the answer. Let’s take a look at this past year from the perspective of the birds of an orange feather.
     The O’s are in the toughest division in all Major League Baseball, with the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays. Out of all five teams, four of them were within 5 games of first place beyond the All Star Break in July and even into September. That’s a pretty tight race all season long. And it was any team’s division to win up until the last full week of play. Two division teams made it to the postseason, the Sox and Rays.
     In past years - as close as 5 years ago - many a year us Oriole fans watched in melancholy as our beloved birds of the orange feather were eliminated from any postseason hopes by the Fourth of July. This year, however, we were in it until almost the end. And even after elimination, the team continued to play their hearts out. After all, our last series was with the Red Sox. We had to beat those guys on general principles.
     It was a fantastic season to watch. Chris Davis set the club home run record. Manny Machado had fans lining up to buy him his first legal beer as he turned 21 during the All Star break. His play at third base was phenomenal. Brian Roberts came back from injury to share second base duties with Ryan Flaherty. Both fellows did the position proud, and both fellows earned their keep in the hitting department. Chris Tillman emerged as a class A starting pitcher. Don’t forget the best catcher in Matt Weiters. We sent Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis to the All Star Game. With Davis nicknamed “Crush”, Baltimore became a historic site – Mt. Crushmore!
     And that’s just the start of it all.
     What really put the crabmeat on the mac-‘n-cheese hot dog was the season tickets. I sat behind one of the upper camera wells. The camera man was fun to watch when tight plays were called – or more likely, miscalled. We got to know the folks sitting around us – many teachers and retired teachers. We got to know our usher and his family. Getting to know names and faces, seeing the same people each Sunday – making some great new friends – that was the really great part of seeing an O’s game in person. Ok, I have to admit it was great hanging at the Irish Pub bar near the elevators and doing a celebrity watch. Several were on hand for a variety of Sunday games and they had the suites behind our seats.
     I did see the Phillies in action this year, at Nationals Park in D.C. and at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia. This was their struggle year and it wasn’t pretty at all. Manager Charlie Manual got bounced from the job in August. Ryne Sandberg took over and the team showed some promise. But that’s for next year. 
     So, thank you, Baseball, for a great season. I ticked three parks off my 32 Pilgrimage list. I am officially a Club Level Brat, since those seats get access to air conditioning, great food, a party atmosphere, and, oh yeah, air conditioning when needed. Can’t wait to see other parks and taste their signature food.
     Thank you, Richard Gere, for throwing out the first pitch on Father’s Day. You make grey look great (I’m still drooling).
     Thank you, Kevin Spacey, for spending several Sundays watching the O’s from the Club Level. I’m still kicking myself for missing the July 14 game when you threw out the first pitch.
     Thank you to our Irish Pub bartenders, who looked at us and didn’t say a word – they just pulled the Guinness. They knew… they just knew.
     Most of all, thank you Orioles. I saw the best games played in the best park, Oriole Park. Baltimore has some crazy cool fans who love the competition. That stadium can rock.
     And just in case you are counting…as of this writing, there are 104 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training around the 12th of February. There are only 151 days until Opening Day on March 31. 

     Guess who the Orioles open the season playing… you got it – the World Champion Boston Red Sox.

     It is so ON, Beantown! It is so ON!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Paging ... Ghost Hunters

Rule #22 – Question everything.

     When you think of “history”, what comes to mind? Old, musty, dusty textbooks? A bunch of facts that might get you a gig on “Jeopardy”? Ben Stein as Ferris Buehler’s teacher? (“Anyone? Anyone?”) Stories of old folks long, long ago and stuff they did? 
     Both Edmund Burke and George Santayana have versions of the quote about those not learning from history being bound to repeat it. I have always enjoyed learning about the past, more for curiosity about life in the past than for the political ramifications. Those who went before us still have much to tell. They also have unusual ways of communicating their lives with us. Some souls witnessed great events. Some were tormented while alive. Some souls haven’t left us yet and still make their presence know in specific spots. 
     While visiting Nashville, Tennessee, recently, I decided to check out some of the local history in Downtown Nashville. No, not just the stories you hear about, I wanted some of the back stories, too. A ghost walk was in order. 
     I met the costumed guide across the street from the Hermitage Hotel. And what an impressive hotel it is! The hotel boasts five-star luxury for all of its guests. Walking into the lobby takes you back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in décor, complete with marble flooring, stained-glass skylights, and traditional furniture. The rooms at the Hermitage have a similar décor, but with all the modern conveniences.
Entrance to the Hermitage Hotel
     But… if you stay in room 910 - which is a combined new room between 910 and 912 -you may wake to the sound of the crying infant who died in room 912. You may also hear his mother try to soothe the crying. If you stay in room 813, you may just encounter the “Lady in White”, who never left the room. When you venture anywhere on the first two floors - even in the OakBar - be mindful of your company manners. There is the spirit of a woman in Southern Belle attire who greets many an unsuspecting guest.
Look up and you may see someone...
     Our next stop on the ghost walk was the Tennessee State House and grounds. Since we were walking after dark, the State House itself was closed up for the day. But… as we stood outside of the building, I learned about the building’s architect, William Strickland, and the running feud he had with the Capitol Commissioner, Samuel Morgan, as the building was under construction. Both men were intense rivals, and at times, they even came to blows over the decisions to be made. Both men did respect each other, and when they passed away, they were both buried at the Capitol. Since they regularly opposed each other, they were buried on opposite sides of the building. Rumor has it that they still argue, to this day. If you are really quiet, you can hear them still inside the building, bickering over a building issue.
Tennessee State Capitol Building at night
     Outside on the grounds of the Capitol building, I walked past many statues of honored Tennesseans. Sergeant Alvin York is memorialized on the grounds, along with President James K. Polk. President Andrew Jackson’s statue is the same equestrian pose that is in Jackson Square in New Orleans. I did not feel like I was “alone” when viewing these works of art, either. Plus, it is said, that Rachel Jackson, the President’s Lady, keeps watch over Tennessee from the top tower of the Capitol. President Polk and his wife were buried at another location. But ever since their graves were moved to the Capitol grounds - it is said- they are not happy and make their presence known.
Statue of Sgt. Alvin York and ? (check out the orbs)

Statue of General Andrew Jackson and ? (more orbs)
Is the President's Lady keeping watch over Nashville from the tower?
     Our party walked only a few blocks east to St. Mary’s Church. This was the site of a great deal of spirit activity up until 1969. That was the year when workers discovered the remains of Bishop Richard P. Miles in the basement of the building. He was buried properly and all spirit activity ceased.
St. Mary's Church in downtown Nashville
    Next stop on the tour was the old Rainbow Room building at Printer’s Alley. The Rainbow Room started out as an exotic dance club. David “Skull” Schulman turned it into a country bar in the 1990’s.  So many country singers jammed at the Rainbow Room, that Skull Schulman became known as the Mayor of Printer’s Alley. One night, as Skull was closing the place down, robbers got into the building. They shot and killed Skull in his own place. The perpetrators were caught and dealt with, but the Rainbow Room closed down. The club next door rented the closed out space for a while, to use as storage. But… none of the employees wanted to go into the storage area at night. There was still a big, blood stain on the carpet from where Skull bled out. Many locals don’t think he ever really left the building.
Door to what was the Rainbow Room 
Blues Club next door who rented storage space - then gave it back
     Last stop on the tour was Ryman Auditorium. This building has a long and storied history, and is steeped in musical folklore. Rumor has it that Captain Thomas Ryman, the builder, is still there. He will occasionally make himself known to maintenance workers. He still wants the Auditorium to sparkle. You might run into the Man in Grey, who many think is a person who attended the Confederate Soldier’s Reunion in 1897. There’s also a story about how, as Bill Anderson was performing a Hank Williams song, Hank’s spirit became a critic and “caused” a blackout just during that song. Many country music stars are reported to still grace the Mother Church of Country Music. If you are really quiet, you may even hear them.
     The tour I took is part of the regular Ghosts of Nashville walking tour. This organization has many types of tours to offer a visitor. For you who may be planning a trip to Tennessee’s capital, make sure you stop by and visit “everyone” in town. You may catch a glimpse of folks you just didn’t expect to see. What else can they tell us about events in our history?

Maybe if we just believe… and listen….
Who is in that mist in the tower... really?
For reference information, check out:

Ghosts of the Prairie – Ryman Auditorium
 Ghosts and Spirits of Tennessee – St. Mary’s Church

Printer’s Alley

Hermitage Hotel ghosts

Hermitage Hotel ghosts

To visit the spirits yourself:

Nashville Ghost Tours main website

All photos by Marge McGugan and may not be reused or copied without permission.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Goin' Country - the second part after the first part

Rule # 28 – An author must continue to learn - and I'm still learning.

     Well, folks, if the Ryman Auditorium is the Mother Church of Country Music, the newer Grand Ole’ Opry House is the National Basilica.
     After spending the day at the Ryman Auditorium, we headed over just outside the city limits to Opryland, USA. The land site is home to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, the new Grand Ole’ Opry House and Opry Mills Mall all in one place.  The mall is on land where the Opryland Amusement Park used to stand. The amusement park closed for good on December 31, 1997.  The Opryland Hotel is a visitor destination of its own. I’ll tackle that tour another time. 
     But enough talk about the other buildings on the Opryland site. Let’s look at the Grand Ole’ Opry House and the fantastic concert we saw live and in person. 
     Parking is easy at 2804 Opryland Dr. It is a short walk to the main plaza where you are greeted by some over-sized guitars. There’s plenty of picture taking that goes on at the plaza, so be careful where you walk. Lots of folks get their pictures photo-bombed by accident (we think).
Welcome to the Grad Ole' Opry House!

     The structure of the new Opry House is imposing, like a massive church would be. We walk in… and onto a red carpet. There are shops inside the Opry House. We could even get ourselves an adult beverage before the show if we wanted. The Opry can be toured during the daytime, but we didn’t get a chance to tour the backstage area. We arrive in plenty of time to find our seats in the balcony.
Opry House from Opry Plaza
     Now comparing the layout between the new Opry House and the old Ryman… well, they are similar. Both have a proscenium stage, both have a center microphone area, both have a wide balcony seating area, and both have seats set up like church pews. But the new Opry House boasts three closed circuit screens set up high on the wall – one on the stage and two on the wing sides. The only television cameras are the few that are directly on the stage. No matter where you sit in the new Opry House, you have a great view of the concert.
Balcony seating in the new Opry House - rows of pews

      The night we visited was a WSM Grand Ole’ Opry show night, broadcast on Sirius XM radio. And, yes ma’m, the program host had a place stage right with his own microphone and spot light. Cameras were on him as he chatted up a storm between acts. He and Ricky Skaggs had some fun after his Kentucky Thunder played center stage.
Opry Host

Look to the far left of the stage to see the Opry program host

     Remember how I told you about the Ryman curse? Well, you would think that moving to the new Opry House the curse would disappear. The curse itself is gone, I’m sure, but I wonder if some of the Opry cast member got that memo. See, the stage at the new Opry has a dark wood floor. Right at center stage – right where the lead singer’s microphone is – sets a big circle of lighter Ryman Auditorium wood. That’s right, folks. The curse of the Ryman could have come to the new Opry with the stage boards. It was funny to see some of the lead singers walk around the circle and sing at other mikes. Then there were the daring Diamond Rio guys who snuck into the center circle any chance they got – tempting fate.
Diamond Rio members got their eyes on the center circle

     We had a chance to see two young country up-and-comers make their Opry debut. They both stood center stage, in the circle, and wowed the audience with their songs. Diamond Rio had us standing and clapping along with their music. When Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder performed, folks were dancing in the aisle. Sam Palladio, from the TV show “Nashville”, performed with his folks backstage rooting him on. Most of these singers are not just a bunch of pretty faces either. Boy, they can sing!
Aoifa O'Donovan
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
Sam Palladio on the big screen

     One of the funnier moments in the concert was “Whispering” Bill Anderson and his songs. He has a great sense of humor and puts in all to music. He also shared some of his “almost” songs, like “The Only Good Years of our Marriage were the Tires on our Car”. Check out his “Wherever She Is” number, done just like we saw it at the Opry. Guess this fellow has had himself some love troubles. He can make you laugh about it, though.

     Josh Turner provided us with some great music and the most poignant moment I’ve seen anywhere. Josh told the audience that he was contacted by the parents of an autistic fellow who only communicates through music. Josh Turner’s music reaches this fellow the most. Then, Josh brought him on stage and started a duet with him. It ended up being a solo, since the autistic fellow started belting out Josh’s song full volume and on key. Josh just stood back and smiled big. The rest of us were teary eyed or flat out crying. It was one of those moments you remember all your life. That fellow was so excited to be on stage with his idol.

Josh Turner and his band
Josh Turner and his special guest

     Come to find out after we were finished at the Opry, that my late grandfather listened to the original Grand Ole’ Opry radio program way back in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. Every Sunday evening he sat by the big Philco (it did get smaller as the years went on) and listened to his show. My aunt said he did this all by himself, since no one else really enjoyed the show the way he did. Now she wishes she talked to him more about it. I wish she did, too, since I didn’t even know he liked country music.

     Once the show was over, we all rode our post-concert high back to the hotel room. The Opry concert ended with “Y’all come back now, hear?” Sure will and soon, folks. Sure will.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Goin' Country - the first part

Rule #28 - An author must continue to learn

     Ok, today’s rule is so true about everyone. We all must continue to learn. So much for the concept of a “graduation” ceremony where you don’t have to go back to school anymore. Truth be told, you never stop learning. Life is the biggest school house around! Everyone learns things about themselves and the world around them on a minute-to-minute basis. How else could we make a decision?
     One of my better decisions was to return to Nashville. When Hub and I visited before, we did so in the hottest part of the summer. It’s humid there and that tends to sap energy from me. Hub was not into country music, either.  If it didn’t interest him, I was free to go on my own, as long as it didn’t cost too much.
     This time, I visited in late May, armed with a bunch of things I was going to see whether I enjoyed it beforehand or not.  I, too, am not much of a country music fan… well, sort of. As you may have guessed, I do like parts of all music genres. A musician has to impress me with the individual work of art. There are plenty of country pieces that I love, some that are so timeless, they cross the country music line into eternity. That’s why - on this trip - I planned to take in as much country music as I could. What better way to do this than to visit the two cathedrals of country music, the Grand Ole’ Opry, both the original and the new one?
     Stop one on this pilgrimage was to the original Grand Ole’ Opry site - Ryman Auditorium. This site has more history - and not just musical history - in one brick than any place else in town.

116 Fifth Avenue North, Nashville, TN
     Seems that back around 1885, a riverboat captain, name of Thomas Ryman, met a preacher man, name of Samuel Jones.  The captain listened to Reverend Jones speak about salvation and doing good for the Lord. Captain Ryman then proceeded to give up his drinking and gambling ways and turn his life around. He decided he would raise up a place where everyone could meet and hear the Word. That’s how the Union Gospel Tabernacle came to be in all of eighteen hundred and ninety-two. It boasted of a horse-shoe set-up, with pew seats bending all around the speaker.

Even the pews bend

     The Confederate Veterans Association held a reunion in Nashville in 1897. Well, so many sons and their soldier dads came, that the Tabernacle needed more seats. That’s how the “Confederate Gallery” came to be. Now the Tabernacle could seat 6000 easily for meetings and revivals. It was becoming a major auditorium now, and able to host more than just revivals.

The Confederate Gallery - balcony seating
     Here comes 1901, when the stage was constructed. The Metropolitan Opera company from New York brought their productions of “The Barber of Seville” and “Faust” down Nashville way. Now the Tabernacle hosted big city theatricals, not just revival meetings.
     But wait a minute… Captain Ryman passed on to glory ‘round about late October, 1904. Reverend Jones spoke of him at his funeral at the Tabernacle. He spoke up saying that this hallowed ground should not longer be called the Tabernacle, but Ryman Auditorium. Well, everyone stood up and cheered so loud at that idea, that it was a done deal. From that day on, 116 Fifth Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee, would be forever know as Ryman Auditorium.
     Many years passed and the Ryman saw its share of greats to grace the stage. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft spoke from the stage. Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan Macy lectured to the first sold-out house. People like Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, Enrico Caruso, and Will Rogers - all of them visited Nashville and stood center stage. Speakers, singers, dramatic performers all shared their talents with Tennessee folks.

Playbills for all types of performances and articles line the upstairs lobby
      It was still a meeting house, though. Folks would come in from outside the city early on days when there was something going on at the Ryman. They would sit outside - all afternoon sometimes - with their picnics, just waiting for the doors to open.

Portrait of a typical day at the Ryman - circa 1950's
     It was around about 1943 when WSM, a radio station nearby, decided to bring its popular listening program to the Ryman stage. Now folks could not just hear the Grand Ole’ Opry program on the radio, they could see it in person. Bill Monroe brought in his buddies Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs up on stage in 1945. Chet Atkins' great guitar licks came from center stage, too. So many greats joined the Opry and sang from the Ryman stage - Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, Little Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Sr. There was this one fellow, though. His name was Elvis Presley. He brought his brand of music to the Opry stage one night in 1954. Well, he just a-wiggled and sang himself to not much applause. Elvis shook the dust of the Opry off his blue suede shoes that night. He never appeared on that stage again, since he was told his music wouldn’t amount to much. Ok, so maybe history isn’t all smart stuff after all.
     It was in the early 1960’s that the Ryman started to feel cursed. Y’ know, in that creepy, ghosty sort of way. Many members of the Grand Ole’ Opry stood center stage and performed their hearts out. But not too long after, they met their Maker in an untimely - and sometimes violent - way. Word has it that Patsy Cline even saw a premonition of her death in the plane crash right before it happened. No way to know for sure, but after her death, Opry members were hesitant to stand at that center stage microphone.  It got so bad that by the end of the 1960’s, National Life Insurance started looking to move the Opry show to a new home. The last Opry broadcast from Ryman Auditorium was in 1974, on March the 15th. Guess they thought it was fitting to kill the Opry at the Ryman on the Ides of March. Shakespeare would have loved the irony.

Center stage at the Ryman
     On March 16, 1974, the Grand Ole’ Opry christened it’s new home at Opryland USA, just across the Cumberland River. Now it was right near a hotel, and an amusement park so everyone could visit Opryland and stay a while.
     The Ryman didn’t fade into history, no sir. It became the Mother Church of Country Music. It became a set for scenes in “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. It was where Dolly Parton  filmed an episode of her variety show and Johnny Cash filmed his nationwide television show. It celebrated its first 100 years in 1992. Memorial services were held here for country greats Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette, to name a few.
     What’s more, many of the country performers of today insist on being inducted into the Grand Ole’ Opry from the Ryman stage. Just ask Brad Paisley, Ralph Stanley, and Charlie Daniels - all stood center stage at the Mother Church and were gathered into the country music fold.
     In 2001, the Ryman Auditorium was declared a National Historic Landmark. In 2006, Tennessee honored the Ryman as the Birthplace of Bluegrass.
      The day I visited - well, the Ryman was still busy. Peter Frampton was setting himself up for a concert that evening. I was able to walk around and see the costumes of many country legends. I watched a tribute to Minnie Pearl. Her signature “Howdie!” echoed all over the halls. And I toured those halls, sat in the pews, and remembered…

Minnie Pearl's costume and hat - complete with $1.98 price tag - on display
     Then it was time to leave Mother Church’s arms and visit the new Opry in town. It was gonna soon be time to see the Opry broadcast live. But first - I need some time to set a bit and think…

Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff in bronze

To be continued…


Historical information from www.ryman.com/history (about the Auditorium itself) and  http://thatnashvillesound.blogspot.com (about the Curse of the Ryman)

Photos by Marge McGugan

All photos are the property of Marge McGugan and may not be reused or copied without written permission.

Friday, August 16, 2013

What I did on my summer vacation...

Rule #25 – It’s ok to unleash your inner crazy person.

Wow… where did the time go?

My last post was June 12. That was right around the time that school in this area was letting out for summer. Strains of Alice Cooper’s hit were being sung at the top of  the lungs of every teacher I know. School was letting out forever for some of my friends as they made their lateral move to the recreational sector of life. That was just yesterday, or so it seems.

Now, I spent the summer trying to get back on the writing horse, so to speak. I started many a blog post, child’s story, essay… you name it. They are currently fermenting in a file on this very computer.

Yes, it is time to resurrect the writing mojo. Vacation’s over, Self. Back to work. After all, your teacher buds start back on Monday. Some are already back. Now it’s your turn. Let’s see what you’ve done with the two months off.

This year, summer vacation was a fun and exciting time. I got a chance to see Nashville (the city, not the show) and enjoy some good ole’ Tennessee hospitality. Ghost walks, concerts - that was the name of the game on that trip. Country music even managed to get me hooked on it while I was there. I got to see some shrines held in reverence by some - the Grand Ole’ Opry, Ryman Auditorium, and the Tennessee State Capitol building and grounds.

The trip south was followed by one up north. I got my chance to sit next to “Cliff Claven” at the Cheers bar in Boston, where no body knew my name. I rode the MTA’s T in Boston - and I did return (some of us are really old enough to know the Kingston Trio song reference here). Ned Devine fed me dinner at his pub in Quincy Market.

And there was the Paul McCartney concert at Nationals Park in DC… no words can describe how fantastic that was! Baseball season tickets to see my Orioles … all of this makes for a great vacation year.

So many memories to share… and I will now that vacation is over. I promise. I feel like a vacation junkie, in recovery, one blog post at a time.

So now what? How can I top this vacation season? Have I peaked? Not even!!!!

Time for me to revisit my bucket list. Time for me to see what more there is to do before I go from sniffing flowers to fertilizing them (literally). Time to see if I’m doing things to drive my kids and siblings crazy with worry - and if not, to begin the process.

You remember the movie “The Bucket List”? Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson played older fellows finishing life’s race doing crazy things they never would have done at other moments of their lives. There was an episode of “NCIS”, too, where DiNozzo (a kid by comparison) writes his bucket list. When I look at my list now, I don’t see things like “skydive” or “ride a ferris wheel naked“. I see a lot of items in process. There are goals that will take years to finish. Ok with me, World! I got time!

Let’s take a look at part of my list:
  1. Get back to weekly blog posts - started. Now to continue.
  2. See as many movies in the theater as possible - started. Yeah, I have cable with movie channels, but there is nothing like the in-house movie experience, complete with over-priced popcorn.
  3. See as many concerts as possible - started. Thank you, Sir Paul, for a fantastic evening. Carpool to the first Apollo Chamber Orchestra concert on September 20 is being formed as we speak.
  4. Make the 32 Pilgrimage - started, 3 down, 29 to go. For those who don’t know what this is, you see a baseball game in each of the 32 major league baseball parks. It may be your team; it may not. Last stop for me will be Yankee Stadium, not for any honorific reason, but because I wear Orioles orange and may not survive the experience.
  5. See an All-Star Game live - preferably before the Yankee Stadium visit.
  6. Follow Pop’s Normandy trail - planning stages. Next year is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Hub’s father came ashore at Utah Beach and then moved through the Ardennes with the Battle of the Bulge. I want to start this as close to June 6, 2014, as possible and drive through the country-side, just like he did as an Army medic.
  7. See as many theatrical productions as possible - started. Got my subscription to the Broadway Across America series at the Hippodrome Theater. Plans include dinner theaters too, along with a few school productions.
  8. Drive across country at least once. I can and probably will do this by myself. Ok with me, since I can use my own timetable.
  9. Drive the PCH and the ECH. That’s the Pacific Coast Highway and the East Coast Highway, or scenic waterway. My goal here is to get off the interstate and see things like Dead Man’s Curve. Plan to wear out my little Canon camera!
  10. Go to Rome, Germany, the Holy Land, and back to Japan. I’ve never been to Europe or the Middle East, and I want to see if I can still find my way around Tokyo all these years later. We left just as I was getting good at reading the Japanese Kana script.
  11. Watch a live TV show as an audience member, and/or watch a live film or TV shoot - better than possible. I live near DC and lots of political dramas need the local area as a back drop. “House of Cards” is shot in Baltimore - again, nearby. I’m a quick train trip to New York and Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman. This may be a sooner-rather-than-later item.
  12. Become a regular at Spring Training - planning stages. I’m still waiting for MLB to pull the spring practice schedules together.

Hey, I’ve only listed a dozen things here. There’s more on the list and I will not say if any of them include being naked. But the list is in constant flux - which is good! And it’s not a “bucket list”, really.

We teachers call them Performance Objectives. And these objectives will be met by at least one crazy person - me!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ahhhh! Friday!

Rule #9 – Do not fear your emotions.
     Music is a universal language. It is an education of its own. It is history, mathematics, art, psychology all rolled into a package that anyone can appreciate, no matter where they live. Music is a proven healer. It is one way many students deemed “special” by the educational community can communicate with others. Those who do not respond to words, respond to music. This blessing is nothing short of magic. 
     I allowed myself to enjoy the magic that is classical music, courtesy of the Apollo Chamber Orchestra. This orchestra is local to the Washington DC area and features young musicians and their mentors playing side-by-side in an informal atmosphere. It also helped that two of my treasured friends “Handel” the double bass duties in the orchestra. We brought a complete cheering section for the low strings section.  

     The program this evening focused on four Eastern European composers. The orchestra, led by an energetic Stephen Czarkowski, began the evening with the Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The melodies of this piece started by honoring Passion Saturday and moved to a joyous awakening on Easter. The intense celebration of Easter was felt with the rising crescendo of the notes. Just try sitting still through this piece! I dare you! You can’t do it. Throughout the audience, feet were tapping, arms were moving, and excitement was building during the entire performance of this overture.
     Our psyches were then treated to a wonderful gift in the form of baritone Javier Arrey. He appeared courtesy of the Washington National Opera’s Young Artist Program. This Chilean native sang five of Dvorak’s Biblical Songs, Op. 99, in Czech. The compositions were personal for Antonin Dvorak, who took the words from the Book of Psalms during a time of personal crisis. Arrey was true to the beauty of the music Dvorak composed in his mourning. His voice carried without microphone assistance in the concert venue. Powerful, and prayerful – and the sounds melted my own sad heart.  
     Mr. Arrey then sang a portion of Handel’s Messiah, “Why do the Nations so Furiously Rage Together?” We were told, by the conductor, that Mr. Arrey was recovering from a cold. But no one in the audience could tell. We were taken on a magic carpet into Georg Handel’s musical masterpiece. What could be better? How about an encore from the “Barber of Seville”? Mr. Arrey did not just sing this piece – he performed it. He moved among the audience singing directly to the crowd. The only thing missing was a hundred-pound costume. Catching my breath was taking effort! The performance brought the audience to its feet and to tears of joy.  

     Intermission gave all of us a chance to catch our breath and come back down to earth. But it didn’t last long. We made a journey to Stalin’s Russia with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47. This symphony has quite a tongue-in-cheek history. Stalin sat in on its first performance. The music was supposed to document the greatness of Communist Russia. The notes in the beginning created mental images of abused peasants and elitist class under Czarist rule. The music moved to a feeling of chaos, but the listener can not really tell if it is the chaos of the Revolution, or the chaos from the aftermath of the Revolution. I felt that Shostakovich was trying to find beauty in the current state of Russia and it just wasn’t happening for him. I felt the music pull my strings as if I were a puppet, which is the image in my mind of how Shostakovich may have really felt about his government’s attitude toward its citizens. The last movements were supposed to document the triumphant Russia under Stalin’s rule. There were some notes and chords throughout that section which told me Shostakovich thought Stalin’s version of Russia needed – let’s just say, a bit of – improvement.  

     We aren’t sure what Shostakovich really meant in this composition, since he passed away before the Gorbachev era. We can only speculate based on what we do know of the composer and his history in Russia. The orchestra, however, allowed us in the audience to feel the tension and imagine what was going on. We were permitted to put ourselves in Russia, to feel what it was like to work in the factory, to search for beauty in the midst of dictatorial sameness. 
     The Apollo Chamber Orchestra members do not know how much I, personally, needed their music. The prior week for me was a frustrating one. I returned from a week’s vacation to a mountain of yard work, weather that refused to cooperate, the one-year anniversary of the death of my trusty Rusty, and experiencing yet another hurricane. I do not have a good, recent track record with hurricanes. But, as if preordained, the rains cleared in time for me to pack up some friends and head out to the concert. The traffic on the Washington Beltway moved smoothly in our direction. We had no problems getting to the venue or home. We were meant to be there for this concert.  
     Life is good, especially with a side of music. Self, you must seek out more concerts in the local area… especially from the Apollo Chamber Orchestra.

Videos included are from YouTube and not from this particular concert. They are for your musical enjoyment.  Experience these pieces for yourself.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Here's to you...

Rule #52 – History is just that. Learn from it.

     For as long as I can remember, baseball has been a part of my life. Memories – of sitting in the stands with Dad and my brother at Connie Mack Stadium, of pick up games in the street outside my house, of CYO games playing catcher (badly, too), of youth league games playing catcher and outfield, of family get-togethers listening to relatives arguing about which Philadelphia Phillie player was the bigger bum this week, of stealing only certain baseball cards from my brothers to clip into the spokes on my bike – these defined my childhood. These memories helped to make me the rabid fan that I am today.  
     The heroes of baseball were as familiar to me as cousins. Names like Ritchie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Jim Longborg, Lou Brock, Willie Mays, Steve Carleton, Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Jim Palmer, and Carl Yazstrzemski – all were people we frequently discussed over dinner and after dinner. At that time, baseball on the radio was the soundtrack of our lives.
     Fast forward to the present and my passion for the game has not diminished. No, it may be even stronger today, even though I can’t participate as I used to do. This passion led me to head to the theater to see “42”. It is the story of one of my childhood heroes, Jackie Robinson, and his integration into all-white Major League Baseball.
     True fan that I am, I even dressed for the event. The biggest decision was which team shirt I should wear. I didn’t have to dig deep into the drawer to pull out my Phillies tee shirt. It didn’t have a number on the back, just the star and name “Phanatic”, after the mascot.
     I sat there in the darkened theater, mesmerized by the images on the screen. There was Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) and Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) in that iconic picture signing his Dodger contract. There was catching great Joe Garagiola (Gino Anthony Pesi) visibly conflicted about the situation on his team. There was Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) standing up for Jackie on the field. This story was a baseball lover’s dream come true.
     The dream turned into a nightmare in a few scenes. Branch Rickey argued with then-general manager Herb Pennock (Mark Harelik) about the Phillies refusing to play any game with a black player on the field. There stood then-Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) spewing out the most hateful epithets as Jackie Robinson stood at the plate. The words, the venom with which they were spoken had me cringing in my seat. I felt myself shrink down, trying to hide, wondering if the choice of a Phillies shirt was a good one. Where’s that huge rock to burrow under when you need it? I was ashamed to be a Phillies fan at that moment.
     As I watched those scenes unfold on the screen, though, I could hear the same words from Chapman’s mouth ping around in my brain. I’ve heard them before growing up in Philadelphia. Many of my relatives used those same words to describe African-Americans. My mom didn’t like hearing that speech and would not let us use those words. But the sentiments were all around me growing up in a working class family. It wasn’t right, but it was there. And just because it was there, didn’t make it right.
     I had to stop and think afterward… what has changed? Yes, baseball is really integrated for race and religion. But in the hearts and minds of many, what prejudices still exist? Do I have the guts to stand up for what’s right when it counts?
     Jackie Robinson opened the door for so many others of all races to rise to the ranks of major league player. What he went through as a person, and as a player – there is where the real hero emerges.  He was frustrated with the attitudes of others, but he rose above it all. He wore number 42 with pride and courage. He had more guts than most people I know. For that example shown to the world, his number 42 will be permanently retired from all teams in baseball, with the retirement of the last player now wearing it, Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera.
     So, with apologies to Paul Simon, may I raise a glass and propose a toast:

            Here’s to you Mr. Robinson,
            Jesus knows the crap that you went through
            Woo, ooo, ooo…
            Thank God for you, Mr. Robinson,
            We need a man like you on earth today.
            Hey, hey, hey…. Hey, hey, hey

May we all learn from his example.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

All Hail, the Cheese Steak!

Rule #2 – Write from what you know

     Many American cities are known for specific foods. These foods may come from the industries that keep those cities afloat, or from the immigrant heritage that settled in that area. When you say the name of the city, your brain immediately registers the food in question. For example,
            Kansas City – Barbecue
            New York City – thin crust pizza, brick oven preferable
            Maine – Lobster
            Boston – baked beans
            Memphis – Barbecue
            Maryland – Blue Crab anything
            Alaska – King Crab anything
            Chicago – deep dish pizza and more barbecue ribs
            New Orleans – beignets and lots more
            North and South Carolina – Barbecue
            Texas – beef barbecue

     Hmmmm…. I’m seeing recurring themes here… lots of seafood and barbecue. Not seeing any problems here, are you?

     Anyway, my city of birth is Philadelphia PA, known for the hoagie and the cheese steak. Both are sandwiches. One is cold and the other served hot. Both are loaded with flavor and ingredients. Both tend to explode out of their bread shells, which makes it difficult to eat when you are dressed fancy or in your Sunday best. Neither is recommended on a low-fat, low-sodium diet – but there are ways around that, too!

     The hoagie has cousin sandwiches with different names all over the country. I’ll give you my favorite way to make a hoagie in some other post. Even Subway gets this one right some times.

     But the cheese steak, that’s another matter. Even in Philly, there are cheese steak wars. You have your Pat’s Cheese steak fans. You have your Geno’s Cheese steak fans.  And then there are people like me, who chuck both recipes and make it up as we go. Here we have a sandwich that allows for some creative wiggle room.

Pat's King of Steaks - 9th St. and Passyunk Ave.

Geno's Steaks - 9th St. and Passyunk Ave.,

the start of some beautiful sandwich warfare in Philly

     Oh, the memories of cheese steaks long, long ago! I grew up visiting relatives in South Philly and getting my cheese steak fix from a luncheonette at the corner of 15th and Shunk Sts.  They put the basics together – crusty Italian bread-recipe roll, chopped beef steak, and cheese – with fried mushrooms, onions and green peppers. They didn’t usually use Pat’s or Geno’s Cheez Whiz or orange American cheese. Your choices here were provolone or mozzarella. Drip factor to the max with the mozzarella! 

1 roll + steak + cheese + stuffins = Heaven! (hold the mayo and ketchup)
    I don’t know if that luncheonette even exists anymore – only in my memory. But those memories have me now searching out Philly Cheese steak sandwiches all over the East coast. Many restaurants here in Maryland offer Philly Cheese Steaks. But the question is – are they AUTHENTIC? Some say, if it ain’t made in Philly, it ain’t authentic. I say, it’s a matter of taste. If it’s got the right blend of ingredients, the right textures, the right mouth-feel, the right drip factor… it’s authentic enough for me.
Original Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich - notice orange cheese (not for me!)
     I started my search at a chain restaurant, the Cheesecake Factory. They have a California Cheese steak sandwich on their menu. Ignoring the fact that they put “California” and “Cheese steak” together on the menu (sacrilege!), I gave it the college try. My sandwich arrived on a sour dough round roll, stuffed with chopped steak and a blessing of provolone cheese. It was chock full of fried onions, mushrooms and green peppers. They had the good sense to put lettuce and tomato on the side (some add it directly to the sandwich). This was a pretty good sandwich considering it was made at a chain restaurant. This Philly girl would rate it as:
            Steaky – 4.5 (out of 5) drips
            Bread – 3 drips
            Stuffins – 5 drips
            Overall drip factor – 5 drips since I’m still trying to get the grease spots out of my shirt. Not too bad, really!

     Next stop was a local (Millersville, MD) foodie hangout called Zandi’s Grill. Fans of “Restaurant Impossible” will recognize the name, since it was one of those rehabbed from atmosphere to menu on the show. They offer Zandi’s Cheese Steak Sammie, which was stuffed full of sirloin beef roasted right on site. This baby arrived on a sour dough torpedo roll, with provolone cheese and lots of fried onions, mushrooms and peppers. This place put the lettuce and tomato right on the sandwich, but they asked me first. I wanted to hoagie-fy my Sammie, but drew the line at mayo and ketchup. (What is it with mayo on everything below the Mason-Dixon Line, anyway?)  Using the above-listed rating system, I give the sandwich at this eatery:
            Steaky – 5 drips – at least!
            Bread – 5 drips
            Stuffins – 5 drips
            Overall drip factor – 5 drips. Yes, I’m still wearing some grease spots here, too. This place is a keeper on the “I-need-a-cheese-steak” list.

     Last stop - on this round anyway - was the Chesapeake Grille and Deli in Bowie, MD. On their Hot Sammy menu, they offer a Sirloin Cheesesteak. They start with Angus sirloin beef, chopped and grilled up. They grill up the onions (not fried) and top it with provolone, all this on an Italian bread torpedo roll. I added grilled mushrooms to my sandwich and I did hoagie-fy it with lettuce and tomato. The cook added a Maryland extra – Old Bay seasoning! This sammy came with it’s own kick! The Old Bay took the Philly out of the sandwich, but was a very tasty touch. It was a great example of culinary creativity. Not bad, Maryland, not bad at all! This sandwich rated pretty well on my personal rating system:
            Steaky – 5 drips – juicy but not fatty (serious yum)
            Bread – 5 drips – brought back memories
            Stuffins – 4 drips – needs some peppers and more ‘shrooms
            Overall drip factor – 5 drips. No spots as souvenirs from this epicurial adventure, but I have a great memory of the Old Bay seasoning on the sandwich. It wasn’t a totally Philly experience, but it sure tasted good!

     Ok, Self… you are so NOT done searching for the Philly Cheese Steak of your dreams. The tummy and the waistline will continue to seek out the best sandwich around. So far, you haven’t met a cheese steak you didn’t like.

     Now to get more laundry spot remover….

     By the way, here’s a short cheese steak history lesson. Check this out http://www.visitphilly.com/articles/philadelphia/top-10-spots-for-authentic-philly-cheesesteaks/ .


All photos are public domain.