Mar 12, 2018

Harriet Beecher Stowe

 “The pen is mightier than the sword” is attributed to playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1839 wrote a historical play about Cardinal Richelieu.  And, according Friedrich Nietzsche: “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” An example would be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Life among the Lowly.” Release of the book on March 20, 1852 infuriated slave owners and strengthened the resolve of abolitionists. The story of Uncle Tom’s long-suffering
life as a slave touched millions.  It was the bestselling book of the 19th century surpassed only by the Bible. Simon Legree, Tom’s hard taskmaster, has become part of American lexicon when referring to a cruel employer who makes excessive demands.  And, who could forget poor Eliza, hopping from ice flow to ice flow across the Ohio River to freedom. When Harriet Beecher Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 he is purported to exclaim, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started the Great War!”

When John and I were in Cincinnati the Harriet Beecher Stowe
House was on our must-visit list. Except for a young lady doing research we were the only visitors so there was plenty of time to chat with the docents.  Stowe’s father was a Congregationalist minster and was raised in a family of religious leaders, educators, writers, abolitionists, and advocates of human rights. Before moving to Cincinnati, Stowe lived in Brunswick, Maine where she hid a fugitive slave in her house for one night.  She and her children, she had seven, listened to the slave’s songs and stories. He mentioned that he dearly missed his wife and daughter in South Carolina.  Stowe even inspected his
back which was covered with scars from the numerous whippings. She may not have known his name but he remembered hers. After a few years of safely in St. John, Canada, the runaway, John Andrew Jackson, went overseas on the abolitionist lecture circuit during which time he wrote a memoir of his time in bondage, “The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina.” In the book he mentions Stowe by name and recounts the night he spent in her house. 

At this time female abolitionists shocked the decorum of the early
1800s by speaking in public gatherings. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped to change that and encouraged more females to enter in public political discussions.  Stowe wrote many books but it was a time when women and their writings were not taken seriously.  A lesser known Stowe book, “Lady Byron Vindicated” caused an international uproar because she charged Lord Byron with incest. During the time the Stowes lived in Cincinnati the area was rife with abolitionists.  The Ohio River was one of the dividing lines between slave states and free states with many runaways sneaking across the river to freedom, first in Cincinnati, and then after the Fugitive Slave Law required northerners to return runaways, onward to Canada. 

We didn’t have time to visit the John Rankin House in nearby Ripley but there is a display about John Rankin in Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad Freedom Museum. Rankin was one of Ohio’s most active conductors on the Underground Railroad. 
There is also a Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Brunswick, Maine and in Hartford, Connecticut. Connecticut is where she spent the last years of her life and, interestingly, she was a neighbor of Mark Twain. 

Mar 5, 2018

Visiting Galvston

Glen Campbell sang “Galveston, oh, Galveston, I still hear your seawinds blowing…” We were in Galveston in January and the sea winds were blowing… and blowing.  We were looking forward to walking along the beach but it was just too windy.  Unfortunately we were there during the Arctic Vortex which put the south in a deep freeze.  We stayed at the Holiday Inn Resort where the swimming pool was heated, and while some kids went in and seemed to disregard the weather, it was just too chilly and windy for me.  What to do?

Galveston is a cruise port so I looked at the Carnival Cruise and Royal Caribbean web sites.  There didn’t seem to be any accommodations available on such short notice so I, not expecting any results, contacted a local agency – Cruise Cats located right in Galveston. The owner/agent contacted me
immediately with two reasonable options.  We chose the Royal
Caribbean cruise to Cozumel with a window room in the middle of the Vision of the Seas’ Western Caribbean cruise. When I checked Royal Caribbean’s website there was nothing available except a junior suite at great expense.  The Cruise Cats’ price was extremely reasonable and included all taxes, fees and gratuities. John and I have been on several small ships, maximum capacity 40 passengers, but had never been on a big ship cruise.  

After I made our cruise reservation I got a surprise call from Nanette, the Cruise Cats owner/agent. She offered to give me a tour of Galveston’s historic district.  Of course, I accepted.  She was an excellent tour guide. Not only did I see all the important places in the Historic District she shared a lot of local
history. One of the things she pointed out were the tree sculptures. Many trees were cut down after Hurricane Ike. The stumps, still rooted in the ground, have been fashioned into statues.  

I wasn’t sure John and I would like a big cruise, and Vision of the Seas is one of the smaller ship with only 2,435 passengers. I was in for many surprises.  First of all, I thought boarding the ship would be easier than boarding an airplane.  Not true.  The Holiday Inn Resort
supplied free hotel/ship transfer but then there was a long line to go through security. Then there was another long line to get checked into the ship followed by a long walk to actually get on the ship. When all 2,000 plus of us were on board we all had to report to our muster stations.  By that time I decided flying was easier.  We are TSA Precheck so we don’t stand in line for airport security, airports have trolleys and people movers so walks are not too long, boarding is systematic, and the security is done while everyone is seated on the plane.  By that time I was thinking, “Big ship cruising is not for me.” 

When the ship left port most of the people seemed to disappear –
where did they go? There was always plenty of lounge chairs and getaway places that were uncrowded. I started to enjoy myself.  The meals were excellent, the evening shows very nice, and when many of the passengers disembarked to visit Cozumel (we had been there) we stayed on board and I had the whole swimming pool to myself. We really enjoyed the cruise… and the warm weather. Can’t wait to go again. 

Feb 26, 2018

Maltese Style Rabbit & Mushroom Pie (Torta Tal-fenek)

Malta is a group of islands in the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa. Its location means that it has been influenced by a variety of cultures including the Roman, Moors, French, and British. John and I stayed at the Corinthia Palace Hotel and Spa located in the capital city of Valetta. The hotel was once a 19th century country villa and many of the features were incorporated into the hotel. It is located near the Presidential Palace and the botanical gardens in a quiet gentrified area of the capital. One of the best ways to experience the culture of an area is to eat like the locals. The cuisine of the island reflects the tastes of many groups.  Rabbit Pie is considered one of Malta’s national dishes.
Rabbits were most likely brought to the island by the Romans or Phoenicians from the Iberian Peninsula. 
One of the items on the hotel menu was Maltese-style Rabbit and Mushroom Pie which, Stefan Hogan, the Executive Head Chef, agree to let me watch him make. Rabbit can be purchase at the meat market in Scriba.  I think any meat could be used if rabbit wasn’t available. 

Maltese Style Rabbit & Mushroom Pie (Torta Tal-fenek)

3 lb rabbit ready to cook 
2 celery sticks, cut into cubes
2 carrots, cut into cubes
1 leek, sliced
8 shallots 
Bay leaf
Sprig of rosemary
6 garlic cloves
1/3 cups olive oil
1 cup red wine
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup mushrooms
1/2 cup peas
Pie crusts  
Egg wash for brushing & glazing (one egg blended with 1 to 3 tsp milk and a dash of salt.)

Put oil in pan. Add rabbit pieces. Fry until golden brown, transfer to an oven dish.  In a separate pan put some oil; sauté half the celery, half the carrots and the leek with two garlic cloves until lightly brown, Add to the oven dish with the rabbit. In the oven dish add the bay leaf and the rosemary. Deglaze the rabbit pan with the red wine, add to the oven dish. Cover with the chicken stock. Cover with aluminum foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 1.5 hours. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Remove the rabbit pieces from the stock and pick the meat off the bone – try and leave the meat in large chunks. Strain the liquid and reduce by half.

In a clean pan heat, add some oil, and lightly brown the remaining garlic, celery, shallots and carrots, drain off excess oil, and add to the rabbit meat. Saute the mushrooms with a drop of oil until golden brown and add to the rabbit mixture, add the peas. Allow to cool completely. Lightly brush a circular baking dish with oil and dust with flour, line the baking dish with the the rolled-out pastry leaving half an inch of the pastry hanging over the sides, fill with the rabbit mixture, fold the overhanging dough over mixture then cover with the remaining dough. Seal edges of dough. Brush liberally with the egg wash, prick the pastry with a fork, and bake in an oven at 400 degrees for the first 15 minutes then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and continue to cook for approximately 30 to 40 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool before taking it out of the pan; let it rest 15 minutes before cutting.

Feb 19, 2018

Houston Natural Science Musuem

The Houston Natural Science Museum has 16 permanent exhibitions including the Burke Baker Planetarium, the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and a giant screen theater.  The first hall we entered had a variety of marine animals models hanging from the ceiling along with a video cam on the wall of  that made it
look like people were in a seal aquarium habitat. It was popular with the children because they could “walk up to the seals” and watch the seals dive in the water to get out of their way. A fun exhibit. The Museum is also home to the world’s largest snail shell which at 30 inches in length makes me want to never run into the snail that made its home there in that shell.

There is always something new and unique to see in museums.  It was the
first time I had ever seen or heard of sand concretions. Concretions are compact, often rounded, accumulations of mineral matter that form inside sedimentary rock.  The one at the museum was beautiful enough to qualify as modern art. The paleontology exhibit is
always interesting. The displays of Triceratops, Stegosaurus and other dinosaurs are displayed in active poses as if hunting instead of just standing in a row.

The newest exhibit, the Wiess Energy Hall on the fourth floor, includes comprehensive and technologically advanced exhibits on science and energy.  When we got off the elevator we faced a 21st century offshore drilling rig run by sci-fi robots.  There were many unique exhibits including a “Geovator”
that takes visitors on a fantastic reality voyage plunging down through the Museum floors into the earth back a few million years to the time when the critters that roamed the earth lived and died. They would over eons turn into petroleum called Texas Tea or Texas Gold. Very cool!  There was another virtual reality experience called the Eagle Ford Shale Experience (EFX 3000). We sat in a large vehicle that simulated a ride to the oil and gas drilling country then reduced us to microscopic size so we could go down into a borehole of an oil well where the craft was so small it could get into the narrow spaces of a hydraulic mico-fracture.  

There was a huge “Energy City, with 3-D landscape of Houston and the surrounding Gulf coastal area that pinpointed various types of energy (nuclear, water, wind, gas, oil, solar, etc.) and how the energy was delivered to the community. There were several fun hands on activities plus the “Energy Jukebox” a collection of ten catchy songs that explore topics including conservation, renewable energy, biomass, hydrogen power, nuclear fission, oil, natural gas, unconventional hydrocarbons, electricity and thermonuclear fusion.

We spent so much time there we didn’t have a lot of time to explore. We did a quick walk through the Cabinet of Curiosities with extraordinary natural and man made objects were displayed in drawers of cabinets and the Hall of Texas Wildlife highlighting the various biomes of the state.  On the way out we watched a group of young boys entranced with the Foucault Pendulum. It is a visual demonstration of the earth’s rotation. The direction of the pendulum appears to swing but actually the earth is turning under it. As the earth moves the pendulum knocks down pins lined up in a circle on the floor.  It is mesmerizing. There is always so much to learn and understand. Now, if I could just remember everything I learn!

Feb 13, 2018

The 27th U.S. president, William Howard Taft

The 27th U.S. president, William Howard Taft, who weighed 355 pounds, supposedly got stuck in the White House bathtub.  It is open to conjecture; but, he did have an extra-large tub installed in the White House that could hold four ordinary men. When John and I were in Cincinnati we visited the house where Taft was born.  It is now a National Park. 

I have to admit we didn’t know very much about Taft but during our tour of his house and the adjacent museum my ambivalence turned to respect for him. Taft was raised to consider civic service as an important part of his life; however, he never wanted to be president his goal was sit on the Supreme Court because as he said, “Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever.”

Even though Taft served the government in many positions
including Secretary of State under President Teddy Roosevelt he did not want to run for the presidency. He was encouraged by his wife and others to run.  He didn’t like campaigning but did travel across the United States making 259 speeches. An observer in Minnesota after listening to one of his speeches commented, “I knew he was good natured but I never dreamed he was so dull.”  In photos of him he usually is smiling and even has twinkle a in his eye. He defeated Democrat
William Jennings Bryan and promised to carry on Teddy Roosevelt’s program of progressive reforms. 
Taft felt big corporations were influencing politics to their own end. Sounds familiar a hundred years later.  Even though there was a falling out between Roosevelt and Taft, Roosevelt said of Taft, “I have always said you would be the greatest president bar Washington and Lincoln…

Theodore Roosevelt is known as the “Trust Buster” but Taft implemented tougher anti-trust legislation. It was the beginning of Dollar Diplomacy, ensuring the financial stability of a region while
protecting and strengthening United States commercial and financial interests there. 

Taft served as chief justice until his death in 1930. He wrote 253 opinions, or about one-sixth of all decisions handed down during his term. Most of his decisions were cautiously conservative. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Taft and John F. Kennedy are the only Presidents buried at Arlington. 

Taft the first President to take up golf. Some western voters thought his golf playing indecent if not immoral. His love for the sport caused a golf boom in the nation, doubling the number of players on public courses. Taft's affection for golf also caused political problems during his presidency, when critics thought he would do well to spend less time on the links and more time at work in the White House. The more things change the more they stay the same. The museum has an animatronic of his son who shares wonderful personal memories of his father. 

Ohio likes to lay claim to having the most presidents (eight) with deep roots in Ohio: William Henry Harrison, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Warren Harding.  We have visited the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor. We will have to make a point to visit the President Hayes Presidential Center, the Harding Home, Grant’s boyhood home, and McKinley presidential Library and Museum along with the burial sites of the Harrisons. In Canton there is a First Ladies Museum that should be interesting.

Feb 5, 2018

Six More Weeks of Winter

I didn’t realize there were so many groundhog weather
prognosticators. I thought Punxsutawney Phil was the one and only. After all they made a movie about him and, as amazing as it may seem, Mexico Middle School had, at one time, three teachers from Punxsutawney. They made Groundhog day seem like a national holiday.  Puxsutawney Phil saw his shadow which means six more weeks of winter as did Ohio’s Buckeye Chuck. 

However, Staten Island’s Chuck, formally known as Charles G. Hogg, predicts an early spring.   A local elementary school tracks the weather to see how it compares with a normal winter season so the can compare.  What is normal? Chuck has a better record than Phil. Chuck has been accurate 78 percent of the time whereas Phil has only been accurate 39 percent of the time, which is worse than the human forecasters. So, what will it be?  In Oswego County there were both sunny and cloudy times on Feb. 2. The forecaster that is most likely to be correct is Potomac Phil, a taxidermiesd animal in Washington, DC who predicted six more weeks of winter and also six more weeks of political gridlock. 

If you go to Staten Island, and you should if you visit New York City, visit the zoo which has many things to see and do; and staying on Staten Island is less expensive than staying in Manhattan. 

Regardless of what the groundhogs predict the first day of spring is not until March 20 so there will most likely be lots of winter ahead. There are places to visit in NYS that celebrate winter such as High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid with two indoor and two outdoor pools or the Mohonk House, the iconic historic hotel has an outdoor heated mineral pool infused with Dead Sea salts. 

If winter is not your fun time then get out of town if you can.
Where to go?  There are always cruises that go to warmer climes.  To save money take the train to NYC to catch the cruise out of New York or drive to Baltimore. John and I recently took our first cruise on one of the big cruise ships. We were in Galveston during the East Coast cold snap and wanted to get away.  The Royal Caribbean sails from Galveston as does
 Carnival.  There was no availability shown on the cruise websites so I called Nanette’s Cruise Cats, a local agency. Amazingly, she was able to get us a great deal on a great room on the Royal Caribbean cruise to Cozumel. The cruise was less expensive than staying at the Holiday Inn Resort Galveston. 

A free shuttle bus transported us to/from the cruise dock.  I was under the impression that getting on the cruise ship was easier that boarding an airplane – not so.  I was not thrilled with the long lines and walks to get aboard. Before we set sail there was the safety drill with all

2,500 of us going to our assigned spot on the deck.  Too many people I thought – not for me – but once we set sail I really enjoyed it.  When most of the passengers went on a day trip we had the pool all to ourselves. We enjoyed the evening shows and the food was excellent. 

Before we left on the cruise Nanette called to ask if I would like a tour of the historic district of Galveston.  Of course! How is that for service? 

Jan 29, 2018

Visiting Houston Space Center

As a teenager I was intrigued with the concept of travel to the moon and beyond. What was once science fiction is now a reality.  Americans have walked on the moon and will, most likely, walk on Mars then travel beyond. John and I visited the Houston Space Center where were several informative video presentations.

Carl Sagan said, “Exploration is in our nature.  We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean.  We are ready to set sail for the stars.”  Well, maybe not the stars quite yet.  What seemed amazing in the 1960s has now become routine.  One of the presentations was “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo.” The goal of the Apollo program was to land Americans on the moon and return them safely which it did on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon and uttered the
immortal words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It is a moment that most people – worldwide – remember where they were.  We were camping in Canada.  Canadians congratulated us as if we had been personally responsible. The video vividly shows the stress the people of Mission Control were under even when everything goes smoothly. The scenes of the people of Mission Control during the Apollo 13, Challenger, and Columbia missions were heart wrenching even though the astronauts of Apollo 13 returned safely. I was surprised to learn that there has been at least one person orbiting the earth every day for the past 17 years. 

Other videos, talks, and displays dealt with the Orion Mars Mission. Work is on schedule for the first manned Mars Mission which will send astronauts to Mars. Astronauts will orbit the planet and return to Earth in the 2030s. Walking on Mars may take longer. Scientists are studying ways to build human habitats on Mars. Someone actually suggested that people make a one-way trip to Mars where they would live in the habitats until the problem of returning to Earth has been solved. 
Some people have actually volunteered but the plan is not taken seriously. Work is progressing on the Orion launch/splash down delivery vehicle and on a Deep Space Habitat module that will provide additional living space for the 16-month trip. And, we think 24 hours of flying to get to Thailand is a long trip! Watch out Superman.  You have serious competition. Orion will return to Earth at a speed of about 25,000 mph – more than 35 times faster than a speeding bullet. 

The Houston Space Center is 25 miles from Houston.  It is about halfway between Galveston, where we were staying, and Houston our last stop before heading to New York so we took Uber taxi to Seabrook, just a few miles from the Space Center and stayed at Springhill Suites for a few days. It was a good decision because the day we had planned to visit the Space Center it was closed due to the cold weather –
20s. They reopened next day the next day noon but the tram rides were suspended… too cold.  It was the first time we had stayed at a Springhill Suites – it was reasonable and while they didn’t have a restaurant they did have a bar! People planning to visit the Space Center should plan on spending the day.  Besides the video presentations, there are simulated rides, and exhibits galore.