Archive | January 2016

Pinot Gris, Gumbo and a Movie Review

Last night, Jon took me on a date and I generously allowed him to pick the movie.  We walked downtown and had dinner at our local southern Cajun restaurant, Bayou on the Bay.  It is one of my favorite restaurants in town, with a good variety of southern favorites, like fried okra, hush puppies, gumbo and jambalaya.

We started out with one oyster shooter each, served in a shot glass with cocktail sauce.  You can add vodka if you would like, and perhaps one day I’ll try that high-octane version, but I love the non-alcohol version.  Jon had the vegan jambalaya with an IPA, which he thought was great, and spicy!  I had the gumbo with a Duck Pond Pinot Gris.  My gumbo was wonderful, with the sweetness of the Pinot Gris balancing the spice of the andouille sausage and other spices in the gumbo.  Our service was friendly and quick, and we had plenty of time to get to our movie.

Jon has a penchant for odd, indie movies, and his pick kept up with tradition.  We saw Anomalisa.  I’m still pondering it.  It is an animated film created with puppets about a middle aged man who wrote a book on giving great customer service, and he is giving a speech on his book in Cincinnati.  In his world, everyone is the same; everyone he sees has the same face and voice, with only differences in their hair and clothing.  He is clearly depressed, irritable and hopeless – exactly the opposite of the persona he portrays in his book.  Then he meets a woman who is different…

Jon and I took away very different messages from the film, and spent a while chatting on the way home (I don’t want to give it away in case you plan to see it).  We could each see the other’s perspective, and were intrigued by each other’s differing opinions.  From that perspective, it was an interesting film, and it did stimulate quite a bit of dialogue, but I’m not sure I could say I “liked” it.  But perhaps not all movies are intended to entertain – and instead we need to search for the learning opportunity.

So, I put it out to readers – have you seen Anomalisa?  What did you think?


Virginia 2015: Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland

Day 7: Saturday, October 10, 2015

James Monroe, despite being one of the founding fathers, isn’t one of our better known Presidents. I’m not sure why that is, but he certainly never resonated as one of the more important historical figures I’ve learned about. That said, when the opportunity came up to visit his home, I still wanted to see it. I figured it would be a chance to learn more about him, and compare and contrast his home and estate with the others that we would see on the trip!

A statue of James Monroe - originally destined for South America

A statue of James Monroe – originally destined for South America

With Thomas Jefferson being the Renaissance man that he was, he set out to surround himself with friends with whom he could have lively discussions. Travel in the day took a long time, so it was easier if your friends lived nearby. To that end, when the property next door to Monticello came up for sale, he let his friend James Monroe know. Monroe purchased the property of about 1,200 acres, and moved there in 1799. Eventually, he expanded the estate to about 3,500 acres, although later in life he sold off large parcels of land to pay his debts.

Me with the James Monroe house - the small room to the left was added on while Monroe lived here.

Me with the James Monroe house – the small room to the left was added on while Monroe lived here.

Monroe’s home is the most modest of the four Presidential homes we saw. It was originally a one story frame home with a couple of rooms on each side of a hallway. Monroe expanded the home later on, adding a few more rooms, and building some basement rooms (a kitchen, and store rooms) underneath the house.  Even later, he added a parlor on one side of the home. He called his house Highland.  I liked seeing a house that felt more like a common man – after Monticello and Mount Vernon, I was starting to wonder if there have ever been politicians who came from the middle class.  Not that Monroe wasn’t rich – his was just a less ostentatious kind of rich…

Our tour included the portion of the home that existed during Monroe’s time. Later owners added on, essentially attaching an entire, new, larger house to the home Monroe lived in.  Those owners are also responsible for the name Ash Lawn-Highland, as they added the Ash trees that are now planted on the property.  That new portion of the home is not included in the tour, but it does contain a small exhibit of Monroe artifacts and memorabilia on the first floor.

Ash-Lawn Highland - the small white house is what Monroe purchased - the white room on the left was added while Monroe was here. The yellow home was added by subsequent owners.

Ash-Lawn Highland – the small white house is what Monroe purchased – the white room on the left was added while Monroe was here. The yellow home was added by subsequent owners.

Things I learned about Monroe:

  • He is probably most famous for the Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that the United States would not tolerate intervention by European powers in the Americas (including Central and South America). South Americans were pleased by this – one country even commissioned a statue of him. Due to the fact that it was never delivered there, it now sits at Ash Lawn-Highland.
  • He was the last of the Founding Father Presidents to have served in combat in the Revolutionary War.  He was badly wounded at the Battle of Trenton.
  • Monroe was the only one of the Founding Father Presidents to have settled his debt before he died. Apparently, living beyond one’s means has been a hallmark of the American tradition for as long as there have been Americans.
  • Monroe also helped to found the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, along with Jefferson (and James Madison), but he gets none of the credit. It was actually built on land that he owned and sold for the purpose.
  • Monroe was tall – 6 feet – and had a very distinctive butt chin.  It is apparent in all his portraits.
  • He, like Jefferson and Madison, liked busts. All three of them had busts decorating their home. I guess it was trendy.  I find it creepy.  I mean, imagine walking out into the living room in the middle of the night, and finding a glowing alabaster head staring back at you?  Creepy.
Three outbuildings at Ash-Lawn Highland

Three outbuildings at Ash-Lawn Highland


The icehouse, slave quarters and overseer's house at Ash-Lawn Highland. All original.

The icehouse, slave quarters and overseer’s house at Ash-Lawn Highland. All original.


Slave quarters at Ash-Lawn Highland

Slave quarters at Ash-Lawn Highland


Monroe renovated one of the slave quarters into a guest house, sometime after 1816.

Monroe renovated one of the slave quarters into a guest house, sometime after 1816.


A beautiful hibiscus flower at Ash-Lawn Highland

A beautiful hibiscus flower at Ash-Lawn Highland

Monroe’s estate took a couple of hours to feel like you saw it all – we left there about noon. I had wanted to go check out the Michie Tavern, a historic tavern from the 1700s that still offers lunch (and tours). However, it was packed! It was a Saturday, but the place was absolutely crawling with people. We decided to skip it and went and found lunch just down the road at Salt.

Salt is a small sandwich shop in a former service station that sources local ingredients. My panini and Jon’s veggie wrap were both delicious, and we arrived at just the right time, because it really started to fill up after we ordered!

After lunch, there was much debate about whether we would use the afternoon to go to a winery or two and sample a few of the Virginia wines. In the end, we petered out. Jon was still sick, and I was now sick, so we ultimately decided on heading back to the Super 8 for a 3 hour midday nap… Glorious, it was…

Dinner that night was equally low key – we got a rotisserie chicken, pasta salad, and fruit at the grocery store, and some beer and wine to wash down our doses of cold medicine (in moderation of course!). An evening spent relaxing in front of the TV was just what we needed.

Driving Distance for Day 7: 65 miles – Waynesboro, VA – Ash Lawn-Highland – Waynesboro, VA

Hotel for the Night: Super 8, Waynesboro for another night.

Travel Tips: Even though James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland is literally right next door to Monticello, and we were there on a Saturday, it wasn’t busy at all.  Monroe is apparently not one of the cool Presidents…

Tickets – Ash-Lawn Highland: $14 per person; $1 off with our AAA Membership.  Discounts if you work at William and Mary College (they own the estate) or live in the nearby area.  Sadly, they did not have a decent guidebook, or very good postcards…

Book Review: Unbroken

I’ve read quite a bit about World War II, but had not heard the story of Louis Zamperini until Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken hit the shelves in 2010. Louie, as he was known to his family and friends, was a record breaking runner, an Olympic athlete turned B-24 Liberator bombardier.

The book follows Louie through his turbulent childhood, as he gets in all sorts of trouble because he’s not a rule follower. It details his brother’s successful attempt to get him to settle down with running, giving Louie something to focus his energy and frustration. He ends up being such a good runner that he qualifies for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, at an age where runners have not yet reached their peak.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

And then along comes the War. Louie enlists and is sent to train as a bombardier as a part of a B-24 crew. He achieves glory as a part of a bombing raid over mainland Japan, the first since Doolittle’s Raiders bombed Japan in 1942. Despite the severe damage their plane suffered, they managed to make it back to base. However, one of the crew died, several were seriously injured, and their plane was too damaged to fly again.

After heading back to Hawaii, the remaining crew were assigned a new plane – a known lemon, and several unseasoned crewmates. On their very first flight in the new plane Green Hornet, a rescue mission, they crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Three men survived and were able to get into two rafts with very few provisions. There they drifted for 47 days, before Louie and his pilot were picked up by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war in a series of brutal Japanese labor camps.

Any one of the hardships that Louie endured likely would have killed other men, or driven them insane. 47 days floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean, trying to cobble together enough sustenance by fishing and collecting rainwater. Years in Japanese POW camps, forced to perform hard labor while facing starvation and disease. Frequent beatings and psychological torture…

The book showed the reader in vivid detail what it was like to live as a Japanese Prisoner of War. It makes it clear why so many veterans did not want to talk about their experience in the war. After Louie returned home, he struggled with PTSD and alcoholism – he credited a commitment to God for his climb back up from rock bottom. Although he had not been religious before the war, he made a promise to commit his life to God, if only He would deliver him safety from the raft.

This book is a difficult read – it is graphic, violent and raw. It will make you angry and rip your heart out. I cried more than once and at times audibly gasped. But it is necessary – to understand that war is not a decision to be taken lightly. To understand that when we ask people to give their lives for a cause, they have often done so even if they come home alive. To hopefully one day break the cycle of conflict.  To one day get to “never again.”


Virginia 2015: Jefferson’s Monticello

Day 6: Friday, October 9, 2015

Monticello is one of the big attractions in Virginia – the home of our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson.  After making our way from Appomattox Court House, we were ready to start our visit!

We got our tickets, and then got some lunch. The café at Monticello had a pretty decent selection of salads and sandwiches – Jon and I both got chef salads for $5.99 each. Then we took the little shuttle bus up the hill (you can also walk, but the ticket seller said it was confusing to find the trail – we found out later it isn’t confusing, you just cross the street…).

Once up at the top, we had a little bit of time before we needed to queue up for our tour. With a bit of patience, I was able to get a couple of photos of the front of Monticello with no one in them! We also wandered around the back and saw the back lawn and the flowers planted around the edges of the lawn.

The front of Monticello - with me!

The front of Monticello – with me!


The side view of Monticello - looking at the Greenhouse

The side view of Monticello – looking at the Greenhouse


A Monarch Butterfly at Monticello

A Monarch Butterfly at Monticello


I loved these flowers - Cockscomb at Monticello

I loved these flowers – Cockscomb at Monticello

Monticello was built beginning in 1768 – Jefferson had inherited the land from his father. It was built in stages, and he lived in the south wing at the beginning while the rest of the house was being built, with a combination of skilled artisans and slave labor. Jefferson married after he started building the home, and eventually had 6 children. Sadly, only two children survived beyond the first couple of years. His wife died young as well, shortly after the birth of their sixth child. Jefferson was devastated.

The back of Monticello

The back of Monticello

Jefferson was a true Renaissance man, with interests ranging from religion to agriculture to science. He invented several items, including a bookstand that works like a lazy susan, so you could turn it to the book you wanted to read. Perfect for someone like me – I always have multiple books going at one time!  He designed the house himself, and it had some interesting features, like beds built into the wall, to save space and keep them warmer, and a wine dumbwaiter built into the dining room that allowed slaves to deliver wine right up to the table.  Jefferson liked to have private conversations over dinner, and didn’t want slaves to serve the dinner and overhear.

Jefferson had the weathervane on top of the house connected to this compass, so he could easily see from the porch the direction of the wind.

Jefferson had the weathervane on top of the house connected to this compass, so he could easily see from the porch the direction of the wind.

Jefferson’s home also had a very interesting feature – the front foyer of the home was created as a museum exhibit for visitors to the home. The room was a two story octagonal room with displays from Jefferson’s collections. He collected art, Native American artifacts, and natural history items like fossils. For many people visiting, this would have been their first time seeing some of these types of items.

Jefferson died in the home on July 4, 1826, just hours before his long-time friend and some-time rival, John Adams. Interesting that both men died on the 50th anniversary of the independence of the nation they helped to establish!

The tour didn’t have a lot of formal narrative explaining about Jefferson and the home.  I would have preferred more of this overview, but our docent was happy to answer questions about the items in the home, and she explained which items belonged to Jefferson, and which were period.

One of the beautiful brick outbuildings at Monticello

One of the beautiful brick outbuildings at Monticello

After the guided tour of the home, you could wander around at your leisure to see other places.  At Monticello, what was typically housed in outbuildings was built underneath the main home. The wine cellar, beer cellar, some of the slave quarters, stables, and kitchen were all open and available for a self-tour. It was interesting to see a stove that separated out the main stove into several “burners” allowing dishes to be cooked at different temperatures, by controlling the size of the individual fires underneath.

The kitchen at Monticello - on the left are individual "burners" - each had a separate fire beneath to control the temperature of the that burner.

The kitchen at Monticello – on the left are individual “burners” – each had a separate fire beneath to control the temperature of the that burner.

We also listened to an optional (and free) 45 minute slave tour, which gave an overview of the lives of slaves on the plantation. Over the course of his life, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves. They worked cultivating the land, or in various industries; Jefferson’s nails were used to build things throughout the region. Sometimes he let slaves sell the crops that they grew on their own time or carpentry work that they did, and allowed them to keep their money.

Interestingly, the docent was pretty candid about Sally Hemings’ connection to Jefferson; since the DNA test in the 1990s, most historians have come around to believe that Jefferson most likely did maintain a long term relationship with his slave, and almost certainly fathered several of her children. Of course, what remains lost to time is whether Sally was a willing participant.

A reconstructed slave cabin at Monticello

A reconstructed slave cabin at Monticello

Jefferson was a great man, but he did have his flaws. Although he sometimes purchased slaves to unite families, there were times where he sold troublesome slaves, and like most of the founding fathers, he freed very few slaves when he died. Just five slaves got their freedom in his will. He had also accumulated significant debt, meaning that his heirs had to sell Monticello to settle his estate.

Fortunately for us, Mr. Uriah P. Levy purchased the home not long after it was sold by the Jefferson family. Levy admired Jefferson, and did his best to maintain the home as Jefferson would have wanted. The Levy’s owned the home for nearly 100 years, before it came under the control of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1923, the non-profit organization that currently owns the home.

If you visit, consider walking back to the Visitor’s Center – it is less than a half a mile, and takes you by the Jefferson family cemetery on the way.  What an amazing visit!

Thomas Jefferson's grave - apparently throwing money on it is a thing.

Thomas Jefferson’s grave – apparently throwing money on it is a thing.

Driving Distance for Day 6: 115 miles – Lynchburg, VA – Appomattox Court House NHP – Monticello – Waynesboro, VA

Hotel for the Night: Super 8, Waynesboro.  Clean but dated, and it was in an awkward location that required a U-Turn at a traffic light on a main street. The toilet would also run at intervals – kind of annoying! It wasn’t cheap, but it was half of what the available hotels in Charlottesville were running.  I’m not sure if Charlottesville is always really expensive, or if there was some sort of event going on that weekend. And it was quiet, and Jon and I were able to take a three hour nap the next afternoon when our colds got us too far down to keep touristing…

Travel Tips: Monticello is popular, so it’s got all of the frustrations too – big parking lot with tons of cars, a sterile, movie theater style ticket station, big tour groups and timed entry. Pack your patience… We were there on a Friday, so it wasn’t too terrible, but it was still busy. 

Tickets – Monticello: The most expensive of the trip, at $25 per person. However, the guidebook was a screaming deal at $3! The lady working in the store showed me and another woman that you could either buy the full sized guidebook (about 10” x 10”) for full price (I think it was $13) or pay $3 for a tall, skinny book. Granted, the pictures aren’t as nice in the tall, skinny version, but the text was exactly the same – and you can just buy postcards to supplement the book and get the photos you want. I appreciated the tip!


Blue Mountain Cider Company: Winesap Cider

To my knowledge, the first time that I ever had Winesap apples was at Douglas Valley Winery in Manistee, Michigan in October, 2014.  They have orchards with several varieties of apples, and Winesaps are one of them.  They are delicious!

Fast forward to a trip that Jon and I took to Walla Walla in August 2015, to celebrate my birthday a little early and take advantage of Jon’s weekend off.  We visited The Blue Mountain Cider Company, and sampled several of their ciders.  This one, made from 100% Salmon Safe sustainable Oregon apples, was one of my favorites.  It is a dry style cider, with a refreshing crispness and a hint of tartness on the back of the palate.  It is very well done.

It was a perfect accompaniment to a lazy, exhausted Friday night after a long, short week!  It really hit the spot!

A line up of several Blue Mountain Ciders, courtesy of the Blue Mountain website.

A line up of several Blue Mountain Ciders, courtesy of the Blue Mountain website.

Have you ever had any of the Blue Mountain ciders?

Virginia 2015: Appomattox Court House NHP

Day 6: Friday, October 9, 2015

The Civil War raged for four long years – longer than most people, from the North or the South, believed it would last.  Both sides were tired and worn down from the constant of war.  But despite all the deprivation and bloodshed on both sides, when it ended, two men were able to come together and see eye to eye, letting go of their egos to create the best outcome for a shattered nation.

We were heading to one of the places I most wanted to visit on this trip. A sleepy little village in the heart of Virginia, which turned out to be one of the most important locations in U.S. history. Appomattox Court House – the tiny little town where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General U.S. Grant.

The entrance to Appomattox Court House - at the site of the Battle of Appomattox Station

The entrance to Appomattox Court House – at the site of the Battle of Appomattox Station

Interestingly, the surrender took place in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home, who lived on the site of the battle of First Manassas at the beginning of the war. McLean moved south after the battle to someplace he thought would be more peaceful!

The Wilmer McLean House - where the surrender took place

The Wilmer McLean House – where the surrender took place

The Appomattox Court House National Historical Park is a collection of various structures that existed in the town; some are original, many are reconstructions. The park was originally established August 3, 1935, made into a national monument in 1940 and changed to a national historical park in 1954. It occupies the site of the original county seat of Appomattox Court House, which was along the line of the Richmond-Lynchburg stage road. Visitation to the park was approximately 176,040 (in 2011).

The McLean house where  the surrender took place was taken apart in 1893 to move it to Washington, D.C. for a display. However, the organizers ran out of the money, and the home was left dismantled and crated in the front yard for the next 40 years. A lot of the materials deteriorated in the elements, and much of it was carted off as souvenirs. After the Historical Park was created, the home was reconstructed in the 1940s, using what remained of the original materials. When I talked to the ranger, he said that the foundation bricks are original, but most of the rest is not. It was rebuilt using historic photographs and they tried to stay faithful to the original.

The parlor of the Wilmer McLean House - where Grant and Lee wrote out the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia

The parlor of the Wilmer McLean House – where Grant and Lee wrote out the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia

The oldest original building in the park is the Clover Hill Tavern, which was built approximately 1819. It was a stagecoach stop where travelers could get meals and a room for the night, and where the stage line could get fresh horses. It is also where the printing presses were set up after the surrender was signed, to create parole passes for the Confederate soldiers who would be returning home.  The presses ran for three days straight to print enough passes for all those men – over 30,000 in all.

The Clover Tavern - built 1819

The Clover Tavern – built 1819


The printing presses at Clover Hill Tavern

The printing presses at Clover Hill Tavern

The original court house in town was built in 1846, a year after it was declared the county seat, but burned down in 1892. A new court house was built in 1893, and that’s the one that stands there today. It serves as the Visitor’s Center for the park and houses a museum and movie theater. In reality, neither of the court houses played a role in the surrender, as it took place on Palm Sunday and the court house was closed.

The "new" Appomattox Court House - built 1893 - in front; the Plunkett Meeks store - built 1852 - on the left.

The “new” Appomattox Court House – built 1893 – in front; the Plunkett Meeks store – built 1852 – on the left.

The jail that is currently there was built right after the Civil War – although not pleasant, it certainly seemed nicer than many of the earlier period prisons that we’ve toured. The site also has an original general store, two law offices, and a couple of homes. And I got to spend a glorious couple of hours checking it all out.  I enjoyed walking around, savoring the peace of the site on a quiet morning.

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Jon tired of it all before I did, so he went to go read in the car, while I continued exploring.  I snapped a few photos of some teenagers near the court house – I think they are Mennonite. I love how their simple clothing fits in with the history of this place!

Teenage Girls near the Appomattox County Court House - Mennonites?

Teenage Girls near the Appomattox County Court House – Mennonites?

Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Let me say right now, that I don’t always choose disaster books. The last book I reviewed was a light hearted memoir about the Appalachian Trail after all! But I get it – I do choose a lot of disaster books. I consider this due to my love for all things historical, and well, disasters do make good history. At any rate…

Erik Larson has made a name for himself with several books on famous American tragedies; this book dives into the 1915 sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania during World War I by a German U-boat with several hundred Americans on board.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

The Lusitania disaster was a perfect storm of disasters, and Larson expertly details the circumstances leading up to its sinking. He meticulously researched records of the British admiralty, discovering just how much they knew about the movements of U-20 off the coast of Ireland in the days and hours leading up to the disaster.  He tells the stories of the passengers aboard, including tales of the 2nd and 3rd class passengers rather than just the rich and famous. He spins the stories in a way that leaves the reader hanging until the final moments about who lived and who died.

And he tells the story of the U-boat captain, living in the cramped, hot conditions of a submarine, ultimately more concerned about the tonnage that he could sink than the lives of over 1,000 non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children.

I like Larson’s writing style. He switches back and forth effortlessly among the three perspectives; the Lusitania, U-20, and the British Admiralty. He tells the story chronologically, building suspense and a sense of foreboding. You know the ship will go down – that’s in the history books, but who will make it?

And after the sinking, the mistakes don’t end. There are all those hundreds of lives that probably could have been saved, if only other ships had been dispatched right away. If only others hadn’t turned around, thinking it might be a German trap. If only…

It has been over one hundred years since the sinking of the Lusitania. Although the heyday of ocean liner travel is long over, there are still elements of the story that are very relevant. How many times have governments allowed innocent civilians to die because they didn’t want to reveal what they know and how they know it?

Dead Wake was a very worthwhile read – I was hooked the whole way through…