Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tank You Very Much

Yesterday morning, sitting on the front porch, having a cup of hot Stash Mango Passionfruit Herbal Tea, I gazed upon the pristine morning landscape laid out before me and the snappy sunshine bearing down in its sparkling happiness. But the faraway sounds did not go with the view. The ground began to rumble and the window panes started rattling. Having been in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, I momentarily thought we might be experiencing one here in Texas, but the thought faded quickly as the low rumbling sounds continued. I knew they were coming from Fort Hood.

It’s like watching one of those Japanese B-Movies, dubbed in English. You hear the actor speak his line and then a moment later, you see the actor’s lips move in a totally weird way. That’s what it’s like when I look outside at the beautiful countryside and hear the intrusive, distant bombing. It just doesn't match up.

For the past couple of days, the earth’s been shaking at the Double M Ranch. Off in the distance, I hear the rumble of big guns going off. We live near Fort Hood, the largest active duty armored post in the world, and when they begin their practice maneuvers, we know about it.

Clearing a stairwell, Soldiers with the 1-12 Combined Arms Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, conduct urban operations training at the Elijah MOUT site on Fort Hood, Texas May 1. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ben Fox, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division Public Affairs)

The sound reminds me of the many American men and women who are overseas, fighting a war that doesn’t make much sense to most of us. I am grateful for their bravery and commitment to freedom and duty. I pray for them. I pray for the decision makers, who keep us entangled in policing the world’s criminals.

Operation Rock Wrench clears industrial section of Baqouba - A Soldier from the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, provides rear security as a weapons cache consisting of grenades and hand-held radios, discovered by soldiers of the 5th Iraqi Army Division, burns. Iraqi forces focused on clearing structures while U.S. forces provided security for the mission in the industrial section of southern Baqouba. (U.S. Army Photo by 1st Lt. Richard Ybarra, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

The United States is a superpower, a blessed country that comes to the aid of those being downtrodden by the unjust actions of power-hungry egomaniacs. Yet, there is much to do in our own country, many downtrodden here to help, too.

I pray that our new President (I can’t even bear to say his name yet) will make good choices for our country, with the help of the Congress, over the next four years, that all the countries in the world will stand up for right and work together toward peace.

“There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they grow up in peace.“ -- Kofi Annan

Pray for Peace, Y’all!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ahead of Our Time

The other day, I was shopping in Sports Authority, when I noticed I was humming along to a Christmas song. I immediately stopped. Christmas?! For Pete’s sake, we were over two weeks away from Thanksgiving, much less Christmas! Annoyed, I located a salesperson and said, “You are playing Christmas music?” The young man replied apologetically, “Yes, I’m afraid we are.” “That’s just wrong!” I exclaimed. He said, “I know it, and I have to listen to it all day long.” Poor fella.

On the drive back from West Texas, I noticed that many towns were already displaying their Christmas decorations and several houses were donning their Christmas lights. Now as far back as I can remember, you just didn’t put up Christmas decorations and lights until after Thanksgiving. Something just isn’t right here.

I think there’s a conspiracy going on. After the financial meltdown in September, Best Buy Co. said that "seismic" changes in consumer behavior have created "the most difficult climate" it has ever seen. JC Penney reported weak third quarter earnings and has lowered its fourth quarter earnings estimate. Starbucks profits are less than half of what they earned in 2007. The coffee giant has been hit hard by the worst economic downturn in nearly a generation as consumers cling to their dollars even more tightly than analysts had expected. And, who can blame them?

I love Starbucks hot chocolate, and they recently came out with their Signature Hot Chocolate, which is a distinctly rich, European-style hot chocolate made with Starbucks’ blend of four different cocoas. But, at $4.00 a pop, including tax, for a large cup of hot chocolate, I could go broke. Heck, I am broke! So, I, like many other consumers, have had to cut back on this fancy luxury.

What does all this mean? It means we are beginning to hear Christmas music in all the department stores much earlier than before. Even my bank has decorated the lobby with its Christmas tree and ornaments. The lobby smells like pumpkin spice and Christmas carols are piped in through the sound system. Retailers are conspiring to influence consumers to part with our hard-earned dollars by getting us in the holiday shopping mood earlier this year.

Shame on them! I know times are tough, but Thanksgiving is a very important holiday and should not be upstaged by Christmas. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – a time to reflect on the blessings I have received throughout the year and a time when my entire, extended family gathers together at the Ranch. My parents, son, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brother, nieces, nephews and more all join together for a delicious meal and fellowship.

The food at Thanksgiving on the Double M Ranch is not to be missed! Mom always makes the turkey and her infamous dressing, topped with a big ladle of giblet gravy. Aunt Mary Lou brings ham and rolls. Cousin Laketha always cooks her delicious sweet potatoes, and I like to make a couple of pies. Since the Thanksgiving meal is usually not eaten until mid-afternoon, my sister, Cameron, always provides a salmon loaf as an appetizer. There are mashed potatoes, cream peas, jello salad (my favorite) and a green salad. Sometimes, someone will bring asparagus, tamales, chocolate sheet cake or apricot half-moon pies. Thanksgiving at the Ranch is truly a feast of plenty. Nobody leaves hungry.

After the meal, the menfolk usually watch the Dallas Cowboys’ football game, while the children play softball outside. Meanwhile, the women take turns cleaning the kitchen, cackling and telling funny stories. By late afternoon, the relatives begin to disperse. At last, it’s naptime on the Double M Ranch.

I hope you and your family will relish in the blessings of this Thanksgiving and focus on the family. Don’t let the cheap, glitzy Christmas gimmicks influence you at the store this year. Take a stand, and keep your Christmas dollars in your pocket until after Thanksgiving!

Be Thankful, Y’all!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Chuck Wagon

Last Saturday morning while in Fort Davis, Texas, my friends and I stopped in at The Chuck Wagon restaurant for breakfast. A relatively new restaurant, The Chuck Wagon had reasonable prices, great food and friendly, attentive service. I ordered the breakfast burrito with eggs, sausage, potatoes, onion and tomatoes. It was scrumptious. In addition to his breakfast order, Bobby asked for a side of sausage gravy, which he generously allowed me to sample. It was homemade cream gravy just like my momma makes!

On the paper place mats was printed the history of the chuck wagon, which I found quite interesting. Charles Goodnight, one of the most prosperous cattlemen of the American West, is credited as the inventor of the chuck wagon. He and his partner, Oliver Loving, prepared to take a herd of 2,000 Longhorn cattle from Belknap in northern Texas to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and on to Denver, Colorado in 1866. Goodnight purchased a government wagon and reconfigured it to meet the supply needs of the journey, having it rebuilt in bois d’arc, the toughest wood available.

The bois d'arc tree is also known as Osage orange, bodark, horse apple, hedge ball, Osage apple, mock orange, yellow wood, palo de arco, by its Indian name ayac and by its scientific name Maclura pomifera. What makes the bois d' arc different from most other trees is the quality of the wood, which is noted for its hardness, flexibility, durability, and resistance to contact with moisture and soil. Hunt County, Texas historian, Walworth Harrison, described the wood as "ever lasting," because of its immunity to rot.

My friend, Bobby, who also went along on our trip, says that if you put horse apples all around your house, you won't have any spiders. That's good news for a woman like me who suffers from mild arachnophobia!

The purpose of the chuck wagon was a logical one. A large cattle drive required men, and men required food. This redesigned, sturdy wagon fit the bill as a mobile kitchen. The distinguishing feature of the wagon was the sloping box on the rear with a hinged lid that lowered to become a cook's worktable. The box was fitted to the width of the wagon and contained shelves and drawers for holding food and utensils. To the cowboys, "chuck" was food, so the box was called a chuck box and the wagon became known as a “chuck wagon”.

This brings me to another thought, unrelated to chuck wagons. If food was known as “chuck”, then it finally makes sense to me why I’ve heard people use the word “upchuck” in place of “vomit”. I learn something new every day!

Cowboys ate all their meals around the chuck wagon, but the wagon also served as the social center, cattle drive headquarters and recreational spot. Many tall tales and musical numbers evolved around the chuck wagon campfire.

In many ways the cook or "cookie" was the most important member of the drive, and he generally got paid better than the other men. The cook drove the chuck wagon ahead of the herd and was responsible for selecting campsites in the evenings and stopovers for the noonday meal. Meals generally consisted of beef, beans, and sourdough biscuits along with generous cups of strong black coffee. The cook used a large "dutch oven," a cast iron pot for cooking biscuits and the occasional cobbler. The difference between an ordinary cook and a good cook often meant the difference between happy cowboys and grumbling cowboys, although the smart cowboy would avoid complaining within earshot of the cook for fear of being pressed into service. Cookie ruled his kitchen and not so much as a cup of coffee was consumed without his permission.

Wagons Ho, Y’all!

West Texas Wonderment

I just returned from a fun-filled weekend getaway to West Texas with my three friends, Andrea, Gene and Bobby. We stayed at the McIvor Ranch in Fort Davis, which far exceeded my expectations. Run by Scott and Julie McIvor, the McIvor Ranch is a working ranch with cattle, goats, horses, chickens and more. Gram’s House is a wonderful 3-bedroom, 2-bath house that belonged to Scott’s grandmother. The décor is very warm, with wood flooring, dark wood doors, a fireplace and a retro kitchen with black-and-white tile and an old Formica-topped dinette.

Andrea and I shared a room toward the back of the house, which had its own bathroom, decorated with light yellow tile, and a sea foam green tub and sink. But, the feature that really captured my attention was the toilet seat and cover. It was clear plastic with a variety of barbed wire samples inside of it – oddest thing I’ve ever seen. It was definitely worthy of a picture!

We met Scott McIvor, a real cowboy, when we arrived around 4:00 PM. The first thing I noticed about Scott was his mustache. Well-groomed, it grew very long, past his bottom lip, concealing his mouth. As I was pondering whether he has to part his mustache down the middle to eat and how his wife kisses him, I heard a familiar clink-clink-clink. Where had I heard that sound before? I looked down at Scott’s boots and saw the spurs. And, while we were gone, Scott brought us one and a half dozen fresh eggs. Delicious!

The four of us unloaded the Suburban and changed into our cold-weather gear. I was so glad I had packed my Sherpa hat, wool scarf and gloves, because as we ascended into the Davis Mountains, it got colder and colder. Our destination was the McDonald Observatory, owned by the University of Texas at Austin. We attended the Twilight Program and the Star Party.

The Twilight Program began with an introduction and overview from a senior staff member, who took questions. I asked, “What happened to Pluto?”, referring to astronomists no longer considering Pluto to be a “planet", which was followed by laughs from the crowd. The speaker smiled and explained that after further research, objects in the sky larger than Pluto, which also orbit the sun, had been discovered, yet were not considered planets. Hence, Pluto had been re-categorized as a “dwarf planet” or a “plutoid”. He further commented that the public seems to be mourning the loss of Pluto as a planet and some have even been adamantly incensed, citing a class of 5th graders who sent him hate mail after hearing about the re-categorization of Pluto. Reminding us that in the 1930s, astronomists determined that Sirius, previously thought to be a planet, was actually a star, the speaker said we’d get over the Pluto situation. Easy for him to say!

The Star Party was conducted by Shannon Rudine, Public Affairs Specialist, who happened to be an old college friend of Andrea’s during her days at Sul Ross University. Unfortunately, we had a full moon and a cold front had blown in a flurry of clouds. But, the night sky cleared long enough for Shannon to point out several constellations, such as the Southern Cross and Cassiopeia (or Cornucopia, as I preferred to call it), Venus and Saturn. It was so interesting and later, we were able to look through different telescopes to see a double star cluster, the moon, Jupiter and its orbiting moons.

On Day 2 of our adventure, the four of us returned to the McDonald Observatory to tour the Frank N. Bash Visitor’s Center and view the two gigantic telescopes - the 107-inch Harlan Smith Telescope and the 360-inch Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

After the tour, we headed to the Woodward Ranch, just south of Alpine, for an afternoon of rock hounding. The Woodward Ranch is the home source of Red Plum Agate, which is a beautiful stone. They have over 60 different kinds of agate and gemstones occurring naturally. We were given the “Geology 101” course and were led through the rock shop, shown samples of the raw material and what it looks like once its polished.

We spent a few hours filling our buckets with what we hoped were precious treasures. Having been to Woodward Ranch before, Gene (pictured above) helped the rest of us distinguish between the treasure rocks and the regular rocks. Tray Woodward, the owner of Woodward Ranch, sorted through our findings and set aside the rocks that had no value. The valuable pieces were placed back in our buckets and weighed. Four pounds of rocks cost $8.00. Lucky for us, Bobby has a rock tumbler and the tools to cut the rocks, so we are excited to see what our treasures really turn out to be!

On the last day of our trip, we stopped at Fredericksburg on our way back home. Andrea and I had never been there before. Arriving mid-afternoon, we meandered through the quaint shops downtown before they closed and then stopped at a local restaurant for refreshments and a snack.

There was so much more to do in West Texas in the Davis Mountains and not enough time to do it all. It is certainly worth a repeat visit, but next time we’ll stay longer!

Wish Upon A Star, Y’all!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Best Chicken-Fried Steak

Over the years, I’ve been on my own personal quest for the best chicken-fried steak. To those of you who haven’t indulged in this culinary delight, all I can say is you haven’t lived! Every Texan knows is there is no chicken in chicken-fried steak. “Chicken-fried” is a term used to describe the cooking process. An inexpensive cut of round steak is tenderized, dipped in an egg and milk mixture, dredged through seasoned flour and then fried in drippings just like fried chicken.

It is estimated that 800,000 orders of Chicken-Fried Steak are served in Texas every day. According to the Lone Star Book of Records, the Chicken-Fried Steak was invented in 1911 by Jimmy Don Perkins, a cook in a small café in Lamesa, Texas, who misunderstood a customer’s order and battered a thin steak and deep-fried it in hot oil. Unfortunately, this oft-reported food fact is a complete fable. The precise origins of the dish are unclear, but many sources attribute it to German and Austrian immigrants to Texas in the nineteenth century who brought recipes from Europe to the United States, such as Weiner Schnitzel. Bandera, Texas also claims to be the birthplace of the chicken-fried steak.

Regardless of its origin, Chicken-Fried Steak is a Texas staple. You can always expect to find it served with a mound of mashed potatoes, green beans and white cream gravy drizzled all over the steak and potatoes. I salivate just thinking about it. But, as with any popular dish, some places make better Chicken-Fried Steak than others.

This week, I came across a chicken-fried steak to rival all others at the Mesa Ranch Bar & Grill in South Austin at Interstate 35 and Oltorf Drive, just south of downtown. Mesa Ranch serves either chicken-fried steak or chicken-fried venison with poblano mashers (mashed potatoes), which had a mild kick, homestyle cream gravy and the vegetable of the day. The chicken-fried steak was seasoned so well and was so tender, and with the poblano mashed potatoes, it was one heavenly bite after another.

The atmosphere is upscale Texan, with faux alligator skin table cloths, heavy silverware garnished with various ranch brands, super friendly servers, Texas art, and as one person described it, “…enough southwestern kitsch décor to choke a stud bull”. They are known for their steaks and fried cactus, and the key lime pie ought to be labeled a cheesecake. It is simply divine!

Even the Ladies Room had a few sayings tacked up on the wall that made me feel like I was definitely in a Texas establishment:

“Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History”

“When Life Hands You Lemons, Bust Out the Tequila and Salt”

Bon Appetít, Y’all!

Animal Magnetism

From the animated movie “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” comes a host of misplaced animal misfits. All of the loveable characters from the first movie are back – Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe, Gloria the hippo, King Julien, Maurice and the penguins. They find themselves in the wildest place of all – the vast plains of Africa – where this zoo-raised crew encounters species of their own kind for the very first time.

I could definitely relate to Gloria the hippo. One of her lines is, “Get cher groove on! Get cher groove on!” I certainly do feel like I’ve got my groove back. When I expressed that sentiment to my psychologist earlier this week, she produced a large, stuffed snowman and placed it on the table. When she pressed the button, the disco song, “Shake Your Groove Thing” began to play as the snowman danced. My psychologist explained that “getting my groove back” was worth taking a moment to celebrate. What a hoot!

I had more in common with Gloria the hippo. She was oblivious to the admiration and adoration of her dear friend, Melman the giraffe. In fact, they had been friends so long that she really couldn’t see him as anything other than her dear old friend. We find out during a near-death experience that Melman is in love with Gloria. However, she is snoring and sleeping soundly through his entire confession.

I have a friend like Melman, who I’ve known for seven years. Because we had been friends for such a long time, I couldn’t really see him in a romantic light. He watched me make all my poor choices in husbands and suitors, and he loved me anyway. We have a special connection, about which a whole book could be written, so I won’t go into the detail, except to say that he’s always been there when I needed him. Through our friendship, my Heavenly Father has shown me that He loves me as his eternal daughter and cares about me. Just like Melman, my dear friend has shown me what real friendship and true love really is. And, just like Gloria, I finally opened my eyes. What a gift it is to feel cherished!

Go see the movie, “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”. It’s really wonderful!

And, speaking of animal magnetism, my 18-year old son, Eric, got a haircut yesterday! Oh, his mama is doin’ the Happy Dance! Now that his handsome face has the right frame around it, instead of all the overgrown vegetation, those college girls are going to be battin’ their long eyelashes at him. Aw heck, it doesn’t matter what his hair looks like, the girls already gravitate towards him. What a handsome hunk of posterity that young man is!

On another, animal-related note, driving to my brother’s house in Austin late Tuesday night, I saw a deer in the road. Now, out in the country on the Double M Ranch, this is a common occurrence, but I was in a heavily-populated urban neighborhood. The small doe was running down the middle of the street toward my car, and then she turned to run up another street, as if trying to find her way out of a confusing maze. She looked so terribly out of place. I half expected to see Santa Claus and his reindeer chasing behind her. It was such an odd sight.

I, too, must have animal magnetism. While in Austin this week, I pulled up at the home of a friend. I walked up onto the porch and knocked at the door. I heard leaves rustling and a noise behind me. I whipped around in alarm and there, standing behind me, was a blonde Labrador retriever, wagging his tail. “You scared me!” I exclaimed to him. Although I’d never seen this dog before, he almost seemed to know me. I reached down to pet him and looked at his collar for a tag to see where he lived, but there was no tag.

As I walked back to my car, which was parallel parked on the street, the lab followed me. As I was looking for traffic, opening the driver’s side door, the dog jumped right in. “Oh no,” I said. “You can’t go with me. I’m sure you have a very nice home somewhere. Now, c’mon and get out.” I kissed the air and clapped my hands, but the lab just sat there in the passenger’s seat, looking quite ready for a road trip. “C’mon boy!” I repeated and whistled. Nothing. I walked around to the passenger side door and tried to pull the dog out. He wouldn’t budge.

I had been listening to the audio book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and was totally enthralled, nearing the end of the story. Rather than try to coax my new passenger out of the car, I decided to wait until my friend returned home and continued listening to the CD. As I turned the car on, the Labrador retriever tried to come sit in my lap. I pushed him off and then he stuck his nose up to the air conditioning vents. I had not fastened my seatbelt, since I wasn’t going anywhere, so in a few minutes, the seat belt alert, which is a series of five ring tones, began to go off. The dog’s ears raised high off his head, and he cocked his head to the side, listening to the warning chimes.

About five minutes later, my friend arrived home, and after another ten minutes or so, was able to persuade the stubborn blonde lab to vacate my car by bribing him with doggie treats, noting that the dog lived a few houses down.

“I got to move it, move it. I got to move it, move it. I got to move it, move it. Ya got to (MOVE IT)!” – “I Like To Move It”, title song from the movie, “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”. To see the trailer, click here and then click on the Video button at the bottom of the screen. Select Trailer 1 and enjoy!

Move It, Y’all!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Batter Up!

Yesterday, I watched the Austin Senior Softball League games at the Krieg Field Complex. They are quite entertaining. It’s like watching Little League games. You never know what’s going to happen. The men are at least 55 years old, with many players in their 60s and 70s.

During one of yesterday’s games, an unlikely batter hit the ball over the heads of the outfielders all the way to the fence, yet only made it to first base. He was a-huffin’ and a-puffin’. The same batter hit a grounder to the shortstop during another at-bat with runners on first and second base. The batter ran to first base out of breath and began to walk off the bag when the first base coach told him to get back on the base. He said, “But isn’t somebody out?” Nope. The shortstop had fumbled the ball and never even made a throw.

It’s obvious that these guys play for the fun of the game. Many say they are experiencing their second childhood, although a few have told me they can’t remember theirs. The players from the four different teams are all friendly toward each other, joke around with each other and cheer each other on. Some of the men are not in shape or have physical limitations preventing them from running, so they have pinch runners. Still others hit the ball over the fence.

I believe I may’ve found the fountain of youth after all - the youth of boyhood silliness and camaraderie anyway. It’s alive and well in Austin, Texas.

Play Ball, Y’all!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Time For Change

Anyone who knows me understands why I am low energy and just slow pokin’ around today. The result of the presidential election simply wasn’t to my liking. Well, at least I voted my conscience. A friend of mine asked me not to discuss the results with him for a week to let the information settle and to observe a proper mourning time for Democracy. I’ll just keep reminding myself that God’s in charge of the Big Picture and I’ll have an extra helping of chocolate cake. That oughta help.

Oftentimes with change comes uneasiness, depression, feelings of loss, loss of control, unpredictability and fear of the unknown. But, change can also be a catalyst of good, causing us to re-evaluate our priorities, test the limits of our faith in God, acknowledge our weaknesses, take steps to improve ourselves and our environment, seek knowledge and help others.

I’ve been told the only thing that changes about us is everything. Change is constant. Pining away for the “good ole days” isn’t going to bring them back. Each of us must learn to adapt and adjust to change, to endure well. That is our challenge as beings in these unstable times. Why, only a few years ago, my mother had no idea how to turn on a computer. Now, she takes her laptop on trips. All of us can learn and grow and change, if we want to.

We are beginning to see the leaves change here in Central Texas. The county road leading up to the Double M Ranch is now tree-lined with leaves of yellow, orange and dots of red. The live oaks, which are prominent here on the Ranch, stay green, but driving out to town and back provides proof that Fall is here (even if the temperatures don’t).

In an effort to improve processes, I have decided to make a change in blog sites. The Yahoo360 site is fraught with bugs and slowness, so I’ve decided to switch over to Google's I hope this is an improvement, both for you to access my little vignettes and for me to post them. As always, I welcome your feedback!

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And, wisdom to know the difference
Thy will, not mine, be done.

Remember Who’s Large & In Charge, Y’all!
(And, it ain’t me & you!!)