Friday, November 25, 2016

Five Holiday Highlights

Call me awful, but after too many years of working retail and working as a professional petsitter/mobile veterinary technician, the holidays make me antsy and angsty. While the rest of polite American society celebrated, relaxed and reveled, I worked crazy long hours of emotional toil. I've nearly overcome the twice-weekly rude awakenings of bolting straight up in bed during the holidays wondering what day it is, or where I am supposed to be. The holidays are difficult for many people including yours truly. Be kind to service industry workers always, but especially this time of year. If you are a service industry worker, may the force be with you.

In an attempt to better enjoy the holiday season, here are five things I'm looking forward to happening.

1. The Elf movie party at Alamo Drafthouse promises to deliver some holiday cheer for all to hear. There will be scratch and sniff stickers and props to participate in the movie magic more fully. Yay!

2. One of my favorite holiday films is Love Actually. This year we're getting out of the 1952 House and viewing Love Actually at the historic Paramount Theatre.

3. A quick three-day visit to seven of my ten nieces and nephews to attend their musical recital, color in coloring books, play board games and remind them who I am should be fun.

4. The Holiday Magic Festival of Lights sounds appropriately holiday themed, bright and magical. I can't wait to see the big Asian lantern style dragon. I know dragons aren't especially Christmasy, but I like dragons. I also like string lights and lantern lights. Win, win, win!

5.  The annual Christmas ornament exchange party for my circle of lady-friends always delivers fun and mischief. Each person brings a wrapped Christmas ornament. We each draw a number, then proceed to select ornaments in numerical order. If you see an ornament you like in someone else's paws, you can steal that ornament. That person then selects a different ornament, either a wrapped mystery ornament or an enticing bauble from someone else. Each ornament can only be stolen three times until it is safe from stealing. One year it was way too polite with minimal stealing, but most years it gets rowdy, which is way more fun. Of course, it's also nice to see ladies I rarely get to visit, catch up on each other's lives a bit and remember why we like each other.

We look harmless in the photo, but the ornament stealing gets rowdy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Five Distractions, Late Edition

Here are five reasons I didn't post Five Things Friday on Friday.

1. I was busy looking through the East Austin Studio Tour Guide to thoughtfully select our stops on the tour. My favorite artists/studios included: Eli Halpin, Kelsey Kilcrease, Jodi Rae, Patrick Moran, Satch Grimley, Leona Gallery, Liliana Wilson and Fernando Muñoz.

2. I needed to hang out with our foster cat, Dottie. For her own safety and well being, she is sequestered in the dressing room (formerly the guest room, sometimes the foster pet room). Chad and I visit her several times a day to play, pet her, feed her or watch some Netflix together. She purrs when the Friends theme song plays. We thought Dottie had a spot in the Austin Humane Society's adoption program, but she was rejected. We're turning to back-up plans now to find this sweet cat a home.

3. The 1952 House resident pets get jealous of the time I spend with Dottie. They are extra needy of attention when I emerge from Dottie's room. I made them a sky-lit cardboard box fort with crinkly paper in it. This kept them busy for about an hour. Every time I think I can disassemble the fort and recycle the materials, they suddenly find it interesting again.

4. I was super distracted by all the construction ruckus that rattles our old house. I'm so ready for this pipe replacement project to be completed. We're going on the eighth week of 12-hour-a-day noise, dust and road closures. I want my street back. I want uninterrupted access to my driveway. I'm spoiled like that.

5. I was looking forward to Chad's Aunt Kay's 80th birthday party on Saturday evening. Aunt Kay is the bee's knees. She's warm, funny and smart. Her kids (who are all just the best people) planned an awesome shindig in her honor. Chef DeAndra made chili to accommodate everyone's dietary preferences. Chad and I were honored to be invited. We had a great time!

Bonus thing: I was trying to figure out what Chad and I are doing for Thanksgiving after we participate in the Turkey Trot to benefit Caritas of Austin. We like to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on fast forward and make fun of it. We're awful like that. We should probably eat some food. I loathe typical Thanksgiving food. I think we're having oven fries, steamed broccoli and Riblets. I'm not a foodie. I'm a super finicky, strictly vegetarian/mostly vegan, dining buzzkill with a peanut allergy. I'm thankful for lots of things, especially that I don't have to sit around a table full of food I hate with a giant bird corpse featured prominently while I listen to awkward conversation and try to keep a pleasant look on my face. That mess is one of my migraine triggers.

As always, click on any photo to see it larger.
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Friday, November 11, 2016

Five Local NonProfits

As we look forward to Thanksgiving in the United States of America, I think it's important to remember those who are in need of help. With that in mind, in no particular order, here are my five favorite nonprofit groups in Austin, Texas. Click on the listed nonprofits for links to each website.

1. Meals on Wheels 

This organization goes above and beyond delivering healthy meals to homebound senior citizens by also offering home repair services, help with pet care, rides around town and much more!

2. Austin Humane Society

This is a no-kill, limited intake shelter that provides great services to area pets. I benefited from the Feral Cat Trap, Neuter (or Spay), Return Program when I took L.B.'s mama cat to be spayed and vaccinated. Mama Kitty won't let me touch her, but she shows up for her dinner every evening at our carport. She won't be perpetuating the cycle of homeless cats with more kittens, and can have a safer, healthier life thanks to the TNR program.

Found cat, who we call Dottie

I will also benefit from placing our found cat, Dottie, into the adoption program if her owners don't claim her by November 27th. I have tried diligently to find this cat's family by posting 25 fliers around town in a three mile radius of our home, posting her to different found cat/found pet groups on Facebook and Neighbors websites, and updating Austin Animal Center and 311 with found cat posts. No luck yet. She is so sweet and affectionate. I know she will find a new loving home through the Austin Humane Society. (We can not, I repeat, NOT, have five cats in this little house!)

Dottie was rejected by the Austin Humane Society's adoption program. Despite being sweet at first during the intake process, she reacted negatively during and after a vaccination. I'm now scrambling to find a back-up plan for this sweet, abandoned cat. It's my fault for not understanding that she might be rejected by the Austin Humane Society. The Austin Humane Society said Dottie can try again on January 2 to pass the intake test, but sweet Dottie is probably not a fit for their highly selective adoption program. 

3. Central Texas Food Bank

This wonderful organization helps people access healthy foods in times of need through a variety of programs and services.

4. Emancipet (which has activated wonder twin powers with Animal Trustees of Austin!)

Emancipet's mission is to make spay/neuter services and veterinary care affordable and accessible to all pet owners. Emancipet nips the problem of pet overpopulation in the bud, literally, with spay and neuter services, and helps pet guardians keep their pets healthy.

Our sweet dog, Janie, went to Animal Trustees of Austin which is now part of Emancipet, before we adopted her for a femoral head ostectomy, or FHO, surgery. This procedure helped repair a serious injury and allowed our sweet dog to keep all four of her legs. Over the years we have made donations to both Emancipet and Animal Trustees of Austin. I love that two of my favorite pet organizations have now joined forces to provide more comprehensive services under the Emancipet moniker, and that they have expanded beyond Austin with clinics and mobile units serving Houston, Killeen, Pflugerville and many areas in between.

5. Caritas of Austin

Caritas of Austin provides a service continuum for those experiencing poverty that begins with a safety net and links them to resources to achieve self-sufficiency. They use a housing first approach to provide stability to their clients.

What are your favorite nonprofit groups? Make a plan to help these groups by donating or through volunteering!

San Juan Island, Washington Travelogue

I'm parting from the usual way I write a travelogue for this post. Here are some general impressions and highlights of our trip to San Juan Island, Washington.

We took a bus from Seattle to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, then caught the Washington State Department of Transportation ferry to Friday Harbor at San Juan Island. This journey took about four hours total. I wish I'd planned our trip for before Labor Day when the Victoria Clipper boat travels straight from downtown Seattle to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island almost daily during the high tourist season. We would have preferred to travel this more direct and scenic way. Full disclosure: I don't love bus fumes or watching people disembark at sad casinos on the way to my destination. The bus (actually a big bus to a smaller second shuttle bus) was a bummer.

Once we boarded the ferry to San Juan Island, I anticipated the remoteness of our destination with a sense of optimism. The views from the deck of the ferry were beautiful and idyllic: mountains, hills, trees, clean water and lots of birds. There are no bridges to drive to the island. One arrives to the island via boat or small aircraft. Cars are allowed on the island. The Washington State ferry transports cars along with people to the island.

By our second day on the island, I started to sense the downside to the remoteness of this island that depends on tourism for much of its economy. We were there during the very last week of the tourist season. About half of the resident islanders we encountered seemed emotionally exhausted and/or wary of visitors. I'm sure the tourism board of San Juan Island would take issue with this opinion of mine. I've spent the vast majority of my working life in service jobs in retail, child care and pet care. I sympathize strongly with people who are weary of slapping a customer service ready smile on their tired face day after day. Had we chosen to visit San Juan Island in May or early June, nearer to the start of tourist season, I bet we would have felt more welcome. Islanders call the mainland of Washington state "America", despite being Americans and residents of Washington state.

Here's some awful context for why the residents may have felt emotionally skittish during our visit. Two tourists were part of a murder-suicide on Lopez Island (part of the San Juan Islands) just weeks before our visit. A San Juan Island resident of Friday Harbor allegedly murdered his wife in their home just days before our visit. That's an extraordinary amount of violent crime happening in a small, remote, close-knit community in a short time span. 

Chad and I still had varying degrees of upper respiratory illness during this trip. I'm sure that added to my less-than-glowing impression of our vacation destination.

There's the bad and the ugly, up front and out of the way. Let's get to the good!

We loved our lunch at Herb's Tavern, a Friday Harbor institution. Herb's Tavern has a sense of history, but you won't find any dusty corners. This very clean and appropriately, but not overly, friendly tavern is conveniently located within stumbling distance of the ferry landing in Friday Harbor. Chad had the best veggie burger ever with a small mountain of perfect fries. I had a big house salad that was fresh, delicious and just what I needed. We felt welcome here.

We liked the charming look of Friday Harbor. The waterfront is beautiful. The main part of town looks very old-school Americana and quaint. There are lovely hanging planters overflowing with blooms. The little movie theater has two screens, but no website. You have to call the theater to hear a recorded message with show times. The main day spa in town shares a wall with a really cute gas station. The Pelindaba Lavender shop sells lavender goods from the farm on the island, and wafts soothing scents for a 250 foot radius around the shop. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from in the main part of town. Of course, there are plenty of t-shirt shops. The good-sized grocery store had lots of delicious apples grown in Washington state when we visited. Yum!

There was a lovely, friendly, vegan restaurant on this semi-remote island! Mike's Cafe and Wine Bar was just steps from our hotel. Located in a sweet former residential house with a lovely outdoor dining area, this is the kind of place that I'd love to have in Austin. The menu was refreshingly diverse for a plant-based restaurant. Chad loved his "crabby" cakes served with mashed cauliflower and perfectly steamed broccolini. I enjoyed a BBQ "chicken" pizza. For the less adventurous diners, a hummus platter with fresh raw veggies and pita bread was on the menu.

Hiking along one of the roads at English Camp

In 1859, the United States of America and Great Britain agreed that San Juan Island would be occupied by military from both nations until a water boundary dispute could be settled. English Camp was established on one end of the island and American Camp on the other end of the island. Chad and I spent five hours hiking all over English Camp. We had most of the trails to ourselves that day. We especially enjoyed the waterfront views from Bell Point and Westcott Bay. We encountered a giant red-headed woodpecker pecking at trees with the force of a jackhammer. We admired him for a few minutes. He fled the scene as soon as we reached for our camera phones. We also tiptoed gently past a couple of groups of baby deer and mama deer. We spotted a few giant spiders and their webs from respectful distances. The Parade Grounds and English Cemetery had informational plaques with old barracks and headstones still in place. Hiking at English Camp was our favorite activity on San Juan Island.

Totem poles in the style of Salish Native Americans at English Camp

A very close second for our favorite activity was a whale watching boat tour around the San Juan Islands. We took a four hour cruise with Crystal Seas Whale Watching on board The Odyssey. The Odyssey is a large, comfortable boat with bathrooms, enclosed viewing areas and open deck viewing areas. There were two enthusiastic and knowledgeable "naturalists" on board to help identify wildlife, talk about whale history and answer questions. We were a bit late in the season to spot any orcas, but we saw a bald eagle, harbor porpoise, seals, sea lions and a pair of minke whales fishing near each other. The minke whales were impressive! I was thrilled to see the amount of wildlife that we did, especially from such a comfortable setting. If you go to San Juan Island, I highly recommend Crystal Seas Whale Watching.

We did not have a car on the island. We enjoyed being able to walk to everything in the main part of Friday Harbor. We bought a day pass for the San Juan Transit bus to shuttle to the Pelindaba Lavender Farm, Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, the outdoor sculpture park, Lime Kiln Point Park, the above-mentioned English Camp and other island destinations. This mode of transportation was much cheaper than taking a cab everywhere or renting a car. We enjoyed the humorous, colorful and informative commentary from the shuttle driver. The shuttle adhered to the scheduled stops punctually.

On our travel day to get home, we set the alarm clock for 4:15 AM to make the cruel early hour of our departure on the 5:45 AM ferry. After arriving at the Anacortes ferry station we then had to wait two hours for a small shuttle bus which took us to a larger shuttle bus which took us to Seattle Tacoma Airport. There we stood in a ridiculously long line to check in for the four hour long Southwest Airlines flight home. I was so ready to get home to my terrible pets (each of whom I love fiercely) and my own bed.

I'm glad that we went to San Juan Island, Washington. I doubt that I'll return, because it was laborious to travel there from Austin. There are too many other wonderful places on this planet that I haven't seen yet.

*Click here for a link to the official, and very helpful, website for travel to the San Juan Islands.*

Friday, November 04, 2016

Five Fave Vacation Destinations

I am a homebody. I like hanging out with my too many pets and watching Netflix, reading a book or working a puzzle. I know it might not seem like it based on my Trip Advisor senior reviewer status, but I don't love traveling. Often I prefer watching travel shows on Travel Channel to actually traveling. I consider how welcoming (or not welcoming) a place feels to be a major factor of how much I enjoy (or don't enjoy) visiting that place. With these disclaimers, here are my five favorite places to which I've traveled, in no particular order.

1. Rome, Italy

History, great architecture, rich culture, passionate people and beauty everywhere made me love Rome. Thanks to Elsa Gramola of A Taste of Italy in Austin for being a wonderful tour planner and guide. Click *here* and *here* for my original blog posts about visiting Rome.

2. Cambridge, England

I didn't love London. Shocking! I did love our day trip to Cambridge. Cambridge felt very much like what I imagine Hogwarts from the Harry Potter books might look like. Grand castle-like buildings house class rooms, lecture halls and student residences in this charming university city. Cozy pubs, posh restaurants, magical candy shops and charming tea rooms line the cobblestone streets. The River Cam runs through this city with longboats slowly cruising up and down. It certainly helped my impression of the city that we met up with one of Chad's client-friends in the evening who kindly showed us around his hometown. *Click here for a link to my original blog post about visiting Cambridge.*

3. Seattle, Washington

I don't usually like big bustling cities, but I love Seattle. I like the waterfront, the generally welcoming people, the history, the wealth of vegetarian dining options, the proximity to alluring natural settings, the unique charm, the clouds and the lovely public spaces that encourage a sense of community in this city. Click *here* and *here* for blog posts about our recent trip to Seattle.

4. Hood River and nearby Multnomah Falls, Oregon

This sweet, small town only had one movie theater with two screens when we visited, but it has an enormity of natural beauty, a couple of breweries, a relaxed and welcoming vibe, and is near many farms and orchards. Click *here* for my short, but link-heavy blog post about our trip to Hood River, Oregon and Multnomah Falls. I would gladly visit Hood River again when I need a relaxing vacation.

5. Key West, Florida

I'm not a big drinker of alcohol. If someone asks, "Do you like to party?" my answer will be no. I like to plan beautiful events and sweat every thoughtful detail, but I do not like "to party". I enjoyed Key West not for the drinky/party reputation, but for the rich history, natural beauty and mellow vibe. I loved the beautiful snorkeling, kayaking among the Mangrove trees and the touring Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West. Click *here*, *here*, *here*, *here* and *here* for my original blog posts about visiting KeyWest. Wow, five posts for a five day trip! I guess I really did love that trip!

As I wrote this post about my five favorite travel places, I realized I still haven't written a travelogue for San Juan Island, Washington. I'm procrastinating, because while I certainly enjoyed bits of that trip, overall I did not love that destination. I will post about that trip... soon. Really.