Happily Handmade

Handmade Christmas gifts are the best. I like to give ’em, I like to receive ’em. Something about putting the finishing touches on a mediocre craft and boxing it up to distribute to family who are obligated to love it just feels über Christmasy. This year I was lucky to receive my fair share of handmade trinkets and goodies.

A favorite might have been these ornaments my mom made to resemble Stella and Wyatt. Our tree was lacking in doodle-themed ornaments–something that clearly had to be remedied. See the resemblance?

My sister and brother-in-law, of StormulaOne Photography fame, put together these coasters featuring his photography. I’m a big fan of his work, so getting to glance down at mini prints of his photography on my coffee table is really exciting. I might have to commission more.

Heath’s mother made this reversible hobo bag that I can’t wait to use as a travel pouch.

And of course, let’s not discount all the jellies, jams and baked goods from my mother and from Ranjana that will carry us into the new year.

So, too soon to start working on next years gifts? The wheels are already turning.

Traveling by sea

It wasn’t so much a 3-hour tour, our most recent traveling excursion, as it was a 6-day, 7-night stint aboard the impressive Carnival Conquest. The trip to Jamaica, Cayman Islands and Cozumel, Mexico was my first go at cruising (courtesy of the wildly generous Stateson family) and it was an experience rich in 1) foods so delightfully delectable and neverending you’d rather take on the extra 10 pounds than utter ‘no’ to the offer of a second cup of lobster bisque or chocolate melting cake, 2) entertainment, both of the magic show and stand up comedian ilk, 3) water so blue you can make out not only the number of fish that lurk below but also their colors, patterns and number of scales, and 4) obese, sun burned drunkards.

Rookies to the sport of cruising–an activity I’m told you improve at maneuvering over time–we departed as ignorant novices, capable of comparing the experience only to that of an all-inclusive resort, sans the free booze, (see honeymoon) in terms or service, edibles and luxuries.

At it’s conclusion:

*We found the service, primarily at the nightly formal dinners, to be quick, accurate and readily available while simultaneously being personal and intellectually enlightening. We immediately befriended Indonesian born Ida and Teguh and Turkey native Ozan and learned to thank each of them for their service in their native language, “terima kasih” and “teşekkür ederim” respectively. There was also the exchange of riddles and puzzles which we enjoyed sharing with one another throughout the duration of the cruise. How, pray tell, can you put a price on eternal party tricks?

*The options were seemingly endless. When it comes to finding a way to successfully distract/entertain more than 3,000 people during long, tedious days at sea, Carnival does not come up short. Admittedly, we did not partake in many of the options presented to us but sports trivia, gambling, karaoke, hairy man competitions, newlywed games and mini golf were all on the agenda. During nights at sea, the ship really comes alive. Old and young put on their most elegant attire (be it a monkey suit, prom dress, Hawaiian shirt or something in between) and parade the decks of the Conquest. Some come to gamble, others to scrupulously browse through and select among the incredibly misplaced, inappropriate, phony photo backdrops (which invade the decks by the dozens) capable of hosting their family portraits (the awkward head-tilts, ridiculous backdrop scenarios and tedious body positioning by the photographers beg for many of the photos to one day wind up on on awkward family photos). But most come to enjoy the gut-busting comedians, visually stunning magic shows and cheesy, if not catchy, dance numbers performed nightly.

* Excursions are a must. It’s tempting to take advantage of the luxuries presented by a virtually empty cruise ship during days at port (no lines for the buffet, empty swimming pools, etc.) but taking a step off the ship in order to understand and familiarize yourself with the flora, fauna, architecture and culture of an island nation is a worthwhile endeavor. Snorkeling, castle building, photographing, and brisk walks through town can all be accomplished at the low price of $0. And kayaking, zip lining and other treks are also readily available for slightly more cash upfront (but consider booking via other outlets than the cruise ship for better rates).

*The people can wear on you. In the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace compares the massive quantities of people on a cruise, moving in complete synchronization through buffet lines and off and on the ship during docking, to cows being herded across the plains. Bovinophobia becomes an ever present theme in the eyes of DFW. I didn’t so much compare the masses of people aboard the Conquest to cows as I did to 1) pigs and 2) koi. After day 3 of cruising, I grew wary of observing ubiquitous obese masses sunning themselves on the deck of the ship. Oiled up and increasingly pink in color, cruisers continued to return to the top of the ship’s decks to “tan” in the equatorial sun while consuming sinfully over-priced booze. Additionally, I watched in horror as 50-year-old women screeched and grasped, like famished victims of a starved country, for 50-cent Mardi Gras beads hurled from a balcony by Fun Ship employees…eerily similar to pond koi reacting to promises from above of fish-flake nuggets. After a week of hearing crowds bellow “whoo” more than one would think is humanly possible (and I was a cheerleader) and watching the ship’s dedicated service staff be abused by red necks, I was disenchanted with my American heritage. On cruises, you come for the service but not for the fellow guests.

Shameful guests or no, I relish the experience afforded to me. In toto, the cruise was incredibly enriching and I am lucky to have been a part of it.

Hill Country Saturday

A pilgrimage to the Texas Hill Country can take on many forms. For some, the visit to one of the most beautiful regions in Texas means miles of tubing, beer in hand, down cold, rapid-filled rivers. Others ponder hikes through thickets swarmed with wildlife and wildflowers, but on this particular Saturday a trip to the Texas Hill Country meant lots of peach ice cream, local wine, and a farm-developed seed vacuum cleaner.

The first stop on our hill country hangout was in Blanco to visit the popular lavender fields which have made Blanco the self-proclaimed Lavender Capital of the World and host of the area’s Lavender festival. Unfortunately the summer’s drought made hills of purple pollen scarce, but droves of arts and crafts vendors and sellers of lavender-themed knick knacks still came to profit from the Lavender craze in Blanco’s historic square. While the flowers were scarce, the local charm wasn’t and Blanco made a great stop for a light lunch. Check out Zocalo Electric Cafe for a menu that’s small but is customized daily to reflect the freshest ingredients available at the cafe. The food is light and wholesome and the atmosphere of the  converted bungalow adequately reflects the small-town charm that brings visitors to Blanco in the first place.

From Blanco it’s about a 20-minute drive to Fredericksburg, a city I’ve grown up knowing for its German heritage, wineries, and most-importantly…its peaches.

We arrived at a long-time family favorite pit stop for peaches, Burg’s Corner. The roadside stop for all things peaches hasn’t changed since the 1970s and offers hungry Hill Country visitors loads of peach paraphernalia, produce, picturesque picnic areas and peach ice cream. Licking up scoops of the Blue Bell peach ice cream at Burg’s Corner is a memory from my youth I’ve carried into adulthood and will hopefully one day emerge itself in the memories of my future offspring. The stop is humble but it’s one of those places that for some reason nests itself in your subconscious and begs to be revisited over and over again.

This view from a picnic area around the corner overlooks the Pedernales River. This beautiful and serene piece of scenery is not only the setting of dozens of family picnics, it’s where we go to remember my Oma who considered this picnic stop a Texas treasure. Her ashes are scattered here.

Down the road from Burg’s is Becker Vineyards.  A road surrounded by orchards and vineyards on either side leads guests up to the limestone headquarters of this local winery. Ten dollars gets you in for tastings of sublimely delicious Texas wines, but part of what you pay for is not only the rich and delightfully cared-for beverage but also recommendations from the vineyard’s staff of the best wines and nearby sight-seeing opportunities and the spectacular view of the Fredericksburg countryside.

Further on down the same road that hosts both Burg’s and Becker is Wildseed Farms. The massive wildflower mecca is the proverbial candy store to many a Texas Gardener. Their covet-worthy seed selection fills an entire room and acres and acres of innovative irrigation systems water not rows of corn or tomatoes but instead fields of flowers. The grounds are certainly a site to behold.

There’s no limit to the combinations of experiences the Texas Hill Country can afford, but on this Saturday the combinations of flowers and ice cream and peaches and wine couldn’t be rivaled.

a handsome sir

I love it when people allow me to experiment on them with my photography. My most recent victim was one Brady Beavers, also known as Heath’s soon-to-be-graduated cousin. Here are a few shots I took this weekend to commemorate this fella’s special accomplishment. He was a great sport!

That one seemed very classic of both Mark and Brady.

There’s always time to be silly.

Congratulations Brady. You’ll be  awesome.