Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gimme Some Dim Sum (in Philadelphia)

A dim sum cart rolls by.
This is the cryptic ticket
Friends accompanied us to the Imperial Inn in Chinatown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA to experience the dim sum. I had heard of this but never been: it is kind of like a Chinese brunch buffet, but you sit still and the food selections on small plates roll around on carts. There's a cryptic ticket on the corner of the table, and when you choose a small plate of dumplings or spring rolls, or a slightly larger plate of sticky rice, the server puts a circle or an 'X' on the ticket. We really had no idea what this would cost, but in the end we were pleasantly surprised. We were all full when we left and spent only $45 total for the four of us.

This thing was like a potato, but more likely deep-fried mashed taro.
There are many things to try, but some of us (me) have to be careful of shellfish. Many of the selections on Sunday included shrimp, so I watched many of those carts roll past without yielding a tasty morsel. Tiny shrimps made unwelcome appearances in some of the items that were supposed to be shrimp-free. Luckily my shellfish allergy is on the mild side and Fred was standing by ready to confiscate any shrimp that appeared on my plate. Some got through our defense system, and I will blame the weird headache I experienced later that afternoon on those sneaky shellfish. There were Chinese steamed (beef) meatballs, and some combination of things wrapped in a cumbersome lotus leaf and then steamed.
Steamed lotus leaf with stuff inside
There was a rumor about fried chicken feet, but I prefer to believe someone was pulling my leg with that one. (Alas, I checked, they are chicken feet and they are called Phoenix claws.)

This bun is filled with pineapple custard. Isn't that a pretty plate?
Dessert! Don't forget dessert! The dessert cart rolled by periodically loaded with sweets. We were tempted by little egg custards in pastry cups and sweet buns filled with pineapple custard.

Denise brought her own chopsticks in their snazzy case.
The restaurant was packed, and everyone seemed to be enjoying their dim sum experience. Half the diners seemed to be Chinese and half not. I was assured that there usually isn't such an overwhelming amount of shrimp--maybe it was on sale somewhere. I'd enjoy another dim sum experience sometime.

To finish off this excursion, we walked around the corner to a large Chinese store called Shanghai Bazaar. This place is lit up beautifully at night when I drive by, but I had never been inside. There are clothes made from beautiful silks and brocades, purses, chopsticks, tea sets and Mah Jongg sets, paper kites and books in Chinese. In the back were dragon costumes, the kind with the huge heads that appear on the streets of Philadelphia at Chinese New Year. I showed restraint and bought only a couple of handmade greeting cards. I'm thinking about those tea cups with the matching lids, and how stunning some of those textiles would be worked into a crazy quilt. I think I'll be back. Anyone interested in going for dim sum?

Shanghai Bazaar: I could have wandered around here for hours.

Monday, August 20, 2012

My First e-book: The Christmas Kindness Advent Calendar

The idea for the Advent blog project occurred to me one November day.I didn't think about it--I just jumped in. Sometimes the best ideas work that way. My quest was to find a way around the blue feelings I tend to experience around the holidays. It has been my experience, since i am not a parent and no longer a daughter, that I'm trapped outside the usual holiday paradigms. Does that happen to you--do you ever feel like an outsider looking in on your own life as it zooms by? It's a weird concept, but from what I read I am not alone. Some people (me included sometimes) get to feeling sad because our adult holidays can never live up to the magical times we had as kids. Other people (me included sometimes) get so wrapped-up in Christmas preparations that they almost forget why we have a holiday in the first place.  I wondered--if I focused instead on the parts of the holiday that have meaning for me or the things that I simply enjoy, could I share these things with others who might need a boost? Would I have enough stories, recipes, crafts, and places to fill 25 days of Advent? Would readers want to see a photo of my Nativity scene with the German Oompah band included? My approach to the blog project, and then the ebook, was to be more inclusive than our media is. You don't have to have children, grandchildren, a freshly-cut Douglass Pine, or fancy parties to attend.

I did have enough ideas, especially since my readers gave me some great suggestions. I shared them, and my blog practically went viral for the month of December. It was exciting and joyful. I was caught up in the creativity of attempting to include photos and meaningful posts each day and appliqueing numbers for each day on fabric coasters. These appeared at the top of each post. My friends enjoyed the blog, told their friends, and my readership grew.  That wasn't my original intention for creating the Advent posts, but it remains a wonderful benefit! I look at my blog's analytics everyday to get an idea who is reading and what kinds of blogs get the most hits. I didn't bother doing that before the Advent project.

Why not, then, polish up this blog content, maybe add some depth here and there, and create an ebook? I worked on this new project steadily, and finally it is finished! It's available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook. I chose the Kindle platform because it seemed simple and required no advance cash. (I may consider adding more platforms later, depending on how this experiment works out.) Once the Microsoft Word document was finished, I went onto the Kindle publishing site and found a free video and a free accompanying ebook guide that show how to bring it online. If you are thinking of experimenting with ebooks, I recommend that you check these out while you are writing, so you can keep the various formatting tips in mind. For example, in order to make a working Table of Contents, you have to assign Heading Style #1 (on the tool bar in Word) to each chapter heading. I had to go back and do this to each day's offering. If I had known, I could have streamlined the process by fixing these as I wrote and edited and edited and edited.

This document then has to be saved as a "Web Page, Filtered." This terminology frightened me, but alas, it is one of the choices in the Save As drop-down box. Because I have many images in the text, I had to create a zip file which intimidated me. This was simple once I watched the video and looked at the guide. I also had to create some kind of cover. Amazon suggests using Microsoft Paint. I had never used that, but I managed to design something decent within the hour. That gets uploaded separately and doesn't go into the Word document (in case you were wondering). The actual uploading process took about an hour and was way simpler than I expected. The book showed up on Amazon the next morning. Here's where you can get your copy: The Christmas Kindness Advent Calendar.

What a thrill it is to have this particular project online and available to anyone. Did I mention it was a labor of love? Even better, the stories touched people and the ideas brought back memories. I couldn't be happier about this!

By the way, those numbered fabric doorsI used for each post or chapter did not go to waste. I used them in a big Advent Quilt, complete with pockets behind them and a gold Variable Star block on top. I included a description of how I put that together at the end of the ebook. Here's a peek:
That's Fred holding up the quilt in front of the neighbor's holly tree.

Friday, August 10, 2012

East Point Lighthouse: A Lesser-Known New Jersey Lighthouse

 The design of this lighthouse pleases me. The two-story keeper's quarters below seem like they'd be pleasant enough, and the trip to the actual light would be easy enough even carrying a bucket of whale oil. It is isolated still with salt marsh and bay all around, ideal for a person who enjoys solitary pursuits such as writing, reading, sewing, photographing, blogging. Okay, so we don't use whale oil anymore, but we also don't have keepers living at the light. I'm just daydreaming, looking for my next big career.
East Point Lighthouse (1849)
 East Point Lighthouse is less than an hour north and west from Cape May in a car, and even less if you take a boat or plane. It's on the bayside, and was deemed necessary in 1849 to guide sailors into the Maurice River. It was called the Maurice River Lighthouse until 1913. In 1842 it was outfitted with a sixth-order Fresnel lens and received its modern lens in 1980. It is the second-oldest lighthouse in New Jersey (after Sandy Hook). The Maurice River Historical Society was formed in 1971 with the goal of restoring the lighthouse, and that renovation is still going on.

East Point Lighthouse from the other side

We did not get to climb this light as it is only open on the third Sunday of the month from 1:00-4:00 or some such limited hours. Instead, we walked around and shot photos of the building, the bay, and the marshy surroundings. We had an idea of a picnic, but ultimately ran to the car swatting at bugs: biting ones, ugly ones, invisible ones. Oh. My. Gosh. Don't forget the bug spray if you go. This place is why they invented bug spray.

My Ring-Necked Pheasant (and MINIwindshield wiper)

On a brighter note, as we were leaving we spotted a very distinctive game bird. We couldn't identify the thing (we specialize in shore birds) but later found it in the field guide: a Ring-Necked Pheasant. I didn't score a super-clear photo, but National Geographic did:

As I mentioned, East Point Lighthouse is situated near a marsh. I photographed this wooden structure on our previous trip when the grasses were brown (it was November), and here is how it looked this week (August).
Tumble-down shack in the marsh near the East Point Lighthouse

Monday, August 6, 2012

I've been antiquing in Cape May!

I've been antiquing in Cape May. Today was a non-beach day with a heavy gray sky, so I did my errands and then headed to town to do a little shopping. Alas, everyone else vacationing in Cape May had the same idea. This region is dense with antique shops that today were also dense with people.  I try to stay away from these places during this time of austerity, but last month I made the mistake of going into a shop in July with a visiting friend. I'm drawn to china and linens, and anything to do with needlework. I managed to limit my purchases to two McCall's Needlework magazines from the 1940s, but let's just say the snowball started rolling down the hill then.

1940s needlework magazines
I left four 1950s McCall's Needlework magazines behind, but I thought about them, and today I went back to adopt them. Someone had rearranged the old magazines (LIFE, LOOK, and some more obscure titles) and I thought I had missed my opportunity. Rest easy, reader, I found them. Here they are posing on my quilt.

1950s needlework magazines
Also last month, I was working on a little project about drinking tea promptly at 3:00 daily to alleviate stress. I thought how lovely it would be to take tea in an antique cup and saucer. I found this White Dogwood pair in the West End Garage and made it mine. I have this vision of someday hosting a little tea party with like-minded people, and everyone has a different teacup and saucer set. The china itself would inspire conversation. We'd use antique linens, of course, and nibble on tasty little finger sandwiches and cookies. Well-behaved shopper that I am, I left behind another set just like it plus an extra saucer. But again, I kept thinking about the second cup and saucer and saucer, and today I went back to make them mine.
Stangl Pottery White Dogwood cup and saucer and saucer
Scammell plate
These are Stangl Pottery's White Dogwood design; Stangl Pottery is from Trenton (and Flemington, NJ); Trenton is where I live most of the time. This isn't the first time I bought Trenton pottery in Cape May--years ago I found this cool plate at a flea market. It's from the Scammell company which closed in the 1950s. Trenton was huge in pottery back in the day. Locals are familiar with the "Trenton Makes The World Takes" Bridge. Pottery, china, tile, and ceramics (the kind used for toilets/commodes/potties) are some of the things Trenton made in its heyday. Luckily, I remember the company names from my nascent librarian days at the Trenton Public Library and I snap pieces up when I see them. Here's a history of Trenton pottery from Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum.

I like European-made stuff, too. Check out this cool Czechoslovakian set from my Grandma Douglas (complete with doilies):

What color would you call that? Goldenrod?
Collecting antiques can be fun, imagining who might have owned an item before or imagining your own grandmother using it for a special occasion. Today held a special reward for me, though, because I found the missing link! I had been musing over the very last entry in my forthcoming Christmas Kindness Advent Calendar ebook. I had decided to use that tea-as-stress-relief idea, but just not hitting the right angle for the little essay. Then I saw this beauty, and it all came together. I sacrificed my haircut money for it, but I drove home with a big grin on my face. There it is posing on the porch bistro set!
Christmas teacup and saucer, made in the USA

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Nature Walking at Cape May Point State Park

I followed the yellow trail
 So here's what happened to me yesterday: I spent the afternoon at the Cape May Point State Park Beach. I ate my Basil Hummus sandwich and read a pretty big chunk of Moby Dick. After about three hours, I thought I'd pop over to the Nature Walk to grab some quick photos to illustrate a post about the park. I was wearing my bathing suit and flip-flops, and I only had my iPhone. The glorious beauty of the walk drew me in further and further, and so with sandy feet in flip-flops, I hiked the 1.3333-mile yellow trail.

This is an interesting walk. The trail is partially tricked-out with Trex boardwalks, partially sand, and partially gravel. There are not many yellow signs to follow, but the trail is more-or-less obvious. If there's any doubt, the lighthouse stands by to offer guidance. You can't really get lost with this beacon watching over you: 

The CMP Light on a hazy summer day

The walk winds through forest,
Flip-flop-friendly Trex walk through the forest
through the meadow,
We switch to a dirt trail at the meadow.  
and through the marshy spots.

Some days this look-out looks out on water, but yesterday is was almost dry.

The yellow trail takes us through a mallow wonderland.
Have you noticed the white flowers in these photos so far? Those are Rose Mallows. Marsh Mallows! They were out in full bloom yesterday. They love this hot humid weather. You may see them in white or pink (both are seen at Cape May Point) and you can be sure they are Rose Mallows because they have red centers. There are other similar flowers that have yellow middles: not Mallows (H. palustris). The ancient Egyptians were the first to use the Mallow (the root, I think) for a sore throat remedy. The French created a meringue candy which is similar to our modern mass-produced s'more ingredient. Our modern marshmallows don't contain any part of the actual plant.

As I walked the yellow trail, I saw hundreds of butterflies: yellow, black, purple, Monarch. The bugs did not show interest in me, but I knew they were there. Their chirps and whistles all around me mingled nicely with the mindworm playing in my head, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #5. I noticed a lot of bees, and thanks to an informative sign I learned that these bees are non-aggressive Rose Mallow Bees! They burrow in the ground and mate in the Rose Mallow flower.
Rose Mallow Bee nests in the hard-packed ground

That little round island is covered with terns.
 The birds were staying away from the trail as far as I could tell. They were near the water.  I am not a great birder. My method of birding goes like this: I notice a bird that looks different somehow, and I grab a photo. Then I go home and compare my photo to photographs and drawings in my library of birding books, being careful to consider what birds are likely to be where I shot the photo. Or, I go on bird walks or boat tours with professionals who can tell me what I am looking at. I'm getting better with the shore birds likely to be seen in Cape May, and yesterday I correctly identified the many terns hanging out near the little lake. (I got verification from a group of birders set up on the trail with their scopes and binoculars.)

Cape May Point is internationally famous as a birding spot. This is because of its unique position on the coast, about halfway between where some birds winter and summer. They stop off here and let us photograph them, count them, and talk about them. Think about the amenities Cape May offers: salt water, fresh water (Lily Lake), seafood, and sanctuaries. Some birds nest here. I've written about the Ospreys and Laughing Gulls a few weeks ago here: and a couple of months ago here: But yesterday I was prevented from a yellow trail side trip by this sign:

Black Skimmers, Least Terns, and Piping Plovers are back there in the dunes enlarging their families. This is a state park after all, and we want to encourage them to nest here.

What a glorious day for a nature walk! My flip-flops did fine on the yellow trail (in case you were wondering) and I think my iPhone photos give you a good idea of the Yellow Nature Trail's summer beauty. I'll go back soon to explore the red and blue trails!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Cape May Surrey Ride

I strongly dislike them. As a motorist and pedestrian in Cape May, I find them a nuisance. I think they look dumb. So when my niece suggested we rent one and pedal around Cape May one hot and humid Saturday, I agreed. I didn't agree enthusiastically, I agreed thoughtfully. You see, as a writer/blogger/hostess I like to know what other people find interesting about Cape May. These pedal-powered deathtraps, oh sorry, surreys, have been around as long as I can remember, so there must be something enjoyable about them. Right?

Prepping the Surrey

She was the leader of this excursion, and was ushered to the driver's seat by the bike store guy. The Kid called shotgun. I was happy to provide pedal power from the back seat. Our instructions: stay off the busy streets like Lafayette and Sunset, and keep your feet off that metal thing or they'll get whacked by the pedals. Remember those bike traffic signals you learned in grade school and rarely use? These could mean the difference between LIFE AND DEATH in a surrey, for in order to reach the quiet, less-traveled streets, you have to travel in traffic on busy streets like Lafayette and Sunset. As you can imagine, along with the friendly, polite visitors that descend upon Cape May every year, there are the loud, careless drivers in giant vehicles in back. Cape May's streets were designed for pedestrians and horse-and-carriages, don't forget. There's very little room for a surrey and an Escalade going the same direction on Beach Drive (not one of the verboten streets).

The view from the back seat: that's a laminated map, not a GPS.

I was surprised to find out that the person in the driver's seat has full control over the steering (the passenger side steering wheel just spins as The Kid found out) and braking. Also, the pedaling takes some muscle, especially if you're hoping to survive the busy streets like Lafayette and Sunset. For a person used to a supercharged MINI Cooper, the process of merging into automobile traffic at toroise speeds was torture.

An hour is plenty, especially on a hot and humid July day. I'm pretty sure no one I know saw me in that thing, but there are some photos of me in the surrey floating around in cyberspace somewhere. Do I sound negative? Maybe so, but once I told friends I had bitten the bullet and rode in a surrey, I heard many other tales that started something like this: "I had no idea..." I have more surrey stories, too, but decorum advises me to leave them out...........