Monday, December 31, 2007

The Yule Fire

We've had a fireplace in both of the houses we've lived in. My kids grew up helping to build the fires and loved to keep them going. Debra started a fire the Saturday before Christmas. We've carefully kept it going since then - no daily matches for us! We make sure we either leave a fresh log on when we go to bed or we pile ashes over the coals. Then in the morning we expose the remaining coals adding a new log and perhaps some kindling. Before long there is smoke rising and flames follow. We also have bellows which get put to work speeding up the process.

Debra asked me today why we seem to put so much importance in keeping the fire going. I think the answer is probably complex. Deep down in our psyches is the need for warmth and light. For ancient man it was important to keep a fire going without matches and firestarter matches. Flint and rubbing sticks together is a lot of work to get that initial fire going. Some of it is probably sheer laziness - as it is easier to insure that you still have coals, put them together, pop a new log on in the morning, and wait for fire to light itself. But some if it is also a skill challenge - what do you do to keep that hot fire from burning all the way out by morning? How do you stack it so no logs roll out? (I don't like fire screens - they keep the heat from warming the room.)

And, of course, another benefit - we've enjoyed the beautiful flames and warmth. We've had large roaring fires, and small gentle ones.

Some evenings we've added candles to the mix.

Candlelight and fireglow - definitely some of the wonderful joys of winter.

Family Time

When the kids were in junior high and high school we made a winter ski trip every year. This took us out of the hurry burry school activity world and gave us time together. As the kids grew up, went to college, got married, etc, we have not gone up there as a family - nor have we had much extended time together.

While we did not go anywhere this year, we have been very blessed with extended time as a family. It has reminded me very much of the times we were in Colorado during the winter. Jonathan and Debra have been staying in the RV and Thomas is home so we have had some wonderful quality and quantity time together as a family. We've watched almost all the episodes of Dark Angel, Chuck, Lost, and Jericho. I so enjoy hearing the kids laugh together. We've cooked, cleaned the kitchen, played board games, slept late, kept the fire going, and played with the dogs.

I can't think of a better or happier way to spend the holidays!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas Musings #4 - The Real Joys

We've idealized Christmas on so many levels in the USA. We have songs like "I'm dreaming of a White Christmas," "I'll be home for Christmas," and "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." There is an expectation that everything will be merry and bright and joyful.

But December is an extremely hectic month as we try to make those idealized Christmas thoughts a reality. We become so rushed and harried that peace and joy are hard to find.

Living in Central Texas, "winter" can be 80 degrees - no snow in sight. When the kids were older, we went to the mountains for Christmas so we could have that "White Christmas." And yes, that was special. But the last few years, we've stayed in Central Texas. This year, the weather was at least cold enough to enjoy a fire in the fireplace.

For many people, Christmas does not always live up to the expectations - not everyone is lucky enough to have a congenial family to go home to. For others, loved ones are now in heaven, leaving empty places at the table. Joy can be mixed with grief.

Many families go into a lot of debt to provide wonderful gifts for everyone - creating hardships for the next year. And television commercials also feed into this "idealized" Christmas - with subliminal hints that the perfect diamond gift will make our beloved love us more.

To me, the important parts of Christmas are the remembrance of that tiny babe born in Bethlehem and time spent with my family and closest friends. While gifts are nice, it is more important to have time to enjoy our earthly relationships and to have time to contemplate the greatest gift of all - baby Jesus.

I'm not always successful in planning my Decembers keeping these priorities in perspective. But as I ponder the joys of this Christmas - extended time with my immediate family - I write these posts to remind myself (and perhaps you as well) how important it is not to get so wrapped up in the "tinsel" of an idealized Christmas that we miss the true joys of a real Christmas.

Christmas Musings # 3 - Christmas baking

When my kids were small, I wanted them to have as part of their Christmas memories the smell of baking in the air. These last few years, some of that has gone by the wayside as busy schedules and travel made it impractical. And Austin has a couple of good bakeries - Lone Star Bakery in Round Rock and Great Harvest Breads in Austin.

But this year, I wanted to do some of my "traditional" baking. I found my beat up December 1981 McCalls where some of my most cherished recipes originated.

I used the bread maker to make the dough for the Santa Lucia Ring . . . not entirely successful, it did not rise as much as it should - still looked pretty and festive, but the original recipe makes two rings . . .

Santa Lucia RIng

1 cup milk
3/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter or margarine softened
3/4 cup warm water (105 to 115F)
2 pkg active dry yeast
6 1/2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed cardamom
2 eggs
1 1/4 cups light or dark raisins
1/4 cup ground blanched almonds

1. In small saucepan, heat milk until bubbles form around edge of pan: remove from heat. (I use reconstituted dry milk to avoid that step.)
2. Add sugar, salt, and butter, stirring until butter is melted. Cool to luke warm.
3. If possible check temperature of warm water with thermometer. Sprinkle yeast over water in large bowl: stir to dissolve. Add milk mixture.
4. Add 3 1/2 cups flour and the cardamom, beat with wooden spoon until smooth - about 2 minutes.
5. Beat in eggs: add raisins and almonds. Gradually add remaining flour, mixing in last of it with hands until dough leaves side of bowl (dough is soft).
6. Turn out dough onto lightly floured pastry cloth. Cover with bowl: let rest 10 minutes.
7. Turn dough, to coat with flour; knead until smooth - about 5 minutes.
8. Place in lightly greased large bowl; turn to bring up greased side. Cover with towel: let rise in warm place (85F), free from drafts until double in bulk - 1 to 1/1.2 hours. Punch down. Turn out onto lightly floured pastry cloth.
9. Divide and shape: On lightly floured pastry cloth, divide half of dough into three parts. With hands shape each into 20 -inch roll.
10. Place on lightly greased large cookie sheet. Braid loosely. Shape into a circle; pinch ends together to seal.
11. To make holes for candles, insert sevenl balls of foil, 1 inch in diameter, between strands of braid, spacing evenly. Repeat with rest of dough.
12. Cover with towel; let rise in warm place (85F) free from drafts, until double in bulk, about 60 minutes.
13. Preheat oven to 350F.
14. Brush braid with egg white (See Note) mixed with 1 tablespoon sugar and 2 tablespoons ground almonds.
15. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until golden-brown. Cool on wire rack. Before serving remove foil balls, and insert 7 inch red or white candles in holes, first wrapping bottom of candles in foil.

Note: Instead of brushing with egg-white mixture, bake rings, cool slightly and frost with this icing: Mix 2 cups sifted confectioner's sugar with 2 tablespoons milk.. Decorate with candied cherries cut in half.

(I frost and use the cherries on top.)

Merry Cherry Cheesecake Bars

Crumb Mixture
1/3 cup Sweet Cream Butter
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup all purpose flour

8 ounce pkg cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup EACH chopped glazed red and green cherries (I've also used dried candied fruitcake fruit.)

In 1 1/2 quart mixer bowl combine all crumb mixture ingredients. Beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, until well mixed (1min.) Reserve 1/2 cup. Press remaining into ungreased 8" square baking dish. Bake at 350 Degrees for 10-12 minutes or until lightly browned. In same bowl beat all filling ingredients except cherries at med. speed until smooth (1 to 2 minutes). Stir in cherries. Spread filling over crust. Sprinkle with reserved crumb mixture. Continue baking 18 to 20 minutes or until filling is set. Cut into bars: cover and refrigerate. Yield: 3 doz.
Note: I like to double this recipe - easy to do and I use a rectangular baking dish.


This year I cheated and used a box mix for a Cranberry bread. I still have a pumpkin bread mix to use.

My daughter made the pumpkin and pecan pies.

And, yes, the diets start January 1st or whenever the "goodies" run out.

Christmas Musings #2 - December activities

December is always a busy month. It is easy to get run ragged. I've learned to alternate what I do each year. I try to make it to Pioneer Farm's Candlelight Christmas. But I seem to make it there only every other year. I forgot to check their calendar this year - it was on the first weekend, they had other things planned the other weekends. So I missed it this year. There is a big joint Christmas music evening - where groups of acapella singers from the area Churches of Christ perform. Most years I have not tried to go to that - one more thing to do in a busy month. . . But I've gone the last couple of years and have really enjoyed it. This year I had at least practiced Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. I could sing "most" of it . . .

In Austin, there is the Zilker tree, the Festival of the Lights, 37th street, Burnet's Main Street Bethlehem, Marble Fall's Christmas Walkway of Lights, the Nutcracker Ballet . . . etc. And farther away, Galveston's Dickens on the Strand.

Many things to do and enjoy at Christmas time . . . but you can't reasonably do all of them each year . . .

My advice for next year's planning . . . pick a few things, choose at least one new thing, and then don't fret about what you did not get to do this year.

Christmas Musings #1

For several reasons, my December was very busy. I got distracted from Christmas by some other things. So . . . Santa was a last minute shopper this year. Yes, I had bought some things early as I saw them, but I was out on December 23rd and 24th doing last minute shopping. Sometimes it is easy to procrastinate Christmas shopping, because you imagine that you will have time to shop to find just that "right" perfect gift. But for many of us the reality is that we're going to go in, know roughly what we want to get, and can really finish our Christmas shopping in somewhere between a few hours and a day. I've learned this lesson before . . . one could do this day of shopping in November just as easily . . . and be finished before the holiday rush. And there have been a few years that I have done just that.

For me in an ideal world, I would find gifts as we travel through the year. I would do my "last minute" shopping in November, leaving one less set of things to do in the busy month of December.

Will I do this any better next year???? Hard to tell . . .

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Letters

In my morning reading:The Plot Lines of our Lives.

Being a self confessed hoarder (I'm working on it . . .) I save Christmas cards. Occasionally I do go back and read them and these Christmas letters provide a lovely history of the joys and struggles we've all faced as we walk through life.

While I can understand why some people may not like these letters - I have found over time that I do, because it allows me to keep up with what is going on with people I care about who live far away.

(P.S. The talk of mimeographed letters in the article - I now do mine using photoshop and a faded version of my Christmas card-hoping this adds a touch of elegance and specialness to my Christmas letters.)

Keeping Connected - The Christmas Card Tradition

From the time I left home, I've sent out Christmas cards. Out of the last 37 years there have only been a couple where I did not send out my cards. I keep a big list. You see . . . if you get on my Christmas card list, you almost never get taken off. I lose people when they move and don't leave a forwarding address. And, yes, sometimes people drift off my list as I like to send cards to people I'm doing things with, and so as my activities change, there are changes to "the list."

But Christmas cards are important to me. I grew up in Amarillo, but moved to the Austin area after my first year of college. I had good friends in high school - both through the school and through my church. I wanted to keep up with them. I met new friends those first years in college. I've kept up with several of them as well.

I've automated my system over the years. Instead of hand addressing them, I now use computer generated labels. And I finally started added a Christmas letter . . . but that only goes into the cards that I think the people would enjoy hearing our news. People I see all the time know what is going on. But I still take time to write notes into a very few of the cards for people I really don't get to see that have been special in my life.

As the years have gone by, we've lost people on the list as the generation ahead of us died. And we've had some casualties in our own age group as well. I used to use a Christmas Card Address book - I ended up marking it as these older relatives died. So as I addressed my cards . . . I would have an opportunity to bring them back to mind. With the computer generated list, I try to update it each year. But this year, I have several cards that I'll need to hand address - we lost friends and family again this year. Plus, I've got a few names to add that did not get added before I printed out the labels.

But my Christmas cards help me remember those special people. And I look forward to hearing from them, getting their Christmas letters that keep me aware of what has happened with them this year.

The last few years, I've been doing my own cards from photographs I've taken.

So for my readers who have not yet made it on my Christmas card list: I wish you an old fashioned Christmas filled with love, joy, and peace!

Monday, December 17, 2007

My "Church" project

During January of 2006 we were lucky enough to get to spend time in Breckenridge, Colorado. I take a lot of photos that don't get "worked" until much later. Some photos end up higher on my priority list. I took a series of church photos on a snowy day with the express intention of working them up later.

I finally got the "round tuit" for a project for this Christmas.

For my photographer friends, I'm going to give you the "before" and "after."

Cloudy days can be a photographer's best friend or his worst enemy. The clouds help even out the lighting and can help you get more vivid, true color. But cloudy skies really "deaden" an image and sometimes create dull, lifeless colors. Certain cloudy conditions can give you "naturally" black and white photos, especially when you are photographing water features. Lakes and oceans pick up their color from the sky. A blue sky day will give you beautiful blue water, a gray day will give you dark colorless water.

Here is my original image with a minimal conversion from RAW. Notice the dead sky and lack of color.

As I went searching for a sky to use, I wanted to use skies from other shots in the area. The sky I found for this one was taken early in the morning. I am facing in the opposite direction. People familiar with Breckenridge will realize that the church actually faces the sky slope. The finishing touch on this one was to clone snow onto the branches of the tree to the left so that it matches the snow covered trees in the background.

Once again you can see how the gray sky affects this image:


When I went searching for the blue sky for this one, I found that I needed to work on the sky to make it fit with this image. I used a levels adjustment to lighten the blues. Then I added more blue above the clouds and created a second cloud bank. If you look closely you can see that I added some little puffs on the right of the cloud bank as well.

The finished product:

This historic church is just down the street from the other two churches. It sits next to a beautiful building. I believe the church uses both the old and the new.

When I found my sky, it came with this convenient pine tree that shows up on the left.

The finishing touches on this photo were to remove the dark pine tree on the right and to keep the aspen branches to the upper right of the church. I create this combinations using layers and layer masks. I brushed back in the aspen branches making sure that the snow covered trees were visible between them. Without that touch, a careful observer might notice that I had done this cut and paste because the aspen tree would be "cut off" at the roof line. By making sure those branches (or at least some of them) extend higher than the roof, everything "fits in."

While none of these churches are completely as your eye would see them on a sunny day, an artist with a paint brush regularly looks at objects and creates an idealized environment for them. The end use for these photos is likely to be Christmas cards. But when I submit these images, I will be honest as to the modifications I have made. For journalistic or "news" type uses, these would be ineligible. But for that perfect "picture postcard" look that you want for a greeting card, I think these will work.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Photoshop CS3 Creativity Tour

I got an email back in November telling me about the NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals) Photoshop CS3 Creativity Tour One Day Seminar that was going to be in Dallas in September. I'd looked at a NAPP event a year or so ago, but it was going to be Las Vegas and our calendar was pretty booked up. But, Dallas is only a three hour (or so) drive away. In looking at the schedule, this had subjects that I was interested in learning more about - channels, paths, etc.

So I joined NAPP and I signed up. The event was on Wednesday from 10:00-5:00. Bert Monroy was our teacher. The picture of the train station on his home page tells you a lot about the talent and experience this man has. While that shot looks like a beautiful photograph, it is actually a handcrafted piece of art - sharp all the way down to the train in the distance. It was created with something like 15,000 layers. For more information and a closer look at this: Damen. It is worth a closer look - truly the work of a master.

Several times during the day, my jaw dropped and involuntarily I would say, "Wow!" And then I'd think my neighbors must think I'm a little nuts . . .

I want to learn to use my Wacom tablet. I've got one that I never quite figured out. I watched a Wacom sales person show someone how to learn to use it. I did take some time today to try some things out. You start out with a blank photoshop document and just start scribbling: XOXOXOXO, I tried writing Merry Christmas with some cool brushes he showed us. I even played with the pen tool. I'm glad we got a booklet with more detailed instructions. The pen tool is a powerful selection tool, but I'm missing one small piece of data on how to make it go around curves . . . I'll look it up in the morning.

I like the idea of using "smart filters" when I'm trying to play around with digital art. You can play with several filters at once and have both a record of what you have done, but like layers you can remove something without losing all of it.

I've made my first animation piece this evening.

And (when I should have been working on Christmas things) I created two Valentine cards.

But I wanted to play with some things I saw yesterday while they were still fresh in my mind.

I can say the time I spent in Dallas yesterday was well worth it. I can recommend NAPP membership and their workshops as places where you will learn a lot.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

African Elephants

Each day I scan for news on "My Yahoo." I have it set to get news from Reuters, AP, entertainment news from various sources, Denver's "Rocky Mountain News," the Los Angeles Times, USA today, and "most emailed "stories. If I'm really motivated (rarely) I have links to the New York Times, the Austin American Statesman, and other major US Newspapers. I won't say that this assortment keeps me "well" informed, but I do have a clue what is going on in the world.

Today's Los Angeles paper had an interesting article about the elephants in South Africa.

Now we really enjoyed seeing the elephants in Zambia and Botswana. They are amazing creatures, very family oriented.

I have photos of a group of them surrounding their young one for protection.

Babies stay with the family for several years and they are a long lived species. Needless to say, elephants are large animals with large appetites. They also don't have a good digestive system, so they don't get full advantage of what they do eat. In the southern parts of Africa, there are still plenty of elephants. Unfortunately, it is a "good news, bad news" situation. It was wonderful to see the large numbers of elephants everywhere at Chobe and South Luangwa. It is incredible to see a large herd of elephants cross the river or run to the water to get their morning drink.

But . . . at places like Chobe and apparently Kruger in South Africa, there are more elephants than the environment will be able to support. You see, elephants are hard on their environment - they eat trees and tear them up in the process, they pull up grass by the roots, and they are always hungry. During the rainy season, there may be enough food, but in the dry season, they'll eat tree branches -thorns and all. And, they kill many trees in the process by tearing off too many big branches and knocking the tops of the trees off.

Even if elephants don't digest their food well, all is not lost. There are a number of animals that find their diet in the remains of the elephant dung . . . baboons and guinea fowl can be found foraging in the piles of elephant dung for the seeds that the elephants were not able to digest. So, if you control the populations of the elephants, it might have an impact on some of these other species. However, other grazing animals might benefit from better forage . . .

I'm not a wildlife biologist, but I've seen or heard from several sources that places like Chobe have more numbers of elephants currently than is advantageous for the overall ecosystem. The TImes article does a good job talking about the tough choices that will need to be made. If you have to thin the herds (yes . . . that could be one of the right things to do) then you have to thin out entire families, because they have such a strong family structure. They are trying some birth control methods. And while it is an option, it might be possible to transport elephant families to areas of Africa where elephants were once common, but have now disappeared. But that is expensive, and most African governments don't have the money to transport elephants when their people are starving, wells need to be drilled, better medical treatment and medicines are needed, and the roads are filled with pot holes.

We were in Yellowstone during the time frame when there were too many bison. Bison also are hard on their environment. And when the number of bison reaches a critical level, they start leaving the park to forage. The local ranchers get most upset, because bison carry brucellosis which in theory could be passed on to cattle which then causes major problems for the cattle industry. Once again, the alternatives are not happy. Ranchers are allowed to shoot bison that leave the park. Last summer a large herd was "hazed" back into the park. No one was happy, because the cows had calves and were rushed with helicopters and cowboys - pushed faster than their normal speed possibly causing distress.

Whether we want it or not, humans have a responsibility to manage game herds so that their long term viability is maximized. If we let animals overpopulate, they will die of illness and lack of food. And, of course, human activity has reduced the natural range for many of the large herd animals . . .

Lots of issues . . . no great solutions . . .

I'm glad to finish this piece with the encouragement that at least here in the US, young people are going to college and getting "trained" in managing the land for wildlife. Let's just hope the politics keeps the importance of healthy wildlife populations as something we as a nation and a world value.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christmas Music

I drove to Dallas last night because I'm attending a Photoshop Workshop put on by NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals.) I turned on the radio to find Christmas music. One of the things that occurred to me as I was listening was how pretty most Christmas music is. And while there are old familiar songs, there are new ones as well. Some songs take awhile to get used to. I remember the first time I heard "Rocking around the Christmas Tree." I don't remember liking it . . . but you get used to it and it grows on you. Every genre - classical, country, rock, big band, accappella, and, of course, Christian has music for this time of year. I need to get copies of the Andean flutes that I hear in San Antonio. (After I posted this blog, I went online and ordered the two Christmas albums-you can hear a sample on the website and their blog. )

Saturday night I was part of a group that sang in a "Celebration of the Season." Singing groups from churches of Christ all over the Austin area got together for a night of music. Our group sang a new song written my M.L. Daniels, "Christ was born." I'll try to get permission to post the link - it is a beautiful new song. And one of the groups sang a Christmas song by our Russian composer in St. Petersburg. It ended as we sang the Hallelujah Chorus. (For some of us it was attempted to sing - I know parts of it, but parts of it I can't quite sing properly . . . yet - I need to learn it. I WILL learn it!)

But I love the bells, the orchestrals, and the acappella music. It a part of this special time of year!

This coming Sunday, the 16th, our congregation will have its annual celebration. The kids have been working hard on their pageant, volunteers have worked on sets and costumes, our chorus is ready, and there will be Christmas treats and a Yule log afterward. I have many special memories singing Christmas carols around that fire. Being in Central Texas, sometimes it is cold that night and sometimes not . . . but it is still fun.

If you live in the Austin area, the fun starts Sunday, 6:00 Brentwood Oaks Church of Christ on North Lamar. You won't be sorry you came!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wind energy

I confess I was glad to see this article: All UK homes could be wind powered by 2020 yesterday as I was reading the news on My Yahoo.

Growing up in Amarillo, I remember when the first wind powered generator was put up in Bushland. It was a large 2 bladed turbine. Many times you drove by and the blades were either still or were gently turning as the wind blew. Eventually, more designs appeared nearby. And the Amarillo area has so much wind year round that it is not surprising that wind farms are being built in the area.

My grandfather bought farm and ranchland in the 1950's and 1960's. One of them is in an area where wind farms are going in. My first thoughts have been that I am eager to see these on my land. After all, wind does not produce carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases - it is a "clean" source of energy.

But I've been surprised to learn that wind energy is not being welcomed everywhere. I've tried to do some research. But . . . it is hard to fully believe information coming from a wind energy company's website. They do have a vested interested in promoting wind energy.

The main concern seems to be the deaths of birds and bats. And at one particular wind energy area, this has been a major problem. The problems at Altamont Pass have been widely reported. The combination of early wind turbine designs and its location on a pass which is also a major migratory route for predators have made it and wind energy controversial for those who love birds.

This article: Putting Wind's Impact on Birds into Perspective gives a bigger picture of the impact of wind farms on birds.

But I still don't have enough information. Are the newer designed wind turbines safer for birds? What elevation do migrating birds chose to fly? (I know migrating geese fly very high in the sky - I've seen them) For my own personal land - which birds will be affected? Most of the birds are ground birds - larks, sparrows, curlews, quail, etc. I don't think the Texas Panhandle has large populations of bats like we do here in Central Texas.

There are so many issues here: impact on wildlife, future energy needs, global warming, and even world peace. I'm naive - I don't want to believe that the only reason we have soldiers in Iraq is because of the oil found there. But . . . for many reasons, I believe it is important for our country to be able to provide for its own energy needs without relying on imported oil.

I also hear that we have foreign companies wanting to come in and build wind generators and run wind farms. Not to be negative to foreign investment, but with all the jobs that are migrating overseas, surely we have enough American companies working on wind energy.

Does wind energy need more regulation? Probably - we need things like site corridors, bird migration corridors.

But it is so easy to be negative against something. And if we don't change our energy consumption and production, we won't have enough energy in the future.

Complicated issue - no doubt, but I hope that all the groups interested in this issue can learn to work together for what is best for everyone - clean energy, environmentally safe, minimal impact on wildlife and the esthetic issues.

A Unique Vehicle

Yesterday when I was leaving my Care Group meeting after church, there was a birthday party being held. I'd never seen a bicycle built for 7 . . . what a unique concept!

Not Your Usual Bikes!

Glad to say there is only one person doing the steering . . . but it sure looks like fun!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Charlie Duke and Apollo 16

This year we were privileged to attend Brentwood Oaks Christian School's Partnership Dinner. The guest speaker was Charles Duke, one of the astronauts that went to the moon. What a joy it was to hear him tell about his experiences! I was very impressed with how he described viewing the moon and the earth from space. He used two passages - I think I found one of them Isaiah 40:22 "He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers." He talked about how the earth looked like a big circle suspended in the heavens. The other one may have been Psalms 102:19 " 19 "The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth." Both of these passages give a beautiful word picture of how God may see the earth. Certainly it was an incredible experience to see earth from the moon.

Another thing that resonated in my mind - both in space and during the moon walk, there was no night. Reminds me of the
Revelations 22:5 "There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light."

Henry and I were young when the space program began. We remember those first attempts to go into space. We remember the teachers with their radios listening live as the first astronauts flew in space. They brought TV's into our rooms (back when TV's were not part of the normal school day.) so we could see these historic flights. Henry and I were dating when the first Apollo mission went to the moon. We both remember sitting in his parents' garage room watching those first footsteps on the moon. This was exciting news. All the networks suspended programming so that everyone could see this marvel.

And while the space race began as part of the Cold War, it fed our imaginations - travel in space, living in space, traveling to far off galaxies - these felt real and possible.

But times change and priorities change. Our last human visit to the moon was in the 1970's. I would never have dreamed that we would not have gone back. Apparently there are plans to go back to the moon in the 2020's. But that seems a long way away.

Today, the US space program is relying on aging space shuttles and small rocket launches to put what needs to be up in orbit around the earth. I thought we would have a new design with more working shuttles by now.

Yes, we humans have plenty of problems and things that require money expenditures here on earth. But the money spent on the space program brought side benefits from the research.

I hope that something will happen to ignite that imagination and zeal for real space travel again. I would much rather spend money on new space technology for travel to the moon and planets than on new weapons and military spending to fight terrorism. (Yes, we do have to fight terrorism - I just wish that people could learn to live peacefully here on earth. Since that can't happen - yes, let's go to space to give everyone more room to live peacefully.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

High Island

Last spring as part of my birthday celebration (three friends of mine have birthdays close together and celebrate together every year), I visited High Island. I knew I was not there during the peak of the migration, but I still enjoyed wandering the trails and seeing the birds at the ponds there.

Hurricane Humberto slammed into High Island on September 12th. I had heard that it had done a lot of damage to the trees. I had a chance to visit High Island this week. I was worried about what I would see. Yes, there is a lot of damage. Most of the big trees at Boy Scout Woods were uprooted. But I was very impressed at how much clean up has been done. Most of the trails have been cleared, there is still plenty of thicket and small trees and shrubs to provide cover for the birds. Fallen trees had been chain sawed to clear the paths. There was a tremendous amount of work accomplished by dedicated volunteers.

I was going to put a post into TexBirds asking if the loss of the big trees would be a problem for the migrating birds, but I think I found my answer at the Houston Audubon Society High Island page. There are also links to photos of the damage before and after the clean up.

I am so grateful that this is still a beautiful place and that there are people dedicated to keeping it so.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Croc Photo Delimma

This is one of my favorite croccodile photos. I got a nice close up, the scales are sharp, the eye came out clear and sharp without post processing. So . . . did he just HAVE to be underneath that blade of grass? Hence the delimma . . . For true photojournalism-you present the croc in his environment, the way you saw him. For contest photography, that grass stem is a big distraction - enough to keep you from winning your photo of the day.

And, of course, there is no guarantee that you can remove that much from a photo without leaving tell-tale signs. Since it was one of my favorite shots, I had to give it a try. Doing that much reconstruction requires a lot of patience as well as a lot of trial and error (lots of back tracking when something did not work or look right.)

Here is my finished image. Can you tell that it has been altered?

I'll post this pair of shots at Digital Image Cafe tomorrow and at Photosig tonight and see what the other online photographers think.

But if I submit this to editors, I must surely tell them what I've done. Ernie Mastroianni will be giving a break out session on "Digital Alteration and the Line of Credibility at the NANPA Summit in Florida. I will be going to that session. I have also scheduled a portfolio review with him. Each magazine market has different guidelines and standards, but from what I've learned, most important is to let the photo editor KNOW what you've done to the photo.

Now the big question for my readers . . . which one do YOU like best?

The Croc

One of the nice things about cruising along the Chobe River between Botswana and Namibia is that you regularly see croccodiles.
This is the first of a couple of posts. This photo is actually a stitch of three photos so I could make large prints of the entire croccodile with great detail. To see the larger version, check it out on my website: The Croc.

And, yes, prints are available: 8"X34" 10'X42 1/2' 12"X50

If you're interested, just send me an email.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chobe's Elephants

Chobe National Park in Botswana has one of the largest populations of wild elephants in the world. They are also some of the largest elephants in body size as well.

You regularly see them crossing the river. Sometimes in family units and somtimes alone.

When you are cruising the Chobe River, the boat guides get you up close and personal to these incredible elephants.

After this elephant crossed the river, he began to give himself a thorough mud bath.

After getting mud all over his body, he then began his dust bath.

Elephants eat many things - tree leaves, grasses, tree branches etc. They are actually pretty rough on their environment. But one of the most amazing things I saw were these elephants eating these branches with these big thorns on them. The thorns were not slowing these elephants at all.

There were baby elephants everywhere. Elephants take several years to mature, so there were many different sized young elephants. It was fun to watch them nurse.

At the end of the day it was fun to see the beautiful African sunset with the elephants silhouetted against the beautiful glowing sky.

Friday, November 16, 2007

In the Villages -African Cooking

In Africa, where you live makes a big difference in how you live. In the larger towns and cities, there is electricity and running water. In the villages, life is much simpler and more basic. This blog combines life in the Namibian fishing village and a Zambian agricultural village.

In the villages, cooking is done outside over an open fire. During the dry season it is outside under the sky. In the rainy season there are special huts with a large opening and perhaps an open area between the thatch and the brick. This is at the fishing village. Note the water bucket:

Notice the drying rack at the Zambian agricultural village:

Homemade charcoal is also a fuel source.

There is a big business of taking wood, partially burning it and then selling it as charcoal.

I saw these "portable" stoves several places. Linda's neighbor's daughter carried one over to the school one morning to get coals for their morning breakfast fire. At the women's shelter at the hospital in Kolomo these were the cook fires for the women camped there to care for their loved ones in the hospital.

In the fishing village, the water table was near the surface. This hand dug well provided the water for the village.

When I think of this woman drawing water, I appreciate the new water tower going up near my house. I can see it from my front porch. It is not pretty, but . . . it is a symbol that I can turn on the tap and get my water.

On one level, this water looks unappealling. But notice how clear it is . . . And it is probably cleaner and safer than the river water nearby.

Some in Zambia have bore holes that go down to deeper water sources. Some have large hand pumps (think long pipe as lever for pumping). I've even heard of one that has a merry-go-round. The children play and pump water at the same time. The water still has to be hauled by the people back to their homes. Most do not have oxen, so they carry the water sometimes what would be a long distance for us.

However, one village has to take oxcarts several miles to the river, fill their jugs, and haul the water back to the village. I understand they are next in line for a borehole.

In Zambia, the food staple is nshima. Nshima is made from white corn (maize) ground and cooked until it has a consistency that you can make a ball and eat it with your fingers. There is a ceremony to pour water over your hands to clean them before eating. They eat it morning, noon, and night. It can be served with their staple vegetable (rape greens) and sometimes with chicken. Rape looks and tastes a lot like mustard greens, but in David's garden it is easy to see that it is in the broccoli-cabbage family.

They also cook dried Tanganyika sardines, called kapenta. They are very small and you buy them by the bag. They're a little crunchy even after they've been cooked. And, of course, served with nshima.

Bon Appetite!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Magi Boxes Update

I checked yesterday - we sent out 193 Magi Boxes. They are headed to Mexico. Makes me feel good to have been a part of that effort.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Art of Sending Cards

I will confess I'm not good at sending cards. Well - not totally true, I am VERY good at sending Christmas cards. I've only missed one year out of 36 years of marriage. And I have a long list. But Christmas is just once a year. It is one big effort and then it's over.

But this post is about cards that you send to people year round. Sympathy cards, get well cards, encouragement cards . . . And yes, I send out a few. But my style is more email and phone calls. And those are important - no doubt. And a phone call allows two way communication. I am good at phone calls.

Recently I was asked to display the cards that my friend, Debbie received while she was ill. My daughter helped set up a display at her funeral. I filled a box with them - a conservation, acid free box. These cards are a testimony to how many lives my friend touched. And she kept them to encourage her as the illness ate away at her life.

Cards - the kind you mail - can be a lasting encouragement. A long time ago in a Bible class, probably one for women, someone said to keep the cards that have special words of encouragement or appreciation . . . the ones that tell you that you are special and why. Then when you are down in the dumps or have had something discouraging happen, you can pull them out and remember that you are loved and appreciated.

A card or short note is something that someone can touch and reread, it is something tangible, something that can be enjoyed and appreciated over and over.

Not long ago, I read these thoughts in Alexandra Stoddard's Grace Notes:

A letter always seemed to me like Immortality (Emily Dickinson)

The advantage of the telephone is that it lets us hear someone's voice, but it leaves nothing for history or posterity. Pick up your pen, not the telephone, and write your son at college.

A note on a postcard can be savored and remain on someone's desk for months. Stack a collection of postcards on your desk and start using them to send grace notes to friends - a joke or a thought for the day.

Email is also a good way to encourage people. I'm a person who saves things rather than throws things away as a rule. So I save cards and emails. But for those of you that are the people that throw things away . . . keep a few of those encouraging cards and emails - to read later when you need an emotional pick me up.

I need to send more cards and short notes letting people know I'm thinking about them when I know they are going through difficult times or to let them know how special they are to me, or to thank them for things they do.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Magi Boxes

As the Christmas season approaches, our congregation has been participating in the Magi Project each year. It is a fairly simple concept - you pack a shoe box with items for children. There are four age groups (Baby-2, 3-6, 7-10, or 11-14) and you chose to pack for a boy or a girl.

Some years I have packed a complete box myself. This year and last year my Care Group got together to pack boxes. It is a whole lot more fun to do it as a group. We planned for 20 boxes this year - 10 for boys, 10 for girls.

We each brought a different kind of item - shampoo, bath gel, tooth brushes, tooth paste, hair clips, flashlights, wooden puzzles, pencils, pens, t-shirt, Spanish Bibles, etc.

This year we used clear plastic boxes with garland decorating the bottom. The box will also be useful after the fact. Plus it was one less step - last year we wrapped the boxes - but you have to wrap the lid separately -so that takes time.

Doing any task as a group makes it fun - and the variety of things brought this year was so heart warming. Our whole congregation participates - not just one Care Group. I'll be interested to see how many boxes we send this year.

Our boxes will go to children in Mexico this year. We have to have the boxes ready early in November. What a great way to get into the Christmas spirit!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Annie Get Your Gun

I've had the opportunity recently to do some photography for Brentwood Christian School's Webpage. Tonight I went to the dress rehearsal of the yearly musical. This year it is "Annie Get Your Gun."

All I can say is "WOW!" The lead actors are great - especially the young actress who is playing Annie. If you live in the Austin area, this is well worth your time. It will be showing tomorrow and Saturday. Call 835-5983 to check on availability of tickets.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Africa in the News - Education

While on one level, I think that we pay our celebrities an enormous amount of money - valuing them in excess of their "true" worth. Why is a football player worth more than a farmer, etc? I don't know the answer . . . But one of the things that many celebrities do with the incredible money they make is to find worthwhile things to fund. While the gist of the article describes a problem at Oprah's school in South Africa, I have to be proud that she is doing something important to make a difference in African lives.

From Reuter's news article:

"The abuse charges have assumed a high profile in South Africa, where activists accuse the government of neglecting often overcrowded and inadequately funded public schools lacking such basic items as textbooks. High levels of classroom violence, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse exacerbate the poor standard of education, which still suffers from inequalities left by apartheid."

Getting the children in Africa educated would make a big difference in their standard of living. One of our fellow guests while at Luangwa was visiting a school under construction that one of their organizations was funding. Many church organizations are funding the building and equiping of new schools.

While I am very sorry that someone criminally irresponsible was hired to care and supervise these children, that can happen anywhere. The more important thing is for Oprah's school and others to continue to provide the best education possible for African children.

Friday, November 02, 2007


To put this post in perspective - we started our African adventure in Cape Town, flew to Namibia, and then flew to Lusaka, and then to Mfuwe (pronounced m-foo-e you prounounce the "m" ever so slightly with the accent on foo) which is near the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. It took me a while to learn how to pronounce it properly. The flight from Lusaka to Mfuwe was on a smaller commercial plane holding maybe 30 people. As we made our descent into Mfuwe, my first thought was "I'm flying into National Geographic" as I saw the round thatched roof houses.

As we walked out of the airport, we saw the other safari vehicles from the other lodges waiting and boarding their passengers. We found our driver and climbed into the Land Cruiser. It was late in the afternoon, almost evening. As we drove through the village, there were people out walking everywhere. Some were on bicycles. We seemed to attract attention. While most people waved to us, some seemed astonished. We think it was Henry's beard. Beards are not common here, and Henry's is long. The small children got so excited as we drove by - they waved enthusiastically and we waved back. The older teenage boys were above such things as waving. Most of the adults waved as we went back. We waved back. I began to feel like the queen in "The Princess Diaries" or as if we were a single car parade. But I also began to wonder, what do the village people think of the tourists. Are they glad we are here bringing money into their economy? Does it bother them that we are going to lodges that may seem filled with luxury next to their simple huts? What do they think as we are chauffered past them in our big safari vehicles as they walk or ride their bicycles? I am glad to say that most of them smiled at us as we rode past and most of them gave us big friendly waves!

Mfuwe seems to be a long, thin village lining the road. We past numerous stores, business and homes. Some of the stores were made simply with what I now know is elephant grass. Others were brick and plastered small buildings.

I did not have my camera out the evening we arrived, but I suspect the light level was so low that photos would not have been great. But when we left the Luangwa River Lodge and drove through Mfue again, I was ready with my camera.

The morning we left Mfuwe the roads were not as crowded with people as the evening when we came in, but this will give you an idea of what you see as you drive through the Mfuwe area: people walking along the side of the road and riding their bicycles. Bicycles are a major form of transportation here and it is common to see people riding on the back or in front of the one peddling the bicycle.

This worker is taking these vegetables to market. Strangely enough these vegetable greens are called "rape" and seem to be part of the broccoli family. They are cooked and served as one of the side dishes.

The women still carry things on the top of their heads. I don't think I could ever learn to balance something like this and still walk. They have to have strong neck muscles as well to carry things on their heads.

There are many kinds of homes in Mfuwe. Some are simple huts made from elephant grass. I suspect if we entered a time machine and travelled back hundreds of years, these houses would look very similar. Note the fresh thatching materials on the right. The thatch must be replaced regularly to stay water tight.

This home is built of brick (probably from those termite mounds). I believe that the new looking thatch structure is their outdoor kitchen. Zambians do their cooking outside over open fires. The rainy season is coming and this will shelter the cooks from the rain as they prepare their meals.

This was one of the nicer homes in Mfuwe - notice the metal roof and the potted plants on the porch.

There were several areas of "market places" along the way. We did not have a lot of time and I was not planning to bring back a lot of souvenirs. Plus I did not have any experience at the time with the bargaining. I wish now I had taken time at some of the vendors along the way. While some had touristy merchandise, most were the stores where people bought what they needed. Notice the use of the natural construction materials.

The local equivalent of our department stores -

There were booths for vegetables and fruits. And I even saw a furniture maker.

But all of the merchandise probably has to be put away at night and taken home to be redisplayed the next morning.

This was one of the larger stores - a grocery store. There were quite a few - some that I suspect were banks. I wish I'd had Linda with me to explore the shopping at Mfuwe. She knew her way around Kolomo. I know that there are lodges around Luangwa where you can do your own cooking. I'd be more comfortable now going to market and shopping after shopping in Kolomo with Linda. On the other hand, it was very nice to be able to enjoy the wildlife watching and photography without having to cook each meal. Plus, the food at our lodge was excellent.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Story worth reading

I read the blog of David and Linda Gregersen regularly. Since we have been there I can visualize their blogs much better.

Today they had a news story from MNBC, "Hope, Loss, and Bicycles in Zambia," that is worth passing on. In their work in Zambia, this story is repeated over and over. Namwianga also gives out bicycles to young evangelists that go from village to village.

While the little help we can send may seem just like very small drops in a very big bucket . . . if you put enough drops in a bucket, it does eventually fill up.

Somalia in the News

I have a routine in the mornings - I get up, check my email, check a couple of photo competition sites, and read the news on My Yahoo. One of the top headlines today was:"Mogadishu violence displaces 88,000 people". To put that in perspective, the city of Round Rock Texas has roughly 61,000 people. So imagine the entire city of Round Rock displaced and homeless. Natural disasters like floods, tornadoes and even hurricanes only displace a few people in comparison.

When we went to Africa, we realized how out of date and ignorant we are about African geography, news and politics. We live in a very big world and it is hard to know and understand what goes on in places so very far away. It is unlikely that I will ever be an "expert" on Africa. And sometimes, the news is tragic with seemingly unresolvable problems. But now, I have more incentive to read and understand the news about African countries.

One of the people we met at one of our safari camps was a lady who had just travelled through Zimbabwe on a special train (perhaps the Shongololo tour. ) She asked why people were not sending more aid to help the desperate people there. I don't have a great answer to that question, but the story of our attempts to help Somalia back in the 1990's is certainly part of that answer.

As I read the news story above and followed links about Somalia from Google, I was amazed that Somalia has been in turmoil since 1991 - that is 16 years! It sounds as though the northern part of Somalia (the former British colony area) is trying to form its own country and is relatively stable. It also sounds like it would be safe to visit there. But the area around the capitol in the southern part of Somalia is filled with violence. Since the early 1990's a large number of Somalis left their homeland creating one of the largest diasporas in Africa. While some fled to neighboring countries, most are now living in Northern Europe, the Middle East and North America. But what makes this a major problem is that the ones that left were the most educated and had more resources to be able to leave. Poverty and ignorance leave people with feelings of hopelessness. The climate in Somalia has periodic droughts that lead to starvation that has to be made worse by the political instablities.

The saddest thing about the news article I read this morning was that the situation in Mogadishu is so unstable and unsafe that the world's major relief organizations are unable to provide aid for the suffering people there.

Living in the United States, it is hard to understand or comprehend the situation in Somalia. We live in a country that while we have differences in ethnicity and political opinion, we are also united by being Americans. We have learned to live in a diverse society where tolerance is a necessary skill. (Yes, sometimes we are too tolerant, but that's another blog.) In many African countries, there are many tribes or clans. Loyalty is more to the tribe or clan than to the country. Ancient rivalries are still very real. Religious differences divide people. While at one time, Somalia had a Christian presence, the Christian schools were closed and the missionaries sent home in the early 1970's.

Back to the question why don't we do more to help these people, it is very hard for the average American to visualize the magnitude of the problems in countries so far away. Under the Clinton Administration we sent the Army to provide food and supplies and to help the people of Somalia. (US Army's humanitarian efforts 1992-1994 ) Americans don't understand why people would hurt and humiliate people who are trying to help them. Many Christian organizations would be willing to help, but because Somalia is primarily Muslim, they are not welcome. My reply to that lady was that even when we are trying to be helpful, people hate Americans. Our motives are always considered suspect. We are often seen as "busy bodies" even when we are trying to help. Most Americans do not want us to be the world's policemen. We do not have the resources to do that.

How can the peoples of the world bring peace to the suffering people in Somalia? What will it take to bring a stable government to this struggling country? I certainly don't have any answers. But when people are suffering to that extent somewhere in the world, it diminishes all of us. I believe it will take a lot of people doing "little things" to eventually make a difference in this war torn place.

For today, all I can do is to create this blog in hopes of bringing this situation into people's hearts and minds. But more importantly, I can pray that God will bring about the change in heart so these people can learn to live in peace with one another.

For more background information about Somalia:

The BBC Somalia page

The CIA Somalia Information Page

Saturday, October 27, 2007

God's Provision - The African Farming Village

Our first thought when we think about termites is destruction. Termites eat wood. We build our homes out of wood. Termites can do a lot of damage to a house. When we get termites in our home, they must be treated with heavy duty pesticides. But the story of termites in Africa is a little different . . .

Termites in Africa build huge mounds sometimes 6-8 feet tall.

A closer examination reveals an amazing structure.

I found it amazing that these termite mounds provide building materials for African homes. Termite mounds provide the raw material for making bricks in Africa.

You take the special "dirt" from the termite mound. Add a small amount of water to make a workable clay. Force the clay into rectangular molds to create the bricks. Then you stack the bricks for firing. It is not a perfect arch but you leave this opening for the fire that will harden the bricks.

When the stack is completed, you cover it with more termite clay to insulate it so that all the bricks will be "fired" from the heat of the wood fires underneath. Pretty clever.

I visited Zambia in the dry season. During the wet season they grow crops - maize is one of the big ones. Using natural materials - wood branches and elephant grass, they build silos to store their maize.

And I love their nesting houses for the chickens. Too cute! But what a great use of the ubiquitous elephant grass!

What a testimony for how God provides what we need and how He gave man the creativity and ingenuity to make use of the materials around us!