Friday, December 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Travelers

The world is full of opposites: early birds and night owls, introverts and extroverts, beach lovers and those who prefer to pitch a tent in the forest.  I like to plan trips; my husband doesn’t.

By “plan trips,” I mean schedule trains, planes, shuttles, and the like. I don’t schedule specific activities for each day of a vacation because I like to discover places in real time. It’s the framework of the trip--getting from Point A to Point B and on to Point C--that consumes me for weeks (or months) ahead of time. What can I tell you? I like to read train schedules.

Our recent trip to South Korea to visit our daughter provided the too-good-to-pass-up chance to spend time with my husband’s brother and his wife, who live in Kyushu, southern Japan.

From South Korea, we could, of course, have flown to southern Japan, but I like to mix up my modes of transportation.  The high-speed Beetle hydrofoil ferry from Busan, Korea to Fukuoka, Japan proved irresistible: its price compared favorably to airfare fares, the voyage took three hours, and hydrofoils represented a new-to-me means of transportation. What's more, the Internet offered up several YouTube videos of travelers’ experiences with the ferry. I booked round-trip tickets. 

Even though I have control issues enjoy planning trips, I made my husband watch at least one of those YouTube videos and thought he was on board, literally and figuratively, with my decision.

Turns out the world is full of planners and those who second-guess planners. Within a week of booking the tickets, my husband had amassed a collection of stories from people who’d had bad experiences on ferries. (The tragic sinking in April of a Korean ferry carrying high schoolers and others to Jeju Island had never left my mind, but I’d booked a different type of ferry, owned by a different company, on a different route.) Even my brother-in-law in Japan dissed ferries, and the Beetle’s Japanese.

When the day came to board, my husband, like a man resigned to his fate, quit bringing up the horror stories he’d heard. At departure, I, the person who'd booked the voyage, met with the desk clerk. When she asked whether I preferred seats on the ferry's top or bottom deck, I said “Top deck” without a second thought. I’m all about the view.

We boarded the vessel, and my husband voiced his approval of the layout, the seats, and the view. All was well for half a minute, and then the ferry, still at the dock, swayed.

“We’ll experience more sway here on the top deck,” he said.

What fresh hell is this? “You’d rather be on the bottom deck?”

“It’s more stable.”

Shoot me now. “Let’s wait until we’re underway. If the swaying bothers you then, we'll ask about moving.” Heck, if we sway like a live oak in hurricane-force winds, I’ll beg to move.

In fact, the voyage went off without a hitch or sway, and, once in Japan, my husband was the first to assure his brother the ferry had been a good choice.

On this particular trip, Mother Nature, bless her, made me look like a genius because the Mt. Aso volcano on Kyushu erupted and caused the cancellation of all flights to my brother-in-law’s city of Kumamoto.  I did, not, however, gloat. As trip-planners know, Mother Nature could have whipped up the sea and turned me and the ferry into losers.

What about you? Are you a trip planner, second-guesser, or someone who’s happy to go along for the ride?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Six Things That Surprised Me about South Korea

Oh! Mountains in South  Korea
  1.     Mountains! A whopping seventy percent of South Korea is made up of mountains and uplands. Ulsan and Busan, two cities I visited, are semi-ringed by mountains, making for gorgeous vistas. The majority of South Koreans name hiking as their favorite leisure sport, and now I understand why. Those mountains beckon city dwellers to explore in the fresh, fir-scented air.

  2.    So many coffee shops! I expected tea to be the beverage of choice in Korea, so the number of coffee shops, including chains, astonished me. It’s not unusual in cities like Ulsan and Busan to find four or five within a ten-minute walk. Some chains were born in Korea, like Angel-in-Us, but Starbucks is popular, too. On weekday mornings, coffee shops fill with young moms and babies. In the late afternoon, teens in school uniforms stream in.

Yummy food! 
 3.   Delicious food! I didn’t have a bad meal in Korea. When in doubt, I fell back on soup or soup-like bowls of noodles, vegetables, and some kind of protein. Although Korean barbecue now is popular in the U.S., I hadn’t tried it before my trip. Now, I’ll seek out spots for cooked-at-the-table meats wrapped in lettuce or sesame leaves. Ah,  the tofu in Korea proved a silky revelation. Why can’t I find tofu that good in Texas? It must exist, but I’ll have to hunt for it.
       4. My lack of self-consciousness. My Caucasian face and I didn’t look forward to standing out in a crowd. To my surprise, I had no time to think about how others perceived. Why? Because I was too busy studying everything around me: vehicles, the variety of winter hats, cloth-wrapped packages from stores, red-cheeked children bundled up against the cold, teens in their school uniforms, the variety of book bags, the narrow, soaring apartment buildings, and, of course, the mountains.

5. Public transportation arrives and departs on time. The U.S. does many things well, but public-transport-one-can-set-a-watch-to isn’t one of them. In Korea, my husband and I rode buses all over Ulsan, and we took the KTX—high-speed train—from Incheon to Ulsan and from Busan to Seoul. Everything ran on schedule.

      6.  Drivers in Houston, Texas are sedate compared to those in Ulsan. Pedestrians in crosswalks must proceed with caution even when the green walking man light glows. Small wonder Lonely Planet warns its readers not to be the first or last person in a crosswalk in South Korea.

Outside of the crosswalks, we encountered kind, helpful people. That wasn’t a revelation, but the degree of warmth surprised and charmed me.

Next post: We ferry to Kyushu, Japan, home of my husband’s brother and sister-in-law.


Big news: Lark Howard started this blog and invited me to join it. I jumped on the invite because I like and respect her. (Every woman needs a fashion-forward friend who encourages her to try a boot instead of another pair of black ballet flats.) Lark and I share a love of writing, France, and food. Like me, you’ve missed her here for the past year, but she’s been busy. Now, Lark has a pen name and a three-book contract. Here’s the announcement from Publishers Marketplace: 

Fiction: Debut
Lark Brennan's DANGEROUSLY YOURS, a contemporary paranormal romance in which two sexy power players, each with hidden abilities and agendas, must work together to solve a mystery in the Caribbean islands, and the next two books in the series, to Mary Cummings at Diversion Books, by Becca Stumpf at Prospect Agency (World).

Congrats, Lark! I can’t wait to read Dangerously.



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Give Thanks for Kimchi

Turkey didn't make the dinner line-up for me this past Thanksgiving. I celebrated the holiday in Korea, where cabbage rules November.

November is the traditional month to prepare kimchi, the cabbage and chili pepper-based condiment that accompanies every meal, even breakfast.

Kimchi ferments over months (or years). Traditionally, its ingredients go into clay pots that are buried in the ground. Today, many Koreans live in high-rise apartments, so pot-burying is out. Kimchi refrigerators are the solution.

My younger daughter, who lives in Ulsan, took me to Home Plus, a plus-sized store that could be the love child of Target and Walmart. There, we looked at kimchi refrigerators that dwarfed my fridge at home. In many Korean households, the kimchi fridge stands shoulder to shoulder with the regular model. That's a lot of kimchi.

High-rise dwellers can't grow their own cabbage, so they buy it in three-head sacks. I gaped at women pushing carts filled with sacks of cabbage. They, of course, have big kimchi refrigerators to fill.

On the outskirts of Ulsan, in addition to many family-owned garden plots, people have appropriated strips of roadside right-of-way to grow cabbage and other greens. The latter practice, though illegal, is tolerated, because who wants to deprive others of kimchi?

In the U.S., everyone makes dressing/pecan pie/cranberry sauce in his or her special way. In Ulsan, everyone adds personal tweaks to the basic kimchi recipe. While cabbage is the typical base, scallions, radishes, and cucumbers are used, too. The spice level ranges from mild to Help, I'm Burning Up!

Did I miss turkey and all the fixings this year? Yes, but I'd happily trade a gallon of my special cranberry/orange sauce for a half-liter of kimchi. Like travel, it gives life an edge.

What's your favorite condiment? I have a thing for salsa with a hint of chipotle.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Buck Stops Here (and I'll quit stressing about the holidays)

Does he looked stressed? Nope. Nah uh.
Those of us who lack the yippee-the-holidays-are-coming gene feel inadequate at this time of year. Shopping, baking, cooking, hostessing, and decorating loom as tasks rather than pleasures. Next time I reach for a paper bag to breathe into, I'm going to stop and gaze at the photo of the oh-so-mellow buck who wandered into my Hill Country backyard last weekend. Does he look stressed? Nope. He’s at peace with the universe.

This year, the universe and my little Meyer lemon tree gave me more than sixty of the sweet-tart fruit. Does the harvest stress me out? Au contraire. I’m thrilled with the bounty and have an easy-peasy plan for using it:

A fraction of my bounty!

After the holidays, I have a date with a paint roller and lots of walls. (Uh oh. Stare at picture of the buck. Breathe in. Breathe out) In the meantime, I’m researching paint colors, an activity that leads down the mother of all rabbit holes. (About that rabbit: is it Alabaster, White Dove, Philadelphia Cream, or Dover White?) My research took me to many design blogs. Belatedly, I remembered I lack the good-at-crafts gene. Never mind. The design posts helped me winnow my color options and solve some home-maintenance problems.

My non-crafty self laughed at and with his post, but I LOVE the bench he made. Is it possible good-at-crafts people are made not born? If so, could I build a similar bench? I mean, if I tried really, really hard? (Uh oh. Stare at the picture of the buck until the desire to jump in the car and drive to Lowe’s passes.)

While the holidays show me I'm all thumbs and two steps behind, I’m grateful for you. Have a joyous Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What Ignites Your Creativity?

My friend Karen McFarland has been thinking about creativity and its many triggers. Books, nature, and awareness of all her senses spur Karen’s creativity, and now she wants to know what spurs mine. She tagged me to participate in the Inspiring Spaces BlogHop. (Cate Russell-Cole, that instigator, tagged Karen.) 

People and places inspire me. Spaces? Not so much. That said, I’m up for any challenge that asks, “What ignites your creativity?”

People-watching gives me ideas, and snippets of overheard conversation fuel plot twists. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made up stories about strangers sitting across from me on buses, in airports, or at meetings.  I give those people names, occupations, and relationships and was astonished to learn not everyone does the same.

Once, I was interviewing for a job and a receptionist pointed out the man I’d be meeting with but didn’t identify him. He was tall and lean, with a shock of fair hair, and I decided him name must be Max, Lars, or Thor. 

When he introduced himself as Ernie, I did a double-take.

Like you, I’m inspired by books I’ve read. Ooh, ooh, have you read Liane Moriarty? Her stories feature the kind of women we think we know from the office, PTO, and book club, and then, bam! She shows us we don’t know those women at all.  I highly recommend What Alice Forgot and The Husband’s Secret.  Itty Bitty Lies is on my Kindle and will be my treat for finishing this month’s many tasks.

 Walking’s my sport, and its glacial pace matches the speed of my thinking process. I solve problems—my own and those of my fictional characters--while putting one foot in front of the other. The places I walk inspire me, too. One is a Houston park alongside Buffalo Bayou, and the other is beside Lake Travis in the Texas Hill Country (Yes, we capitalize all those words.) For me, any recipe for creativity is more delicious if it includes the words “add water.”

Creativity and problem-solving are closely aligned, don’t you think? For me, figuring out what a fictional character will do when thwarted constitutes creativity. Sometimes, though, I wish I had the kind that results in gorgeous gowns or fabulous paintings.

Although I have a home office that holds photos, cards, and mementoes that are special to me, I tend to write in the family room, at the kitchen table, at the public library, and while sitting in all sorts of waiting rooms. To me, writing’s a moveable feast. 

 Your muse is Murphy the Pelican, and mine’s a cat. I don’t have to wait for the muse to join me as he’s usually sitting in my favorite chair. Sometimes more than one cat occupies my favorite chair.  Am I grateful the muses show up to motivate me? Nah, I tell them to scram.

Writing is lonely, but my writer friends remind me I’m not alone. Thanks for tagging me with this blog-hop challenge, Karen. Your friendship inspires me.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Seasonal Musings

Not my friend's scarecrow, but I'd have waved.
Last week, I waved at a friend lounging in an Adirondack chair by her front door. Friend didn’t wave back, which earned her a second glance. Oops. I’d greeted a straw figure dressed in skinny jeans and flannel. Hey, the fedora was a nice touch.

Halloween decorating isn’t about a Jack-o-lantern or two. The ambitious drape sheets over helium balloons to create ghosts. Spooky music plays from porches, and dry ice fogs pathways. My friend gave her scarecrow black plastic eyeglasses for a hipster vibe.

Halloween’s tomorrow, so time’s already running out for straw folk with pumpkin heads, zombies in cast-off clothes, and life-sized witches.  That means I won’t wave at a non-human until the animated Santas, Grinches, and elves appear late next month. Hoo, it’s coming up fast.


My ninety-year-old mother doesn’t get out as often as she’d like. She reads, watches a little television, and listens to the radio. I don’t know where or when she became a fan of golfer Phil Mickleson, but whenever he’s mentioned and whatever the context, she says, “He’s such a nice man.” Now Phil has competition. The Voice introduced my mom to singer/songwriter/record producer Pharrell Williams. “He’s such a nice man,” she says.


Not long ago, I whined in this space about hummingbirds so hungry, I couldn’t mix, heat, and cool sugar water fast enough. Now, the birds have migrated, and I miss them.

I keep thinking of a line from a song sung by Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go, we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

Note to self: When the hummers return in the spring, appreciate them.  

How's your fall going, and where do you stand on Halloween decorations?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Larger Than Life

Do you like television dramas about noble but flawed characters? What if those characters are cursed with overlarge egos and the kinds of physical or psychological scars that would banish lesser mortals from the big stage? What if they betray those closest to them but show empathy for the average Joe? Can a character be both charismatic and a windbag?

This post isn’t about Game of Thrones or House of Cards. I’m eight hours into Ken Burns’ latest documentary, The Roosevelts: An IntimateBiography, and I’m hooked. Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt had a striking effect on their families, country, and the world. 

This series relies on Burns’ familiar documentary format, making use of still shots, newsreels, video, journal entries, and snippets from correspondence with voice-overs by actors and commentary from historians. (Historian George Will can’t hide his distaste for Teddy’s and FDR’s executive-power grabs.  Historian Geoffrey C. Ward describes Franklin’s battle with polio with such feeling, I Googled Ward and learned he’d contracted polio in India as ten-year-old.)

This seven-part, fourteen-hour series started Sunday and finishes up Saturday. (Saturday the 20th is a marathon showing in some markets. Start your recorders.) It follows the Roosevelts from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. That means, of course, it covers more than a century of U.S. and world events.

I must have muttered, “I didn’t know that,” to my husband a dozen times as we watched the first four episodes.  You won’t forget Teddy’s betrayal of William Howard Taft nor the death of his son Quentin in World War I.  FDR’s maneuvering behind the scenes as Assistant Secretary of the Navy show his ambition, and the scenes of his convalescence from polio show his humanity.

Must end this post now to watch the next episode of The Roosevelts!

Watch it along with me. You won’t be disappointed.