Monday, April 27, 2009

Supper Club

One of the many programs in my church, the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship, is Supper Club. To participate in Supper Club, you sign up with the coordinator and agree to host or co-host 1 to 3 dinners a year. Then you go on her list, and eventually receive a list of your own for your designated month to host. The list will give you the names and emails or phone numbers of the 6-8 or more people (depending on how many you have said you can handle) You contact these people to set up a date agreeeable to as many as possible, and coordinate what category dish each will bring (appetizer, salad, dessert, etc.). The host generally provides the main dish and drinks, which can include wine or beer, and the rest of the meal is pot luck. It's surprising how well balanced these meals usually turn out, considering no one knows what will be served except the main dish, which the host decides in advance.

Of course, since you are also on the list to be a guest you will receive calls or emails from at least one host a month to attend as a guest at their Supper Club. Sometimes I attend as many as three dinners a month, but generally at least one, and I host at least twice a year. It's a great way to get to know Fellowship members on a more intimate basis than just seeing each other at church on Sundays.

April was my turn to host, and I set the date for yesterday, the 26th at 5:30 pm. Three days before that I went into a cleaning frenzy, wielding Liquid Gold, Enddust, Windex and Clorox spray cleaner all over the household surfaces. I arranged for my cleaning lady to come Saturday instead of Wednesday, so the bathrooms and floors would be as clean as possible. Also on Saturday I made a big bowl of tabouleh from Laura's recipe and but it in the fridge for the flavors to blend overnight.

Sunday Madison was banished to the back yard. (Don't feel sorry for him--the sun was shining and he was busy all day chasing squirrels.) I played hooky from church to have enough time to get everything ready without being exhausted. (I've noticed it's a pretty common occurance when Supper Clubs happen on Sunday evenings for the hosts--at least the hostesses-- to skip Sunday morning services. Everyone wants to put their best foot forward, so to speak.)

I set the table and covered it with a sheet to keep curious kitties at bay. They already knew something was up, and were sniffing around to see if I would drop any tidbits as I prepared the meal.

The sheet was a very effective protective device, keeping my four-footed "children" off the dishes. Foiled by the sheet, they gave up and took catnaps.

This is Buttercup, who, for a few more hours, is still the baby of the house.

Whitey is the senior citizen cat at age 14. She takes lots of naps.

Jennie in her favorite place, a pile of towels on the end of the kitchen counter by the back door. The towels are there to put on the floor on days when Madison would otherwise be tracking in mud on his paws. Jennie lies on top of the stack and leaves the rest of the counter alone, so I let her stay there.

This is Princess Margaret Ann Mouse, aka Meggie (named after Meg Ryan, actually.) She too was in her favorite place on the shelf in the garage. She rarely comes out of the garage, but seems happy as a clam there. Notice the sign warning plumbers, etc. not to open the crawl space door, which is directly under Meggie's shelf, without letting me know so I can herd any and all cats into the house and shut the door leading into the kitchen. Meggie got under there once and I had a devil of a time getting her out.

There really is a cat in the above picture. Charlie's favorite napping spot is under the bedspread on my bed. If you look closely you'll see a small lump on the left center side--that's him. Every now and then I go by and give him a pat and get a muffled "meow" in response.

Shortly before the guests were to arrive I removed the sheet from the table and poured ice water into the glasses. The little green and white striped boxes on the plates are cloisanne' bells from China, which I used as favors. The end plate doesn't have a box, since that's my seat, nearest the kitchen.

I set up the "wine bar" on the oak buffet in my livingroom. (When I took this picture, the white wine was still chilling in the fridge.) The livingroom/diningroom is all one open area, and my house is really not very large. But that makes for "cozy".

Here are some of my eight guests enjoying wine and the raw veggies and dip appetizer that one guest brought. I normally have seating for eight, including myself, but I ended up with nine this time due to a mixup on the part of the coorinator. Thankfully, I have a card table and plenty of plates, tableware, etc., so the more the merrier.

I realize I should have taken a picture of the table once the food was out, but by then I was so busy I forgot. Later I was having such a good time that I continued to forget. Therefore, you must imagine the menu, which included, along with my tabouleh and baked mustard-crusted wild caught salmon, zuccini with garbonzo beans, a mixed green salad, home baked rye bread, and for dessert, fresh strawberries over angelfood cake topped with lite Cool Whip. It was a feast for both the eyes and the palate. The food got raves, and everyone asked for recipes for the tabouleh and salmon.

The conversation was fascinating, as it always is. One of my guests is a transplant from New Orleans to Carbondale, and was a Katrina refugee. His home was destroyed, so he moved here to be closer to family in our area. His tales of the storm and the aftermath were interesting and scarey. Before the hurricane hit he escaped in his truck with two duffel bags of clothes, his computer and two pieces of valuable artwork. (He had a lot of additional art pieces, many of which were destoyed beyond restoration possibility.) He told us he lost so much that it has given him a new viewpoint on life. "If I drop something and break it, " he said, "I just think, 'oh well, it's only a thing.' The importance of 'things' in my life has been reduced to almost nothing."

We also talked about China. One couple had been there 20 years ago and we compared notes and discussed changes in the country.

By 9 pm all the guests had gone. By 10 pm, the candles were extinguished, everything was put back in its place, the dish washer was running, the tablecloths and napkins were churning in the washing machine, and I retired to my bed to stretch out and contemplate my next Supper Club, which will be in June. It's going to be hard to top the salmon, but I'll think of something!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pamper Me Day

Today has been sort of a "pamper me" day so far. I started at the Beauty Shop with a shampoo, cut and blow dry--and yay! She got it to look as good as Rick!!!

Then I went to a place called-I kid you not--California Pro Nails. I got the spa special manicure and pedicare. While you get your pedicare you are seated in this fantastic massage chair. I've been in massage chairs before, but this one is the best ever! If I had one at home, I'd never leave the house! The spa pedicure included all the trimmings--exfoliation, foot and leg massage, hot wrap for my feet, and of course, the polish, which is--what else?--California Raspberry! Then to the nail table and the same--soak, massage, polish to match.

I came home and fixed a healthy lunch--did I forget to mention I had a healthy breakfast?--and now, as I sip my Chinese green tea, I'm pondering how to spend the rest of my afternoon.

It's a gorgeous day and if I hadn't just had my nails done, I'd be inclined to putter in the yard. That would be a recipe for disaster for sure. I've got a really busy four days coming up, cumulating with 8 people coming for dinner Sunday night (mustard-crusted salmon, tabouleh, and whatever the others bring.) Some of the other activities involve eating out, so I will need to be careful. I don't want to sabotage my good efforts so far. I'd like to keep my nails decent at least through Sunday, so I'll think of something to do indoors.

I've been eBaying, and bought some plastic under-bed storage boxes for my "fat clothes". Believe it or not, one bag is already over half full. It's amazing how fast stuff has become loose, especially items that were not snug to start with. Not that I'm complaining, mind you! Funny, I used to hate to weigh and avoided the scales like the plague. Now I can't wait for Friday morning to see what's what.

I will be seeing my doctor tomorrow (routine appt), and I expect he'll be annoyed with me at first, since I suspect I may weigh a little more on their scale than I did the last time I was there. I hope he'll be patient enough to let me explain what has taken place in the meantime, and my current determination to get my healthy life back. Some of you know that I had planned to ask him for a referral to a pain clinic, but guess what? I don't believe that's going to be necessary! Curves has become my "pain clinic"! Even with what I know about exercise and diet, I'm astounded at how much better I feel than I did 3 weeks ago! (Think how I'll feel 3 months from now!!!!!)

There is a stack of CDs on my desk waiting to be uploaded to my iPod. I think that's what I'll do the next hour or so, since I love having my music to take wherever I go. I especially enjoy piling up with my pillows at bedtime with my iPod and a good book--more pampering!

I guess I've finally decided it's OK to be good to me.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Solvang, CA, pre-China visit

My good friend Carol and I met on a Richard Simmons "Cruise to Lose" a few years ago. (She was Carol Lesher then, but had a new boyfriend, who became her husband the following year--so now she's Carol Lesher Peterson.)

Anyway, Carol and I became great friends. We had a blast on that cruise and have stayed in touch since. We've been on one other cruise together--with hubby Mike along this time!--and I visited them in their home in Solvang a couple of years ago. Carol is the person who told me about the China trip, and invited me to come early to visit with them. So, March 12 I caught several planes which eventually landed me in Santa Barbara, the closest convenient airport to her home on the outskirts of Solvang, CA.

The picture above is the view from Carol's back patio. She owns the houses on the hill, as well as several more acres, including a pasture, barn, etc. Lots of room for the animals. There's a white llama out by the fence. A better picture of him...

...well, his backside at any rate. If you know anything about llamas, you know they can be somewhat stubborn, and I wasn't going to risk getting any closer and get spat upon!

This is adorable Phoebe, Carol's miniature horse. Carol says she has let her into the house, but she stayed outdoors while I was there. I've heard miniature horses are so smart they can be trained to be helper animals for the handicapped. And this one is very friendly as well.

This will give you a better idea of just how tiny Phoebe really is! She was happy when I put grain into her feed dish. (I'm not much of a farm hand, having been a "town kid" all my life, but I braved the corral in order to get these pictures.)

These guys were happy to get some grub too, and I was happy they focused on the grain and not on nipping or butting me! These three goats, along with two sheep, came from nearby "Neverland" when Michael Jackson broke up his animal herd. (Carol called them "The Jackson Five"!) One sheep died, however, so now it's just the Jackson Four. The poor little sheep who was left alone was ostracized by the goats, but he took up with one of the llamas and is doing well now, as you can see from the picture below. Except for Phoebe, I can't recall any of these critters' names. (Sorry, Carol!)

Well, I do remember Billie Bad Ass (yeah, that's actually her name), but I remember her name because she looks so much like my sweet Buttercup. Billie doesn't like to be held by anyone but Mike, but she did condescend to allow me to pet her and take this picture. Wish she hadn't turned her head at the last minute. Carol got Billie as a rescue cat--she had already earned her name by being so surly and hard to handle. But Billie seems to like it in Solvang--and loves Mike!

I had planned to take some pictures in downtown Solvang, since the buildings are so quaint, most of them in old Danish style. However, distracted by all the preparations for our China trip, I never got around to it. (I realize I didn't even get any humans in these pictures! Fortunately, there are plenty of pictures of Carol and Mike on my China trip blog posts.)

Solvang is great, and I hope to visit again. Friendly people, a charming town, great shopping and excellent wineries! I recommend all of them!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

China VI, the lake, silk embroidery and Shanghai

Weds. March 24

Yesterday's cruise on West Lake in Hangzhou was lovely. Old pagodas, romantic stories, a huge lake and park smack in the middle of the city.

I took a lot of pictures on the lake, but a heavy mist resulted in many pictures being too indistinct to show the true beauty of the scenery.
After that we went to the Tea Institute. Saw tea growing, how it is dried and served.

Not only are the plants in the foreground tea bushes, but the plants on the hillside as far as you can see are also tea bushes.

This man is hand drying tea for some of the more expensive types. All tea starts out from the same plant; differences in taste, aroma, etc. result from when the tea is picked and how it is dried and processed.

The Chinese can be very whimsical. This ornamental pond at the Tea Institute has a "teapot" fountain.

We were seated around a large table and given glasses with a pinch of tea. Then a woman came around pouring hot (not boiling) water into the glasses. Our tea guide explained that water for tea should never brought to a boil, as it "kills" the tea. The water is ready when little bubbles appear on the bottom of the heating vessel.

Baskets of various types of tea were passed around and we were invited to smell the differences. There actually is a difference between the higher and lower grade teas.

Peter, you're supposed to sniff it, not dive into the basket!

A glass of tea made from a "magic" tea flower. Perfectly lovely and also very drinkable.

I bought some wonderful tea and some "magic blossoms"--will be fun!

We had an OK lunch and then to Lingyin Park to see the "flying peak" and 72-foot camphor wood Buddha.

The Ligong Pagoda at the entrance to the Lingyin Temple grounds was built in honor of the Indian monk who gave the nearby mountain its name. He thought it was the spitting image of a mountain in his home of India and he asked if the mountain had flown there. Hence the name of the hill, Feilai Feng ( the Peak that Flew Here).

Lingyin Si (temple) is known not only for the large camphor wood Buddha, but also for the 470 Buddhist carvings lining the riverbanks and hillsides, dating from the 10th to 14th centuries.

It would be interesting to know how the artists managed to carve these rocks without falling into the river.

Below is the famous "Laughing Buddha". A few more intrepid tourists, including some from our group, braved the slippery rocks near the river to get a closer look, but not moi.

All the buildings are temples, active houses of worship, and photographs are not permitted inside. However it is acceptable to snap what you can from outside the door. Below is The Hall of the Four Guardians, containing four huge colorful figures, one of which you can see fairly well.

Above is the Great Hall, which houses the 72-ft high camphor wood Buddha. This Buddha was sculpted from 24 blocks of wood in 1956, and is a replicable of a Tang dynasty original.

Again, shooting from outside the door, I was able to get a pretty good picture of the huge Buddha. Many Chinese were buying incense and bowing and praying in all parts of the park area, but especially in front of this building and inside before the Buddha.

Three hour bus ride to Shanghai--then to dinner--nice dinner with ice cream (!) and back to hotel. At least we have 2 nights here and can sort baggage.

After breakfast we went to the Bund, a river walk with great views of the city center, including the tallest building in the world, 101 stories.

Below is a part of the Shanghai skyline, including the quasi-phallic Oriental Pearl TV Tower on the left, and the world's tallest building. The angle of this picture makes the Pearl Tower seem taller, but the 101-story office building is the slim rectangular building just to the right of center, which looks as if it has a slot cut out of the top section--which it does. The locals call it "the can opener", and you can see why. This sector of the city on the east bank of the Huangpu River is called Pudong, and is Shanghai's newest district. While Beijing is China's political capital, Shanghai is it's commercial center, and much business activity takes place in Pudong. Shanghai has the highest average income per household in China, and boasts a growing middle class anxious to enjoy a higher standard of living.

Rainbow, our guide, told us she comes to Shanghai several times a year and the skyline changes with every visit. We saw cranes, steamshovels, and other evidence of construction on every hand. This city of 17 milion--17 million!--people, the largest city in China, is surging into the 21st century with a growth spurt that astounds even the locals. (But you still can't drink the tap water!)
A local woman was selling postcards on the Bund. I bought a clutch of postcards and asked her to pose with me for a picture. She got the last laugh, though, because the postcards were at least several months old and do not feature the 101-story "can opener". By the time they come out with a set of postcards that do feature this unusual structure, other buildings will no doubt have risen to change the skyline once again. As Beijing went into a building frenzy leading up to the 2008 Olympiad, Shanghai is racing to complete shopping malls, hotels, and towering office buildings in preparation for hosting the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.
If you turn away from the river and Pudong and look across the Bund, you see the hotels, banks, offices and clubs that flourished during the time Shanghai was colonized by the British, French, and Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The contrast between the staid, older buildings and the gleaming towers across the river is fascinating.
Then we went to a silk carpet and tapestry place. Impressive. We ate lunch there, and guess what? Shopped some more.

This woman at her loom is a skilled artisan. The guide told us it is becoming difficult to recruit young women to learn the art of weaving silk tapestry and rugs. The painstaking process takes years to learn and larger pieces, such as large carpets and tapestries, can take years to make. The term "lost art" comes to mind.

This is a small portion of the hundreds of gorgeous items on display and for sale. Most were far beyond my pocketbook, but I fell in love with a 48x 24 inch tapesty of pandas in a bamboo grove. The black and white animals against the subtle greens, browns, pinks, and soft blues of the background charmed my credit card right out of my purse! I gulped when I signed the charge slip, but now, as I look at it hanging above my desk, I know I made the right decision. I'll treasure it for the rest of my life and it will pass on to my daughter, a true family heirloom.

After lunch we went to "China Town", the mall-like bazaar.

Below are two shots of the Yu Gardens Bazaar. The locals do indeed call it "China Town". It's a bit of a tourist trap, but we had fun wandering among the stalls and shops, bargaining with the vendors over silk scarves, caps, robes, and other souvenir items. It was in the bazaar that we saw the amazing (to us) sight of a Chinese mother holding her toddler over a trash can while he peed through the slit in the bottom of his pants. Who needs diapers when children's clothes are designed this way!! What a practical solution for both mother and child.

Had dinner at a nice restaurant (picture below) and then drove to the Shanghai Circus to see the "Era" show.

Wow! Talk about impressive! Such talent, grace, strength, agility, and beauty! An absolutely stunning show!

The Era show is currently one of Shanghai's premier attractions for locals and tourists alike. An incredible combination of acrobatics, juggling, tumbling, flying, and a finale of seven motorcycles zipping around the inside of a wire cage with lights flashing and engines roaring--sounds weird, but believe me, it was eye-popping and breathtaking!

Now back in hotel room, exhausted and dreading tomorrow morning--packing! How will I get all this stuff into 2 suitcases?

Here ends the China travel journal. I had to do some very creative packing, but I managed with my original two suitcases and carry on, unlike some of my comrades who bought extra suitcases to carry home their loot.

I must add a bit about our trip to the Shanghai airport. Our luggage went by bus, but we went on the Maglev Train. Quoting from Eyewitness Travel's Beijing & Shanghai, "This is, for the moment at least, the fastest you'll ever travel without flying. " German built and smooth as Chinese silk, this magnetically elevated super train travels the 18.6 miles from Shanghai's eastern suburbs to Pudong Airport in under 8 minutes! At one point the train reaches the speed of 267 mph! It is surprisingly quiet and the ride is so even you could sip from a full cup of hot coffee without spilling a drop.

We wait in the station for the Maglev Train to arrive...

...and here she is. Passengers arriving from the airport disembark on one side while those of us enroute to the airport clamour aboard on the other. And we're off!

In each car a digital monitor flashes the time and the speed in kilometers.

We arrived at the Pudong Airport almost before we left Shanghai! What a fantastic way to wind up a fantastic trip.

I hope you've enjoyed my blogging about our trip to China. It was fun to relive it in the writing.

China V: Silk, Gardens, and more

continued from Monday 3/23
The Silk Factory was really interesting. We saw the life cycle of the silkworm and the processing of cocoons into silk thread and batting for comforters.
Picture above shows containers with, from left to right, eggs, caterpillers, pupae in various stages, and at the far right, the sightless, flightless moth, whose only function is to lay more eggs.
Silkworms, which are actually caterpillars which have been bred over centuries into blind, flightless eating and spinning machines. Silk is made of the clear secretions from the silkworm's saliva glands, which it uses to create its cocoon after it has stuffed itself with mulberry leaves.
There are two types of cocoons, single and double. Single cocoons, containing one pupa, are steamed to kill the worm, washed, soaked, and "dewormed", and placed on machines that draw the strands out into single ply threads, several strands of which are woven together to make silk thread for further weaving into cloth. The rarer double cocoons, which contain two pupae and are larger, are also steamed and washed, but then are stretched by hand in a fascinating process to form the layers of batting for comforters. One double cocoon is stretched by hand to cover an area the size of a bed quilt--I know that's true because I saw it done! The layer is very thin, of course, and it takes dozens of layers to create the batting for one comforter. The multiple layers are what give the comforter its characteristic warmth in winter and coolness in summer, while remaining almost feather light. The comforter I bought is very warm and lightweight, and I haven't used my electric blanket since I put the comforter on my bed!
The white cloth at the bottom of the above picture shows part of a silk comforter. The colorful silk above it a duvet cover.
I splurged and got myself a set of sheets, pillowcases, a pillow, a mattress cover and a comforter. Also pj's, some scarves, and some things for gifts.
The picture above was taken in the lobby of the Silk Factory. We could take pictures there, where the educational materials were laid out, but no photographs were allowed inside the factory where the actual silk work was done. The orange sign actually says, "No photographing, No picturing".
The Chinese guard their silk making and weaving processes carefully. Silk remained a Chinese monopoly from 2640 BC, when breeding of silkworms is said to have begun on a large scale, until 3000 years later, when the secret of the worms was smuggled out of China by various travelers.
After that we went to the Lingering Garden, a famous and huge private garden which was lovely and peaceful. There I bought a silkscreen panda for Kim.
The Lingering Garden is one of the largest gardens in Suzhou. It was built by a Ming dynasty doctor who wanted to give his patients a relaxing place from which to recover from illness.
The Chinese take their gardens very seriously. I can understand why. With the density of their population, they are desperate to preserve places where one can come and find peace and quiet. According to National Geographic's Atlas of China, the population of the world, as of 2008 was
6.7 billion. The population of China at that time was 1.3 + billion, meaning approximately one of every five humans on earth lives in China. Since much of the interior is uninhabitable desert, many people cluster in China's numerous large cities. The Chinese are a loud people--when carrying on a normal conversation they sound as if they are arguing! Add the honking horns and other traffic noise, the squawking ducks and chickens in the markets, and other sundry noises and the din in some places is awful! No wonder they prize their peaceful parks and gardens. Years ago there were a lot more gardens, parks, and Buddhist temples, but the Red Guard destroyed many of them during the late 1960's "Cultural Revolution"--a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Thank goodness the remaining ones were spared.
Here's another delightful example of "Chinglish", on a sign just inside the Lingering Garden gate. It may not translate well, but you certainly get the idea.

More examples of the large stones from Tai Lake, which appear in nearly every large Chinese garden.
Below is a shot of an interior at the Lingering Garden. One of these pieces of furniture is an opium couch.

I always associated bonzai with Japan, but apparently it is another Chinese art borrowed by the Japanese. We saw a lot of beautiful bonzai arrangements in this garden.

We had lunch at another nice buffet near the Silk Factory and then headed to the Silk Embroidery Institute. This was an astounding place. We watched the process and then saw thousands of pieces, many museum quality. This is truly an art! I had no idea of the beauty of these products. I bought 2 small "student pieces", and one larger one in a hanging frame. It's a white cat with green eyes playing with a grasshopper and I think it's charming, as well as exquisite. I plan to put it on the piano. No pictures allowed in this place either!
We then set out for the two and a half hour drive to Hangzhou. By this time it was raining and traffic was bad. The highway was somewhat bumpy and the shocks in the bus leave something to be desired. My back was hurting, so Carol's brother Bob gave me a vicodan, bless his heart. He's a doctor, who recently had knee surgery and had brought along the medicine in case he needed it. That helped a lot, and the rest of the trip was more comfortable. We went to our hotel and then to dinner. After dinner I had a lovely dessert and jasmine tea in the bar, and then came up to bed. Tomorrow is the lake cruise and I'm looking forward to that.

Here's a preview of the lake cruise, but I'm stopping here. The next China blog will be the last for this trip, and hopefully will be up tomorrow.