Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Weekend of friends, family and lots of fried grub

The lovely Miss Wendy’s longtime gal pal, Michele – and her husband David – had lots to celebrate over the weekend. Their youngest son Jerad and his fiancée Megan will be marrying in the fall and they decided it was time everyone met and partied together.

The festivities were in Jacksonville, Michele and David’s home and the hot and humid place where Wendy and I met, once upon a time. But that’s a blog that’s already been written. Wendy and I also had the opportunity to spend some up close and personal time with family – Ann and Leon – and friends – Linda and Barry.

We also had a few hours to schlep out to the beach, stroll along the Atlantic and do a little quality window shopping at some of the area’s malls and tourist spots. Mostly we ate and drank our way through a couple of parties and rubbed shoulders with Michele and David’s friends and family.

The grub and drink was of the high brunch variety – Mimosas, Bellinis and Bloody Marys; tasty salads; lox and bagels, onions, capers and cream cheese; eggs, French toast, and an assortment of breakfast meats; pastries, croissants; cakes, cookies and pies. Yum!

What most lingers in my mind and gut, however, is Saturday night; a quiet dinner for 30 at one of the city’s iconic food emporiums, Beach Road Chicken Dinners. I imagine when it first opened in the 1930s, the rambling shack had a fresh and modern vibe about it. Today, it’s a gentle reminder of a time, ah, gone with the wind!

Several years ago, Wendy and I were feeling a bit nostalgic and oddly agreed we needed a little grease. Go figure. We were in Jacksonville, so decided to visit Beach Road. It was looking a little gritty around the edges. After spotting a family of roaches feasting on some crumbs at a nearby table, we made a hasty retreat.

I’m oh-so happy to report that the place has cleaned up its act; the shack has been fumigated, painted, enlarged and air conditioned. The sweet smell of fried chicken still permeates every crack and crevice. But that’s a good thing.

Those following me on the pages of this blog know that in recent months I have turned my back on all things fried; refined sugar, creams, potatoes and bread. Sigh! My choice then was to drink water, order a salad – I think they have salad – and nibble around the edges of a few side dishes. Or I could say the heck with it and rationalize that one meal a diet does not make!

I chose door number two. And behind that door was fried chicken, crispy, golden brown and juicy; cole slaw, French fries, mashed potatoes and rice; hot biscuits fresh from the oven, served up with a rich, creamy gravy and, if you’re an absolute glutton, honey.

Oh, right, and the specialty of the house – cream peas. Peas are, well, peas. They’re okay, especially if you gussy them up with salt, pepper, onions and garlic or bury them in a mound of creamy whipped potatoes.

But Beach Road Chicken Dinner’s cream peas – a euphonic blend of salt and butter, heavy cream, all-purpose flour and white sugar – are a decadent and tasty treat. I did mention that one meal a diet does not make, right?

So here’s a hearty thanks to Michele and David for including us in their special weekend; best wishes and mazel tov to Megan and Jerad; and three words for the owners of Beach Road Chicken Dinners – I’ll be back!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Special birthday wish from Dolly -- and Dad

I’m staring at a sweet little doll with a very cute dolly face. She’s got pink stringy hair, two dark eyes, a button nose, pink cheeks and a happy-face smile. Her arms are forever stretched out in a hey-hug-me-please pose, and she is proudly wearing an “It’s A Girl!” button on her blouse.

Dolly – I have to call her something – has been part of the Grebnief family for 31 years and I know exactly when I bought her for Lauren, my sweet little girl who turns, ah, 31 today. Here’s the story.

It was June 26, 1980. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Braves were in the cellar, Kramer Vs Kramer was at the movies and the Lovely Miss Wendy was in pain! She was very pregnant and had started complaining about being uncomfortable as we went to sleep. It would be a long night.

We spent much of the very early morning (June 27) timing what we thought might be contractions; first 8 minutes apart, then 7, then 10, then 6. It seemed that we were going through false labor and, like any concerned husband, I rolled over and went to sleep.

I woke up to Wendy staring at the ceiling, still uncomfortable and still having what seemed like contractions that were anything but regular. Her doctor suggested we come by for a quick check. Six hours later Lauren was born. That’s the short version. The full details would involve x-rays and consultations with experts, lots of waiting around and a last-minute decision to do a C-section.

Lauren’s arrival was a miracle; one of those transcendent moments that are both common place and extraordinary. If you've been there, you understand; if you're scratching your head in puzzlement, no amount of explaining will suffice. But I'll try. Minutes earlier there had been seven people in the delivery room: Wendy and me, the doctor, an anesthesiologist, and three nurses. Now there was an eighth person; a new life.

My daughter’s spirit filled the room, her presence reminding us all how glorious and precious is this world we inhabit; that miracles do happen and that we need only look around at the ordinary to experience the spectacular.

An hour later Wendy was resting comfortably in a room at Northside Hospital, Lauren was in an incubator in the nearby nursery and I was dashing between the two, making sure all was well and trying to figure out my new role as a new Dad.

At some point I had this overwhelming urge to go out and buy stuff; presents for my wife and daughter. I stopped at a florist and picked out a large and colorful bouquet of flowers for Wendy, then drove over to a nearby mall to find something appropriate for Lauren.

It seemed a little early for a bike or even a tricycle, a miniature make-believe kitchen, Barbie doll, board game or puzzle. I walked out of the mall’s toy store empty handed and wandered around a bit, glancing at itsy-bitsy onesies and prom dresses, baseball bats and gloves, gold bracelets and diamond rings. I was feeling a bit befuddled – happy but dazed!

And then I saw Dolly. She was waiting for me on a shelf with all her sisters, part of a promotional campaign at Rich’s. Dolly wasn’t too big, too sophisticated or too precious for a newborn. Her cute little smile and hug-me-please pose seemed just right at the time.

Dolly was around to welcome little Lauren on her first day of life. Today, given the chance, I think she’d say it’s been great having a front-row seat watching a sweet little girl become a beautiful, vibrant young woman.

Dolly helped me out 31 years ago, a little gift for my little girl; an expression of love when all the words in the world seemed lame and inadequate. And here she is yet again, coming to my rescue.

Happy birthday, Lauren!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Window shopping: It doesn't cost to look!

The lovely Miss Wendy and I were out and about recently, trying to stay cool and looking for something cheap and fun to do in our little corner of the world. We ended up at one of the mega-malls in the area and wasted an hour or so looking at stuff we didn’t need and couldn’t afford.

While Wendy priced a few rings at Tiffany’s, I sauntered over to Nordstrom to check out the shoes. I recall when the department store first entered the Atlanta market; there was much great cheer and celebration. Nordstrom, its marketing department and loyalists would have you believe, was a shopping paradise, a venue filled with all manner of delightful goods for upscale shoppers and their families.

The praise seemed odd since the city was already home to Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales. Rich’s, the grande dame of Atlanta retailers in the Land of Cotton, was still of this world, but slowly sinking in a sea of red ink.

Nordstrom offered much the same merchandise as the other retailers here with one exception. They had an expansive shoe department that stretched across the first floor, filled with an assortment of familiar names and a few upscale brands that had never made it this far south – or so it seemed at the time. All this makes sense when you learn that Nordstrom was initially a shoe retailer. It wasn’t until the early 1960s – about six decades after it was founded – that the company became a full-fledged department store and began selling clothing, accessories, handbags, jewelry, cosmetics and fragrances.

But I digress. I was looking for shoes. Truth to tell, I was actually just looking. I milled around a bit, felt my way around the buttery softness and fresh, leathery tang of well made footwear before coming across a display of casual moccasins that caught my attention.

The shoes were a pricey blend of expensive and more expensive; brands – Cole Haan, Johnson and Murphy, Ecco – that begin around $100 and quickly scoot higher. There was one particular loafer that stood out, a casual slip on that had great, ah, curb appeal; was light and pliable, yet felt sturdy when I took it for a test drive around the display stand.

I normally buy shoes at discount centers – Bass, Docker, Bostonian. But there was something awfully sweet about the loafer I was trying out. Then I glanced at the price and my day dream turned to a nightmare! The shoe I was holding cost $180. Unfortunately, its mate also costs the same amount. The Italian-made moccasin – it’s sold under the name Hamlin – features a braided lasso bit and rubber grips for added traction and goes for about $360; a little rich for my tootsies.

A nearby customer, meanwhile, didn’t flinch when asking the sales clerk if the store offered the shoes in both black and brown. They do, and the smiling clerk was more than happy to fetch the loafers and bag them when the man said he, ah, needed both colors!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Nine Jews + Torah = minyon ... well, maybe

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we explore the esoteric innards of Halacha.
The skies opened up on Wednesday and for the first time in weeks the Land of Cotton got a decent soaking. The rain was needed, cooling off this little corner of the world that has been experiencing temperatures in the low 90s for the last month.

The lovely Miss Wendy and I were headed to minyon when the rain started pounding harder, momentarily mixed with hail. Gusts of wind had the trees along our route whipping about and traffic began backing up as roads filled with runoff and motorists slowed to a crawl.

Given the time of year – school is out and families are on vacation – and the violent weather, I knew there was a good chance we wouldn’t have a minyon. A few hearty folks weathered the storm, but after waiting ten minutes or so after the designated time for the afternoon service to begin, it became clear we were two Jews short of a prayer quorum.

That’s when one of the regulars suggested we go ahead with the service and use the Torah to fill in for the missing people. I’m familiar with the tradition at our shul of counting the Torah when necessary to reach a minyon. The idea has always seemed a bit bizarre, but most religions are filled with odd and esoteric rules and traditions.

Judaism, an ancient belief system that stretches back thousands of years, is no exception. We cover our heads with skull caps (kippot) and wear leather straps with boxes filled with scripture (tifillin) when praying, place amulets (mezuzot) on the doorposts of our homes and as jewelry around our necks. The observant don’t eat pork, shrimp or lobster, or mix meat and dairy products – no such thing as a kosher cheeseburger! The really observant refuse to do any sort of work on the Sabbath and the really, really observant pretty much spend their time studying the Torah and Talmud, figuring out why we do and don’t do all this stuff.

So in the overall scheme of things, using the spiritual weight of the Torah to fill out a minyon only makes sense, right? Well, maybe. References to the idea can be found in the Talmud, one sage suggesting that a child can be elevated to the status of adult by holding a Torah if a tenth man is needed to make a minyon.

There is much give and take about what age a child has to be or that, perhaps, two righteous youngsters equal one so-so adult. Somewhere in the distant past the need for a child was tossed aside and it was decided that the Torah itself was all that was needed to create a prayer quorum. After all, a Torah scroll contains the divine presence within it, one scholar suggests, and therefore it can create the necessary environment to sanctify God’s name in prayer.

Well, ah, maybe? Ultimately, modern Jewish law suggests that synagogues can essentially do what works for their individual communities – basically, a when-in-Rome sort of philosophy.

Meanwhile, the eight of us in my little corner of the world decided we’d hold the afternoon service; say aloud the parts not needing a minyon and skip over or recite silently the parts requiring a prayer quorum. There’s much I don’t understand about Judaism and Jewish law. But of one thing I am certain. Whether I whisper or shout, the God I pray to can hear my every thought!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

It was devilish work, but someone had to do it. Just minutes into my vacation, and I spotted a challenge.

I know, vacations are supposed to be fun and relaxing. But I figured climbing a rocky wall for no apparent reason might be just the thing to kick my Alaskan adventure into high gear. Did I mention I’d been drinking?

Still securely docked in Seattle, the lovely Miss Wendy and I were taking our measure of the NCL Pearl – 13 decks, 12 restaurants, 11 bars and lounges, 2 swimming pool and 4 hot tubs, a bowling alley, movie theater, internet café and one monster climbing wall.

After watching a 10-year-old kid weave his way up the rocky course, I figured now was absolutely the time to screw my courage to the, um, sticking place. I did mention alcohol was involved, right? Only a moment later I had signed away my life, pulled on a pair of climbing shoes, and wiggled my way into a safety harness and helmet.

The goal was to ring a bell at the top of the wall; all I need do is grab hold of the rubber hand- and footholds and maneuver my way up the 25-foot course and victory was mine. Staring up at the craggy face of the wall, I had a moment to reflect on the fleeting nature of life and other existential stuff. Then I heard a nearby kid asking his dad if the old guy was ever going to move his butt!

About two minutes later I rang the bell, was lowered back to the deck and made my way back to Miss Wendy. About the only lasting lessons I’ve managed to take away from this rocky challenge and momentous victory is I can still move my butt when prodded and I probably shouldn’t drink when there’s a climbing wall in view.

KODAK MOMENT: Just shy of my goal (photo above), I took a moment to savor my efforts as I made my way to the top of a climbing wall aboard the NCL Pearl.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Alaska Part IV: In search of a shabbat minyon

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today let’s stay aboard the NCL Pearl and explore all things Jewish in Alaska.

It’s funny the sorts of things you notice when traveling. In Alaska, all you need do to see something beautiful and transcendent is open your eyes. The state bills itself as The Last Frontier and, if anything, the slogan is an understatement.

Nature pretty much trumps everything else in this part of the world, but there are a few cities and villages – Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan – that offer up bits of civilization and tchotchkes if you’re cruising the Inside Passage.

It was in these places that the lovely Miss Wendy and I came across some reminders recently of the Jewish community. There were a couple of handmade signs that, in Hebrew, offered a hearty hello to travelers. We even spotted a few mezuzot on the doorposts of several jewelry stores.

After asking a sales clerk about the mezuzah at the front of her store and getting a puzzled look and shrug, the manager of the shop stepped forward and explained that the owner was Jewish. At the risk of sounding cynical, I fear these little touches of Judaica and yiddishkeit have little to do with Judaism and lots to do with marketing and attracting the attention of Jewish shoppers. It’s a ploy, apparently, that works.

Meanwhile, Wendy and I had a small mission to accomplish for our rabbi. He asked that we bring back a stone to place on the grave of a man who recently died; no, not a gravestone, but a pebble of some sort. Trust me, it’s a Jewish thing. The man, a member of our congregation, had been planning a trip to Alaska with his family and the rabbi thought a stone from Alaska might offer a measure of comfort for the bereaved.

We stumbled across a little shop on a side street in Skagway, a ramshackle affair that spilled across a dusty lot and was filled with shiny rocks, unpolished stones and boulders. After sorting through a small mountain of stuff, we attempted to explain to the store’s clerk what we were hoping to find.

She smiled and I’m pretty sure I saw a light bulb go off over her head. Oh, she said, you want a stone for a grave. Turns out she was Jewish and knew exactly what we needed. Small world!

A few days later, somewhere watery and cosmically mountainous, we were cruising between Ketchikan and Victoria. Shabbat was nearing and the folks at NCL announced there would be a short service in the ship’s chapel.

Wendy, Lauren, Josh and I, all spiffy in our Friday night best, went looking for a minyon and found a vacant room, a dozen chairs, two challahs and a bottle of Manischewitz. We sat and waited. Then waited some more. After a bit, a young couple showed up and joined our chavurah. Now we were six and only needed four more Jews to make a minyon.

Well, actually, we were still only four, six short of a minyon. The young woman was a Seventh Day Adventist and the guy was, well, nothing, he said. Can you say awkward! Once again we waited. Then waited some more.

Finally, lacking the required number to hold a proper service, we instead opted to say kiddush and the ha-motzi. It was about then that Lorraine showed up, a full-fledged, card-carrying Jew from Sydney, Australia. If there were other Jews about, they were probably in one of the ship’s restaurants, enjoying a Shabbat feast of lobster and shrimp. Oops; did I actually say that with my outside voice?

Lorraine joined us as we made the blessing over the challah. Then we did what Jews do when first meeting – we played Jewish geography. Lorraine knew absolutely no one from the Land of Cotton and we knew only one person living in Sydney, the former executive director of our shul.

That would be the same Alan Glazerman, Lorraine announced, that until very recently was the executive director at her synagogue in Sydney. I did mention it was a small world, right?

EVEN IN ALASKA: The always lovely Miss Wendy (photo above) reaches out to touch a mezuzah we spotted on the doorpost of a jewelry store in Ketchikan. The owner is Jewish and places mezuzot at the entrances of all his shops.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Alaska Part III: Light, dark and passage of time

Lauren asked a reasonable question yesterday as we all made our way along the Inside Passage of Alaska. It would seem, she figured, that with few lights in this wilderness area that the night sky would be filled with stars. She wondered if I'd noticed a special starry brightness from the balcony off our cabin on the NCL Pearl.

I couldn't recall seeing any stars, in fact didn't really remember seeing a dark sky! Somewhat intrigued, I decided to pay attention to all things celestial today and note when the sun fell below the horizon and returned to light our way. Turns out it never got totally dark at all. I guess I was sleeping when night and day were discussed in science class years ago.

According to data provided by NCL and the weather channel, the sun supposedly set around 9:50 p.m. last night and was set to return around 3:50 this morning. But when I shuffled out onto the balcony in my jammies around 11 or so, it was still light, the sky a silken blue and a streak of golden orange playing across
the horizon.

Two hours later and the horizon had grown dark but the sky overhead was still blue, a pastel shade dark and deep that I associate with dusk. No stars in this land of the midnight sun. A few hours later and someone had turned the lights back on, the sun peeking brightly above the horizon, offering a very early wake-up call for anyone without blackout curtains.

This playing around with light and darkness and the passage of time – right now it's four hours earlier here than in the Land of Cotton – is toying with all those natural rhythms of my life. The clock might say it's time to go to sleep, but the sun is suggesting otherwise. It's a price, btw, I'm willing to pay for a week in this pristine paradise.

LINGERING SUNSET: It remained light (photo above) for most of the day as we traveled north along the Inside Passage of Alaska.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Alaska Part II: Fun and games in Glacier Bay

The rangers came aboard The Pearl early this morning, three special guests to help me, Miss Wendy, Lauren and Josh appreciate and enjoy the wonders of Glacier Bay. It's one of the memorable highlights of our week-long journey through the Inside Passage of Alaska.

By breakfast time the ship was awake and abuzz, most everyone jockeying for position as we steamed into Tarr Inlet. The captain maneuvered the ship around pieces of fallen ice – some bits the size of small cars – and gently brought the Pearl about; ever so slowly the Grand Pacific Glacier came into view.

It was stunning and massive, compacted tons of snow turned into jagged fingers of bluish ice. The morning haze had burned off and the rays of the sun glistened majestically about the area.

Ranger Ruth – I fear she's related to Dr. Phil or Captain Kangaroo – asked that we look about and take in the natural wonder that now spread across our world. She offered up numbers and dates and other scientific data about glaciers and snowfall, winds and tides. I think she made up lots of stuff and, when at a loss for words, fell back on her touchy-feely mantra about the beauty of nature.

Of course Ranger Ruth was right. The world here in Glacier Bay seems created by the finger of God, a chilly Garden of Eden that is just about perfect.

Miss Wendy and I left the masses on the upper decks and retreated to our private little balcony. Glacier Bay spread out before us, thousands of acres of still waters, pristine woods and jagged mountains. The Pearl's engines had been silenced and only the gentle call of seagulls and the hushed lapping of water against the distant shore broke the calm.

It seemed we had stumbled onto something sacred, the Cathedral of the Great Outdoors. No need for prayer books or hymnals in this sanctuary. In Glacier Bay, your heart will sing out its own happy tune and, for a moment, your soul will be filled.

PICTURE PERFECT: Glacier Bay (photo above) is stunning, thousands of acres of still waters, pristine woods and majestic mountains.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Alaska Part I: Awe, splendor and a little booze

If I glance to my left, the sky is a silky blue, spilling about a distant mountain covered in snow. No, I'm not dreaming.

The lovely Miss Wendy and I, along with our daughter Lauren and son-in-law Josh are working our way through the Inside Passage of Alaska, aboard the NCL Pearl.

Today we spent the day with Mother Nature in Skagway. It's from here a century ago that a legion of prospectors, lusting for gold, began their arduous journey into the Yukon Territory and the Klondike gold fields. It was a difficult time in a rugged world. Some men made a fortune, others died in the effort. Much has changed.

The gold fields played out quickly, but riches of a different sort remain. Alaska is a vast place filled with soaring mountains and virgin forests; valleys teaming with wildlife; crystal clear lakes and rivers. Instead of the strip shopping centers that fill my little corner of the world, a row of snow-capped peaks loom in the distance, majestic sentinels for a land of aching beauty.

The Pearl offers other distractions, all those things you'd expect aboard a luxury cruise ship -- expansive public spaces and intimate cabins, nightly entertainment and tons of food. Did I mention there's booze? Ultimately, it's the spectaculor show outside that calls most loudly.

This is the sort of place where you find yourself pointing, grabbing a camera, then standing about in stunned awe as a Bald Eagle gently sweeps across a mighty vista filled with the stuff of nature. Only a moment later and you're staring into a pristine valley filled with thousands of trees, lush vegetation and a distant waterfall fed by the runoff of snow still clinging to peaks soaring high above.

Yet again you point, then stand about holding onto the moment till another image fills your mind and heart and soul. Juneau and Skagway have offered up their treasures, the natural wonders of life here easily pushing aside the drama we
tourists bring along with our stacks of suitcases and expectations.

As I write, the Pearl is steaming south along the Lynn Canal. We'll be hanging a right at Point Couverden in a few hours, then heading north into Glacier Bay. It's midnight and I just stepped outside onto my balcony. The temperature has dropped at least 25 degrees into the low 50s and the last rays of the sun remain in the western sky, a gentle streak of orange outlining a range of mountains that stretch across the horizon.

I reach out and grab for my camera, struck dumb once again by Mother Nature and the beauty of this place. The wonder of it all is knowing that greater wonders are just around the bend. Stay tuned!