Saturday, December 30, 2017

Anti-Resolutions: New Year's Resolutions You Might Actually Be Able to Keep

Since the dawn of mankind, we have looked to the Heavens. We mark the path of the sun, and note the passage of a day. We notice the phases of the moon, and gain an awareness of a month. Then, those intrepid ancients took note of the alignment of the visible universe, and created a way to measure seasons, and years.

And with all our fascination with time, we promise ourselves that THIS year will be better than the last. WE will be better, do better, try harder. We make New Year's Resolutions. And before the end of January, most of those resolutions are out the proverbial window. And right now, who can even remember the resolutions made last year at this time?

So, to evolve beyond this rather masochistic practice, and end the self-punishment, it is time for anti-resolutions. These are resolutions you not only might actually be able to keep -- but perhaps, are the ones we should have been aiming for all along.

We at J and L present our anti-resolutions, and invite you to comment below with yours.

  1. Have a sense of adventure. You don't need a gym to work out. Get outside. Breathe in that fresh (well, fresher) air. Walk with someone you love -- hold hands if they are bipedal; hold leashes for the four-legged love in your life. Walk the path less-traveled. See things you haven't seen before -- across the world or across the street. But get outside. Say hello to fellow adventurers out for a walk or a hike. And don't forget to watch the sunset. Now that's our idea of exercise!
  2. Get some sleep. Well, after all that outdoorsy exercise, you've earned it. No guilt. Science tells us that a good night's rest can reduce your level of stress, and thus your blood pressure. You burn calories as you snooze, and rest helps curb your appetite. So, sleep does a body good! 
  3. Look up from your devices -- after you finish reading this blog, that is. Unplug. Read a book. Have a conversation. Play a board game. Enjoy spending time with friends and family. None of us are getting any younger, and no number of  'Likes' is worth missing a moment of 'Life.'
  4. Love yourself. Sometimes you have to spend a little money on something unnecessary. Sometimes, you need to have an hour to do nothing all by yourself. If you spend all of your spare energy on trying to make someone else happy, you will be miserable. You can't MAKE someone happy, anyway. Love yourself and you'll find you have more love to share.
  5. Use it or lose it. You know that special something that you've been saving for a special occasion. Well, today is that special occasion. Wear it, use it, play with it, drink it. Material items aren't meant to last forever. Enjoy them now instead of saving it for someday. And less truly is more. Get rid of the stuff that has been cluttering your closet and your life. All of it. If you don't have a use for it, donate it. Or, in the case of old divorce paperwork for instance, have a good ole bonfire.
  6. Write. Pencil or pen and paper are best. It doesn't have to be brilliant or inspirational. Write a story, a poem, a song. Make a list counting your blessings. Write a letter or a thank-you note, and send it. When was the last time you sent or received an honest-to-goodness letter? Not email. Real, physical paper and stamps. Remember when you could go the mailbox and there was something waiting for you besides bills and advertisements? Ah, those were the days. We could start a revolution right here and now. Bring back cards and letters -- and not just at Christmastime.
  7. Be creative. Make something with your hands. Plant. Rearrange. Beautify. Just don't do what everyone else is doing the way everyone else is doing it. Be yourself. Your best self. And definitely be different. 
Now, the anti-resolution purists will tell you that anti-resolutions must be stated in the negative -- to emphasize what you will STOP doing. But we believe that violates #7. A resolution is a firm decision to do, or not do, something. Therefore, anti-resolutions are more, well, guidelines. And none of these cost most than the price of a stamp -- but can be priceless. These anti-resolutions are about seeing the best in yourself and others -- rather than punishing ourselves for our bad habits. And that is our wish for you in 2018. See the best; be the best; hope and work for the best for all of us.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Thomas Fire - Update

Where the Thomas Fire has and is erupting
On December 19th, J and L posted a blog about Christmas and those who may be missing that special time with their families. Those would be the men and women in uniform protecting our homeland and those closer - the first responders. In that blog entry, we wrote that the Thomas Fire which has been stalking and destroying homes and businesses a few miles northwest of Los Angeles, was the third largest fire in modern California's history.

That changed at 6:30 p.m. (PST). The Thomas Fire is now categorized as the largest fire in California's history.

The 'hell' that has been thrown on California
This is not what we had hoped we'd be saying when we updated this story. And, we would like to emphatically reiterate how much we appreciate the commitment and dedication of those working the fire lines, those assisting those firefighters and the folks who go out of their way helping in any way they can. 

What Christmas - We have a job to do!
Fire doesn't know nor understands political or religious affiliations, or anything else for that matter - this is a real hell of wheels, and people are suffering.

So, during this Christmas season we need to understand what these wonderful people - those losing everything and those working through the holidays - are about. They are about us - the average guy or gal. The homeowners leaving for work and finding at the end of the day nothing left but memories of their former abode. The personnel working day and night to save as much as they can with the knowledge they will not be home for Christmas.

My gift this Christmas will be saving others - the true heroes
These are the people we need to hold an extra candle up in the air during this holiday season. So, when out and about shopping, splash a little extra wide smile to a stranger. Let's make everyone feel better - we never know when we may need that encouragement from someone we don't know. 

And of course, drop a dollar or two into that Santa ringing the bell - that is what makes America Great - the generosity of her people to help those in need.

Give - it is what the season is all about
It may make the difference for a great day or a sad day for someone you don't know.

Is that too much to ask during this holiest of seasons?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

May Your Christmas Be Safe

Sometimes during the Christmas season all thoughts turn to bright lights, jingle bells, and fancy wrapped presents beneath a tree. That is good – a time to be joyous is always good for the heart and soul.

It is good to be warm and cozy at Christmas.
But sometimes – just sometimes -- the holiday season means loved ones are away from home. J experienced this during the time he served in law enforcement. Working Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the other special times families are together each and every year, but it was his choice. The badge he wore didn’t always allow him the luxury of being warm and toasty on those special moments surrounded by loved ones. No, patrolling dark and cold streets taught him that he, as well as his brothers and sisters in uniform, were needed to ensure as many people as possible were protected from the wolves.

This holiday season is no different for the countless everyday heroes who patrol the streets, fight fires, save lives, and keep hospitals open. This blog is for them – the ones who allow the rest of us to settle down for a hot toddy on a cold winter night.

It is of special consideration being a Californian and seeing the super-human effort in combating the recent and current fires sweeping this state that we dedicate this Christmas blog.

Thomas Fire encroaching onto a neighborhood near Santa Barbara
The thousands of firefighters, hundreds of police officers, and countless other emergency personnel will be giving up this holiday season in the pursuit of helping others. Hundreds, if not thousands of structures have already burnt to the ground over the past few months. Many others are in danger – as of this writing the Thomas Fire burning northwest of Los Angeles and considered the third largest fire in California’s modern times will continue until well after the New Year.
These heroes won't be home for Christmas but they are doing what they do best!

The citizens of Santa Barbara and its richer sister city of Montecito to the south are now being attacked by relentless flames.

It is this area now facing a disastrous Christmas Season but even with the terror-filled anxiety there are heroes doing their best to save as much as can be saved from the flames.

Cory Iverson gave his life trying to save others - definition of a true hero.

A deadly fire – one firefighter, Engineer Cory Iverson, was killed while fighting the Thomas fire and a civilian female, Virginia Pesola, died while trying to escape the flames.

For those families and loved ones this Christmas of 2017 will be hard to revisit in later years.

So, in this season of Hope we at J and L want to take a moment and thank those who give up their personal comfort and risk it all for the rest of us.
This is not acting!

On a side note, even civilians help out when they can – sometimes to the detriment of the professionals but often assisting in very helpful ways. One such example is the actor Rob Lowe who happens to own a home in the Santa Barbara area. Not only did he put it all on the line donning fire protective gear and battling alongside the firefighters but to show his appreciation cooked dinner for a group of firefighters at his home which they saved.

Hungry and tired but grateful for a hot meal prepared by Rob Lowe
And a grateful Rob Lowe with the crew who saved his home.
Christmas is the season for giving, and giving to each other is so much more valuable than a few trinkets covered in wrapping and pretty bows. According to Janice Maeditere, "Christmas is not as much about opening our presents as opening our hearts."

It is what the holiday is about - that time when selflessness takes over and only others matter. To step out of our comfort zone to make someone else comfortable and safe. That willingness to give everything and expect nothing in return.

That is the true meaning of Christmas.

J and L wish all those serving the needs of others this holiday season – no matter the career – who will not be home for Christmas a heartfelt thanks.

Merry Christmas to all those deployed - We love you.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Dinosaurs in the Desert

After spending a quiet Sunday afternoon watching, or to be more exact, re-watching Jurassic Park, two issues were quite apparent. Being a leisurely Sunday afternoon meant not really thinking too deeply into this marvelous film adapted from the novel by Michael Crichton, but two points did resonate with J.

First, there were no T-Rexes during the Jurassic Period (which was roughly 145 million to about 200 million years ago). The Tyrannosaurus existed during the Cretaceous period around 66 – 145 million years ago, probably more like 66 to 68 million years ago. The reason the film was named Jurassic instead of Cretaceous was probably the sound – Jurassic has a better ring than Cretaceous and really, how many people could pronounce that era anyway.

Hollywood has a license and that license is known as a poetic one. And that is defined as - the freedom to depart from the facts of a matter or from the conventional rules of language when speaking or writing in order to create an effect.

In other words – they lie, but as professional writers we at J and L prefer to call it ‘embellishing’ the facts. A lie is such a nasty turn of phrase.

The second point was that not all dinosaurs are gone from this earth. In fact, in Southern California, a sleepy little area known as Cabazon, there exist two behemoths just north of Interstate 10. That stretch of asphalt is the home of both an Apatosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Both of these creatures roamed the globe during the Cretaceous Period when the earth in which they resided was warm and tropical. They flourished for millions of years until, according to most scientists, a huge asteroid decided to play bumper pool with the earth down in the Yucatan about 65 million years ago. Large clouds of dust blew up into the atmosphere blocking sunlight for nearly two years which killed off the herbivores and then when they perished, the carnivores, having no food source, were next.

Only certain land dwelling creatures still existed after the tragic present sent to earth from outer space - primarily rats but let's not talk about politicians.

Claude K. Bell at the beginning of Dinny
The two large dinosaurs are actually the creation of Claude K. Bell who had a restaurant named the 'Wheel Inn Restaurant' in Cabazon. The restaurant started in 1958 and made it all the way to its closure in 2013. Bell decided from his time as a sculptor and portrait artist for Knott's Berry Farm, that what he needed was  a little sideshow to draw more customers to the restaurant. With that in mind, he started working on Dinny the Apatosaurus  (Dinny, short for dinosaur) in 1964. And Dinny was a huge undertaking. She measures 156 feet in length and 45 feet in height. That is one big old dinosaur. It took nearly twelve years to complete the steel framed sprayed concrete colossus, at a cost of $300,000. Dinny is hollow inside, with a steep staircase upon which the hearty can troop up into the belly of the herbivore and shop for trinkets while learning a little of the history of this tourist attraction.

The completed project - well not really
This concept of Bell's worked very well and business boomed - thus part of the reason the restaurant was a success for 55 years. Of course, Bell wasn't done with Dinny alone - no, the T-Rex was next. But Rex wasn't started until 1981. Today this prehistoric beast stands 65 feet tall. It had a slide for a tail, but that didn't last long, and it was filled in with concrete. Rex stands watch gazing southward toward the Interstate and watching the visitors who pay tribute to a creation by a very talented and patient artist by the name of Claude K. Bell.
That's one big dude, er dudette!
Unfortunately, Bell passed away in 1988, and so his dream of a Woolly Mammoth and prehistoric garden never came to fruition.

"Oh Yeah - I'm bad to the bone," yells Mr. Rex
The land and everything Bell had built was sold by his heirs in the 1990's to a partnership which received approval from the city of Cabazon to erect a motel, restaurant, and other financially sound ideas for the rest stop. The area is now known as a 'creationists dream' where evolution is poo-pooed and a museum located near the dinosaurs explains their belief.

Here at J and L will not go into this area but all views are valued and must be looked at on their own merit. It is up to the people reading explanations and doing research on their own to come up with the truth they desire to believe in. But, we thought it was an important aspect to add to this blog.

So, there after an afternoon of watching a film about dinosaurs chasing and eating people around a fictitious island the idea of Cabazon came into J's mind.  And it so happened that J and L's travelling buddy Paul Bakas had been on a recent trip with them and stopped to investigate these giants looming over the skyline of Cabazon.

The really positive side of this is that there are no Raptors running loose - if there had been, no stopping by this research team would have occurred.
No taking sides at J and L - that would be too much to bite off
On a side note and an important one - Dinny and Mr. Rex are celebrities. They had made appearances in the 1985 comedy - Pee Wee's Big Adventure, in the 1985 music video for Tears for Fears - Everybody Wants to Rule the World, in 1988 on the album cover for Notes from the Lost Civilization by Tonio K's and numerous other documentaries, music albums/videos and the like. The two are as famous as perhaps the original ones during the Cretaceous period - yeah, and not the Jurassic Period.

Attention - this tram will not be stopping any time soon

Friday, November 24, 2017

San Bernardino Strong

John had his second novel, Soft Target, released in 2014 - it was a fictional account of a terrorist attack in a small city in Southern California. Terrorists commandeering a public middle school in the city of Victorville which left countless dead and horrific memories to last a lifetime.

It was a piece of fiction.

On December 2nd, 2015 at approximately 11 a.m. that horror became an unbelievable reality when two Islamic Terrorists (we will not mention their names out of respect for the victims and their families as well as these two evil persons do not deserve any one remembering them), entered the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino and murdered 14, seriously wounding 22 innocent souls. There had been a planned holiday party luncheon for those who who worked for the County Department of Public Health.

Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino after the horrible event
These were the good guys and gals. Those public servants who truly believed that every day they went to work, they made a positive difference for the clients with whom they dealt. They were the ones who should be the role models for most of us.

They were everyday heroes.

Two monsters showed up (and one of whom actually worked in the office and his fellow workers had treated him - according to all reported accounts - as a colleague and friend) murdering the party goers. These were his co-workers. Evil is not even close to what this person and his spouse were during those moments and the ones that followed as they tried to elude law enforcement before luckily being gunned down.

Law enforcement heading toward the gunshots, not away.
This is a bit out of character for J and L. Most of our pieces are upbeat: about countries where we have traveled, the people we meet, and the research we conduct. But today - this is about the ones who lost their lives and the wonderful first responders.

It was a moment of personal angst for J and L since their daughter, Jessica, worked as a teacher in a small private school in San Bernardino, only a mile or so from the Regional Center. Of course, as first reports came out, no one truly had a clear vision of where the mass shooting was taking place - active cases are often fluid and this one was no different then unfortunately the ones we hear about too often.

First responders taking care of the wounded - these are heroes working on heroes
Laureen called John at work and asked if he had heard the news of the shooting, This was about ten minutes after the first shots had been reported. San Bernardino may be the largest county landwise in the United States, but not so much in the population. Especially in the realm of education where John and Laureen know many people in the field and that includes public health.

This was personal.

After ensuring that Jessica was safe and it wasn't her school, they learned that it was the Regional Center. Both J and L had been there numerous times in the past dealing with their functions in the educational world.

To say what went through our hearts as the news kept leaking out is hard to explain. Good people who do and did wonderful things for fellow citizens being executed during a party that should have been nothing but happiness was beyond reason.

Our hearts were broken as were many in the county, the country and the world, after hearing of such an evil inflicted upon such strong and honorable people. What would cause people to kill innocents for any reason? That question and many more will not be answered any time soon and to these bloggers those questions may never be.

These wonderful heroes deserve an answer and so do their family and friends.
On Friday, the 17th of November, J and L were invited to take part in a benefit -- a musical for the victims, families, first responders, and others physically or emotionally taxed by this terrorist attack. It will be the second anniversary and the musical was to be performed at the California Theater in San Bernardino.

Of course, J and L agreed to do as much as we could to assist such a worthy cause as long as J didn't have a singing role. The reasons were simple - the production was to be run one night only on the 25th of November. J may be able to take up an acting role in such short notice but singing? L on the other hand knew she could handle singing (and maybe some dancing) - she's a pro after singing for years in their own and other's productions.

As always - the Show will go ON!
Night after night of rehearsals left J and L, along with the rest of the cast, pretty exhausted, but spirits were high thanks to the bubbling personality of Shannon Maxwell. She is the director of the musical, and niece of Heather McClusky, who wrote the original script as a historical, but funny tale about the history of San Bernardino. But there is a moment during the second act where a moment of seriousness takes over the stage. It is where a song, recently written by Ms. McClusky, is sung in tribute to those lost their lives and their families, on December 2nd, 2015. It is a touching, soul wrenching number, and should be listened to only with a box of Kleenex at hand.

Unfortunately, with all things theater and film, as we've learned the hard way through the years, there are sometimes snags and delays. The musical will not be performed on November 25th, but has been postponed until March 17th. Roughly, on the 23rd anniversary of the original production.

Of course, this will not be the only blog about this production since at least one more will need to be written about the wonderful instant friends we met during those few hectic nights of rehearsal - Rebecca (who we actually have known for years by her stage name, Odessa Red), and new friends: Andrew, Patrick, Ryan, Derek, Becky, Shannon, and all the others who made those nights together memorable and enjoyable.

We look forward to more practices and finally the production. It is needed in a small city in Southern California named San Bernardino - which witnessed a senseless tragedy during a season of hope.

We are and will always be San Bernardino Strong!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Giving Thanks - Around the World

Forty-three years before the Pilgrims sat down for their feast of thanks with their Native American neighbors in 1621 the tradition had already begun in 1578 on the North American continent. It was in that year that explorer Martin Frobisher held a ‘thanks giving’ in October – his thanks? Surviving the arduous sea voyage from England to his new home in Canada. Thanksgiving started as a harvest festival to celebrate the bounties of food stuffs that would maintain the settlers through the cold winter months.

Though most resident of the United States may believe Thanksgiving is a unique American tradition it is not.

The celebration of the previous year and hopes for a good harvest is an ancient rite but the more modern concept of Thanksgiving really is a Canadian and American tradition. Canada holds this holiday on the second Monday in October and we of course the fourth Thursday in November – wouldn’t want to cramp our cousin’s style to the north.

But in fact, dozens of countries around the world hold the idea of giving thanks as so important that they too have specific declared dates for such an event. It is a time to celebrate the good fortunes of the past year as well as prepare for the upcoming year with family and friends. To sit down together at a feast and count the blessings seem to be a constant around the world – sounds very familiar.

It is. From ancient times people gathered about the hearths and tables laden with all sorts of yummy foods to give thanks for what they had and for what they hoped to have as winter came and then turned into spring. Forever hopeful - those humans no matter what century they belonged.

The grass is always greener.

President George Washington proclaimed it should be observed yearly in 1789. It wasn't every year the giving thanks day was celebrated - no, that didn't occur until 1863 when President Lincoln declared it a federal holiday. President Abraham Lincoln declared that Thanksgiving would be held always on the fourth Thursday of November after being persuaded by a letter written from Philadelphia on September 28th of 1863 by Sarah Josepha Hale -  author of the 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' story.  She was a very astute and convincing woman since the president ordered that Thanksgiving would begin that very year. She knew what she wanted and got it.

Though not to be too nationalistic, though there is nothing wrong in that, other countries as mentioned earlier celebrate similar holidays.

In China the eating of moon-cake during the August moon festival which falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of their calendar is an extremely important tradition. It is the time when lovers tell each other their deepest felt emotions and women are considered similes to warm and compassionate virtues - fertility is a big thing mentioned here - albeit the lover issue.

Brazil celebrates something very similar to the United States due to the fact that an ambassador once visited the United States during Thanksgiving and believed it to be such a wonderful expression of thanks he brought it back to his own country. Carnivals, sports and great harvest celebrations are held there each year in thanks for what the Brazilians are thankful for.

And on October 4th in Rome is celebrated Cerelia - in honor of an ancient 'goddess of the corn ' Ceres. Musical events, parades and sporting events are conducted to keep this ancient custom alive.

So, around the world there is always time set aside each year for peoples to gather among each other and give thanks for what they have and give thanks for what they may receive in the coming year.

Good food, great family and friends are more than anyone could be thankful for and for that uncertain future - give thanks and a few prayers may serve the purpose also. Perhaps Thanksgiving should be looked at as a time when friends and family visit - put away past troubles and look to the future. A momentary respite from a hectic year when we all look into our fellow humans eyes and say we are thankful they are with us. Life is often too short so this year, as every year we should make an effort to be thankful for all we have.

We at J and L wish all a wonderful Thanksgiving no matter what country you call home..

Sunday, November 5, 2017

When California Meets Florida

When California meets Florida, the comparisons are inevitable. Both have Disney, Universal, and miles and miles of beach, and let us not forget, oranges. But exactly how does Southern California differ from Southern Florida? As a left-coast resident, the prospect of traveling to Florida, even if it were for business, was intriguing. The southeast of this great nation has not yet made it on to our travel list. So, boarding the flight and heading out to an international conference in Orlando, J and L set out to discover what all the fuss was about.

Mountain lion -- just chillin in the warm California sun
As the plane touched ground in Orlando, a fellow passenger and native Floridian remarked, "Welcome to Florida, where everything bites."

Not exactly the kind of warm welcome one might anticipate. Everything bites? Oh yes, mosquitoes, alligators, and the endangered Florida panther.

The panther, named the state animal in 1982 doesn't roar (or should we call it a scream) like it's California cougar cousin, the mountain lion. The California indigenous mountain lions can be found in many places in the state of California and beyond, and despite the fact that an adult male can weigh 200 pounds, with a body length of fifty-four inches AND a three foot long tail, they are elusive and secretive creatures, seldom seen by its human neighbors. And thank goodness! They can jump 18 feet into the air from a sitting position and take down a deer or elk every week or two. With plenty to eat, the mountain lion population is thriving.
This Floridian looks a little angry...
On the other hand, the Florida panther is endangered.  It emits distinctive sounds including whistles, chirps, growls, hisses and purrs, reminding us that this deadly creature is related to that innocent-looking house-cat reading over your shoulder. Slimmer than it's California cousin, males can average about 160 pounds, but can be over seven feet long. That body style allows the panther to jump fifteen feet into the air and forty feet horizontally. Suddenly a thought entered my mind --  perhaps I should stay on the plane.

We were assured that this endangered critter generally did not attend conferences; we were safe.

So, off to do business, and see what else Florida had to offer. Off in a rental car we came across our first (of many) toll roads. There are few toll roads in Southern California, but a lot a of traffic congestion. Very little congestion in Florida, but you literally have to pay for it. Maybe that's not a bad a trade-off.

And scenic? Residing in Southern California's High Desert region, we haven't seen so much green since visiting Ireland a few summers back. And water? No apparent drought here. Whereas Southern California is on nearly permanent water restriction, and the local municipalities will even pay you to quit watering your lawn, green things abound in Florida. Consider the Mojave Desert and Death Valley versus the Everglades, the 'River of Grass.' Water everywhere. Well, they did just have that hurricane. Hmmm. We have earthquakes and fires. Mother Nature does have her way of keeping us humble.

But it is the culture of Southern Florida which really caught our attention during this brief visit. There is a distinct tropical aura, more reminiscent of the Caribbean or Hawaii, than of California. Which makes perfect sense when you think about it. Los Angeles is more subtropical than tropical, situated at approximately 34 degrees north latitude, compared with Orlando at 28 degrees north. The cultural feel is that of a mix of Northeastern US, Canadian and European transplants. Even the Latin feel is different: Cuban and Puerto Rican rather than Mexican in influence. Couldn't say from such a brief visit, but there seems to be a general feeling of a slower pace than Southern California. Perhaps because Florida remains a mecca for retirees, with a median age of 42, eleven years older than that of California. No rat race here.

Florida's version of a screening room
With beautiful weather most of the year, residents like to spend a lot of time outdoors. Californians may dine, or sip a glass of Napa Valley wine on their back porch, year round. Floridians may have to employ a few safety precautions to enjoy these year-round outdoor pleasures. Case in point, the Florida porch -- keeping your children and pets safe from alligators and mosquitoes. Smart idea, if you want to enjoy your Florida orange juice in peace. Remember, humans aren't the only creatures which thrive in warm weather.

Florida definitely has California beat when it comes to cost of living, taxes, and even golf (California comes in third behind Florida in the ranking of best courses). No wonder retirees love this place. Instead of sunscreen though, Florida golfing requires a generous dose of repellent. And do not even think about rescuing your errant ball from the water hazards. Those alligators aren't too quick on land, but they own the water.

Both coasts have always attracted tourists from around the world since the 16th century Spanish explorers "discovered"  the areas (Native American residents notwithstanding). California has flown the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the US, becoming the 31st state in 1850 after gold was discovered. Florida became the 27th state five years earlier, after flying both the Spanish and British standards.

Clearly, SoCal and SoFla seem to attract dreamers from around the world -- very cosmopolitan. While crime, natural disasters, drugs plague these beautiful areas to a similar degree, families live and play with relative abandon at the attractions and beaches alike. There exists in both the Golden State and the Sunshine State, a general feeling that life is about as good as the weather. What more could you ask for?

About those beaches though...

California has the waves, the dramatic coastlines, whale watching, and...well, the occasional shark.

Florida has warmer water, two coastlines (Atlantic and Gulf), and...yes, there are sharks here, too. And manatees. There is, however, no wet suit required, and fortunately, the alligators don't surf.

And this guy's just a baby....
So, if you can handle the humidity....get out there and enjoy a bit of Florida sunshine.

Just remember though:  everything bites.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Vlad's Birthplace

The fortified town of Sighisoara
Sighisoara is an idyllic city, but is also the birthplace of a man was who born to be remembered for his gruesome atrocities against humanity. Then again, if you ask the folks from Romania, the vast majority with whom we spoke believe this very same man is a national hero. To the Romanians, Vlad Dracula saved Europe from the invading Ottoman Empire. Though he may have left a trail of death wherever he and his army marched across the country, one fact remains steadfast - the Turks left Europe broken after encountering what this man was capable of.

Am I hero or monster? Choose your answer very carefully!
He didn't earn the nickname from those very same Turks as Vlad the Impaler (Tepes) randomly. No, this Prince of Wallachia used unimaginable tortures on his enemies, both foreign and domestic. He was cruel, there is no doubt, but 15th century Europe was cruel with empires fighting each other constantly, family murdering family to take the throne, invading armies butchering everyone and everything that they came across. At that time, life was cheap.

Very cheap.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's start with a cute little story of a boy being born in the small village of Sighisoara.

In the wooded lands known as Transylvania, centrally located in Romania bordered, by the Carpathian Mountains, Vlad's father, Vlad II had lived in a small three story home in the fortified town of Sighisoara. He had been destined to rule Wallachia but had to leave and live in a brief exile in Transylvania when his half-brother, Alexander I Aldea invaded Wallachia and dethroned Dan II.

Vlad II - Vlad III's father

Fortified entrance for Sighisoara

View from the top of the original Sighisoara
Seems complicated? During the fifteenth century in Europe politics were nothing if not confusing - trying to keep up with who killed who for the throne, (and there were many thrones), is enough to drive a researcher batty.

Get it? 'Batty' and we are writing about Transylvania and vampires - well not vampires exactly, but the region from which Bram Stoker got the idea for his infamous vampire tale. Clever!

Laureen getting ready to visit Vlad III
So, the Dracul family's patriarch, Vlad II, had become a member of the Order of the Dragon in 1431. He was inducted by Sigismund of Luxembourg, while living in Sighisoara awaiting when the moment that the time would be right for Dracul II (as he came to be known) to move back to Wallachia and regain his throne.

The house were Vlad III was born...

Campy but fun - Dracula trying to make a meal of John.

But this isn't about Dracul II. Rather it is about a little boy born into a family with a mother, perhaps Dracul II's wife, Cneajna - a daughter of Alexander I of Moldavia - or a mistress, along with his older brother Mircea. Dracul II's last male child, Radu wouldn't be born until around 1439. So, the Vlad Dracula we know from countless tales and films started life like any other person who was born into royalty.

He was brought up to read, write, master horsemanship, learn warrior skills, and perhaps a few other skills that would make him a delight in any royal court.
Little Vlad used to run through these streets as a young boy...
But then again, little Vlad III did grow up to be something the world had never seen before.

A monster or a hero, depending on your perspective.

And this is the question we pondered during our trip to Romania. Who was this person? This Vlad III - was he the hero who kept Europe safe from the Ottoman Empire? Or just a psychopath who enjoyed killing for killing sake?

If a monster - why all the plaques and statues of him throughout so much of Romania?
Doing research for a new novel - J mentioned that one thing he learned from the three weeks traveling Romania is that he knows less than he did before the trip. There are so many back alleys and plot twists to understanding who this person made famous, or infamous, by the Irish writer Stoker that it almost defies comprehension.

A store owner in a cobbled narrow street of Sighisoara shared that to her and most Romanians, Vlad III - Vlad the Impaler was a national hero. She said that if I were to write his story, please let the world know he was a good man, a true hero, and of course, not a vampire. Though she did admit his way of restoring order in a difficult time may have seem cruel. She said, "He was a cruel leader for a cruel time." We must judge individuals by the time in which they live. Very wise, these Roma.

The tourist information administrator, the one dissenting voice with whom J and L spoke in our travels, stated that she believed Vlad was nothing but evil. "I've never heard anyone say he was a good man."

J stated that he never said Vlad III was a good man but perhaps a hero.

"I've never heard that either," the woman followed up.

Pretty women love the bad boys - don't they?
Whatever her beliefs were, there is one thing that is certain about Vlad III - the Dracula in Stoker's novel - he is good for business. The main portion of Romania's tourists come for one thing and one thing only - Dracula.

Many shops depend on the myth or reality of Dracula - Vlad III
Traveling the highways and byways of Romania, one can get a certain feeling that the population - a large part of the population believes Vlad III is a hero but there are those who feel the methods he used to control the population were beyond cruel and bordered evil.
Was this gargoyle in Sighisoara a harbinger for of the future reign of Vlad III?
Of course, it is not these researchers purview to decide on how people should feel but just to simply write stories backed by research and exploration.

Then again, this is the telling of a young boy being born in 1431 in a small but important fortified town in Transylvania.
Dude, who are really? And don't impale me for being impudent?