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Friday
Jan242014

Being Mindful in Your Writing or How to Win in Tennis

photo by Didier SibourgNowadays, you hear many people talking about being mindful or being in a state of mindfulness. But what does that actually mean? The concept of being mindful finds its origins in Buddhist mindfulness (one of the seven factors of enlightenment) but mindfulness has been also used in many other religions. More recently, Jon Kabat-Zinn made the concept popular in the West when he combined Buddhist mindfulness concepts with Western Medicine in his Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical Center.

To me, without getting into the religious or psychological aspects of mindfulness, being mindful means being conscious or aware of things with a present, immediate awareness of your thoughts or actions. For example, I play tennis. When I play well, I realize that I am conscious of my every shot, how I want to hit it and where I want it to go. But that stems not from over thinking or over analyzing, but just being in the moment, being present, being aware of what is going on everywhere on the court. When I am present in my mind and in my body, I find that I make the shots that are the ones that need to be made.

When I am not being mindful, I find that all I am doing is hitting the ball back without any conscious thought to where, when or how. You certainly can still be successful and win with just getting the ball back, but there is a distinct difference in the play and how it feels. There is a different sense of the flow of the game when not being present, more like being in chunks as opposed to flowing effortlessly from one point, one shot to another. And I can tell you that I enjoy the feeling of being in every point as opposed to the feeling of watching from the side-lines (even though I am the one playing on the court)!

Mindfulness can also be applied to writing, of knowing where you want to go with your words, the message you want to convey, how you want to say it and the feeling your want your readers to have. Certainly, like in tennis, there will be times when you sit down and can’t think of what to write, or don’t have a flow so, in a sense, you are ‘just getting the ball back’. And again, like in tennis, you can still end up with some decent writing even without being mindful of what you are writing. But that is not the optimum way to write.

Being in a state of effortless flow, being present and in the moment, not worrying about spelling or grammar or is this the perfect word or should this sentence go next or how should I say this, is where I believe inspiration happens. For most writers, it is not easy. It will take practice to get into the mindfulness of writing. You will find yourself getting caught up into worrying about this or that. But if you can practice being mindful, being present, being in the moment, letting go of over thinking and just writing, you will change your writing from watching on the side-lines to being in every point. Get in the habit of letting go and being mindful when you write.

 

When authors work with Our Little Books to publish their book, part of the publishing package includes having a writing coach and being mentored along the way. One of the coaching exercises is practicing being mindful while writing. If you would like to work with Our Little Books in getting your book out, please contact us!

Tuesday
Dec102013

Musings of a Cruise Virgin - Shop Till You Drop

After our ‘tour’ of St. Thomas via taxi, we got off to look around in downtown Charlotte Amalie, the capitol of the US Virgin Islands. Both Harriet and I were immediately turned off by what we saw…jewelry after jewelry store front. In just one block, there were at least 40 jewelry stores and it went on for several blocks! Each store had a barker out front to entice you into their store. I finally picked one store at random and stopped to talk with the barker. He, (like an excellent front man) got me into the store to talk to the owner who, of course, just happened to want to show me all his wares while he answered my questions.

Picture courtesy of Travel World NewsMy main question was how could any one store make a living since there were so many identical stores. What I gathered (without the owner saying this exactly) was that he would discount any piece in the shop up to 90%. So basically, all the prices in all the stores were highly inflated and it was up to your power of negotiation to get the best deal. But that same 'deal' on the same piece of jewelry could be different depending on which shop you went to.

I asked if he was successful and he said he just opened two more jewelry stores this year. I guess the answer was a resounding yes! Their patrons were 100% from the cruise ships as they would not even open if there wasn’t a ship in port. (We were the only ship in port and several places were closed, so apparently, it didn’t pay for them to open unless there was MORE than one cruise ship in port!)

The main street clearly put me on jewelry overload! So, unless you really wanted to shop at all the duty free jewelry shops, you had to go down secret side streets to find cool stores that had other things than jewelry. We found a store called SOS Antiques- which stood for Shipwrecker's Ocean Salvage. Now this was a REALLY cool store; a fascinating antique maritime gallery which specialized in nautical items. There were all manner of maps and charts, maritime prints, instruments such as sextants and barometers, cannons, swords, flintlock pistols and daggers, most of which dated from around the 16th century. Either the owners or other people would find the items from diving or washed up on the shores of the island and bring them in to be turned into cool pieces.

There were collections of treasure coins both local and from other shipwrecks around the world. I began to imagine the stories behind the items--- real-life pirates who once walked the streets and sailed the seas of St. Thomas, complete with wooden legs and eye patches. (Did you know that there was a real reason for the eye patches, and not just because all those pirates had lost their eyes? When they boarded a ship and went below where it was dark and gloomy, they’d switch the eye patch to the other eye so they could immediately see and not be beheaded while waiting for their eyes to adjust, and vice versa so they would not be blinded when they went back up on deck!) What was also fun to see in the store was that even the broken pieces of nautical antiques were creatively used. For example, I saw a broken piece of pottery that they had turned into a really cool looking lamp!

And here I succumbed to the lure of treasure when I found a piece of jewelry that sang to me. It was a delicate bracelet made of silver and Larimar. It had a broken clasp and the saleswoman took it into the back room to get fixed. Shortly thereafter, out of the back room came my now fixed bracelet carried by this little old jeweler complete with lamp/magnifier head gear, so I knew that this was not a cheap piece from China. Of course, never having heard of Larimar before I had to learn all about it and the sales woman was very accommodating in telling me Larimar’s history.

In 1916, a Father Miguel Domingo Fuertes Loren found some blue gems along the beach in the Dominican Republic and requested permission to mine the stone. He was denied his permit and nothing more was heard about these gems until 1974 when a Dominican and a Peace Corps volunteer found a piece of this blue stone on the shoreline. As I’ve discussed from the history posts of the other islands, the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic were the Taino. The Taino called the gems, Blue Stone, because they believed the stone came from the beautiful blue sea. Based on this, the Dominican then named the stone for his daughter, Larissa, and the Spanish word for sea, ‘mar’ based on the beautiful, clear blue Caribbean waters and thus, Larimar was named.

Larimar has many healing attributes associated with it. It represents peace and clarity and Healers use it as a calming stone for Earth healing, as well as an aid in communication and the expression of emotions. Larimar picks up our needs and quickly aligns with our own energy field. It is associated with the crown, heart, third eye and throat chakras, which cleanse emotional blocks resulting in peaceful and positive emotions while facilitating inner wisdom and outer manifestation. Finally it teaches respect, love and nurturing, soothing and uplifting hurt, fear, and depression with love.

Larimar also has a direct connection to the lost island of Atlantis. Edgar Cayce predicted that on one of the Caribbean islands, (being what he believed was left of Atlantis), a blue stone of Atlantean origin would be found with extraordinary healing attributes. So not only is Larimar used in healings but also to access the lost knowledge of Atlantis. Finally, Larimar is often times called the Dolphin Stone. Dolphins are frequently associated with Atlantis and Larimar was used as a tool to enhance communication with them. What’s fascinating is that Larimar often shows patterns with dolphins, angels, and Greek columns, although my stones in my bracelets are small enough that I can only pick out a Dolphin eye here and there.

So I am very happy with my shopping! I have a beautiful Larimar bracelet. I learned about a brand new gem. I am being soothed by this gem and I’m connected to the lost city of Atlantis! Now, how cool is that?

Saturday
Nov162013

Musings of a Cruise Virgin - Love Me Some Paella

As you can tell by several of my posts, I enjoy all aspects of food, including of course eating but also cooking. On each ship in the Holland America line there is a Culinary Arts Center, presented by Food & Wine Magazine. Basically, it is a “world class show kitchen at sea” featuring a theater-style venue with two large video screens and a large cooking display counter. It looks like those elaborate show kitchens used by celebrity chefs on television cooking programs. Of all the on-board daily activities, I probably attended more cooking shows than any other type of activity.

When you show up at the theater, you get a recipe card which has the dish being cooked that day and the recipe, so not only can you follow along, but also take it home so you can try what you watched. Like most chefs, they don't always follow their recipes exactly, so my recipe cards are filled with notes! The cooking demonstrations I attended focused on our sailing region so the shows brought the local Caribbean flavors on board.

Dave, one of the ship's chefs, did a couple of shows. He looked about 13, but you could clearly tell he knew what he was doing and he said one thing which I totally agree with: you 'eat with your eyes first'! So many people don't realize that presentation is so important. He also wore one of those tall chef hats that was almost as tall as he was. From Dave, I learned how to make Caribbean type foods: Jamaican Jerk Pork Tenderloin with Gingered BBQ Drizzle; Caribbean Jerk Grouper; Sautéed Scallops with Mango Salsa; and Spicy Pineapple Salsa and Cinnamon-Sugar Tortilla Triangles.

The ship also had guest chefs who come aboard on all the cruises to give classes. On our cruise our guest chefs were Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough who were an absolute kick. Not only were they business partners but life partners as well, so there was a lot of teasing and joking going on during the cooking. Bruce is the chef and Mark is the writer.

They are contributing Editors to Eating Well Magazine, creators of the Ultimate Cookbook Series and are one of the most published food writing teams in North America. Some of their titles include Ham: An Obsession with the Hind Quarter, a James Beard Award nominee in 2011, and The Ultimate Ice Cream Book, plus ten more popular titles. They are also featured monthly columnists on weightwatchers.com, and regular contributors to Cooking Light, Fine Cooking, The Washington Post, Relish, and many other national publications.

After listening to Bruce and Mark have fun while teaching us how to cook Buckwheat and Cashew Burgers, Quinoa and Black Bean Burgers, and Falafel Burgers with Almond Harissa, I jumped at the chance to be part of a hands-on cooking class with them. So one day, myself and 14 other wanna-be chefs met to make Paella.

Now, Paella is from Spain and is not necessarily Caribbean. However I bet you anything that you could put in Caribbean ingredients and still call it Paella. Traditionally, there are 3 different types: meat (chicken, rabbit, duck, snails, sausage), white rice, green vegetables, beans and seasoning; seafood (clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, lobster) white rice, peas, seasoning; and mixed (meat and seafood), white rice, vegetables and seasonings. But my sense was that Paella could be made with anything you wanted to put in there, and actually that's what we did.

We all broke up into 3 teams of 5 people each. In the picture, you can see Dave with his white hat in the back ground. Bruce is the chef on the left with the light halo, and Mark is in the middle. The kitchen was pretty neat, with 3 cooking stations. The ship supplied all the ingredients, so we could choose any veggies, meats, seafood or spices that, as a team, we wanted to work with.

As it turned out, each team chose something different and it ended up that we did all 3 different styles of Paella (with some cross over), so it worked out perfectly. Ours was a dark, rich meat base with bacon, duck, sausage and scallops. Another one was seafood based with lobster, clams, shrimp and mussels. The third was sort of a mixture of both meat and seafood. Bruce and Mark would wander between the teams and throw out suggestions, often times just the opposite of what the other had just said! Here's how we made our Paella:

Step 1: Heat 4 cups broth, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon saffron in a covered, medium saucepan just until warm, not boiling;

Step 2: Brown the duck, sausage and bacon in 2 Tbs olive oil in a 13-inch Paella pan or 14-inch cast-iron skillet; transfer to a plate and pour off all but 2 Tbs fat.

Step 3: Add about 1 1/2 chopped aromatics and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3 minutes. We used celery, onions, and carrots.

Step 4: Pour in 1 cup wine, raise the heat to medium-high, and boil until the amount of liquid in the pan has been reduced by half, perhaps 3 or 4 minutes.

Step 5: Add up to 2 Tbs minced herbs, dried spices, as well as 2 tsp smoked paprika, minced garlic cloves and shallots. We used rosemary, thyme, smoked paprika (more than 2 tsp- probably 2 Tbs) and the garlic and shallots.

Step 6: Pour 1 3/4 cups canned diced tomatoes and 1/2 cup fresh shelled or frozen peas or other quick-cooking vegetable before bring to a simmer. (We omitted the peas but the two other teams used them).

Step 7: Stir in 2 cups Arborio or Valencia medium-grain rice until translucent and most of the liquid has been absorbed and the grains have turned translucent except for a little white kernel at one end.

 

 

 

 

Step 8: Pour in the warm broth mixture, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer very slowly for 10 minutes.

Step 9: Tuck the browned meat, up to 2 lbs thick-fleshed fish or shellfish, and up to 2 lbs clams or mussels into the simmering rice. We decorated with red bell pepper, rosemary and garlic cloves. Place in the oven and bake until the meat is the proper internal temperature, the mollusks are open, and the rice is tender, about 15 minutes.

Because of time (we were going to get to eat our food, so we couldn't take the 15-20 minutes to cook in a regular oven), the 3 Paellas were taken into the main kitchen rather than being in the Culinary Arts Center ovens. The main kitchen ovens were able to bake at 650 degrees, so it got cooked in a flash!

Unfortunately, we didn't get to make the 'treat' of Paella. The treat is the socarrat, which is a layer of crusty, toasted rice at the bottom of the pan. With the oven method we used, (normal Paella would be cooked over an open fire outside), you don't get the socarrat, and again, because of time, we couldn't bring the pans back and use the stove to cook it until the rice on the pan's bottom starts to pop and sizzle and forms the socarrat.

However, we did get to eat it! We all went to Pinnacle Grill, one of the fancy dining rooms. We sat drinking wine and chatting until our 3 pots arrived. Wow, did they smell good! Of course, ours was the best... deep rich brown color and smoky taste from the paprica, sausage and duck. However, the much lighter color and taste of the seafood Paella was also excellent, and the mixed one combined the best of the both of ours. I definitely ate too much tasting all 3. We were eventually kicked out of the dining room since they were expecting dinner diners to show any minute.

Definitely, a fun way to spend a couple of hours!

 

Friday
Nov152013

Musings of a Cruise Virgin - Standing on the Corner, Watching All the Cats Go By...

One thing that no one bothered to mention anywhere, was the number of cats hanging out in Old San Juan. There are. Hundreds. They are. Everywhere. It seems there is one or more on or under every car, behind every bush, in the middle of every street, living in the rocks along Paseo del Morro or just hanging out on the street corner, smoking cigarettes and watching the girls go by.

I first noticed them when I was looking down on the Paseo del Morro, the path that runs along the waterfront with the city wall on the other side. I was watching a runner and wondering how I could get down to the path when these two cats appeared in front of him. They had long legs and looked huge. I thought actually they were bobcats at first, but they had long tails so I knew they weren't. I watched in anticipation to see what would happen when runner met cats, and much to my disappointment, nothing happened as the runner ran right between both cats. No blood. No gore. Apparently then, they were just someone's pet cats. 

But then I really looked and I could see dozens of cats along the long stretch of pathway. They were in among the rocks lining the shore, on the path, under trees. I realized these were not someone's pet cats, but a whole bunch of feral cats that must live down by the water. Now I really wanted to get down to the path, if for no other reason than just to see the cats!

Despite being what appeared to be feral cats, I could approach and pat any one of them which I did numerous times. Some would even follow me for a while on my walk. My understanding of feral cats is that that don't like humans and are scared of them. Certainly, these cats did not appear afraid. I did some research (because no one believed me when I told them that I had seen a couple hundred cats along my walk) and I am glad to report that I am not crazy, and apparently there may be even twice that number!

There are actually 4 colonies of cats that live in Old San Juan down among the rocks along the water front and all around Old San Juan. Apparently, these are said to be the descendants from the original cats that arrived on the ships when the first Spanish settlers came to the island. At that time, they used them to control the rat population on board the ships and at a new colony. I guess it was working because I did see a couple hundred cats, but I didn't see one rat!

The cats are taken care of by an organization, Save a Gato, that does TNR (trap, neuter, release) so they get fed and kept under some control. However, I saw a couple of mom cats being followed by 6-8 kitties each so I guess they can't get them all neutered. For the kittens, Save a Gato will try to capture them to adopt out to families rather than enlarge the colonies.

No one paid them much heed. And the cats didn't pay anyone much heed back. I had to laugh when I got back from my explorations and looked at some of my pictures. Many of them also included a cat or two that I hadn't even noticed!

 

 

 

 

 

Isn't this what traveling is all about? History, architecture, art, culture, an occasional surprise and... cats!

Thursday
Nov142013

Musings of a Cruise Virgin - Hometown Boys Roberto Clemente, Roberto Alomar and Orlando Cepeda

What do baseball Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Alomar all have in common? They all hail from San Juan, Puerto Rico, our next Port of Call. There were several excursions you could take, but I just wanted to walk and explore Old San Juan on foot rather than from a bus. I love getting the 'feel' of the history of a place which can be best done with boots on the ground. I'm very glad I did because I really enjoyed walking around old San Juan getting in touch with its amazing history.

Currently, San Juan is the capital of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States. Since 1917, Puerto Ricans have been considered citizens of the United States (although they don't get to vote unless they actually live in the US). They pay into the Social Security system and can serve in the military. Several times in the past, Puerto Rico has tried to become the 51st state but without success. However, in 2012 for the first time, a majority of Puerto Ricans wanted Puerto Rico to become a state. In mid-2013, the Residential Commissioner introduced a bill in the US Congress to set forth the process for Puerto Rico to be admitted as a state of the Union.

Puerto Rico's history is fascinating for such a small island. Why was this small island located in the Atlantic Ocean so important and why did everyone want a piece of the island? Simply because of its strategic location between Europe and the Americas. Europe is about 4000 miles to the east and the Americas (North and South) were about 2000 miles west and 500 miles south.

Map courtesy of www.worldatlas.com

Ships from Europe sailed south along Africa then caught winds and currents that carried them directly past Puerto Rico. Since Puerto Rico was the first large island with fresh water and an excellent harbor that ships encountered when sailing from Europe, the country that controlled Puerto Rico and San Juan's harbor, had a huge advantage in obtaining the riches from what was then, the new Americas.

So Puerto Rico became known as the gateway or entrance to the new world. If you were a nation that could control this 'front door' to the Caribbean, control the only really safe harbor behind strong fortifications and send warships out to control access to the Caribbean Sea and the rest of the New World, you would be king of the hill.

Like Grand Turk, the Taino were the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. However Spain was the first European country to get to Puerto Rico and they built their first settlement in 1508. They then had to fight for 400 years to keep it as the British, French, and Dutch all fought with each other and the Spanish for control. By the end of the 1500's, Spain, with the financial backing of the Treasury of Mexico, started construction of el Morro, a fort and fortifications that were designed to guard the entrance to the harbor and San Juan Bay, defend San Juan from all enemies and to protect the transports of gold and silver from the New World to Europe.

After a unsuccessful attack by Sir Francis Drake to gain control of the city in 1595, the Earl of Cumberland did manage to land and lay siege to the city a few years later. However, he eventually was forced to give up after several months because of sickness. In 1625, the city was sacked by the Dutch, but they were unable to take el Morro even after they burned the city. A couple of years later, in 1630, the governor ordered construction of city walls to connect to el Morro and to surround the city. Almost 150 years later, another attack by the British was again foiled by el Morro and the city walls. Finally, the Spanish ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898 by signing the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Spanish-American war.

When I left the boat (and passed all the slick souvenir stands set up for the people coming off the ship), I headed for Old San Juan because I wanted to check out the the walls and fortresses talked about in San Juan's history. I was not disappointed. I had fun walking the thick outer walls (some up to 18 feet thick) as I wound around from castle to fortress and through the walled old city.

 

 

 

 

 

There was a great cemetery, Cementerio Santa Maria Magdalena De Pazzis, in the shadow of the fortress, à la New Orleans style where everyone seemed to be buried above ground. It was located between el Morro and the rocky cliffs above the Atlantic and is apparently considered one of the most picturesque of burial grounds anywhere. I would have to agree! The tombstones and markers were all elaborately designed and the circular neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalen dated back to the late 19th century.

As I wound my way around the old city, I stopped to see the old prison which was pretty neat. I've always like cool doorways but I decided that I really liked walls as well and San Juan certainly had cool walls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Juan is the largest home-based cruise port in the world so it is set up for cruises. In fact, as I looked back to the harbor I could see our ship which stood out among the old buildings. For me, one of the few negatives about cruising is that you are in town for such a little time that it is really hard to get the 'flavor' of any place. When I travel, I want to sit and talk to the local populace, to taste the local foods, to really get to know people. That all takes time which is not something you have when you go ashore for just a few hours.

I looked at some of the houses and wondered what it would be like to live and work in San Juan. I really wanted to spend six months just soaking up what San Juan had to offer. I didn't make it to the new part of town, but I probably would choose to live in Old Town anyway, just for its flavor. There were cobblestone streets which interestingly enough, were cast from iron slag, (the waste from iron smelting) that was brought as ballast in the bottoms of European merchant ships in the 1700s. They were first used as road pavers in 1784.

One of the other things I loved was that all the houses were painted really bright colors. In California where I live, there is a Puerto Rican restaurant called Soul Food. When they opened, they painted the entire building a very bright green which caused a HUGE uproar from neighbors! I love Soul Food's food and now, having been in San Juan, I know why they painted their building bright green. It seems all the buildings in San Juan were painted some bright color.

 

I enjoyed the statues around Old San Juan, many of which had religious overtones from earlier times. The more modern (1991) Raices Fountain, designed by the architect Miguel A. Carlo and found at the end of La Princessa Promenade, was particularly impressive.

 

"This group of sculptures symbolizes the roots that gave birth to Puerto Rico’s cultural heritage.The island of Puerto Rico sails through the waves like a ship that has at its bow a steed emerging from the sea with a strong and vigorous pace but planted on terra firma, and astride its flanks, a youth who scans the horizon of indelibly beautiful dawns and sunsets.

Astern, two dolphins stylishly cut through the waters in friendship, playful and intelligent with an instinct for kindliness and gentleness depicting the Puerto Rican character.

They are joined by a female figure at the island’s portal, from which incoming ships can be sighted, and from whence she can greet with garlands and delicacies those who come from distant seas and foreign lands.

To the left, in what could be called the main spot on board, the family, the center of any societal group.

To the right, the native “jibaro” deeply rooted in the land with his rhythm and his folklore and the woman, who dances to the beat of the music.

In the middle of the vessel as if it was the main mast an enraged goddess – the central figure – emerges, howling to the four winds, as if trying to soar toward the cerulean vault seeking the stars and symbolizing the freedom of the Puerto Rican people."

That description of the Raices Fountain 'bout sums it up for what I could see in my very short time in San Juan. All in all, it was an excellent explore around. I returned back to the ship tired (lots of hills) but full of San Juan.