Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wonderful Canadian Strawberry Milkshake Oreos!

Last summer, traveling in New Brunswick, CA we ran across Strawberry Milkshake Oreos. Oreos in Canada are manufactured by Christie, which is a brand name of Kraft Canada. (And no, I'm not being paid to post this).

For some reason, when I eat the Canadian equivalents of U.S. brands, I always like the Canadian versions better. This includes Special K Cereal, which has changed here in the States but is like what I remember from my childhood in Canada. Also Cadbury bars, which are not the same as the Hershey (sorry, Hershey) versions sold here in the states. And finally, potato chips. Where else can you buy potato chip flavors such as Roasted Chicken and Gravy, Ketchup (a long time favorite of mine), and Curry?

Well, last year, in a store in Saint John, New Brunswick, we hit the jackpot. Christie Strawberry Milkshake Oreos! What a match made in heaven. Crispy (probably thanks to the trans fats it had-yum!) and...well, I am no fan of artificial flavor, but these were Maximum Strawberry Bliss. I only bought one package. I should have purchased more. Well such are the pleasant surprises of travel. Fast forward 9 months....

Saturday we were shopping. In fact, I had just purchased several packages of Newman-O's at a very good price. Went into our local supermarket to pick up something for a BBQ and there they were....I blinked and the mirage did not disappear.

Strawberry Milkshake Oreos!

I bought one package. Brought it home. Waited until after supper. Opened the package.


And the best part? We looked at the label and they were made in....Canada.

Nabisco, thank you thank you thank you. But please reconsider on one thing. These are marked "Limited Edition". Please say it ain't so.

What is the Smell of April?

We are at the height of spring right now and I do mean height. Here in the Triple Cities of upstate NY, spring is an all or nothing affair-a two week production of everything blooming and then...sometimes back to winter or almost-spring. After 4 record high days in a row and one almost record high day, every flower in sight is in a race to bloom and then be gone. Daffodils, tulips, forsythia, weeping cherry, crab apple, hyacinth, bleeding hearts, primroses, even early azaleas.

Last Saturday, spouse and I were exercise walking on the Vestal Rail Trail to enjoy the show. This is a very popular walking spot in our area - you can find out more at

I smelled something sweet and couldn't identify it. I could smell it on a couple of places on the trail. I wasn't sure it was a flowering tree because I had never smelled anything quite like that before.

Spouse remarked "have you ever noticed that April doesn't smell like June?" Not that this comment helped me out any.

That got me to thinking, though. Childhood memories are sometimes the strongest, especially as you grow older.

My childhood memory of the smell of April isn't one of flowers at all.

Every April, growing up in the Bronx, it would rain. And after every rain, torrents (herds? tons? what is a lot of earthworms called?) of earthworms would emerge, crawl onto the sidewalk, and die there. I'd be walking to school and try so hard not to step on them.

It is the smell of right-after-rain-in-early-1960's-Bronx that, to me, smells like April.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Almost Time for Community Gardening

For about 18 years, my spouse has rented two community gardening plots. First, we lived in a rental, and later we bought a house (it was supposed to be temporary,until we could afford something better) with a tiny yard-and are still here 22 years later.

Having this community garden has allowed us the freedom to grow our own food for a minimal rental fee. Good food, all natural (we don't spray but we have been known to use Miracle Grow in addition to bagged manure.) rewards and nourishes us. In return for the fee, the garden is plowed under each spring and each fall, and we can use water. This particular garden allows us to rent the same spots each year. We have taken tons (literally, I mean) of rocks out of there, and have enriched the soil with various organic matter. Each year the soil becomes better and better. Not bad for a plot that used to be part of an Interstate rest stop.

What do we grow? It varies. There are the tried and true veggies: onions (which do fantastic for us): tomatoes (some heirloom, long before heirloom became fashionable), hot peppers, summer squash, Swiss chard, snap peas, green beans, carrots. There are the veggies we used to grow but for one reason or another we have given up on: potatoes (again, including heirlooms), beets, dried beans. There are the veggies we'd like to grow but somehow they don't like us: spinach, cucumbers. And finally, the experiments. We've grown gourds (did well, but how many gourds can 2 people use to decorate with?), sweet potatoes (guess some people can grow these in our climate-not us, cantaloupe (ditto), ornamental corn, even-one year, peanuts.

Who does community gardening attract? Well, everyone. We have gardening neighbors from all over the world. A lot of them, though not all, are middle aged or older. Some grow "rows" for CHOW, our local food pantry. I expect with the economy, there may be fewer unplanted plots, or planted and then abandoned plots, this year.

Spouse does about 95% of the work, as vehicles rush past nearby on the interstate. He's been checking daily to see if the gardens have been plowed yet. That's the one thing we can complain about, that the grounds aren't plowed early enough to really grow some early things-our peas, for example, are always started too late.

Have to admit I am more into flowers, which I do in our front yard. The groundhogs rule our neighborhood though so maybe one of these days I'll try planting some flowers at the community garden, if spouse doesn't grumble too much.

If you don't have a yard, or live in an apartment-this site can help point you to your local community garden:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Eternal Sunsets And Eternal Sunshine

A little plug for my favorite website: www.eternalsunset.net

The premise is simple: the site links to various web cams, all over the world. When the sun is ready to set the website is displayed in a little "thumbnail". Many, but not all, permit you to go to the website itself. No ads. What a simple concept, yet oh so addicting.

It isn't just the sunset, but learning about places all over the world.

In turn, there are two sites that I visit again and again. One is a web cam at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks: http://climate.gi.alaska.edu/
It's been a lifelong dream to see the midnight sun, and last year I did. On the webcam, that is.

On the weather statistics page, the site displays the daily sunrise and sunset times and the length of the day.

Right now the snow is finally melting. Soon, I will wake up at 6am and find that the web cam (4 hours behind us) is showing daylight. The first time I saw that, realizing I waw seeing sunshine at 2am, it gave me goosebumps.

One day I will be there in person.

The other site is on an island off the coast of Antarctica. For part of the year you can see the penguins. You see them nest, and the chicks grow. This is one of the milder parts of Antarctica, I suspect. There is a German research station on this island, which is Chilean territory, called Bernardo O'Higgins. Think that's a funny name? Look it up and learn something interesting about the history of Chile.
Here's the website for the "Penguin Cam".

This camera even has its "own" blog, which I read using Babelfish. This is a free translation service and the translations are...well, they can be hilarious. http://babelfish.yahoo.com

Right now it is fall at Bernardo O'Higgins, and I can only view the webcam on weekends.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Auto Train as Spiritual Journey Last of Three Parts

In 2006, it had been 30 years since I last set foot in Florida.

Now it was time to go back. How much had things changed since I lived in Tampa between 1974 and 1976?

I can remember a lot about what is now called "old Florida" from three visits between 1966 and 1972. I can remember Busch Gardens in Tampa when it was a free brewery tour followed by a free trained parrot show. I can remember Disney World when it first opened (my first visit was 10 months, I believe, after its opening.) and you paid separately for rides.

I can remember riding one of those rides, It's a Small World, when it was at the NY Worlds Fair. In fact, it was part of Disneyworld when the park opened and still operates today: http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/magic-kingdom/attractions/its-a-small-world/

So how did I prepare for this nostalgic visit? By researching it to death. I discovered various Tampa landmarks were gone-Mirabella's, Maas Brothers - and others had been bought up or had name changes - Robinson's. The Tampa skyline definitely was not what it was (or, more like it, what it was not) back in 1976. But absolutely nothing prepared me for what was to come.

And now...how to get to Florida?

I remember seeing ads for the Auto Train in the early 1970's when I still lived in NYC. I think, back then, it was private. I had always been curious about it. So we booked it, myself, my spouse and my 16 year old son-and our 1999 Altima.

Once the train pulled out of the station in Lorton, VA, there was the amazing sense of getting ready to complete a journey that had started in 1966. Thirty years earlier, an Atlantic Coast Line train had brought me home from Tampa, FL during an airplane strike. Once again was the sense of being one with the land we were passing through. The rocking, the train sounds, the whistle blowing. In Fredericksburg, VA we passed near Civil War battlefields we had visited years ago. At Quantico, we went right through the marine base and watched helicopters in flight. We passed over a beautiful lake and had close up views of the countryside. In Richmond, VA we passed so close to a highway we could see the faces of drivers heading in the opposite direction. It was so tempting to wave!

We passed people going home for their supper hour. In one town we passed right down the middle of their main street, with driveways backing right into the path of the train.

Even after darkness fell, and the hours passed, I would peer out the window every time lights and the start of whistleblowing, announced a town. We passed through southern North Carolina as I fell into a fitful sleep. The train seemed to speed up. When a train passed in another direction sometimes it seemed as though the train would rock right off its tracks. Finally, we pulled into a well lit station - our one stop, to change crews and do maintenance only: Florence, South Carolina. We stayed there a while, and then traveled on.

At some point I woke up in time to see a huge, well lit billboard for a Crab Shack on Tybee Island and didn't know if it was part of a dream or not.

The next thing I knew, it was 6am and time for breakfast. I had no idea where I was - it turned out to be southern Georgia.

As darkness made way, my son and I gazed upon a southern greenscape. What a feeling it was to share this with my son, pointing out the southern vegetation and other landmarks as we came across them. How awesome is it to share a piece of your life with your teenage son?

The sun was already so high in the sky as we crossed over the St. Mary's river into Florida, glaring down with the promise of a boiling August Florida day. After breakfast, we slowly wound through Jacksonville, FL. Jacksonville is the largest city (area wise) in the United States and the Auto Train gives a very good view, taking a good 20 minutes to pass through. To my delight I saw names I had not seen in 30 years...Kash and Karry, Winn-Dixie. They had survived the 31 years since I had been last in Jacksonville.

South of Jacksonville, we saw many shade houses, and the conductor announced these were fern growing areas. Certainly nothing you would have seen from the Interstate.

Finally we got to Sanford, and the circle started in 1966 was complete. Well, almost complete. We still needed to get to Tampa. We did end up in Tampa after visiting some other parts of Florida -some of which we knew from 30 years ago, and wanted to share with our son.

And no, we didn't visit any attractions in Orlando. I'm strictly (well, somewhat strictly) an Old Florida type of person.

But other topics call, and - well, this is a ramblin' blog. I'll write about my 2006 visit some more one day soon, I promise.

The Auto Train as Spiritual Journey Part 2

In July of 1966, my father and I flew down to Tampa, Florida to visit family. It was my first "real" trip outside of the general area around my native New York City and my first time on an airplane. We were supposed to fly back home except...the airlines went on strike. Every single one.

My Dad had to get home and get back to work. The way back home turned out to be on an Atlantic Coast Line train. Tampa to NYC. The ride was about 26 hours long.

I was familiar with the NYC subways and had even ridden the Long Island Railroad, but this was something different.

I can still remember portions of the journey 43 years later. A dinner (I remember how expensive the prices seemed), served on china. Many people carrying Atlantic Coast Line bags; how I wish we had bought one. At one point they told people the train was going to split, and if you weren't in the correct car you would end up going somewhere else. But most of all, the scenery stayed with me. When you are on a train, there is an intimacy totally unlike seeing the country from the Interstate. On a train you travel literally through people's back yards. Their everyday lives are yours to observe as you speed past. We traveled through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina. Rural poverty unfolded around me, almost close enough to touch. It wasn't the war on poverty from television. This was reality.

I don't remember much about the big cities, although I know we later traveled through Baltimore and Philadelphia. It's the countryside I remember. And the countryside that called to me the next time I would travel on a long distance train, 40 years later, back to Florida.

The Auto Train as Spiritual Journey Part 1

Now that spring has come, I can admit that this is actually my second spring of the year.

My first spring was in early March, when spouse and I took the Auto Train to Florida. And, unexpectedly, back again.

For those of you who live on the East Coast and do not enjoy flying, the Auto Train is an alternative. It is an Amtrak train that runs non stop (well, one stop, but not to take on passengers) between Lorton, VA (just south of DC) and Sanford, FL (just north of Orlando). If you are lucky you leave around 4pm (either way) and arrive the next day around 10. In another hour or so, you have your car and you are on your way.

Catches? A couple....
1. You must have a vehicle (doesn't have to be a car-can be a motorcycle, SUV or something large) to ride the Auto Train
2. Planning to sleep? Don't. Expect to be sleep-deprived the next day. Sleep is a bonus. But more on that later.

We have taken 3 trips on the Auto Train. There are some very nice features to it.

1. The sardine-can mentality of the airlines has not hit the Auto Train. You sit two across, and there is a ton of legroom. And, of course, you can move around.
2. Lots more ability to carry luggage on board. There is security, but it is very unobtrusive. To date, we haven't been picked for random searches. On the Lorton end, our car was "sniffed" without us having to get out, my guess was for explosives.
3. Lots of "included in the fare". Free coffee, free water, free fruit (apples, bananas) to munch on, free snacks (a mixture of pretzels, corn chips, cheeze doodles-if you want nutrition there is the fruit) free dinner, free continental breakfast. Free wine with dinner.
4. The crews are very customer service conscious. At least the ones we have traveled with. A lot of snowbirds travel this train and Amtrak is very service conscious on this train.
5. A big plus for us, with apologies to those traveling as families with children - separate cars for family and adults traveling without children. On our first trip, with a 16 year old, we were able to sit in the adult car.
6. There are electric outlets, so you can bring a laptop. A lot of people do that to amuse themselves. There isn't much entertainment, unless you count your fellow passengers as entertainment. Don't depend on the "movie" they advertise-it is in a lounge car, on a small TV screen.

In my next post, more on our travel experiences with the Auto Train, and how I renewed a love relationship with trains that started when I was a young teenager.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cardamon Plants and Farmstead Cheese

We made our trip to Ithaca today. Visited two of our favorite nurseries and one of the nicest Farmers Markets in the Northeast. The weather has warmed up, but it we have a cold front coming through later tonight. Spring in upstate NY-so short, so fragile.

First stop, the Ithaca Farmers Market. We haven't been there in a couple of years, partially because the parking situation has become so impossible. We were very pleased to see that a number of local meat producers have joined the lineup there. We bought some very nice cows milk cheese, locally made, from the Bronson Hill Cheesery booth ( http://www.fingerlakes-cheese.com). This is aged raw milk cheese based on Gouda. We sampled several unique types: cheese with mustard seeds, with fenugreek-but settled on a more traditional Gouda.

Next stop, The Plantsmen Nursery ( http://www.plantsmen.com.) The unique annuals I was after weren't ready yet but we bought some sedums. The workers there are very knowledgeable of their stock and several employees patiently spent time with us answering our questions.

Last stop was Bakers Acres ( http://www.bakersacres.net). In the greenhouse, I found our experimental find of the year - a cardamon plant (Elettaria cardamomum). Supposedly this is supposed to make a good houseplant in low light. The leaves are glossy, attractive and have a nice smell when rubbed. So I am going to try it as a houseplant. We'll never get the seeds and I'm not even sure we'd ever dare put it outdoors in this climate. In researching online, this plant may be mislabeled and actually be a kind of ginger but I don't care.

Last stop, Purity Ice Cream, an Ithaca landmark.

In May comes the annual Friends of the Library booksale - hopefully we can find an excuse to go back to Ithaca for that, and return to the Plantsmen to buy annuals-if I have any money left after the local orchid show next weekend, that is.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spring has come!

Toured my front yard tonight. The daffodils are almost ready to start blooming. Two hyacinth plants we had gotten from a friend (potted) and planted outside look like they have made it; one has a flowerbud. Most of our herbs made it. A succulent plant I never expected to survive the winter did. A golden sage has one tiny branch hanging on. Our small back yard is part shade to shade, so our more sunny front yard is where the action is.

Yesterday I received a fall bulbs catalog. They come earlier every year. But since this came before my daffodils bloomed maybe I can remember what I planted. Those catalogs might as well start selling chocolate too. They lure me with their siren song "So what that your yard is small. Buy more! See this unique color?" I saw some orange crocuses that called out to me but I will have to resist.

Since Saturday's forecast is for the 60's, time for a Road Trip! We enjoy going to a couple of nurseries in Ithaca. If not this weekend, maybe this weekend. One of the nurseries specializes in native and heirloom plants. The other just has a lot of unusual plants. Spring comes to Ithaca before it comes to us. So, it is so tempting to see the selection of plants that we can't plant just yet. But our time will come. Not soon enough. Hurry, spring!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Shooting in Binghamton

For years I've debated with myself about starting a blog.

The mass shooting in Binghamton April 3 helped make up my mind. I want this blog to be a type of journey through my life so I will start with my personal experience the morning and afternoon of April 3. I am not a native of what we call the "triple cities" in Upstate NY, but I love this area, and I still love it a week after this sad lightening bolt hit our community.

It was so weird coming home from work and seeing all of this on CNN.

I normally walk for exercise with a co-worker, and we usually leave for our walk around noon. We had nasty weather ready to come in and we decided to go to lunch early-about 10:55. We stepped out the door and it was already starting to rain. So we decided instead to walk down Court Street to Boscov's,

In approaching Boscovs, we saw a bunch of flashing lights further west, looking like they were parked in front of DSS Wondering what was going on, we went into Boscovs and left about 11:15. As soon as we walk out the door we notice a NYS trooper (it was not a Binghamton policeman, which was odd) setting out flares and they are starting to block Court St. off. There are a lot more flashing lights down the street. We start walking back east and there are two men, one talking on a cell phone - we hear "thank you for the update", we ask the men what is going on and the cell phone person says there was a shooting at the American Civic Association and hostages have been taken. And there was a gunman with a high powered rifle....

Now during all this there are NO SIRENS. And another thing we notice very quickly, there are no Binghamton High students on the street. This is their lunchtime and there should have been a lot of students walking on Court St. In fact it is eerily....quiet.

Immediately we know being on that street isn't a very good idea, we start walking fast/jogging back. We get to our office building and the doors are locked! The lobby security guard lets us in and updates us-about the same information the man with the cell phone had told us. I get back to my department and the administrative assistant tells me they were so worried about me: our HR department had sent an email about 10 minutes before telling of the shooting and asking that no one leave the building.

At this point it is about 11:30 am.

People who know police are trying to call to get more information. The rest of us are on the newspaper website, pressconnects.com. Rumors are flying quickly like a really bad game of telephone. Binghamton High School is on lockdown, but a number of them are Twittering with the pressconnects site is carrying their tweets. A lot of it was inane (to put it mildly) but there are nuggets here and there . The gunman was a Vietnamese male in his early 20's. [this turned out not to be accurate] There are about "60 hostages", some in a boiler room, about 15 hiding in a closet. A nursing home near the Civic Association was on lockdown, the neighborhood was being evacuated.
Before noon come the first rumors of serious injuries or worse, someone Twitters that he works at Wilson Hospital and "the police have just called in 2 trauma codes."

Still no sirens.

The woman who sits next to me at work lives not that far from the Civic Association. She was supposed to leave for the day at 1pm. She takes the long way home, coming near Wilson Hospital . She calls when she gets home and says the "highway is jammed with ambulances [at the exit for Wilson]". When she approached her neighborhood [near the Civic Association] there is another group of ambulances going down the street.

At that point we knew something was very very bad. Our media was reporting no deaths, but someone in contact with a "reliable source" reported 4 dead.

Then the twitterers at Binghamton High start talking about snipers on roofs, where they are, etc. with other people twittering back "don't give out this information!"

Then we start hearing helicopters. Needless to say, everyone was so nervous we had no idea if a gunman was ready to start running through the streets, or what the SWAT teams were up to. And so many of us were sick at heart, knowing of these innocents suffering so close to where we were. We knew about the critically wounded receptionist. You go to work one day and....

About 2:30 pm I hear a siren, the very first one.

A coworker gets hold of a police acquaintance on the phone and finds out there are "13 dead, 10 of them were shot execution style".

Sadly the part about the 13 innocent dead was correct.

Later that evening, a report that the shooter was identified, and the rest is public record.

The phone calls, the emails, from family/friends followed, wanting to make sure I was OK. Some of them knew I worked in downtown Binghamton. Special support came to me from those who live in New York City, some of them witnesses of 9/11. I thank them all for thinking of me.

In the past week there have been many memorials, many things written about the 13 innocents who died at the Civic Association that day, and the shooter. Today I walked to Confluence Park, where a memorial service was held earlier today, and saw the tulips planted there, one for each of the dead. I understand that the Mayor of Binghamton wept at the ceremony.

The spotlight has moved from Binghamton to other, fresher news. The news vans with their satellite antennas have left, but the flowers and memorials in front of the building remain. Our community will recover.