Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Trip Pics: Coffee and Other Random Nonsense

Okay, last batch of pictures, I promise. :)

One of the things I love to do when I travel is try out different coffee shops. It's always interesting to see how coffee compares from one location to another. For instance, do NOT order a cappuccino at a gas station cafe in France... I don't know what was in the cup they gave me, but it certainly wasn't a cappuccino. :) (Ironically, the absolute BEST coffee I've ever had was also in France... it just wasn't a cappuccino. It was black, sludgy, caffeinated amazingness in a cup. Perhaps they just don't do milk with coffee in France -- it's straight up coffee or nothing.)

During our early-morning wait for Aunt Carol at Heathrow, we discovered Caffe Nero coffee... and at our very first stop in Guernsey, we found Costa Coffee, which I actually really loved.

I'd say that Costa Coffee is like the Starbucks of the UK... except they also have Starbucks in the UK. (Starbucks is trying to take over the world... or maybe they already have??)

Happy with my coffee from a local shop in Cobh, Ireland. (Side note: when I checked the weather for the UK before we left, I thought I'd be okay with packing just a couple light sweaters. But at the last minute, I decided to throw this purple sweater coat into my suitcase... and I'm glad I did, because it ended up being much cooler and windier than I expected, so I wore it almost every day. The hood was especially helpful with the windy conditions... and I got to dress like a purple ninja...)


One of our favorite coffee shops was a place called Established Coffee in Belfast. To get to it, we had to walk to a much less touristy part of the city, and then follow this narrow one-lane street to the shop. We never would've stumbled upon it had it not been for Yelp reviews and Google Maps. :)

And it was totally worth it, because THIS place definitely knew how to make a cappuccino.

Enjoying our tiny cups of amazing milk-free French coffee (except non-coffee drinker Aunt Carol, who enjoyed the bottled water :)).

A few non-coffee-related odds and ends:

Outside the Titanic Museum in Belfast. (Yes, we visited a museum about the Titanic while we were on a cruise ship vacation. But OUR ship had enough lifeboats for everyone on board... and even though the weather was a bit chilly, I'm sure the nearest iceberg was quite far away.)

Well that's just racist...

Ah, okay, that's... uh... better? (Those two shops were just a couple doors down from each other in Guernsey. :))

Chinatown in Liverpool... this is supposedly the largest Chinese gate in Europe (and possibly the largest outside of mainland China... our bus driver seemed unsure on this point :)).

Loch Lomond

Sunrise as we landed in London...

Okay, I think I've just about exhausted my collection of pictures. :) Have a great week, everyone!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trip Pics (Churches and Cathedrals Edition)!

As I was posting my previous batch of pictures, I realized that I had a rather large number of church/cathedral pictures. So instead bombarding you with an insufferable number of photos, I thought I'd break things up into two posts. Besides, as I mentioned before, I really need to post more often than once every thousand years. :)

Church in Guernsey... we almost didn't go inside this church -- we just randomly walked past it on our way back to the ship. But I saw other tourists walking in, so I decided to check it out...

One of the stained glass windows...

Mosaic floor tiles...

Another stained glass window... we were glad we took the time to stop and check this place out.

This kind of looks like a courthouse, but it was actually a Catholic church in Cork, Ireland. I didn't go inside, but I did have to get a picture of the exterior. Because -- purple doors! :)

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool. This place had an interesting, modern look to it, both outside and inside...

The inside was so much cooler than pictures can convey -- a complete circle, with small chapels situated along the outside walls, and high ceilings leading to the circular stained glass in the very middle.

We also stopped at the Liverpool Cathedral -- this place was amazing. Again, I'm guessing the pictures won't even begin to do it justice...

This cathedral had one of the most intricate stained glass windows I've ever seen (complete with modern neon installation at the bottom... we joked that it was nice that they were able to restore the original neon lettering :)).

It was cavernous and huge inside...

But my favorite part of Liverpool Cathedral was the creepy old cemetery behind the church, which looked like something straight out of a Harry Potter book...

That's about it for today -- next up in my Trip Pics series will be "Coffee and Other Random Nonsense." :) Have a great weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Trip pics!

Hey everyone! As usual, it's been about a thousand years since I last posted anything... this "once a millennium" posting schedule really needs to change... :)

We just got back from the UK (and by "just got back" I mean, "we've been back since Thursday night, but it's taken several days of being in the central time zone to feel like a normal, non-jetlagged human again."Seriously, this may be the first day since we got back that I don't feel really brain-foggy... like living half-submerged underwater... No complaints, though, because it was worth it for the opportunity to explore some new countries. Sometimes I think that if I could just perpetually live out of a suitcase (half-submerged-underwater-brain-fog or not) I would be quite happy with that.

Our cruising adventures began before we even left the U.S., when we all received emails to let us know that the group of passengers before ours had been afflicted with a higher-than-average number of norovirus cases. Because of this, they were extra-thoroughly sanitizing the ship, which meant a three-hour delay for embarking. This turned out to be a non-issue, however, as Aunt Carol (who was supposed to fly into Chicago the day we left and join the rest of us on the plane to London) discovered her flight from Buffalo to Chicago was cancelled. (Side note: Rick had suggested she fly into Chicago a couple days early to avoid any last minute complications. So when her flight was cancelled, this resulted in Rick dancing around singing, "I told you so, I told you so, I told you so." Seriously. He actually did that. :)) Anyway, Aunt Carol ended up on a flight to Charlotte, and then flew from Charlotte to London four hours after our Chicago-London flight left. This meant that we had four extra hours to hang out at Heathrow while we waited for her plane to land, so the three-hour embarkation delay was no big deal...

I have to admit, the thought that our huge ship was crawling with norovirus was a bit disconcerting at first -- even though I knew they disinfected the ship before we boarded, the first thing I did when we got to our cabin was wipe down the remote control, all the door handles, and all the light switches. (Which, incidentally, is the same thing I do every time I stay at a hotel... Rick thinks I'm crazy, but c'mon -- think about it: they NEVER clean the remote control. And EVERYONE touches the remote control. Eewww.) I also washed my hands about thirty times a day the entire time we were on the ship. And they had Purell everywhere... even though Purell has been shown to be ineffective against norovirus. I saw it as more of a "sense of security" type thing -- so passengers would feel like they were travelling on a nearly virus-free ship... but I worried it was more of a FALSE sense of security type thing. Because if people thought the Purell was protecting them from the virus, maybe they'd be less apt to wash their hands more (and hand-washing IS effective against norovirus).

Fortunately, none of us came down with norovirus, but here's the ironic thing: I DID manage to catch a cold. How did that happen??? No, really, I'm serious, I can't figure it out. I had the cleanest hands on that ship... maybe someone sneezed on me and I don't remember it...

Anyway, other than the excessive Purell-ing (the dining rooms were all patrolled by Purell Police -- they wouldn't let you in if you didn't use it first), the trip was awesome and we saw so many cool things. I have way too many pictures I could post, so these are mostly just random and not necessarily in any logical order. :)

Our first stop -- the island of Guernsey.

A street in Guernsey. That blue crate on the steps was full of milk cartons... which I thought was a little strange, since that restaurant wasn't open yet, and the warm sun was shining right on the milk. Then again, I disinfect hotel remote controls before I use them, so maybe I'm just paranoid...

Cobh, Ireland

Houses on a street near Loch Lomond in Scotland.

Liverpool... I have to admit that when we docked in Liverpool, I didn't have the highest hopes for this place. It seemed sort of gritty and depressing from the looks of it (although I'm sure the overcast skies didn't help). But after spending the day there, I actually really loved it -- it was one of my favorite stops.

Hills in Scotland... I'm not sure what I was expecting with Scotland, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting and prettiest countries I've ever seen. Maybe THE prettiest country I've ever seen. It has a sort of constantly changing quality to it, because the weather seems really unpredictable -- one minute it would be cloudy, the next sunny, the next rainy -- and as the weather changes, the scenery goes from mysterious to awe-inspiring to melancholy to cheery... and back again. The lochs -- with their black, glassy water -- stir up the imagination with possibilities of what might lie beneath the surface. It's not difficult to understand why the legend of the Loch Ness Monster has endured for so long. (I learned, however, that the blackness of the water in Scottish lochs is due to peat particles -- but I think it's more fun to just say it's some kind of magical Scottish thing. :))

A misty morning on Loch Ness, near the ruins of Urquhart Castle... legend has it that Nessie lives in a cavern somewhere underneath this castle. We never saw him (or her??) though. :)

The view through one of the castle windows...

The Firth of Fourth bridge in Queensferry, Scotland, with our ship in the background.

Snapping pictures in Liverpool...

Pointe du Hoc on the coast of Normandy... our last stop on the cruise.

This was a crater left by a bomb -- they were all over Pointe du Hoc. It's hard to tell from the picture just how big they all were -- I tried to snap this picture before those kids finished climbing up the side, so you can kind of tell how large it is.

The American Cemetery in Normandy.

That's it for now, but next up: Trip Pics: Churches and Cathedrals Edition. :)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Welcome back to the randomness...

I've already managed to post twice in the last two weeks (albeit with sad subject matter), and I don't want to give up my posting momentum... so here's a random recap of some of the boring stuff that's been happening around here lately:

*It's warm in Chicago, finally! This is a big deal here, as spring tends to be VERY finicky -- one day it's 80 and you think it's safe to put away your sweaters and coats for the season, and then the next day it's back down to 40 and you have to drag them all back out again. It's kind of like winter in Texas -- where it's usually pretty mild, but every now and then it'll dip below freezing and you have to figure out where you've stored your heavy coat. But at least the weather forecasters in Texas usually seem to have SOME grasp of what's going on out there in the atmosphere -- sure, you get random pop-up thunderstorms every now and then, but for the most part, Texas meteorologists are able to make pretty decent educated guesses. But Chicago? It's like they all gather around dart boards with randomly placed weather phenomenon scattered over their surfaces:

Today it's going to be... (throws dart)... sunny! And... (throws dart)... 68 degrees! And tomorrow there's a... (throws dart)... 70 percent chance of... (throws dart)... locust swarms!

We then have a cold, rainy day, followed by sunshine and gathering fog. Yesterday, for instance, the forecast called for strong thunderstorms all day. We got... absolutely nothing. (Well, that's not entirely true -- we did see some nice lightning flashes out over the lake last night.) Rick has been extremely disappointed in the lack of storms so far this year. I'm guessing he just needs to wait until the forecast calls for clear skies and lots of sun. Because then... watch out.  Ah, well, it's always an adventure... :)

*I've been lucky to have a LOT of freelance work so far this year. Although June is starting out rather slow... but my experience seems to be that I either have more work than I can handle, or I have very little. Feast or famine. All or nothing. And it's the slow stretches that give me the time to catch up on things like writing blog posts... :)

I just finished a fun Christmas movie trivia project, where I spent several weeks writing various trivia questions for movies like White Christmas and Home Alone and A Charlie Brown Christmas. I actually spent an hour one day watching the latter (as well as How the Grinch Stole Christmas), because I hadn't seen it since I was a kid. And of course, when you have hundreds of little trivia blurbs to write about various holiday movies, eventually you find yourself running out of familiar films. After exhausting my knowledge of just about every Christmas favorite I could think of, I wrote my last few bits of trivia about that good old-fashioned holiday classic, Die Hard. (Hey, it really IS a Christmas movie! The whole thing takes place during a Christmas party! :)) What's really funny is that I was using mostly internet movie sites and my own memory to come up with trivia, and then literally the DAY I sent off the last of it, one of the channels on TV aired a Die Hard marathon. I watched it anyway, even though I was finished with the project, just because I'd spent so much time writing up trivia about it.

*So Rick read something the other day about how when bananas start to turn brown, they create some sort of substance that can break down abnormal cells, and by doing so, they might prevent cancer. I took this to mean that I should DEFINITELY use the browning bananas I have on my counter right now to make banana bread. Right? That's the obvious conclusion here...

And on that note, I should go work out... because I'll probably be making banana bread later on. ;) 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A few more pictures...

So it's been a bit of a rough week. I never realized just how present Riff was in our lives until now. He wasn't the typical aloof, indifferent cat... the kind who keeps to himself until he is forced to rely on the opposable thumbs of his human captors to open a door or pour food into a dish.

No, Riff was a "people cat." He always wanted to be where the people were. If we were sitting on the couch watching TV, he was curled up next to us. If I was cooking dinner, he was climbing on counters to inspect the produce or overseeing the culinary process from his favorite perch on top of the fridge. When it was time to work out and I did push-ups or planks, he would "help" me by standing underneath me so I couldn't collapse onto the floor. When I washed a load of towels or sheets, I would always dump the clean laundry onto the bed, and then wait a couple hours before I even attempted to fold anything -- because invariably, Riff would burrow into the pile and take a nap...

When we came back to the condo after being out for a while, Riff would be waiting for us just inside the door, greeting us with meows and happy tail twitches, as if seeing his humans was the best part of his day. We often wondered if he waited there for us when we were gone... did he lay on the carpet in the entryway eagerly anticipating our return? Or did he scurry over as soon as he heard the key in the lock?

But perhaps my favorite thing was that after I'd settled into bed for the night -- ten, fifteen, twenty minutes later -- Riff would jump up, snuggle up right against me, and spend the whole night keeping me company. This was especially comforting when Rick was out of town -- I never felt like I was alone in the condo, because my buddy Riff was always right there with me.

So it's been painfully obvious that Riff is gone. He followed me around like a shadow... but now, where my shadow should be, all there is is empty space. It's been strange, and sad, and very quiet... although to Piva's credit, she seems to be attempting to pick up some slack. She's been much more clingy this last week, and keeps loudly meowing at random times. She knows something has changed... I'm sure she misses Riff, too, even though she'd never admit it, because Riff had a tendency to antagonize her. :)

Anyway, I've been going through lots of pictures this week, so here are a few more:

Baby picture! :) This was a few days after Rick's sister found this little guy and gave him to us. To be honest, I wasn't even sure I WANTED another cat at the time... but it didn't take long for him to fit right in and become a part of the family.

About six months old... and probably trying to figure out how to get into trouble. I think I spent the entire first year of his life with perpetual scratch marks up and down my arms, because he LOVED to play... and he had very sharp claws. :) 

What, you don't have a cat in your fridge??

 This was one of his preferred ways of sleeping... he was actually quite comfortable like this...

Riff had a couple absolute FAVORITE toys... and he had the uncanny ability to swipe them across the slippery hardwood floor and directly under the refrigerator. He would then attempt to reach underneath the fridge to retrieve his toys... I can't even COUNT the number of times I had to pull out a flashlight and yard stick and fish out little rattling mice from the dark recesses of the Under Fridge.
This was the only time that Riff and Piva would sleep this close to each other: Towels. The great equalizers.

 And he loved hanging out in sinks...

  A lot...

What do you do with a Halloween pumpkin? Why, eat it, of course! :)

This guy made me smile EVERY single day. I could be completely depressed, having a horrible day, sad, angry, upset, whatever -- but every day, without fail, Riff would make me smile. Sometimes even laugh out loud. It's crazy how much I miss him -- I mean, he was "only" a cat -- but he really knew how to work his way into somebody's heart. If he only had five years to spend here, we were lucky that those five years were with us...

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The last bowl on the right...

I've been thinking for quite some time that I should dust off my old blog again and start writing more often. This wasn't the post I had in mind when I thought about reviving this space, but since writing has always been one of the ways I tend to work through difficult issues, write I shall.

Yesterday morning, we got up, went through our usual morning routine, and then around 11, we packed up Riff for a trip to the vet. To be honest, I was actually looking forward to this visit. Riff had been losing some weight (although he'd probably been a bit on the chunky side to begin with), but had otherwise been acting pretty normal -- eating, drinking, playing with his toys, cuddling on the couch when we watched TV at night, etc. Still, the weight loss was getting worrisome, so we made an appointment with the vet. And then, about five days ago, he suddenly stopped eating. We tried all kinds of things to entice him to eat -- tuna (he ate a tiny bit of it), canned food (he ate none of it), packets of soft food in broth (he ate none, but Piva loved it), treats (he would eat a few if we broke them into little pieces)... we finally bought some "high calorie nutritional gel" from the pet store and started feeding him tiny amounts of it every few hours. He HATED it, but we felt like we had to do SOMEthing to provide him with calories until we got him to the vet.

We were able to move the vet appointment up a day -- we were originally supposed to take him in late this afternoon, but they had a cancellation yesterday morning. Rick and I both had the same thought -- based on the fact that Riff seemed like he WANTED to eat (he was still obviously interested in his cat treats... he just didn't want to eat very many or really big pieces), we thought for sure he had some kind of tooth problem. I was guessing he had an abscessed tooth, and we'd go to the vet, have it pulled, get him on some antibiotics, and viola -- he'd be normal old Riff again. So when we packed him into the cat carrier and his mournful meowling began, I assured him that he'd be feeling better in no time.

But when we got into the vet's office, and she looked at his teeth, she said they were fine. It wasn't until she started listening to his heart and his breathing that I knew something was really wrong. Before she even SAID anything, I could tell that something was wrong. She told us that Riff's heart didn't sound right... instead of the usual "lub dub" sound that a normal heart makes, his was making three different sounds, and sometimes skipping beats. She gave us the name of a veterinary cardiologist (yes, there is such a thing... I didn't even know...), but said that it could take up to a month to get an appointment. Or, we could go straight to the ER (yep, there are also veterinary ERs... I never knew that, either...) and go that route. We chose the ER...

After that, the rest of the day was a blur. As soon as we got to the ER, Riff was whisked away (literally... they were all business and brusk and rushed, just like a human ER), placed in an oxygen tent, and then sent for x-rays. We spent the next few hours learning that his chest was filled with fluid, and he had a possible mass pushing on his trachea -- which would probably explain why he sort of WANTED to eat, but couldn't eat more than tiny bits of food at any one time. At first, the vet's theory was some sort of cancer -- which would have been terrible, but at the same time, there are treatments available, even for pets. But to get a clear picture, they needed an ultrasound, and they couldn't get to it for another few hours. So Rick and I reluctantly left the ER, and decided to head home for a few hours.

It was around 6 when the vet finally called to tell us the results of the ultrasound. And as far as "maladies that can afflict a cat," Riff was hit with the absolute worst -- dilated cardiomyopathy. The "mass" that showed up on the x-ray was just his heart -- enlarged from working too hard for too long. And there was nothing that could be done... at best, our sweet, affectionate little guy had two or three days to live. The vet said that he could give Riff some kind of medication to try to stabilize him, but it wouldn't buy much time.

So last night, we made the difficult decision to head into the vet this morning to say goodbye. Neither Rick nor I was able to fall asleep very easily, and I was dreading what was coming. And then, at around 1 in the morning, the phone rang and woke us up. Rick went out to the living room to answer it. I think I instinctively knew what it meant, but until Rick actually came back into the bedroom and said, "Riff passed away," I didn't want to believe it.

Not my sweet boy, who'd spent nearly every night of the last five years curled up next to me on the bed while I slept.

Not Riff, who knew how to open the pantry door and drank straight from the faucet with water pouring over his head.

Not our Riff Raff, whose insatiable curiosity was alternately annoying and insanely endearing. 

Not the "baby cat" of the family, only five years old, with a good decade of playing and running and jumping and snuggling ahead of him.

The last 24 hours have been rough... We took Riff to the vet thinking that he'd be back to his normal self within a week. Instead, I've been dealing with the guilt of knowing that the last time he saw us, we were dropping him off at a scary, new place. And then we never saw him again.

The only comfort is knowing that nothing WE did caused this... Riff's condition was either genetic, or caused by a virus, which he could've had his entire life. And even if we'd caught it at the earliest possible point, we only would've been able to prolong his life by a few months. Basically, Riff was never destined to reach old age, for whatever reason... although at the moment, I can't imagine what that reason could be.

Almost exactly five years ago, we lost our Sheltie, Echo. A couple weeks later, a tiny little Riff kitten came into our lives. The day we took him to the vet the first time, the vet techs presented us with a cast of Echo's paw print:

Today, the vet gave us this, about ten years too soon:

Riff had a habit of tossing his toys into the water dish by his food, usually at some time during the night. I would get up in the morning, head out to the kitchen, and laugh when I'd see another water-logged stuffed mouse floating in the water. I could never figure out why he did that, exactly, but it was another one of those "Riff" things that we loved about him. When he stopped eating last week, we bought a variety of canned and soft food, hoping that he'd like one of them. Since we've always just given the cats dry food, we also bought a cheap plastic bowl to use for the canned food. But after a few failed attempts at feeding him canned food, I just washed out the plastic bowl and set it down next to the other bowls. Yesterday morning, after his last night at home, I walked out to the kitchen to this:

One last time, he tossed his toy into a bowl... only this time, it stayed dry. I haven't had the heart to move it yet -- I feel like he put it there for a reason.

In Peter Pan, Peter says that to find Neverland, you follow the "second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning." Perhaps in Riff's case, to find a Neverland full of scratching posts and catnip, he needed to follow the last bowl on the right... and straight on 'til morning...