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Earth’s Biggest Natural Spa

A trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Dead Sea. The lowest place on Earth, sitting about 1300 feet below sea level and one of Earth’s saltiest bodies of water, ten times saltier than oceans. And my trip wouldn’t have been complete without floating on the Dead Sea. Not floating in, floating on.

The Dead Sea lies at the edge of the Judean desert where rainfall averages 2½ inches per year and is fed by the Jordan River.   Freezing temperatures never occur here. January’s temperatures average 60º and summertime temperatures hover between 90º-100º.

As I walked one block from my hotel on the sidewalk toward the Dead Sea, the October blue sky was filled with soft fluffy clouds. The beach looked like resort beaches. A snack bar. White plastic lounge chairs. Palm trees.

“Just walk in and lie back,” the tour guide had said. “Don’t try to turn over and swim. Don’t get the water in your mouth or eyes. And if you have cuts or scraps on your skin, you’ll feel the burn of salt.”

I saw friends from my tour group in the water so I put my towel on a chair nearby and kicked off my flip-flops at the water’s edge. A friend, wearing street clothes, said, “Are you sure you want to get in that water? I felt it with my hand. It’s really slimy and oily.” I nodded and smiled.

I avoided stepping on the scattered salt rocks that dotted the shallow water, took a few steps and stopped. I should have realized the salt rocks would be denser in deeper water and have sharp edges, like coral.   The bottoms of my feet hurt, but my flip-flops were far out of reach. Thankfully, a friend saw my dilemma and handed my shoes to me so I could walk until the water was above my knees. I lowered myself into the water.

What a strange sensation to lie completely still and feel as if I were on an invisible float. Only the heels of my feet and the back of my body were underwater. I raised my head and put both arms to my sides and continued to float. As I waved my hand high toward a camera, drops of water splashed onto my lips. It tasted like sticking my tongue in a bowl of salt.

I wasn’t concerned about being bitten by fish or bothered by other animals. Nothing, not animals nor plants, can live in the extreme salinity. This body of water, also called the Salt Sea, is a place for healing. The extremely high salt and mineral content is said to help people with arthritis, respiratory problems, and chronic skin conditions.

Floating on the Dead Sea was calming. I liked the smooth, slightly oily feeling, and the ability be still and completely relax in warm water. No wonder this body of water is known as earth’s biggest natural spa.

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An Unforgettable Parade

I’ve never seen a parade I didn’t like. From Fourth of July neighborhood parades where kids ride tricycles and wear blue shorts and red and white striped shirts to Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City, which I’ve only seen on television. And I try to never miss TTU’s Homecoming parades featuring floats made by Tech students and marching bands from many area high schools.

But one parade stands out in my memory. A parade I didn’t plan to watch. Didn’t even realize I was in the right place at the right time until I braked at a stop sign on Washington Avenue and saw a few people standing on the sidewalk. Samuel, my oldest Grand who was 11 at the time, was riding in my van with me.

“What’s happening here?” Samuel asked. I shrugged my shoulders and then looked across the street and saw a military vehicle, young people carrying the American flag and other flags, and some older men dressed in military uniforms. Then I remembered the date and that I’d read about a planned parade.

“It’s the Veteran’s Day Parade,” I said and immediately decided we would join the people on the sidewalk. I don’t remember every detail of that parade, but there were no floats. No fancy cars decorated with crepe paper and balloons. No clowns. No motorcycles. No horses. No candy thrown to spectators. And only one band, but not even all the members of the Cookeville High School marching band.

The band members played patriotic marching songs and members of ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, carrying the flags led. Veterans marched or rode in military jeeps and trucks. Veterans from all branches of the military. Veterans of all ages. Most the age of grandparents. Some walking very slowly. All dressed in uniform.

The veterans carried their shoulders and chins high and acknowledged those of us who applauded quietly to say thank you. Slight head nods and closed mouth smiles were the veterans’ responses to our expressions of appreciation.

This Veteran’s Day parade was short. As the last veteran walked past, Samuel looked up at me. I wiped the back of my hands across my eyes and he asked, “Gran, why are you crying?”

To me, the veterans represented all who have served in the United States Armed Forces, including my father and brother. Dad served in the Army at the end of WW II, and Roger was stationed in Spain for three years while in the Air Force. And I thought of a high school classmate who lost his life fighting in Viet Nam.

Monday, November 12, at 11:00 a.m. we are all invited to honor our veterans at the Putnam County Veterans Day Parade. There will be a short opening ceremony at the courthouse, and then the parade will proceed along Broad Street from North Washington Avenue to the Cookeville Depot. Anyone interested in more information should contact a Veteran’s Service Officer at 931-526-2432.

Let’s line Broad Street to honor those who have served our country.

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Trained and Ready to Ride

Beside my driver’s license in my wallet, I have a new license that states, “The carrier of this card has personally been trained to ride camels professionally.”

To get this training, I travelled with a tour group to Tel Aviv, Israel, and then we rode a bus to the Judean Desert, near Mavo, Jericho and the Dead Sea. A metal sign outside a small building welcomed us to Genesis Land, advertised as where the patriarchs of the Old Testament lived. We saw the Jordan Valley, one of the deepest land trenches on earth, stretching to the horizon.

Six camels lay ten steps from the building’s entrance. Chewing their cuds, they ignored us tourists as we admired them, and I marveled how their legs folded and they lay with their bellies flat on the sand. Inside the building, we were given riding directions. Climb on and off a camel only under a guide’s instruction. Hold on tight to the metal bar with both hands at all times. And choose a tunic to wear while riding.

Marilyn, my traveling friend, and I chose green tunics and raised our hands when asked, “Who’s ready to ride?” The camels, dromedaries, were outfitted with double saddles. Over each camel’s one hump, was a metal and leather saddle with two seats and raised metal bars for riders to hold. “Just throw your leg over and hold the bar,” the guide said. “When the camel stands, she’ll raise her front legs half way up, then her back legs, so hold on.”

As our camel stood, Marilyn and I were thrown backward and then forward, and I spontaneously named her when I shouted, “Whoa, Nellie!” We settled into the flat saddles, and Nellie was the third camel of six tied together with ropes.

A guide led only the first camel so Nellie had some leeway. She wandered from the center of the twelve-foot wide path to the edge that dropped off at least 500 feet and sitting astride Nellie, it looked like 5000 feet. Nellie’s hooves were inches from the edge while she nibbled leaves of a palm tree and when the tied rope became taut, she moved quickly to the side and forward at the same time. Marilyn and I clutched the metals bars tightly, knuckle-white tightly. “Does she think she’s a Kentucky race horse?” Marilyn said.

Camels aren’t graceful. Because they walk using the legs on the same side of their body at the same time, it creates a swaying motion for riders. Marilyn and I were just getting our movements in sync with Nellie’s when our ride ended.

“Hold on and lean back. Her front legs go down first,” the guide told us. Marilyn and I leaned as far back as we could and we both stayed centered and astride Nellie as she lowered herself and us.

There was only one thing I didn’t like about riding a camel. The ride was too short. But now that I have a license to ride camels professionally, I can ride again. Maybe across a desert, a very small one.

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Glimpses of Israel

After a ten-day trip to Israel, I struggle to string words together. Maybe it’s the twenty-six hours of being awake and travel, with only catnaps. A bus ride from hotel to the Tele Aviv airport. A long wait to check-in, followed by a 11½ hour flight to Newark, New Jersey. Lines for U. S. customs and to board another plane. A two-hour flight to Nashville. A car ride, arriving home at 12:30 a.m.

Jet lag is a real disorder and is surely partially responsible for my lack of concentration. But as I begin this column for the umpteenth time, I realize the main reason I’m struggling is that I’d like to share everything I saw and experienced. That’s impossible. I travelled with a church tour group and many experiences were religious, but I’ll only share a few glimpses of Israel’s geography and its culture.

Tele Aviv is a huge city with billboards, traffic lights, and tall buildings, just like U. S. cities, except the gray or white buildings are rectangular shaped, void of decoration. As our group of 40 tourists travelled north toward Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, I sat glued to the bus window. Dry grasses and short evergreen trees (the same as here, except cedar trees don’t grow in Israel) grew on the rolling hillsides that were dotted with limestone boulders, the size of beach balls and much larger. Tall trees were dusty, as if sprinkled with dull gray and brown glitter.

Along a two-lane road, compact cars zipped around our bus, and a man, dressed in muted brown clothing including a head wrap, rode an older model bicycle on the road’s shoulder. When we passed a small picnic area, I wondered if he would stop there.

Crops are grown with irrigation along the Jordan River valley between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Under white cloth coverings, date palm trees appeared decorated with blue plastic bags, but those bags are to protect and catch the clusters of fruit. Olive tree groves fill hillsides.

I expected deserts, like those I’ve seen in our western states, but my mouth dropped when I saw the massive brown rocks and sand mounds, like mountains. “How big?” my nine-year-old Grand asked yesterday. “You know how tall the Smokey Mountains are? Well, take off the trees and imagine caramel colored rocks and sand dunes,” I said.

We visited Masada National Park, an ancient fortress built atop a 1500-foot high plateau. We rode a cable car instead of hiking the winding switchbacks, the Snake Trail, to see the ruins of King Herod’s Palace that was built beginning about 30 B.C. We sat on stone synagogue benches and saw cisterns, bathhouses, living quarters, even holes formed in stone slabs for cooking.   Looking east, a thirty-minute drive away, was the Dead Sea, and in all other directions were stone mountains and desert to the horizon. Pictures can’t capture the vastness.

No wonder people travelled on camels through this desert, and I looked forward to riding one. That’s next week’s column.

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Dreaded Phrases

My friend’s Facebook post prompted many comments and stories. Mary Jo wrote, ‘Some dreaded phrases,’ and she listed a few. ‘Easy to assemble. Dry clean only. This won’t hurt a bit. Hold for the next available line.’

I immediately thought of Christmas gifts labeled easy to assemble and parents who never held a screwdriver until all the little ones were tucked in bed on Christmas Eve. I’ve heard stories of bicycles and dollhouses completed minutes before children jumped out of bed Christmas morning. Or not completed and Santa leaving a note saying, “Your dad and mom will finish this. I had to travel around the world tonight. Love, Santa.”

‘This won’t hurt a bit’ goes hand-in-hand with a phrase I don’t like: it’s minor surgery. Maybe it’s simple and insignificant to the surgeon, but when I’m the patient lying on a back leather table and the doctor holds a knife, it’s not minor. It’s major to me, physically and emotionally.

‘Hold for the next available agent’ inspired similar phrases: please hold while I transfer your call and please hold because your call is important to us and the many instructions beginning with the word Press.  Does anyone else become frustrated hearing computer-generated instructions? Press 1 for store hours. Press 2 for the store address. Press 3 to inquire about your order. Press 4 to speak with someone in billing. Press 5 to speak with someone in repair. Only a few times, have I been patient enough to hear, “Press 0 to speak to a store representative.”

Oh, for the days when a person answered business calls and then answered questions. I don’t like being placed on hold, but I do appreciate the opportunity to leave my phone number with the promise of a return call because most calls have been returned in a short time.

Other dreaded phrases relate to driving: one lane for the next 49 miles and road construction ahead. But I have to throw in some road signs I don’t like to see, but make me chuckle. Slow People Working. Danger Men Working.

And there are preambles we don’t want to hear. I hope I don’t make you mad, but ____. You don’t want to hear this, but ____. Those make me think of a day when Son, then age 16, came home one summer afternoon and said, “Mom, I gotta’ tell you something you won’t like.” Parents of teenagers know my sick feeling when my heart hit my stomach. He talked about the recent non-stop rain and flooding and heavy winds and I envisioned a wrecked car. When he finally said that the huge oak tree outside my school classroom window had uprooted and lay on the ground, I was sad, greatly relieved, and mostly touched that he knew how I loved watching that tree through the seasons.

Mary Jo, thanks for letting me use your post as a column springboard. It took me on a mind journey.

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It’s Pumpkin Time!

Now that fall has arrived, pumpkins are everywhere. Porches are decorated with all sizes and not just traditional orange pumpkins. Shades of orange range from muted tangerine to vibrant red-orange. Green pumpkins are colored deep forest hues and soft mellow sea green. And some are creamy white and bright eye opening white.

I remember when I was a kid, Dad and I carried pale-colored pumpkins from the garden that were either carved into simple jack-o-lanterns or cooked for Thanksgiving pies. But what’s most surprising today is the many recipes for foods and beverages made from pumpkins. When Mom roasted the seeds, we thought we’d eaten all things pumpkin.

While turning the pages in a magazine that featured the savory side of pumpkins, it occurred to me that I could serve pumpkin for breakfast, lunch, and supper, and offer pumpkin snacks in between. Then searching online, I discovered enough recipes for pumpkin menus for a week, and never repeat, but that might be pumpkin overload.

A quote from Country Living magazine states, “The only thing better than fall mornings are fall mornings with pumpkins.” I’ll start the day with pumpkin spice flavored coffee and serve eggs baked in a mini pumpkin with bacon and roasted squash. I’ll bake maple pumpkin scones and offer pumpkin bread, to replace boring banana bread, for those who would turn up their noses at scones. And pumpkin butter will up the flavor when spread on scones and bread.

For a mid-morning energy boost, how about a pumpkin protein shake topped with spiced pumpkin whipped cream and cinnamon?

Soup, the savory side of pumpkin, for lunch. In less than fifteen minutes, I can make traditional pumpkin soup with chicken broth, onion, and garlic. Two other recipes are tempting: Pumpkin Chili and Coconut Curry Creamy Pumpkin Soup made with coconut milk.   What’s better than cornbread with soup? How about pumpkin cornbread?

Afternoon snacks have to be roasted pumpkin seeds. Just like Mom made with the pulp wiped off the seeds, but not washed. Seasoned with butter and kosher salt and roasted about 25 minutes. But I’m tempted to try Rosemary-Parmesan Pumpkin Seeds or Taco-Lime Pumpkin Seeds.

            Husband likes pasta so I’ve narrowed the dinner choices to ravioli or fettuccine or lasagna. Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter or Pumpkin Goat Cheese Fettuccine Alfredo or Cheesy Pumpkin Lasagna. All can be served with Roasted Pumpkin-and-Baby Kale Salad and Pumpkin Butter Brie Pull-Apart Bread.

The recipes for pumpkin desserts are limitless. Cakes, tortes, cookies, bars, rolls, cobbler, crème brulee, mousse. But I really like plain pumpkin pie, like Mom made using a recipe she tore from the wrapper of a can of evaporated milk sometime in the 1950s.

So many pumpkins. So many recipes. But I have an orange one and a couple of white ones on my porch, and I really won’t serve or eat pumpkin all day long. But I’ll venture beyond roasted seeds and pie. There are just so many choices.

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Struck by the Love Bug

We all know someone who’s been struck by the love bug. Someone shamelessly happy and in love with another special someone. I’ve always smiled with warm, fuzzy feelings when I heard the words love bug. But after a brief encounter with a flying insect, just hearing love bug makes me duck my head and frown.

            As Husband and I drove home from a Gulf beach, we stopped at an Alabama rest stop. You know the routine of a road trip stop. Park away from the buildings so you have to walk more than a few steps. After visiting the bathrooms, take the long way around to your car and stretch your body before settling for the next two hours of driving. Toe raises. Calf stretches. Hands and arms above your head. Shoulder shrugs. And finally, back in your car.

But I wish Husband had parked next to the rest stop building that day. Before we opened the car door, I saw a man walking and wondered why he was waving both arms in front of his face. I stepped on the sidewalk and flying black insects flew inches from my face. I slapped at them, waving my arms, too.

Close to a garbage barrel, these pests swarmed. Husband and I walked quickly making a wide circle past the barrel, and I ducked to avoid flies from hitting my face. I wondered what they were and if they would light on me. Would they sting or bite?

I stood inside the rest stop building and dreaded going back outside to face the half-inch long insects. “Those are love bugs,” an Alabama resident told me. “No, they won’t sting or bite. But they are annoying.”

“Love bugs?” I said. “That’s a strange name.”   Mr. Alabama smiled and nodded and went on his way.

I later learned from the University of Florida Extension website, that these slow-moving insects are called love bugs because they often attach to their mates. They are harmless, but very annoying, to humans. They originated from Central America, and made their way to Texas, Louisiana, Florida and further north.

Love bugs are attracted to decomposing plant debris, but may confuse these odors with chemicals in exhaust fumes. They are most active when the temperature is above 84º F between 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., and their peak mating times are four weeks in May and September. So if Husband and I had set out to see love bugs mating, we’d picked the perfect place and time.

We ducked our chins and speed-walked toward our car. The front of our white car was spotted black with dead love bugs and live love bugs lined the perimeter of the car windows. We jerked the car doors open and got inside as fast as possible. The windshield was splattered with love bug guts. What a mess!

I like learning and new experiences, but I wish I’d never met black, flying, annoying love bugs. Struck by the love bug now has a whole new meaning.

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