Saturday, December 22, 2012

Happy Birthday Graber

Graber celebrated his third birthday in October.  He continues to be a great dog who is always happy to be with us or any other person who happens to be around.  He loves people.  Grant worked with him this summer so that he is pretty good at catching a frisbee.  Unfortunately, his physical development continues to far exceed his mental maturity.   Our little seven pound cats who don't even have claws  can chase him down the hall and stairs when he invades their room.  Then he goes right back upstairs to do it again because it's so fun.

Since he always destroys any soft or squeaky toys in about 5 minutes, the list of potential presents was quite limited.  Lori brought him some dog treats, including a bone shaped cookie that said happy birthday.  My gift was a spa treatment.  He thought that sounded great until he realized it was just a fancy name for taking a bath.  Then he put on his normal response of refusing to go upstairs.  Lori and Grant had to fireman carry him up and put him in the tub.

Happy Birthday Graber!

Waiting patiently for his birthday bone cookie.....

....Which he immediately takes to the foyer rug -- the standard spot to eat all treats.  

Lori and Grant carrying a reluctant Graber to his spa treatment.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Haarlem 10k Run

My office has a running club that gets together every Thursday night for training.  I think it's a good idea, but I never attend.  They also participate in some of the local running events, so when one of those events was a 10k (6 mile) run in Haarlem, Lori and I decided to go.

Haarlem is a historic city that I've always wanted to visit but just haven't found the right time.  The city has been around for 900 years; it's church was built in the 1400's.  The church houses the Muller organ, one of Europe's most famous with three keyboards, 68 registers and 5000 pipes.  It is about 100 feet high.  I learned all this from a book; we didn't have time to go inside the church.  The book also states that the organ was played by Handel and a ten year old Mozart.

The run turned out to be quite fun.  The city of Haarlem really turned out to support it; there were lots of people lining the streets to cheer us on.  We headed out of town, ran through a large park and retuned to finish by the church.  The weather was cool and cloudy (it was Holland after all) so it was a pleasant run.  And we got medals just for participating.

This gives you some view of the church

Note the official Jacobs jackets.  You just borrow them for the race.   Afterwards, we had to wash them and bring them back.   You can also see Lori's medals.  

Photo of our team before the run when we still had lots of energy.  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Construction Project

The coots at their new home

After living in the canal in our backyard for two years the family of coots decided that they needed an island.  I don't know what drove this decision --perhaps it was like Noah building the Ark.  Once decided, the entire family dedicated themselves for a week to the task.  They grabbed any stick, piece of grass or leaf and began to pile them at a shallow point in the water.  It truly was non-stop.  Within a day they had broken the surface.  By the end of the week they had their island.  
In the beginning.....

Bringing leaves back to the spot. 

Success!  A new home in less than a week.  

Per Wikipedia, a coot is a noisy bird with a wide repertoire of crackling, explosive, or trumpeting calls often given at night.  David Attenborough of Princeton University adds that "Coots can be very brutal to their own young under pressure such as the lack of food. They will bite young that are begging for food and repeatedly do this until it stops begging and starves to death. If the begging continues, they may bite so hard that the chick is killed."  Let that be a lesson to our younger readers who pester their parents for snacks.  

Once it was built the other birds, ducks in this case, used the island as well .
The heron liked it too.  

This picture doesn't have anything to do with the coots.  I just like the reflection in the water. 

More reflection

The construction supervisor at work.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Happy Birthday Mark...and more

When you log into Google's blogspot to create a new post, it tells you when you posted your last entry. Aug 19!  Reading that is kind of like stepping on the scale every morning.  You already know you won't like the answer but you do it anyway.  Sorry about the extended silence.  Here are a few pieces of news.

Obviously not enough candles.  Note the dog strategically positioned between me and the cake.  

First of all, Mark celebrated his 52nd birthday last month.  No real milestone at 52, but since I had already mentioned my weight and lack of postings I thought I would continue with the hard truths.  Actually, I spent my birthday in Manchester, UK on a business trip.  So we celebrated that weekend by having some friends over for dinner and, of course, one of Lori's delicious cakes.  I chose the Tuxedo Cake from Rebecca Rather's Pastry Queen cookbook.  It probably gets selected for over 50% of our birthday celebrations and for good reason.  It's great.  The only problem is that it's one of Grant's favorites so he and I battle it out for leftovers.

Now on to other news.  In addition to celebrating my birthday, The Netherlands held elections last month.  As you may have heard earlier this year their government collapsed.  Living in America I always wondered what that term meant.  It sounded so harsh, like the country had fallen into some horrible turmoil.

Not to fear, it wasn't anything like that.  The Netherlands has about 10 or 15 political parties including a religious party, an against-everything party, a green party and an animal rights party.  To form a government some combination of parties must get together, agree on a common platform and form a majority in the legislature to select a prime minister and form a government.  It used to only take two political parties to reach a majority but lately it has required three.  So last spring the three parties that had agreed to agree with each other decided that they couldn't agree on the Euro-crisis strategy and so the government collapsed.

So for four months we had no government.  Actually, everyone was still in office, including the Prime Minister, but they didn't really do anything because there was no majority.  This dysfunctional state is not all that different than the US if you think about it, the Dutch simply admit it publicly.  Belgium had not government for 18 months and no one there seemed bothered at all by that fact.

It doesn't look like the Animal Rights Party does much advertising.  Seems like a picture of a puppy or kitten could really help their cause.  

That was a rather long introduction into how their national elections provide another example of Dutch practicality.  About three weeks before the election, temporary signboards begin appearing around the town.  Not a lot, maybe 5 or 6 in our village.  The candidates use the boards to post their advertisements.   No ugly signs in people's yards.  No continuous trail of signs along business fronts.  No flyers posted on telephone poles.  It's all very tidy.  And everyone seems quite civil when they post their sign on the board...they don't cover up the picture of an opponent and no one seems to draw mustaches on anyone else.  Two days after the election all the boards are gone and the town is beautiful again.  What a great idea.  

Last weekend Grant and I travelled to Belgium for my company's family day celebration at an amusement park, Bobbejaanland.   His normal roller coaster companion (Lori) was conveniently on a business trip to the US so I was his partner on the rides.  We warmed up on some kiddie coasters and log flume rides (it was raining so we were already wet).  Then we got to the park's two signature coasters, Dizzy and Typhoon.

Dizzy was a fairly tame track except that in addition to traveling around the track your car would also spin.  Not a lot of spinning but enough to make some of the curves very interesting.  It actually turned out much better than I expected -- I even went on it twice.

Grant in front of the Typhoon
Typhoon had a little higher thrill factor to it.  You begin by going straight up (as in 90 degrees, vertical, rain hitting you in the face) at a very slow speed.  Then you come over the top and go straight down at a very high rate of speed.  In fact you go more than vertical; it's similar to coming over the top of a capital "R".  Of course after that you go through loop the loops, cinnamon twists and all kinds of gut wrenching turns.  I also went on this ride twice, but the second time might have been a mistake.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tim's Visit

My nephew, Tim, visited us recently.  We gave him a brief exposure to Holland -- a trip to Delft to see the old churches, town square and eat in a outdoor cafe.  He was also game for cycling into town to help me with grocery shopping.  And we visited the local beach which was uninhabited at the time due to the persistent rain that was falling.

Tim sampling the local kibbeling (fried fish) from a stand in Den Haag
We stopped to see the Queen on the way home from Den Haag.  

But the real purpose of his visit was to scuba dive with us in Egypt.  We all flew to Sharm el Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula.  Our objective for the trip was culture, no historical sites....just diving.  We never left the resort.  We didn't have to worry about rain on this beach -- we didn't see a cloud the entire week.  And the temperatures were above 100 degrees every day.  The water temperature was over 85 so the diving was very comfortable.

At 85 degrees the pool wasn't exactly refreshing but it was better than the outside air.  

This was Tim's first time diving.  He had taken the theory classes on-line in the US so he only had to do  four dives with an instructor to obtain his certification.  He had a great teacher and as expected, Tim passed with flying colors.   His biggest challenge was the 20 minute swim.  He's a great swimmer so technique was not the issue.  The challenge resulted from his eating the hotel breakfast buffet right before the swimming session.

Tim and his instructor, Duncan

I also did some training.  I received my Advanced Scuba certification, so now I'm caught up with Lori, Kate and Grant -- at least as far as certifications go.  My diving skills are not quite on their level yet, but they put up with me.  

So once Tim and I finished our classes, the four of us dove together for the next four days.  Tim got a great introduction to diving.  The Red Sea was gorgeous.  Beautiful coral and lots and lots of fish. Some of the best diving we've ever done.  We also did a shipwreck dive in the SS Thistlegorn.  It was a WWII merchant vessel that was sunk in 1941.  It was carrying motorcycles, trucks, airplane parts and train engines -- and they are all still in the wreck.  It was neat to swim around and see these things in the hold.  We also did a night dive which didn't produce anything spectacular -- some crabs, fish sleeping in the coral, phosphorescent plankton -- but is always interesting.

The trucks on the Thistlegorm were loaded with motorcycles -- and they are in the same position as when the ship sank.  Do a google on Thistlegorm and you'll find some interesting reading.  It was discovered by Jacques Cousteau in the 50's but he refused to tell people where it was.  It was eventually found again in the 80's.  
We rode in this boat for 1.5 hours each way to reach the wreck.  No shade, but at least it was fast.  
The highlight of the trip was one of our morning dives.  We were all watching a large hawksbill turtle eating coral.  He was quite hungry and was really munching on the coral.  Then the dive instructor starting waving his arms and pointing out towards the sea.  A group of 10 dolphins was swimming by, including a calf riding on his mom's back.  Then another group of divers went by and pointed in a different direction, towards a large tiger shark.  I didn't actually see the shark, but Lori and Grant did.  Those are not usually the types of  sharks you like to see underwater, but he didn't seem too interested in us.  That was a once in a lifetime dive -- so unfortunately Tim's diving has already peaked.

A tiger shark -- not the one we saw -- but as you can see, not a very friendly fish.  
Dolphins -- again, not the ones we saw -- but it gives you an idea of what we did see.  

Our favorite crypt cover in the Oude Kerk in Delft

The Delft town square as viewed from the bell tower of the Nieuwe Kerk.  

The Oude Kerk and canals in Delft

The rocks around the Ras Mohammed diving area near Sharm el Sheikh. 

The diving cousins

Turin Island, across the sea from our resort.  

Tim and Grant went parasailing on the last day. 

The hotel had a funicular to take people up and down the hill to the pools/beach.  It seemed that every time we wanted to go up the hill, it broke.  The standard line was "it will be fixed in 5 minutes".   We usually just walked because 5 minutes was overly optimistic.  One time they got a golf buggy to take us up the hill, but it didn't have the horsepower to get all four of us up.  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

London - May

The Tower Bridge as seen from the Tower of London
May is the month of holidays for Holland.  We start the month with Queen's Day.  In the middle we celebrate Ascension Day.  And at the end we get two days off for Pentecost.  It's a great month.  Unfortunately, we don't have another holiday until Christmas.  None.  Now you know why the Dutch get 4 weeks vacation beginning their first day of work -- that's how they survive from June until December.

We took advantage of the long Pentecost weekend to fly to London.  There is commuter jet service from Amsterdam to London City Airport, which is located very close to downtown.  With the time change we left Amsterdam at 8:00 am and arrived at London City at 8:00 am.  We took a short train, then the tube and were at our hotel by 9:15, just in time for breakfast.

The primary objective of the trip was theater.  We saw three shows, with each of us picking one.  Grant chose Phantom of the Opera, I chose Billy Elliot and Lori's choice was Rock of Ages.  All three were great.

We also managed to fit in some culture.  Our hotel was next door to the British Museum, where you can (and we have) spend most of a day.  Since we'd been before, we took the one-hour highlights tour.  After doing that tour, I'd call it a best practice.  You see all the things you've heard about, Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies, etc. but the pace is not so grueling.
Chess pieces from the 1100's that were found in Scotland in the 1830's.  They are made of walrus ivory and whale tooth. 
The Royal Game of Ur.  Maybe not as popular as Monopoly, but still interesting.  It is from  what is now Iraq and was played in 2500 BC.  

We use this picture to threaten Goldie and Tai Tai
Kind of a scary looking cat
We also took a repeat visit to the Tower of London, where the crowds were too big to see the Crown Jewels.  But we did manage to find a fantastic hamburger place afterwards.  Our new stop for the visit was the Imperial War Museum, across the Thames.  It gave the WWII history from the British perspective which was interesting.  As point of interest, the museum is housed in a building that was formerly the Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane, better known as Bedlam.

Part of the Tower of London
A raven from the tower.
The Imperial War Museum
Formerly known as Bedlam
We had hoped to go to Windsor Castle, but that was the weekend the Queen hosted all the other monarchs of the world for tea.  This was in preparation for her upcoming Diamond Jubilee to celebrate her 60 years on the throne.

Buckingham Palace

Lori and Grant in front of Buckingham Palace.  They were building the stage for the Queen's Jubilee.  
In addition to all the world's royalty, London seemed to be popular place for commoners as well.  At Phantom, we saw a former Exxon colleague that now lives in France.  He and his family were also traveling on the long weekend. And at the Tower of London we saw one of Grant's classmates and his family.

For the true British experience we had tea at our hotel.  The timers monitor how long to steep your tea.  The different sands represent black tea, green tea and flavored tea.

Grant found a donut stand.

St. Pauls Cathedral sits at the highest point in London.  It normally cost around 15 pounds to visit, but we "accidentally" discovered that if you go during services it is free.  

Kate's boyfriend, Doug, had recommended a visit to Borough Market, an outdoor food market described by the guide book as a "foodie's paradise".  It was a great recommendation.