GratiTuesday: Delightful Discoveries

When planning a trip, especially one where we will spend a decent amount of time in one location, I often do a search on Instagram. Although guidebooks and general internet sources are fine, Instagram can be a great tool to scout unique and interesting locations. That is how I discovered Casa de las Ranas and the Chapel of Jimmy Ray, and decided we had to go.

Located a few miles outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the house and gallery (which is really the entire property) is a fanciful, whimsical, and joyful celebration of color and creativity. The house, outbuildings, and grounds provide a canvas on which the fantastic mosaic and sculptural creations of owner/artist Anado McLauchlin are assembled and displayed.

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To call Anado’s and his husband Richard’s home merely colorful doesn’t do it justice. It really was more of an explosion of creativity, artistic talent, celebratory color, and love. From the moment Anado greeted us just inside his gate to when the tour ended inside their home (where we had the pleasure of meeting Richard, an art historian and professor) we were embraced by their kindness, welcoming spirit, and their joy of sharing this magical place.

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The property wasn’t easy to get to, but the trip was well worth the effort. Tours are by appointment only (anado@madebyanado.com) and not all cab drivers were aware of its existence. Once there, we arranged for the driver to come back after the tour (which lasted about two hours) since it would have been impossible to find another cab where they lived.

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During are stay in San Miguel we visited many of the locations that our Moon guidebook recommended and we very much enjoyed all that the beautiful colonial town has to offer. Sometimes, though, it was nice to get off the beaten path and be delighted by the unusual and unexpected. Casa de las Ranas and the Chapel of Jimmy Ray were a highlight of our trip and I am grateful to Anado and Richard for fully embracing their playful natures and for allowing us to explore their fantastical home.

Casa de las Ranas (House of the Frogs).
Richard welcoming us into his home.

GratiTuesday: Translation tools for lazy bones

Although my husband and I made attempts to improve our Spanish language skills on our recent trip to San Miguel de Allende, we fell pretty short of the mark. Fortunately and unfortunately, many of the Mexicans we met spoke at least some English. It was fortunate for obvious reasons, but unfortunate because, rather than practice our Spanish (and hopefully learn more), it was often easier to revert to English for expediency sake.

We came home a little disappointed in ourselves, and we wondered if our struggle to learn Spanish was worth it. First of all, we are old… and lazy… but also, with so many great translation tools available, is it really necessary? Beyond the basic words and phrases everyone should know when they visit a foreign country (please, thank you, how much is this, where is the bathroom, etc.), more complicated translations are now only as far away as your smartphone. A quick search on the googles will get you a list of the best translation apps available and Siri is always ready, willing, and able to come to the rescue in a pinch (she even has a pretty good accent).

Some things don’t require a literal translation to understand the message.
Another message that was pretty easy to translate without a tool (El Grito means “The Scream,” “The Shout,” or “The Cry”… any of which works).

Most apps support multiple languages, and many allow you to either speak the words or type the text you want to translate. Interested in having a conversation but neither party speaks the other’s language? When each person talks into the phone, their words are translated (more-or-less) perfectly. Having trouble reading a sign? Just type in the text and it will be translated at least well enough to get the general idea.

Of course, any translation tool is useless if you can’t read the words you want to translate… I got as far as “‘Life is like a cup of coffee’ It’s all in how…” I have no idea what those last two words are.

One of the easiest – and free – apps we used is Google Translate. In addition to translating multiple languages (multiple meaning over 100) by spoken word or by typing, we used our phones’ camera to “read” text. It isn’t perfect, but it helped us read menus, labels, and signs without having to type the unfamiliar words on the smartphone keypad.

Label on plate in Spanish.
Using Google Translate, my phone’s camera did a pretty good job translating the label.

I imagine that sometime in the future, we could have a chip installed in our brain which would instantly translate all the languages of the world. While that would certainly be convenient, I think much would be lost. Instead of hearing the beauty of different languages, all we would hear are the words in our own language instantly translated as the other person is speaking.

Even though I still believe it is best to at least try to speak the language of the country where you are traveling, I know that is not always possible. For those of us who struggle (and maybe are a little lazy), I am pleased that there are tools available. Although not perfect, if translation apps can help bridge the divides and help us better understand each other, I’m grateful for the assistance.

Doing Time in Spam Prison

It started off innocently enough… I was minding my own business, reading the blogs that I follow and making my usual clever, pithy, and well-reasoned comments. Suddenly I noticed that my nuggets of brilliance were disappearing. I’d hit Post Comment and *POOF* they were gone. After trying over and over and watching my comments evaporate each time, I gave up and began to search for a solution.

At first, I thought that some of my comments were waiting moderation, but it was happening even on the blogs that I comment on regularly without trouble. Since it occurred on my iPad as well as my desktop PC, I was pretty sure my usual nemesis, Microsoft, wasn’t to blame. Now, here is where I start missing the perks of work: an IT department, and, if not that, at least having access to a team of internet savvy co-workers. Since retiring, I am my IT department.

I searched the googles with no luck. I explored the WordPress forums to no avail. Finally, I reached out to WordPress’s “Happiness Engineers,” hoping they could live up to the promise contained in their title. Fortunately, Chrissie, Happiness Engineer extraordinaire, came to my rescue and determined that, for some reason, my comments were being marked as spam. Why? she didn’t know, but now that I knew what was happening, hopefully, I could find a fix.

My next step, according to my new best friend Chrissie, was to contact Akismet, plead my case, and have them break me out of spam prison.

What is Akismet, do you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked…

Akismet, according to their website, is a service used by millions of websites. It filters out “hundreds of millions of spam comments from the web every day.”

That’s hundreds of millions of spam comments… and at least 20 of my non-spam comments.

After running a few tests and submitting my DNA, the court of Akismet finally determined that I was wrongly convicted and released me, albeit with a warning:

“Sometimes commenting quickly can mimic the behavior of a spambot, which leads to your comments being marked as spam. To help avoid this happening in the future, you may want to slow down the rate at which you are submitting comments.”

How I, a three-fingered typist at best, could have exceeded the comment speed limit, I have no idea, but I’ve paid my dues to society and have learned my lesson. Now that I’ve tasted freedom, I have no desire to return to spam prison.

By the way, lurking among the various Viagra ads, scammer come-ons, and nonsensical word salads in your spam folder may be one of my innocent comments waiting to be set free.

And, let my experience act as a warning: don’t exceed the comment speed limit least you find yourself thrown in the can.

Desert Meet-Up

Sometimes the universe lines everything up just right. Calendars coincide, schedules align, and the weather gods exhale balmy temperatures and paint picture-perfect skies. That’s what happened last week when four bloggers got together in Palm Desert, California to enjoy each other’s company, break bread, and talk about blogging.

Donna, Janis, Kathy, Terri

Donna (Retirement Reflections) and her husband were in Palm Desert for a month-long home exchange. Kathy (SMART Living 365) didn’t have to drive too far as she lives in a community just a few miles away. Terri (Second Wind Leisure) had traveled from Sacramento to San Diego to visit friends and family over the long Veterans Day weekend. I live in San Diego and, along with Terri, was more than happy to make the 2 1/2 hour trip to the desert to participate in a meet-up with blogger friends.

When the idea for the meet-up started to form several months ago, I was enthusiastically all-in. I have had the pleasure of meeting all three women individually over the last several years so having the opportunity to interact with them at the same time was something I couldn’t pass up. I was confident that our gathering would be full of stimulating conversation, a rich source of insightful information… and a whole lot of fun.

With Donna acting as the host, we came together to learn from each other and share our love of blogging. From each of our unique experiences, opinions, concerns, and outlooks, we shared openly and honestly about a wide range of blogging-related topics, such as:

  • How do we attract active followers and encourage more comments?
  • The role social media does – or doesn’t – play in the promotion of our blogs.
  • How do we stay motivated and find new and interesting topics to write about?
  • What are our individual niches, and is it important to always stay within them?
  • How do we manage our schedules – are we spending too much screen time?

Our time together was uplifting, encouraging, inspiring… and it ended too soon. Before we parted ways, we talked about arranging a similar meet-up next year when Donna and her husband return for another home exchange. We also discussed the possibility of opening it up to other interested bloggers.

All four of us have published posts today about the meet-up from our unique perspectives. I encourage you to check each of them out and leave a comment (we all agreed that the interaction with our readers was one of the best parts of blogging).

Retirement Reflections

SMART Living 365

Second Wind Leisure

A fifth blog, Roaming About, is worth checking out too.  Although Liesbet couldn’t join this gathering, she had the opportunity to meet with Donna and Kathy a few weeks prior and she has written about her experience. (Lucky for me, Liesbet is currently house and pet sitting in San Diego, so I will get to have multiple meet-ups with her over the next few months.)

Look for more posts about the ideas and inspirations that came out of the meet-up. It was truly a special experience and one that I hope we can repeat – and build on – into the future.

GratiTuesday: Brick Walls

brick-wall.jpg

Sometimes it takes hitting a brick wall for me to finally make a change that I have been putting off. That final, immovable force which prevents continuing on a comfortable, but unsatisfactory, forward projection. The wall that tells me that I can no longer ignore the problem and hope it goes away on its own.

I’ve reached that point. It’s time to change my blog theme.

I’m embarrassed to admit that the first time I had a problem with my theme was four years ago, soon after I began my blog. I didn’t like the small size of my blog’s font but I couldn’t figure out how to change it. So, I didn’t… and I remained frustrated… but I decided to live with it and move on.

I encountered the second challenge when I found myself admiring features and cool widgets on various blogs I follow. When I tried to add the same functions to my pages, I found that many of the options weren’t available to me. Unfortunately, my fear of blowing up my site by making a mistake while changing the theme was greater than my desire to spruce things up.

Then, a few months ago, the title of one of my blog posts, Oaxaca’s Street Markets, suddenly appeared – complete with a link – on my menu bar. When I went into my dashboard to fix it, there was no indication that anything was wrong. I tried to add a new menu item hoping that the unwanted item and link would disappear when I clicked on Save and Update. Nope, it was still there. I began to consider that my problem might be greater than just my lack of website experience.

I finally came face-to-face with a big brick wall – one I could not ignore no matter how hard I tried – when my blog suddenly stopped behaving itself when viewed on a tablet. It was small. It was scrunched. It was unreadable.

That wall finally prompted me to seek help. Because these last two problems spontaneously occurred without my making any changes, I had no idea how to fix them. I know that I’m not exactly a techno-wiz but, as far as I could tell, the logical fixes weren’t fixing anything.

Turns out that I have an “expired theme.” Who knew themes expired?

Within the next week or so, I hope to have a shiny new theme up and running. One that has a larger body font, a few extra features and widgets, a menu bar without a mind of its own, and posts that can be read without a magnifying glass no matter what device is being used.

As I make the transition, I will probably be tweaking things here and there, moving stuff around, and adding features that catch my fancy. If anything goes awry or something looks wonky on your side of the screen, I’d love it if you could give me a heads up. Hopefully everything will go perfectly smooth… right.

I am grateful for the brick wall that smacked me in the head and has prompted me to make a few needed changes. Hitting a brick wall is not very pleasant but, sometimes, that’s just what I need.

GratiTuesday: BookBub

Have you heard about BookBub? If you have, I hope that you are happily downloading some great books at bargain prices. If you haven’t, read on…

A friend told me about BookBub a couple of years ago but it took me awhile to consider it further. Since I prefer actual, physical books, having a bunch of ebooks available for download wasn’t of much interest.

What changed my mind and prompted me to look at BookBub again was my purchase of a Kindle Paperwhite. I was tired of carrying books with me when I traveled and thought a single, light-weight device (that can hold more than a thousand books) made more sense.

BookBub is a free service that emails me several book suggestions every day. Most books cost about $1.99; some are a little more, and some are a little less… even free. If a book in the selection looks good, I click on the title and am taken to Amazon’s website, where I can read more about it, and, if I want, purchase it with one click. Easy peasy.

A sample of a recent email I received from BookBub

And, don’t assume that the books offered are the type that you might find on a remainder table in some dusty corner of a bookstore. Many are best sellers, or written by best-selling authors. Recent purchases include the critically acclaimed Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of President Lyndon Johnson, and A Long Way Home, the fascinating memoir that the movie Lion was based on.

BookBub members can customize the selections to their taste. For instance, I particularly enjoy historical fiction and biographies so that’s the genre I see the most. I can update my settings at any time, and I can see everything BookBub is currently offering by going to their website.

I typically borrow my paper books from the library or purchase them from second-hand stores, so I am not about to buy a bunch of ebooks at full price. I am grateful that BookBub has allowed me to populate my virtual library with quality books for very little cost.

And, just in case you thought I might have been paid for this post, I have not. I love BookBub and wanted to spread the word. If you haven’t yet tried it, you might want to check it out.

GratiTuesday: Public Broadcasting and Its Supporters

I first wrote about my love for my local public broadcasting stations last year. At the time, I had no idea that, just a few months later, their federal funding could be in jeopardy. Some of this post is a repeat, but I’ve updated it and added information about important ways you can lend your support (including a link to a petition you can sign).

My husband and I usually begin our day listening to our local National Public Radio (NPR) station and, in the evening, we often watch the Public Broadcasting Station’s (PBS) NewsHour to catch up on the day’s news. When I’m driving around in my car, my radio might as well be permanently fixed on NPR because I rarely listen to anything else. In addition, we watch many of the quality shows our local PBS station broadcasts in the evening such as Downton Abbey (sadly over now), Sherlock, Masterpiece Theater, and anything Ken Burns produces.

When I listen to NPR or watch PBS, I am always entertained and I usually learn something new; sometimes the topics are already of great interest to me and sometimes the subjects weren’t even on my radar. Either way, I always get something out of the time I spend watching or listening to this most valuable public resource.

I am so grateful for public television and radio and the diverse programs and services that are available to inform, educate, enlighten, and enrich us all. They are a bright light shining above the fray of polarized and often questionable news sources. Public broadcasting stations are operated as private not-for-profit corporations and partially rely on contributions by their listeners.

I am also grateful for those who support public broadcasting.

  • If you haven’t given your local public broadcasting station a try, tune in sometime and see if what they offer is of value to you.
  • If you do watch or listen – or both – but are not yet a member, consider joining. Your support will help ensure the continued success of smart, thoughtful programming.
  • If you are already a member: fabulous! If you can, think about upping your level of support. Also, please consider including your local station in your estate planning so that future generations can enjoy this valuable resource too.
  • And finally, please lend your voice to the public outcry about the president’s budget that proposes to eliminate public media funding. The federal investment in public media is relatively small – roughly $1.35 per American taxpayer annually – less than 1/100th of one percent of the federal budget, yet PBS is watched by 82 percent of U.S. households.

If you feel that public media is an essential part of the fabric of our culture, please make your voice heard. Visit www.ProtectMyPublicMedia.org to sign this petition urging Congress to continue the essential funding for public media and your local stations. Call your representatives to let them know how important it is to you.

Thank you!