Fly Like an Eagle

Fly Like an Eagle

I have never been particularly interested in birds because I prefer the type of animals that you can cuddle and walk, but this week’s book had me plan a #PlotDrivenLife experience to learn more about birds native to the St. Louis area. It just so happens that the Mississippi River in the dead of winter provides the perfect conditions to spot bald eagles fishing– that is if the extremely cold temperatures and wind conditions don’t keep them grounded. More on that in a minute, but first, check out the book that inspired this week’s experience: Flight Season by Marie Marquardt:

Vivi is in free-fall after a disastrous freshman year at Yale. Instead of road-tripping around the country with her roommate all summer, Vivi relocates to St. Augustine, FL with her mother, both of them still deeply grieving Vivi’s father’s recent death. Though she finds comfort in bird-watching and reliving the world-wide adventures she shared with her dad, Vivi is panicked that she’s dangerously close to destroying her dreams of medical school. If she wants a second chance at Yale, she’ll have to dedicate herself to the hospital internship she miraculously finagled. As a result of her father’s illness, Vivi feels called to medicine, and the fact that she gets woozy at the sight of blood is just a temporary inconvenience, right? 

Broody TJ wants to make a life for himself beyond the confines of his family’s restaurant, Sabor do Brasil. He splits his days as a nurse-in-training at the hospital and his nights and weekends as a server. He never thought he’d run into the attractive, rich girl, so named Vivi, who got so drunk she took off her top and completely embarrassed herself while he was working at the restaurant over Thanksgiving break. At the time, TJ was disgusted with her and her uppity friends; now that’s she’s assigned to work on the cardiac ward with him, he can’t even look her in the eyes. 

While caring for a young patient named Angel, Vivi and TJ are forced to face their misconceptions about each other, and they learn that life rarely goes according to plan. 

Author Marie Marquardt writes about Vivi’s grief so realistically that I could feel it, and I easily connected to the characters. I liked the use of alternating viewpoints between Vivi and TJ, but I have to admit that I found Angel’s narration a bit weird. Overall, this is a sweet love story with a conclusion that will tug at your heartstrings.

Eagles Grounded

To start each of the chapters that Vivi narrates, Marquardt includes a sketch Vivi has drawn of a bird she’s spotted and facts about the bird she’s learned from a bird reference book. Vivi feels a connection to her father through the birds she sees, and the reader sees her obsessive bird-watching and recording as a symptom of her grief. It’s both beautiful and heart-wrenching.

I hadn’t ever before been bird-watching outside of an eagle-watching excursion while I was on an Alaskan cruise, but after reading this book, I was particularly interested in participating in a local Eagle Days event to learn more about the prevalence of these birds near where I live. I did not know before researching this event that, according to the Eagle Days website, “The Mississippi River holds one of North America’s largest concentrations of bald eagles.” So, with blowing winds and temperatures in the 20 degree Fahrenheit range, Mike and I suited up in our winter gear, and prepared to walk across the Mississippi River on the Chain of Rocks Bridge in January to get a good look at some majestic eagles. As we took the long walk towards the center of the bridge where volunteers had set up telescopes for visitors, I found myself doing that cold-weather coping thing where you just scream for no reason, maybe just to prove to yourself you’re still alive?

Don’t be fooled by the smile. It was take-your-breath-away freezing out there.

When we arrived at the telescopes, the only thing to see was empty eagle nests tucked into the side of a nearby bridge or the branches of a barren tree. The eagles, according to the volunteers, were safely tucked away in a copse of trees downstream. Maybe they were watching us, laughing at our ridiculous outfits and decision to walk out over the Mississippi in conditions that literally took your breath away!

So, we didn’t see any eagles in their natural habitat, but the highlight of the day was a special eagle education program we attended onsite sponsored by the World Bird Sanctuary. Josh, an employee at the sanctuary, brought with him an injured eagle named Sanibel, and we sat just a few feet away from her while he taught us about the mission of the sanctuary, how Sanibel (aptly named because she once lived in Florida) came to be one of its residents and the basics of bald eagles.

Josh with Sanibel the eagle
Josh and Sanibel.

It. Was. So. Cool. Sanibel was very chill, and so was Josh, considering that their faces were only a few inches from one another. There was no audience bird-petting allowed, of course, but this experience certainly made me more appreciative of the majestic beauty of the national bird. I mean, these birds know how to build a nest!

Me, in a replica eagle’s nest, living my best life.

If you missed out on one of the many eagle-watching events in January, consider a visit to the World Bird Sanctuary any time of year to learn more about ALL of the different kinds of eagles. I had no idea!

Happy reading,


Turtle Takeover

Turtle Takeover

Heroes in a Half-Shell!

Were you a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles junkie like me as a kid? I spent many an afternoon in front of the tv in the 1990s, totally absorbed with these “heroes in a half-shell” with “turtle power!” As I reflect on this completely ridiculous show (and now movie franchise) as an adult, I have to believe that the writers were high on drugs when they came up with the premise: after being infected by toxic sewer waste, a life-sized rat mentors four adolescent, juiced-up turtles, each named after a renaissance painter, as they fight crime. What the what? You can actually read about how the TMNT came to be here. Talk about accidental genius.

This week’s #plotdrivenlife experience also features a crazy concept about turtles. I’m writing about John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. I’ll explain the title’s meaning, but first, my review:

This book provides us a glimpse at a young lady who is often tortured by her OCD, a mental illness John Green himself admits to having. Green’s story features Aza whose social circle is limited to Daisy, a fierce friend who writes Star Wars fan fiction and dreams of a life out of poverty. Daisy convinces Aza that they should pursue the $100,000 prize for information that leads to the whereabouts of Russell Pickett, a corrupt billionaire business tycoon who vanished from a suburb of Indianapolis before police had the chance to arrest him. Aza knows Pickett’s son Davis since the two once attended the same camp for kids with a deceased parent, and when Aza sees Davis again during their “investigation, “she feels a connection to the boy who, despite having all the money in the world, is suffering, too.

John Green allows readers to intimately feel the pain of his characters in this book. Aza’s OCD rules her decisions and relationships, and Green is clear that there is no easy fix for her thought-spirals. Turtles All the Way Down also offers a realistic glimpse into the complexity of friendships. Daisy is no flat character; she makes cringe-worthy mistakes, and Aza’s inability to escape her own mind makes her unaware of Daisy’s struggles.

A stand-out title, and a raw look at mental illness that can benefit all of us. The audio-book was exceptional.

Turtle Takeover

The phrase “turtles all the way down” actually refers to the idea that a giant turtle is carrying Earth on her back, and she, in turn, stands on the backs of other turtles. As a result, Earth is supported by an infinite number of turtles, or turtles all the way down. I know; it’s about as nutty as liking a show about over-sized turtles wielding nun-chucks.

But really, the planets and solar system play an important role in this story. Davis Pickett, Aza’s love interest, is mesmerized by the cosmos. Despite the fact he lives in a sprawling estate, Davis admires the beauty of the stars, and he romances Aza with his knowledge of astronomy.

Not knowing much about astronomy myself, I turned to the Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri (ASEM) for some guidance. Almost every Friday evening, regardless of the season, anyone can visit Broemmelsiek Park’s Astronomy Viewing Site where expert astronomers set up their telescopes for the public to enjoy, beginning at approximately 7 pm. It’s a completely free activity for all ages. There were several Girl Scouts on site when we visited!

Awkward photo taken by the hubs.
It was a beautiful night to star-gaze! Bet you can’t spot Venus.

Thanks to the delightful members of the Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri, I was able to view Venus as well as Jupiter’s storm and several of her moons through their various telescopes. Through the massive telescope that is permanently on site (it literally has its own shed), I had the opportunity to view a globular cluster for the first time. Simply incredible!

That’s my friend, Jaime, looking through the permanent, on-site telescope.

One of the ASEM members also recommended I download a free app called SkyView Lite (for iOs only) which, when pointed at any part of the sky, identifies stars, planets and satellites and outlines constellations. I have fallen in LOVE with this app, and it’s become a habit for me to use it any time I’m sitting outside at night.

Leo, as seen through the SkyView Lite app.

If you like free, take note of the fact that ASEM has a partnership with the St. Charles City-County Library District that allows local residents to check out one of 19 telescopes! And if you’re a teacher, you can check out a Sunspotter solar telescope to use with your students. I had no idea!

I have to emphasize how cool it is that St. Louis-area people have access to a dedicated star-gazing spot AND that the ASEM folks dedicate their Friday nights to teach the locals about the cosmos! I’m very sure Davis Pickett would choose this as a date night activity with Aza.

Happy reading,


Get in My Belly!

Get in My Belly!

It’s been a while since I lasted posted, but I hope to have several posts for you over the next few weeks!

North of Happy by Adi Alsaid

We are fast approaching the season of food. Thanksgiving is a month away, and if you celebrate Christmas like I do, you might already be searching for some trendy elastic waistband pants to get you through the season! In fact, a teacher friend of mine told me recently that she keeps a pair of maternity pants on hand for food holidays. Genius! This week’s blog post celebrates food, and I promise you can savor it without needing to change your pants.

DO NOT read this book on an empty stomach. Author Adi Alsaid writes tantalizing descriptions of food–from tacos to seafood, omelettes, sauces and sandwiches. This book will have you drooling!

Carlos knows it’s not healthy that he sees his dead brother’s ghost, and it’s definitely not healthy that he holds conversations with cet ghost. The trauma of losing Felix in a random shooting has deeply scarred Carlos, and the fact that their father wants Carlos to “forget about the past” makes it even worse. In response to his father’s insensitivity, Carlos makes a life changing last-minute decision. While watching a cooking show, he decides he’ll go to the featured restaurant–Provecho–located on an island in Washington state, thousands of miles away from his home in Mexico City.

While Carlos continues to see Felix’s ghost on the island, he finds his place at the restaurant, taking on a job as a dishwasher and falling for the head chef’s daughter, Emma. Carlos desperately wants the chance to feature his own recipes on the menu, and he suffers through hellish cooking lessons from the notoriously short-tempered “Chef” for the chance to improve his skills. It’s Chef’s ultimatum that he can’t stand; she makes it clear that he can’t date Emma if he wants to continue working at the restaurant. Carlos feels he has sacrificed enough, though, and wants both the chance to learn from Chef and enjoy Emma–even though ghost Felix thinks it’s a bad idea.

This is a book about grief, forgiveness and perseverance; it’s a stellar reminder that we should all do what we love and eat fabulous food along the way!

The audio is great, by the way.

Channeling My Inner Carlos

During the last three Thursday evenings in October, I have had an absolute blast attending a Basics of Cooking class with my friend Ali Jean. Now, if you’ve read any of my previous posts that relate to food, you know that I love to eat it, but I am really terrible at cooking. I lack the patience, the skills and the palate to make truly great food, so when Ali suggested we take a newbie cooking class together at the Kitchen Conservatory in St. Louis, I thought I could at least improve my skills and write about the connection to North of Happy. I did not expect the experience to be such a highlight of my week!

My dear friend, Ali Jean, expert Fish Seasoner!

Our class was taught by Barb Nack, a no-nonsense teacher whom I liked immediately. At our first session, Barb provided each of us with a folder with the recipes we’d make that evening as well as some helpful cooking terminology. We had a chance to practice our knife-cutting skills before we dove into making a feast! In teams under Barb’s watchful eye, we made vegetable soup, garlic compound butter, pasta primavera, pasta soup, and beef and chicken stir-fry with rice. We learned how and when to use salt, why olive oil beats EVOO and why chopped veggies should all be the same size. I left the class stupidly full and happy. I’d cooked several dishes I was confident I could make at home without Barb’s guidance. Success!

Week 2: Roast beef with gravy, perfectly crisp green beans, root vegetables, cheese biscuits, mashed potatoes and chocolate ganache cake.

The second and third weeks of class proved to be even more tasty. During the second class, we collaborated to prepare an entire roast beef dinner complete with the best chocolate ganache cake I have ever had in my life. I ended up buying an in-oven thermometer after that class and used it to cook a pork roast to perfection in my own oven. During our third class, the highlights were the fried tilapia, homemade mac & cheese and chocolate mousse. So. Dang. Good. I have one more class to make up in January, but I’m flush with recipes to try on my Canadian family coming to visit in November. Hooray!

Chicken with vegetables and pan sauce.
Chocolate mousse.

While I didn’t exactly feel Carlos’ deep passion for cooking during my Kitchen Conservatory experience, the class was the most fun I’ve ever had in a kitchen. I looked forward each week to the opportunity to share the hectic, crowded space with ten or so other classmates, all working together to prepare a meal of which we could be proud! And who doesn’t love the chance to eat their hard work?

Me, Barb and Ali, all smiles in the kitchen!

Thanks for reading, and I promise to post next week!