The Best Things I Saw in 2016

Everyone talks about how bad 2016 was, and there were certainly many rotten things about it. But I enjoyed many sights in the course of 2016, eleven of which are pictured below, not in order of importance but roughly in chronological order. 
The musical, Newsies (above), at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati with my wife, the lovely Robin, and my daughter and son-in-law. 
Henry Ossawa Tanner's Flight into Egypt (above), and other amazing pieces at the Cincinnati Art Museum (see more on that visit here).
A sermon by one of my long-distance pastors-by-podcast, Erwin McManus, at Mosaic Church in Hollywood (see more here about that visit).
Disneyland, in the company of the lovely Robin and my son, daughter-in-law, and two oldest grandchildren. I last visited at the age of ten, I think, so it had been something like five or ten years since I was last there.
A gen-yoo-wine First Folio of Shakespeare's plays (the above is a Fourth Folio; they wouldn't let me take photos of the First Folio, which was encased in plexiglass as if they thought I might touch it or turn the pages) at the Cleveland Public Library's main branch (see more here).
A couple Cincinnati Reds games at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Even in a rebuilding year (or decade), I love my Reds.
A second California trip in 2016 included a visit to Half Moon Bay with my wonderful grandkids.
I got to see El Greco's St. Paul, which hangs beside a Titian, at the St. Louis Art Museum (more here).
In the course of 2016, I got to see live performances of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (above), Macbeth, The Winter's Tale, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. 
Late in 2016, I saw the most adorable "Baby Alive" doll in the world--and the only redhead Baby Alive, apparently. Although the packaging was upside down. Or she was. Realistic, isn't she?
On Christmas Eve, 2016, I got to see two of my grandkids' faces illuminated by a beautiful candlelight service at our church, Cincy Vineyard.

How rich am I? And that's only eleven, out of many, many wonderful things I saw in 2016.

The Best Places I Went in 2016

The Billy Graham Center at The Cove, in Asheville, NC (for the Asheville Christian Writers Conference).
Church on Easter Sunday at our church (Cincy Vineyard) with the family.
My granddaughter Calleigh's dance recital at Hall Auditorium in Oxford, Ohio.
The First Folio exhibit at Cleveland Public Library.
Many of my grandson Ryder's t-ball practices and games in West Chester, Ohio.
Saturday evening worship at Mosaic Church in Hollywood, California.
Disneyland with my our west coast kids and grandkids.
Half-Moon Bay with the lovely Robin, my son Aaron, and grandkids Miles and Mia.
Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in, well, Menlo Park, California. Free donuts. Need I say more?
My annual prayer retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist (where else?), Kentucky.
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival's Bard-a-Thon in Central Park in Louisville, Kentucky.
And trick-or-treating with grandkids Ryder, Avery, and Calleigh. What a rich life I lead.

The Best Things I Ate in 2016

Scampi, with mixed vegetables and potatoes, at Casa Nostra (Ben Lomond, CA)...made even more enjooyable because the lovely Robin and I got to enjoy them with our son and his children, in the shade of towering redwood trees!
Ribs and 'tater salad from the Moelicious food truck at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival Bard-a-Thon (Louisville, KY).
Ribs, "street corn," and sweet potatoes, with a choice of ten sauces at Sugarfire Smokehouse (downtown St. Louis, MO).
The excellent-if-overpriced "standard egg sandwich," and the "Shooting Star," an orange, organic carrot, lemon, and ginger concoction, at the Northstar Cafe (Liberty Center, OH).
Bumblebee Stew at J. Gumbo's (Louisville, KY).
Fried chicken (thank God for chicken; didn't have to do it, but He did!) and more, at Berlin Farmstead (Berlin, OH).
Open-faced roast beef sandwich and mashed-potatoes-and-homemade-noodles at the iconic Boyd and Wurthmann's (Berlin, OH).

Christmas at the Vineyard

The lovely Robin and I were blessed to attend "Christmas at the Vineyard" Christmas Eve services twice this year, on Christmas Eve Eve with Robin's parents, and on Christmas Eve with our daughter, son-in-law (and his parents), and three of our five grandkids. Cincy Vineyard has been our church for four years now, and has blessed us immensely. We've watched the Christmas Eve services grow from five to six and become more traditional over the years while doing something new each year. This year the grandkids (and great-grandparents) enjoyed the "magic" glasses that produced candy canes at every point of light, and it was fun to sing with a decidedly more "twangy" carol sing than ever before (more highlights can be seen here). And, of course, the candlelight portion of the service is always beautiful and blessed. 
After each service, we enjoyed one of my favorite Christmas Eve traditions--taking boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts to people who are working on Christmas Eve (and Christmas Eve Eve). What a joy to surprise people like that, and we are blessed to be part of a church that makes it so easy to reach out to our neighbors. Merry Christmas, everyone! 

The Houston Inn, Mason, OH

One of my in-laws's favorite places to eat is the venerable (since 1953) Houston Inn on Rt. 42 in Mason, Ohio. So that's where the lovely Robin and I took them for a pre-Christmas dinner with our kids, grandkids, and Robin's next-oldest sister, Jane.
Our hosts gave us our own private section of the restaurant (probably because they expected us to be annoying) and our server, Jennifer, gave us exceptional service.
I availed myself of the first-rate homemade clam chowder and salad bar, and Robin had the also-first-rate meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
But the real hit of the day was the "smiley fries" two of the grandkids received with their meals.
It was a lovely time with some of the family (so much so that Avery, the youngest, apparently awarded it a half-jazzhands salute).

The Houston Inn is located at 4026 S. US Route 42 right between Lebanon and Mason, Ohio.

Awaited (Again)

Once again, my family (well, some of them) observed what has become an annual Christmas tradition: seeing Awaited, the extraordinary Christmas show presented by Crossroads Community Church in Cincinnati (see my posts from previous years here, here, and here). Crossroads hosts more than 125,000 people for this event every year.

Our seats weren't the best, but we had a great time nonetheless. It is such a joy watching my grandchildren transfixed by the show, which presents the Christmas story in biblical and imaginative ways.

Performances continue through December 23. Check here for information.

The Berry Center, New Castle, KY

On the way home from a refreshing and revitalizing writers retreat with four friends (yes, I have friends), I took a small detour off I-71 to accomplish a cherished goal: a visit to the Berry Center, home to a foundation that exists to counter the effects of our "industrial agriculture system" and bring about a system and culture that uses nature as the standard, accepts no permanent damage to the ecosphere, and takes into consideration human health in local communities. It is part of the legacy of author Wendell Berry, his father (lawyer and farmer John M. Berry, Sr.), and his brother (state senator and lawyer, John M. Berry, Jr.). It is also something of a repository for Wendell Berry's papers and books.
Upon entering, I admitted the building in New Castle, Kentucky, wasn't what I expected. When I told the young woman who graciously offered to show me around that I had thought the center might be located on the grounds of the family farm or something like that, she answered that her grandparents (Wendell and Tanya Berry) wouldn't allow such a thing. That's right, my guide was their granddaughter, Virginia Berry Aguilar (I look like I'm frowning in that selfie, above, because it was my second attempt, and neither turned out well).
I couldn't have asked for a kinder, more hospitable reception. She showed me (above) the collection of her grandfather's books in the Berry Center offices. Among the many questions I asked (and which she patiently answered) was when she first realized that her grandfather was "Wendell Berry." She remembered a trip she took with him to California when he was being interviewed on the radio and people called in and said many worshipful things about him. One lady repeated, "You're awesome." Later on that trip (perhaps even that same day), Wendell took his granddaughter to Muir Woods and, as they walked among the towering trees, told her, "This is awesome," emphasizing that he wanted to be sure she understood the real meaning of the word. Great story.

Next, my host took me next door to the bookstore of the Berry Center, in an eighteenth-century cabin (one of three still standing within eyeshot of each other on Main Street in New Castle).
As we stood in the beautiful two-room first story, I pointed to what may be my favorite Berry novel, Jayber Crow and asked if I could tell her a story about the book. She agreed, so I told her of the time I was listening to the audiobook on my phone with headphones as I pushed our lawnmower around the yard. I probably shouldn't spoil things for those who haven't yet read the book, but a running device in the book is the men of Port William including Jayber in their gatherings in the woods as they sit on logs and pass around a jug of moonshine; as they do, he describes each man's consumption with the onomatopoeic syllable, "good." Some men's drinking sounded like "good" or "good-good," as they gulped the moonshine. That device recurs several times and perfectly sets up Jayber's words toward the book's end:
I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, "Good-good-good-good-good!" like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit.
Well, that line stopped me in my tracks as I was mowing, not only because it beautifully brought that device full circle but also because it is such a great picture of my own prayer, my own hope. And, in telling it to my host, I choked up and teared up, embarrassingly. She seemed to tear up too, and indulged my emotion. We laughed together and talked a while longer, exchanged cards, and I took a handful of pamphlets and bookmarks with me.

I hope I didn't overstay my welcome. But even if I did, I'm so glad I made the visit, and so grateful for Virginia's kindness, and her grandfather's legacy.

The Berry Center is located at 111 S. Main Street in New Castle, Kentucky.

J. Gumbo's, Louisville, KY

I didn't know that our lunch spot for the last stop on our little writer's retreat this past week was part of a chain. Usually, when I travel, I try to eat at unique, locally-owned restaurants. But although the Cajun-style J. Gumbo's restaurant has locations in ten states, it began in Louisville, and I'm really glad I ate there with my friends.
The Frankfort Avenue location in Louisville sits way back from the road, so it's easy to miss (my friends Torry and David both passed it right by). And the restaurant's exterior doesn't look all that inviting. But in this case, appearances are deceiving.
I had the Bumblebee Stew, after telling the staff member at the counter that I don't eat hot stuff and being offered a taste. It wasn't hot at all and I ate the "bowl as big as the bayou" down to the very last bite. Absolutely delicious.

The J. Gumbo's we ate at is located at 2109 Frankfort Avenue in the Clifton district of Louisville, Kentucky.

Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, KY

One of the many highlights of this past week's little writer's retreat in Louisville, Kentucky, was a visit (all too short) to Carmichael's Bookstore at 2720 Frankfort Avenue (there are two other locations in Louisville, both on Bardstown Road).
I know I've mentioned it before (here, for example), but I love locally-run independent bookstores, and Carmichael's is that. It was opened in April 1978 at 1582 Bardstown Road by Carol Besse and Michael Boggs (the store name is a combination of their first names), and has been owned and operated by them ever since. It is a family business in the best tradition. As the business grew, so did the number of family members involved, and the staff now includes a second generation. The location we visited at the corner of Frankfort and Bayly opened in 2003. The store isn't large, but is clearly a beloved gathering place, hosting frequent author signings and many autographed books.
The children's section (above) is likewise small but well and wisely stocked. The staff was pleasant, attentive, and knowledgeable.
Since I knew that Carmichael's has a close relationship with one of my favorite authors--Wendell Berry (see here)--I bought three of his books, all signed. I wasted no time beginning them all.

As I said, our visit was too short (I blame each and every one of my friends). But it was so fun and rewarding.