Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Buenos días and sayonara

A World Cup victory uplifts the spirits of the winning team and, by extension, its entire country.  A defeat, no matter by the narrowest of margins, sometimes, is very unforgiving for the losing team.

The opportunities for Japan and Paraguay during their Round of 16 elimination game Tuesday afternoon at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, were so scarce that a penalty kick shoot out was necessary to decide the winner. After playing 90 minutes of regulation time, plus two 15-minute overtime periods, the score was tied nil-nil.  Neither team converted any of its shots on goal (Paraguay had six, Japan five).

So, the match would be decided by a penalty kick shoot out, the first in the 2010 World Cup tournament.  The rules are simple:  First team to score five goals and outscore their opponent by at least one goal would be declared the victor and advance to the quarterfinals.  The losers would be eliminated from the World Cup.

Talk about agony and ecstasy in this most international of sports.

It's a very dramatic way to decide a match, but is it fair? Sure, you say it's equitable since each team would be given five tries to score.  But skeptics ask if the penalty kick shoot out does the sport justice? Whether you agree or not, it certainly provides an exciting means to an end.

A penalty kick shoot out creates a very unforgiving experience for the goalkeepers, and a very tense one for the kickers lined up in the midfield circle, awaiting their turn to take their shots. Before the penalty kick shoot out commenced, the television cameras showed the Paraguay players rushing over to hug their goalkeeper and team captain, Justo Villar, before he calmly marched into the battlefield to defend his team and country's honor ~ and, hopefully, stop at least one shot.

Paraguay won the toss and elected to kick first.  Each team would alternate taking shots.

One by one, Paraguay converted all five of its kicks against Eiji Kawashima, including the clincher by the cool and calm Oscar Cardoza, whose jersey bore the lucky number 7,  that sent his team into its very first World Cup quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, Japan made its first two penalty kicks.  Then, on its third try, no goal, it hit the crossbar.  Japan made its fourth try, but it was too late to reverse the outcome.  The miss cost Japan the match against Paraguay, which advanced on penalties 5-3.

One minute, the two teams were on even ground.  The next, Paraguay was exultant while Japan was despondent.  The penalty kick shoot out was over in a matter of a few minutes.

I really feel for Yuichi Komano, who missed the decisive third kick for Japan, and will forever wear the goat horns for the remainder of his career.  However, he shouldn't be the scapegoat for an entire nation.

Afterward, there were many tears of happiness on the field, and in the stands, for La Albirroja.  There were plenty of tears of disappointment throughout for the fallen Blue Samurai.  Lots of emotions flowed on the pitch.  One team showed flutey, the other solemnity, each a reflection of their respective country's national anthem.

Fortunately, it's the memorable, thrilling endings to games like this one that stick in our minds.  Win or lose, it's all about the courage displayed by the players for both teams.  And they certainly put it all on the line for their country today in the World Cup.  Despite Japan's misfortune, there was plenty to feel good about underdog Paraguay's victory.  Advancing to the quarterfinals is new territory for Paraguay, which was one of four South American teams to reach the final eight.  Their next adventure is Saturday in Johannesburg's Ellis Park, against Spain.

Still, you have to empathize with poor, poor Japan.  After all, it was the cruelest way to lose.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Greatest match ever in the greatest place

It took 11 hours, 5 minutes and 183 games ~ spread over three days ~ before the longest match in tennis history finally ended at 4:48 p.m. local time on Thursday afternoon with American John Isner prevailing 70-68 in the fifth set over Nicolas Mahut of France in a first-round gentlemen's singles match at Wimbledon.

If the final tally looked impossible or, worse, a misprint in your morning newspaper, make no mistake.  The final result on the Court No. 18 scoreboard, which had to be reprogrammed after Wednesday evening's suspension of play, was full of a lot of crooked numbers ~ and most of them were in Isner's favor: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.

The headline in Friday's New York Times hailed the epic match:

Game, Set, and 3 Days Later, Match.

It drew a hardy mention from a World Cup announcer during the broadcast of the Italy-Slovakia match on ESPN when the score of the last set was 67-all.

By Day 3, the Isner-Mahut marathon match had become the talk of the tournament, if not the world, and nearly upstaged the royal visit by Her Majesty The Queen.  It's too bad Queen Elizabeth II didn't make time to stay late and venture over to the quaint Court No. 18 during her first visit to the All England Club in 33 years. If she had, she could have rubbed shoulders with a few hundred enthusiastic spectators, including John McEnroe and Woody Allen.  Imagine, a tea time threesome with the queen, McEnroe and Allen.  Instead, the queen, 84, preferred to call it a day after spending a couple of hours in the Royal Box at Centre Court watching Andy Murray, Britain's best and only hope for winning a singles title this year, who put on a pretty good show for everyone in defeating Jarkko Nieminen of Finland in conventional straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.

In fairness, the queen's itinerary was scripted to the minute, which earlier included a brief walk about the hallowed grounds, lunch with tennis royalty, including Roger Federer and Martina Navratilova (the main course: orange and honey marinated chicken on fruity couscous with roasted vegetables), and an appearance in the front row of the Royal Box surrounded by her cousin, the Duke of Kent, and Virginia Wade, the last Englishwoman to win Wimbledon in 1977 ~ coincidentally, the last time the queen paid a visit to Wimbledon, during her Silver Jubilee year.

For the record, Queen Elizabeth II arrived on schedule at Centre Court at 1 p.m. sharp, attired in a light blue dress and matching hat and sunglasses.  The crowd gave the queen a standing ovation and she acknowledged the crowd with a polite, royal wave with her white-gloved left hand.  At least, that's how I remember seeing it on TV, although I admit I was still half-asleep at 5 a.m. Pacific Time. The British newspaper, The Guardian, described Her Majesty's arrival in a slightly more colorful manner:  "The crowd whooped and cheered as she materialised, resplendent in a turquoise gown with matching inverted flower-pot hat."

No worries, the important matter is this: By all accounts, it appeared that Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed a pretty good time during her visit to SW19 on Thursday, and in return, the All England Club put on a jolly good show for the royals  ~ and, the tradition of bowing on Centre Court, albeit for one match, made a nice comeback.

A postscript: OK, I'll admit it.  Like many tennis fans who collectively held their breath, I became hooked by the Isner-Mahut marathon of all matches, starting from twentysomething-all on Wednesday.  I invested about four hours of my time on Wednesday, watching and tracking the tennis match on TV, which followed the euphoria of the Landon Donovan goal that gave the U.S. a stunning 1-0 victory over Algeria in the World Cup.  So, coming back to watch the conclusion of the tennis match on Thursday morning was a given.

Even though I didn't favor one player over the other, I hoped the match would have a happy ending.  Finally, it did after Isner held serve to go ahead 69-68 and, then, for the first time in the decisive fifth set, broke Mahut.  In the end, both Isner and Mahut were winners, and they will be forever linked by this match.  Even, if only one player would emerge as the victor and earn the right to play on in the second round.

After being embraced at the net by Isner, his opponent for three days, Mahut put things in proper perspective. "We played the greatest match ever in the greatest place to play tennis."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Her Majesty The Queen and the pleasure of our gardens, part 8

The big news out of England not involving the disappointment of the Three Lions squad at the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa, or the unavoidable pain inflicted by Whitehall's austerity budget plan, centers around this week's highly anticipated visit by the Queen of England to the Wimbledon Championships on Thursday.

Speaking of the Queen, our Queen Elizabeth roses are thriving quite nicely thanks to summer's arrival this week.  With seven roses currently blossoming in our backyard garden as I write this post, our Queen Elizabeth roses are showing wonderful maturity and color.  More on them in a moment.

Back to Wimbledon, the British royalty have been associated with The Championships at the All England Club in London's SW19 since 1907, when the Prince of Wales first visited the Worple Road tennis grounds, accompanied by Princess Mary. Over the years, various members of the royals, including Queen Elizabeth II, have visited the Royal Box at Centre Court. No doubt, the amenities are nice and plentiful with a befitting sense of majesty for Her Majesty: A good, unobstructed view of the action on the immaculately groomed grass court; a proper amount of shade and comfortable chairs to relax while watching play; and, just as importantly, unlimited strawberries and cream to nibble on while chatting among other royal dignitaries.

According to the tournament's official Wimbledon website, which devotes an entire chapter to Royalty at Wimbledon, the Queen's last visit to the Royal Box was on July 1, 1977 during her Silver Jubilee year and also on the occasion of the Championship's Centenary. (Her other visits were in 1957 and 1962).  So, it's been 33 years since the Queen's last Tea Time at Wimbledon ~ and, aside from tennis evolving considerably since the days of wooden rackets many a fortnight ago, think of some of the champions she's missed seeing play in person: Borg, McEnroe, Becker, Navratilova, Graf, the Williams sisters, Federer.

Well, Britain's best hope for a winning a singles title at this year's Wimbledon ~ and erasing its biggest sporting embarrassment ~ rests of the shoulders of a Scot, Andy Murray.  Seeded fourth in the men's singles draw, Murray recently said he would be honored to play in front of the Queen on Centre Court, and would bow to her if his opponent did. Britain's last singles titlist, the Englishwoman Virginia Wade, whose 1977 triumph coincided with Her Majesty's Silver Jubilee visit, observed for London's Guardian newspaper: "I think Andy should be tickled by the Queen coming to Wimbledon."

We await news of the Queen's visit ~ and her choice of wardrobe ~ with great interest.

Now, we return to the pleasure of our garden ~ and our Queen Elizabeth roses ~ in our own backyard, far removed from all of the overseas sporting hoopla.

A bit of history about the Queen Elizabeth rose and an answer to where it gets its name: The Queen Elizabeth rose honors the 1952 accession to the throne and the 1954 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain ~ yes, that Queen Elizabeth, whom Helen Mirren so marvelously portrayed in the 2006 movie The Queen. The rose's other name is the Queen of England rose.  It is a cross between the Charlotte Armstrong and Floradora roses.

Our Queen Elizabeth rose bush occupies a prime throne in our backyard garden, near the gate of our picket fence.  Its southern facing means it gets ample sunshine throughout the day and it nicely complements our Mr. Lincoln deep red rose bush, which stands to the Queen's right.

While our Queen Elizabeth rose bush is vigorous and tall ~ its largest branches typically grow to a height of about five or six feet before pruning ~ perennially, it produces beautiful, medium pink roses from spring through autumn that not only are lovely and elegant, but also mildly fragrant.  They awaken our senses.

And, most importantly, they're very photogenic.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Beautiful sounds for a beautiful game

The World Cup of soccer tournament taking place this month in South Africa is as much about culture and identity as it is about athleticism and artistry on the pitch, and music plays a beautiful part of this celebration of national pride.

My interest in music goes hand-in-hand with the World Cup, and reaffirms that good music like good soccer knows no geographic boundaries.  While my musical tastes continually evolve, thanks to iTunes, I've discovered there is a wealth of wonderful music being created both within the U.S. and around the world.

As my iPod's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" playlist grows weekly,  there's plenty of international sound from individuals and groups whose home countries are competing in the World Cup, and also from from a few countries, like Canada and Sweden, who didn't qualify.

My favorite online music station, kcrw.com (the National Public Radio affiliate based in Santa Monica, Calif.), got into the World Cup spirit recently by putting together a playlist, "Music of the World Cup 2010," that encompasses all 32 countries competing in the tournament.  It's worthy of listening to and will definitely expand your music boundaries.

In that same spirit, here's an international playlist of songs on my iPod that I've been listening to lately and highly recommend, with the country of origin in parentheses (*):

* "England" by The National (U.S.) from High Violet
* "Paris Nights/New York Mornings" by Corinne Bailey Rae (England) from The Sea
* "La Gloria" by Gotan Project (based in France, of French, Swiss and Argentine origin) from Tango 3.0
* "In Love and War" by Tina Dico (Denmark) from The Road to Gavlae
* "Grow" by Delorean (Spain) from Subiza
* "Magnificent" by U2 (Ireland) from No Line on the Horizon
* "Amulet" by Luciana Souza (Brazil) from Tide
* "Zebulon" by Rufus Wainwright (Canada) from All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu
* "Four by Four" by Shout Out Louds (Sweden) from Work
* "It Is Not Meant to Be" by Tame Impala (Australia) from InnerSpeaker

Indeed, there are plenty of beautiful sounds to enjoy while also enjoying the sport they call the beautiful game.  I encourage you to go exploring. The fun and pleasure is in the journey.

(*) All songs on my playlist are available for purchase via iTunes.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Beautiful Game

The Beautiful Game is synonymous with soccer, a sport blending both artistry and athleticism.  And, no other sporting event captures the world stage quite like the quadrennial World Cup.

What Americans commonly refer to as soccer is known throughout the rest of the sporting world as football, not to be confused with our NFL-style football.  The World Cup of football serves as an ultimate geography lesson, teaching us about the culture and language of the 32 participating nations as well as about team nicknames, national flags and national anthems. Yet, why stop there?  Let's extend it to culinary treats and add a bit of international musical flavor to the mix ... well, you've got endless possibilities.  Who knew international sport could be so much fun while also being educational?

The month-long, 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament, hosted by the Republic of South Africa ~ the first time the Cup has been played on the African continent ~ started last Friday in Johannesburg to great fanfare and buzz from the incessant drone of those pesky vuvuzelas.

After the first few days of group play, there's been plenty of excitement on the South African pitches, from Durbin to Port Elizabeth to Cape Town.  Among the highlights:

* Host Republic of South Africa's moral victory, a 1-1 draw with Mexico, in the opening match of the World Cup before 84,490 at Soccer City Stadium.  Bafana Bafana ("The Boys" as South Africa's team is known in its homeland) scored the tournament's first goal, a superb left-footed shot by Siphiwe Tshabalala.  He and four of his teammates celebrated with an impromptu theatrical chorus line dance.

* England's huge goalie gaffe, as Robert Green ("Hands of Clod" as he was vilified by the London tabloids) let an easy one dribble past him that enabled the U.S. squad to gain a 1-1 draw with the Brits.

* Germany's pin-point passing, which penetrated Australia's defense for four stunningly beautiful goals in their 4-0 victory over the Socceroos.

* The delightful enthusiasm shown by the Brazilians in their 2-1 victory over North Korea, and their impeccable passing skills, which set up the wonderfully choreographed goals by Maicon and Elano.

The World Cup tournament continues through July 11, with 32 countries competing in eight groups of four teams each.  Italy ("The Azzurri" for Sky Blues) is the defending World Cup champion.  Group play runs through June 25 before the knockout rounds commence ~ and the real fun begins.  ESPN (with assistance from ESPN2 and ABC) is broadcasting all of the World Cup matches live (in all U.S. time zones) ~ thankfully, there's no waiting around hours after a match has finished for an Olympics-style, tape-delayed prime time package like NBC regularly dishes out with the Olympics.

Match times are uniform each day during group play, which makes scheduling your day or programming your DVR simple ~ 7:30 a.m. ET/4:30 a.m. PT; 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT, and 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT ~ and matches are free of commercial interruptions during play, so you needn't worry about missing any goals.  Living in the Pacific Time zone, I've enjoyed tuning in for some of the first-week matches while eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, others during a midday lunch break.

Of particular interest, and not to be missed, is the pre-match ceremonies just minutes before kickoff, which include the starting lineups from both teams walking out onto the stadium pitch, hand-in-hand with local school kids dressed in soccer uniforms, then singing along to their respective national anthems ~ many of the players actually seem to know the lyrics to their anthems and always sing with proper enthusiasm.  Prior to playing Brazil, one North Korean player was shown visibly moved to tears during the playing of the "Aegukka".  After exchanging keepsakes and handshakes, the referee hands the Jabulani (the name of the soccer ball manufactured by Adidas and inscribed with the names of the two teams for each match) to the team kicking off, and before you know it, play is underway and the soap opera on grass begins.

The production values of the World Cup matches have been high-definition tremendous ~ including crisp, uncluttered graphics; running time clock; multiple replay angles, which capture the thrill and agony of each goal and near miss ~ and, to its credit, ESPN has put together an expert crew of play-by-play commentators and analysts, most with ties to English or European soccer, to dissect strategy and explain a lot of nuances of the sport ~ and, just as importantly, inflect the right amount of emotion and enthusiasm to maintain our interest and make us want to care about each match.

If you're unable to tune in to watch the matches, you can keep up with the World Cup with video highlights via ESPN's website at espn.com, as well as reading all about it online in the New York Times.  For a British take on things, try reading the Guardian online.

Whether you're rooting interest is with the Oranje of the Netherlands, La Furia Roja of Spain, the Three Lions of England, or Team USA, it's going to be an exciting month of play on the South African pitches, and with Wimbledon and the Tour de France overlapping, it's international sport at its pinnacle.

Now, if we can just get those colorful-but-crazy fans to put away their noisy vuvuzelas ~ those plastic trumpets that make a loud, buzzing sound ~ and, instead, get them to engage in some traditional English football-style singing and chanting, maybe a few choruses of "Ole', Ole', Ole'!"  Then, the Beautiful Game would truly be beautiful.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The pleasure of our gardens, part 7

The beginning of June marks a transitional time for our gardens.  As spring winds down and summer nears, there's a noticeable shift in the composition and colors of the flowers that dot our landscape.

Earlier this month, we bid farewell to the last of our irises and, as of this writing, there are just a few rhododendron still blooming.  It's too bad they can't extend their stay just a little longer ~ both add vibrancy with their respective purple hues ~ but their blooming cycle is limited and, thus, not to be taken for granted.  So, you can imagine my interest in documenting, through pictures, the beauty of both our irises and rhododendrons with their new arrival each spring.

Surprisingly, last weekend, while gardening on the shady, east side of our house, I discovered two late-blooming calla lilies.  I guess they are late bloomers since their prime blooming season starts in late winter and concludes in early spring. Nearby, our fuchsia bush continues an active growth cycle with dozens of colorful blooms, nicely aided by a north-facing, mid-afternoon sunshine that arrives daily almost without fail.

As Bay Area temperatures rise, our rose bushes will produce more blooms.  It also means we'll need to run our water drip system more regularly to keep our rose bushes properly hydrated.  Our rose bushes enjoy a good drink of water ~ and, fortunately, it needn't have to be Perrier or San Pellegrino to keep them happy and healthy.

With summer's arrival on June 21, soon we'll be able to enjoy more of the many beautiful colors produced by our Queen Elizabeth, Mr. Lincoln, Pristine, First Prize, All That Jazz and Angel Face rose bushes.

I've got my digital camera ready to document the welcoming of our perennial friends.  Stay tuned.

Top photo: Fuchsia.  Bottom photo: Queen Elizabeth rose.
Photos by Michael Dickens, 2010.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

John Wooden: A life well lived

I was deeply touched by the news of the death of legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John R. Wooden, who passed away last Friday.  He was 99.  We lost a national treasure and I lost a role model of my youth.

Nicknamed the Wizard of Westwood, a reference to the site of the campus in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, Wooden left a defining impact and rich legacy during his tenure at UCLA from 1948-75.  Four of his teams finished with undefeated 30-0 records, and from 1971 to 1974, his UCLA teams won 88 consecutive games, still the NCAA record.  He was a great teacher and leader as much as he was a successful coach ~ his UCLA teams won a record 10 national championships in a 12-year stretch from 1964-75, an incomparable dynasty ~ and he remained a conscience of the sport for years after he coached his last game at Pauley Pavilion.

Although I never had the privilege of meeting Coach Wooden, he was part of my Los Angeles sports fabric, someone whom I admired as I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Tarzana, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb.  I was an enthusiastic UCLA basketball fan as a kid ~ I listened to all of their games on my transistor radio ~ and I gleaned as much as I could about Wooden and the Bruins from the Los Angeles Times sports section.

The slight, professorial Wooden was the ultimate role model a young collegiate athlete could have ~ his championship teams included Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Keith Erickson, Gail Goodrich, Jamaal Wilkes and Marques Johnson ~ even if his scholarly wisdom may have been wasted on these young, extremely talented-but-impressionable basketball players during an era of civil and political unrest and experimentation on campus.  It was later in life, long after their basketball careers had ended, that Wooden's players found an appreciation in their beloved coach's foundation for success and excellence on the hardwood court.

In a 1995 interview with the the New York Times, Wooden said his coaching philosophy was centered around three main ideals:  Getting his players in the best possible condition, quickness, and teamwork.  "You better play together as a team or you sit," said Wooden.

Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the New York Times in 2000: "He broke basketball down to its basic elements. He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius."

Wooden used a team-oriented approach to build his winning foundation, which included 19 conference championships and an .808 winning percentage (620-147) in 27 seasons at UCLA.  The soft-spoken, Indiana native carried with him a written message from his father:

* Be true to yourself.
* Make each day a masterpiece.
* Help others.
* Drink deeply from good books.
* Make friendship a fine art.
* Build a shelter against a rainy day.

From this creed, Wooden shaped his Pyramid of Success, 15 building blocks which taught his players not only how to be the best they could be, but also how to be gracious winners.

I searched the Internet this week for John Wooden's Pyramid of Success and was easily impressed not only by its simplicity, but also by its timelessness.  Wooden spent 14 years developing his Pyramid of Success, which he completed in 1948.

The 15 building blocks (from the bottom foundation to the apex) are:

* Industriousness
* Friendship
* Loyalty
* Cooperation
* Enthusiasm
* Self-control
* Alertness
* Initiative
* Intentness
* Condition
* Skill
* Team spirit
* Poise
* Confidence
* Competitive greatness
* Success

"The first two blocks of the pyramid are the two cornerstones because to be strong, you have to have a strong foundation," wrote Wooden. "The cornerstones of success to me, in anything are hard work and enjoy what you're doing.  So, one cornerstone is industriousness and the other is enthusiasm."

In Wooden's Pyramid of Success, he believed that the right combinations of ambition, sincerity, adaptability, honesty, resourcefulness, integrity, fight, reliability, faith and patience would result in ultimate success.  "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming," wrote Wooden.

"To lead the way Coach Wooden led takes a tremendous amount of faith," wrote Abdul-Jabbar in the New York Times. "He was almost mystical in his approach, yet that approach only strengthened our confidence.  Coach Wooden enjoyed winning, but he did not put winning above everything.  He was more concerned that we became successful as human beings, that we earned our degrees, that we learned to make the right choices as adults and as parents.  In essence, he was preparing us for life."

Wooden leaves us with a legacy of a job well done ~ on and off the court ~ and a life well lived.  Both of them enduring qualities.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why travel matters

My wife and I just returned from a very satisfying, three-day trip to Seattle.  It was a holiday weekend filled with good food, good music, good film, good books and great conversation with friends.

Never underestimate the importance of great conversation with friends.

Oh, sure, there was a little spring rain spread over each of our days in the Emerald City, and we had to carry an umbrella wherever we went.  Yet, we didn't let the rain dampen our enthusiasm for spending quality time among friends, and in one of our favorite urban destinations.   It was simply Seattle being Seattle during springtime.

Since moving to the West Coast 15 years ago, Seattle has become our favorite weekend travel destination, namely because of its many enjoyable cultural offerings, including sport, food, music and art.  In past visits, we've experienced Major League baseball with Ichiro and the Mariners at Safeco Field; meandered through the funky and lively Pike Place Market (home of the original Starbucks), and enjoyed Bumbershoot, Seattle's annual arts and indie music festival, at the Seattle Center ~ often, all in the same weekend.

Also, there's the physical beauty of the Puget Sound and views of the Cascade and Olympic mountains, whether experienced while walking through the colorful Olympic Sculpture Park or from the tranquil bluffs of Discovery Park (at 534 acres, it's the largest city park in Seattle) in the Magnolia neighborhood, that is both vibrant and breathtaking ~ and must not be missed.

Just as important, visiting Seattle also connects us with our friends.

Our long-time friends have resided in Seattle for as long as we've been in the Bay Area and, as they've done before, they very graciously welcomed us into their home this past weekend ~ along with their son and three cats ~ and provided us with comfortable lodging and good company.

Although many of our past visits coincided with Labor Day weekend, this time we decided a trip to Seattle for Memorial Day weekend would be just the right thing to do.

Rain or shine.

After all, we had never been to the Northwest Folklife festival at Seattle Center, and one of our hosts, would be performing Saturday evening in a Pete Seeger sing-along as part of a folk group, Tom Colwell and the Southbound Odyssey.  Also, it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to see a dear friend and classmate from college, who lives in Seattle, and to share in great conversation with her against the backdrop of the folk music at Northwest Folklife.

It turned out to be a delightful Saturday evening for all of us ~ new friendships were made ~ and the rain stayed away for a few hours, too.

The highlights of our visit were plentiful ~ they always are when we visit Seattle.  Here's a few worth sharing:

* A Friday adventure to the Capitol Hill neighborhood provided us with a very hip and delicious French-style lunch at Cafe Presse (near Seattle University), which complemented shopping for books at the newly-relocated indie-bookseller, Elliott Bay Book Company, and shopping for CDs at Elliott Bay Book's next-door neighbor, the eclectic Everyday Music.

* We found time for film on Saturday afternoon by seeing "Ride, Rise, Roar," an informative music documentary revealing the creative process behind David Byrne's 2009 tour.  The screening was part of the Seattle International Film Festival.

* Finally, a return visit to Northwest Folklife on Sunday afternoon allowed us to soak up heartfelt music by some of the many buskers dotting the Seattle Center grounds as well as to enjoy the sound of contemporary Scottish fiddle by The McKassons and a fusion of world percussion by Rhythm Planet Teen Rhythm Ensemble.

By the time we boarded our flight home on Sunday evening, our weekend trip to Seattle reminded me why travel matters.  For me, it's an opportunity to absorb another city's culture, experience a change in decor and landscape, and enjoy great conversation with friends.

Yes, never underestimate the importance of great conversation with friends.