Monday, January 31, 2005

Mother Nature's Revenge

We have finally escaped the cold and snow of Chicago to move our primary home base to Celebration, but not without one last blast from Mother Nature. Wouldn't you know that a freak ice storm had to hit Atlanta, Georgia, just as we were driving through with the Kitty Karavan?

But I'm getting ahead of myself; the story of this journey really begins on Friday morning. It was my last day on the job that I've held for 16 years. I have always worked in the same department, although my responsibilities have shifted over time. I started out as a desktop publisher/corporate communications person, and my position eventually morphed into a corporate training position. I taught a number of classrooms courses and gave global webcasts, and I also designed and developed web-based training. It's ironic to realize that when I was hired, the job I ended up with didn't even exist. Back then, no one could ever have imagined the impact that something called the "internet" would have. Heck, I would have been happy to have scalable fonts for printing my documents with my old Gem Desktop Publishing suite!

For the most part, I've always enjoyed my work, so that made it much harder to leave. The good thing is that I will still be able to do some part-time work from Florida. But it was still sad to gather up my belongings over the course of the week and then to walk out the door on that last Friday. My desk went from a personalized sanctuary to an empty, generic space. The days ticked by, then the hours, and then the minutes. I am the kind of person who hates to get emotional in public, so when Zero Hour came, those final good-byes were hard. I managed to resist getting teary eyed, but it was a struggle. I kept reminding myself that I was still an employee, but there was still a sense of finality and displacement.

But I couldn't dwell on that for too long, as I needed to get busy with last minute packing. My husband and I were hoping to get on the road as early as possible, with 5 p.m. as our target time. In reality, that gave way to 6 p.m., and then finally to 6:30, as we kept remembering last minute things that we needed to take and then attempted to fit everything into Canyonero (my trusty Aztek).

No matter what, the cats, fish, and bird had to come with us, so it was a matter of fitting everything else around the menagerie. Fortunately, Canyonero's back seats fold and can also be removed, allowing for all sorts of custom configurations. We ending up folding one seat and pulling the other out altogether. That gave us just enough room for all the necessities, which we stacked precariously around the furred, finned, and feathered critters.

For the cats, we had purchased a large dog cage with a divider, intending to separate our two social felines from our crazy half-feral one. Unfortunately, there was no way to get them into the cage and separated without risking an escape. It was a major challenge just to load them up, but somehow we managed to do it, albeit with plenty of claw marks on our chests and arms. We had lined the cage with old t-shirts, and we provided food, water, and even a litter box. It wasn't ideal, but it was the best possible set-up that we could manage under the circumstances. We figured it was much better than the cargo hold of an airplane.

We jammed in the bird cage, covered with a comforter to ward off drafts, and then balanced the fish in the very back of the vehicle. We put them into plastic bags, which we then set in their respective bowls. I was afraid they would suffocate, but my husband insisted that they would be fine. All I could picture was Darla in "Finding Nemo": "Fishy, fishy!" I was hoping that the road bumps wouldn't prove as fatal as her fish-shaking.

As we pulled out of the condo parking lot, I was engulfed by a strange mixture of stress and melancholy. Both my husband and I had been snappish due to the pressure of remembering everything and stuffing the car to bursting, with the fun of nearly 24 hours on the road still facing us. Mix that with the realization that we were heading for a new home base, over 1200 miles from the place we'd called home all our lives and you have some emotional turmoil.

My husband volunteered for the first leg of what we planned as a straight-through drive, and I wedged myself into the passenger seat. The way it was arranged made the worst coach class seat on an airliner seem like first class by comparison. The seat was pushed as far forward as possible, and also tipped forward in order to accommodate the precarious stack of boxes behind it. I could barely squeeze in my legs because of my husband's backpack crammed into the limited legroom area.

We planned to take I-57 to 20 and then head to I-75. That would take us to the turnpike, which would lead to 27, and eventually we'd hit 192; then we'd head home to Celebration amidst the glare of the gaudy tourist strip. Ironically, our route went by the exit of the truck yard where my brother had rescued our cat, Farquaad, a little over a year ago. At the time, he was a tiny, frightened, starving kitten who was destined to be squashed in a dumpster by the sadistic workers. Now, he is a big, fat, spoiled feline who has totally forgotten his humble roots. As we passed the Tuscola exit, I'm sure he had no idea that he was meant to go to Kitty Heaven there before he won the cosmic lottery.

As we headed down the road, the cats meowed for the first hour or so, then settled into a resigned stupor. I was glad because I'd had terrible visions of what would happen if they went insane and started savaging each other or had kitty panic attacks, panting and frothing in the cage. The hours ticked by monotonously, and eventually I took over driving duties after we picked up a quick (and late) dinner at Wendy's. I bought an iced tea, figuring that an infusion of caffeine would help keep me perked up as I drove through the wee hours.

It was dark and unpopulated for most of our drive through Illinois and on into Tennessee. The never-ending blackness made me feel melancholy, and I pondered whether we were doing the right thing. It was raining, and the road had no lights at all, except the occasional headlights of an approaching vehicle. Other cars were few and far between; most of the time I was the sole traveler on the lonely highway. The whole scenario had an eerie, Twilight Zone feel.

Between the rain, the pitch blackness, and some sort of strange, misty fog, it was hard to make out the road in front of me. Every now and then, an overpass would suddenly pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. Between my exhausted mind and the lack of any sort of light other than my headlights, it felt as though someone had plopped me in the middle of the Black Forest. I'm sure the landscape would have looked quite normal, and probably rather dull, in the daylight, but the dark of night and the insidiousness of the wee hours can turn an innocent area into a threatening netherworld. I felt like a little child whose bedroom closet is suddenly crawling with monsters the moment the lights are turned off.

As I drove along, swamped in shadowy thoughts, my husband tried to catch a nap so he would be halfway refreshed for his next bout at the wheel. But it was nearly impossible to find even a modicum of comfort in the cramped passenger quarters. Eventually he decided that he'd rather drive than sit all folded up in accordian position, so we swapped again.

This meant that he was at the wheel when we headed down the mountain in Tennessee. I knew that we were going to encouter one, so at least it wasn't a surprise. It was just as steep as I'd been warned, but thankfully the stretch is only a few miles long, and the traffic was almost non-existent. Canyonero zoomed down the incline, while the brakes weakly resisted gravity's grip. I could only imagine the lovely (and scary) vista that would have surrounded us if it had been daylight.

As the hour switched from growing later to growing earlier, I decided to try to find a talk radio station to help keep us awake. I located one from Atlanta that had some rather frightening overnight programming. The first show was a very opinionated political program, and the opinions were not necessarily those of a sane mind. I'm not sure who was farther out in left field, the host or the callers who lit up the phone lines. The second show involved hunters who spent an entire hour making fun of a woman who had sent them a letter. Apparently she had suggested feeding anti-fertility drugs to the deer rather than shooting them in order to control their population. As the hour wore on, the hosts kept embellishing the letter, with callers egging them on.

Them, ominously, as we neared Georgia, the radio shows were interspersed with a winter storm warning. Not a watch, but a warning. Apparently, an ice storm was enveloping the Peach State. Even though it wasn't officially morning yet, the car crashes had already started, and the weather forecasters were warning people to stay inside and off the roads.

When we embarked on our journey, my husband and I had figured that once we hit Tennessee, we would be in good shape weather-wise. The possibility of things like ice storms down south had never entered our minds. But as the warnings became more ominous, we realized that Mother Nature was going to deal us one last blow. And what a blow it was! As we headed into Winter Hell, there were reports of roads like ice skating rinks and almost continuous accidents and expressway shutdowns. If we didn't have "Noah's Ark," we would have stopped somewhere for the night. Unfortunately, with all the critters, the only course of action was to plow ahead and hope for the best.

All too soon, we hit the ice storm nightmare. It was still dark out, and I had taken over driving duties while my husband tried once again to snooze. Since we were in my car, I figured I would have a slight advantage since I am the most familiar with how it handles. Then we hit our first road closure on I-75 and sat for nearly two hours, watching daylight gradually take over the night sky. By the time we finally started moving again, it was completely light out, and we could see that the road was basically just one big sheet of ice.

We inched along literally at 10 m.p.h., and we were stopped a couple more times, probably due to accidents although it was impossible to tell. The news station listed closures and crashes, but the list seemed endless and we had no idea of their proximity to us. We passed something like eight jack-knived and flipped trucks, and I lost count of the car crashes.

The emergency vehicles could barely get through, and eventually the police stopped shutting down the road and just had the ambulances and fire trucks run along the shoulders. Other drivers maneuvered as best as they could around the latest wrecks. There were many stretches where I knew that there would be no way to stop if I had to. I spent several tense hours praying as we crawled along, terrified of what would happen if we were in a crash with all the animals.

As we approached Atlanta, things got a bit better because there were trucks out spreading a gravel/salt mixture. I dubbed the substance "goot," since there were big, flashing signs announcing that "GOOT" was on the roads. My husband pointed out that it was really "GDOT," or "Georgia Department of Transportation," but those highway signs make it nearly impossible to distinguish an O from a D. Besides, I liked the sound of that: Goot. It had a reassuring but slightly comical ring to it, and believe me, at that point I needed all the comedy I could find.

Unfortunately, the freezing rain kept coming down, quickly washing away the "goot" and destroying all the progress. The news announcers kept stressing, "DO NOT go out unless it's an absolute emergency." God, how I wish I could have followed their advice! If we had know about the storm, we would have delayed the Big Move by a couple of days. But now we had no choice; we had to press forward, keep praying, and depend on Canyonero's traction control and my winter driving skills, honed on the streets of Chicago. Sadly, although I've driven in snow, sleet, and slush, roads coated in pure ice were a whole new life experience.

I could tell that Bradley, my bird, was alive because he'd started his usual squawking as soon as the sun came up. I couldn't check the fish for fear of giving Bradley a chill by opening the tailgate. The cats were doing remarkably well, even eating and using the litterbox. They spent most of their time sleeping, with an occasional bout of pathetic mewing designed to illicit maximum guilt.

The combination of heavier traffic and major goot-spreading efforts made the downtown Atlanta area a little better than the horror of the unsalted outskirts. Instead of 10 mph, we made it all the way up to a blinding 30. At this point, I was more fearful of the drivers around me than of my own ability to handle my car. Some of them seemed to have no clue that they were driving on sheets of ice. I was cringing every time a speed demon came roaring up behind me, only to veer out of my lane at the last minute. I stayed to the right with my flashers on, thankful that Canyonero has both front and side airbags.

At this point, I had been at the wheel for hours. Between the initial two-hour road closure, the 10 mph crawls and the other sporadic shutdowns, we'd been inching our way through the ice storm for something like four hours. I had never been to Georgia before, and at that point I was sorely wishing that I'd never laid eyes on that state. I was praying to make it to Macon, where the storm hadn't hit with such severity, and my fondest wish was to see the Florida state line.

As we approached Macon, the ice rink gave way to more traditional slush, which is a breeze for any Midwesterner to deal with. We eventually pulled into a truck stop to fuel our car with gasoline and ourselves with Taco Bell. I noticed a massage parlor, which seemed out of place at a truck stop if it were, indeed, a legitimate business; surely it had to be a front (as massage parlors often tend to be). Nearby was a "truckers chapel," perhaps placed there to offer convenient forgiveness to the massage parlor patrons.

At this point, I was just about stir crazy. All I wanted to do was to reach Celebration and get out of that $!%@)& car! I obsessively counted the miles to the Florida border, and as we got closer, I also counted the number of billboards offering "Last chance for free Disney tickets!" I wonder how many poor slobs get suckered into the timeshare scams. There were also lots of signs for some kind of Wild Adventure Park. My husband noticed they even had their own radio station, so we tuned in to listen to their non-stop verbal infomercial. It sure beat listening to reports of the ice storm that was still raging behind us. The power outages must have been widespread, as we saw two conga lines of Florida Power trucks head towards Georgia to assist.

I was driving when we hit Florida (my husband was in a semi-coma, having learned that you can sleep just about anywhere if you are exhausted enough), and I was very disappointed: all I saw was a little blue sign. There is no huge, fancy declaration that you have now entered the Sunshine State. With Tennessee and Georgia, you know you have crossed the border because their fancy billboards tell you so. But Florida was barely a blip on my road radar. If I had blinked, I would have missed the crossing.

Entering Florida was like crossing some sort of mental barrier. Now I felt like home should be just around the corner; unfortunately, it was still hours away. I wanted to start chanting, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?", but instead I resigned myself to a silent counting of the miles. And, like a watched pot that never boils, watched miles pass 75 percent more slowly. My husband woke up and started infusing himself with coffee to regain some semblance of consciousness. Unfortunately, this also meant that he needed to stop at every single rest area, whipping my impatience dangerously close to a homicidal frenzy.

I can't express just how happy I was when we finally got off the gosh-darned turnpike and onto 27. We still had plenty of miles to go, but 27 makes me think of home because we shop at the Wal-Mart where it intersects with 192. We were no longer on the expressway, so I had to contend with stoplights. But it was also nice to be among civilization again, and I enjoyed the rolling terrain. Twilight was just beginning to blanket the area, and the lights twinkling among the hills looked like a sprinking of earthbound stars.

Once again it was evening; 24 hours beforehand, we had stuffed our pets and belongings into the car and sarted on our journey. Now, a full day later, we had been through the worst winter storm that I've ever driven through in my life and we'd put well over a thousand miles behind us. It had been a journey that I wouldn't care to repeat, but it was worth it: we were almost home. Mother Nature couldn't let us leave Chicago without one last challenge; it might have slowed us down, but it didn't stop us.

When we turned off 27 and onto 192, I knew that we had arrived. The eye-searing neon was a sight for sore eyes. It was ugly and gaudy, but oh so familiar. I knew that when we reached the biggest and most gaudy sight of all (the reverse bungee at Old Town, which is three hundred feet tall and completely encased in colored lights), it would be the beacon welcoming us home to Celebration.

It felt a bit strange to be driving our own car rather than a rental, but that feeling was fleeting. As we drove down Celebration Avenue, the only thing missing was Skippy, the old, decaying Dodge Dart that used to sit at the entrance to town. How I wish Skippy could have met Canyonero! I love ugly vehicles, which is the main reason I bought an Aztek. I've never been an SUV fan, but I realized that I needed to get something large just to hold my own on the road among the rolling tanks that everyone else seemed to be driving. At the time, the Aztek was the most hideous vehicle I could find, although now it's not even in the running; Detroit seems to have thrown aesthetics out the window over the past few years. So that's what I bought, and I've never regretted it. It has tons of cargo space, foldable and removable seats, and it gets great gas mileage.

I pulled into the driveway of Duloc good it felt to do that in my own vehicle! At long last I could check on the fish, and I was pleased to discover that my husband had been right. No one had suffocated and gone belly up. It was warm enough to ease my worries that Bradley might get a chill, so I gingerly moved the comforter covering him and he gave me a big, healthy squawk. He definitely looked none the worse for the wear, although I wondered if his feet were tired from clinging to his perch in a moving car.

The cats were the biggest challenge, as we had decided to carry the entire cage, with three fat feline bodies inside, into the house before releasing them. Poor Farquaad was shaking like a leaf, and Tooncinator was plastered against the far end of the cage in abject terror. Stitch, who could care less about anything, was checking out his new surroundings with typical feline curiosity. I had sprayed some Feliway pheremone spray around the house to help them feel comfortable; I don't know if that helped or if they are just amazingly resiliant, but they settled in remarkably fast.

My husband and I were totally, utterly exhausted. We had gone 24 hours without showering, changing our clothes, brushing our teeth, or applying a new layer of deodorant. Our focus had been The Road, with no time for civilized comforts to interfere with our single-minded objective: Reach Duloc Manor before insanity took its grip. Now that we were home, we planned to get a decent meal to offset the fast food that had been our staple and then to crash into bed. But alas, that plan was not to be. Little did we know that we'd soon be abducted by a trainload of foil-hatted beings until the wee hours of the night. But that is another blog entry for another day (trust me, it will be a good one!).

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Life Without Cable

It seems that I am doomed to live without cable television in Florida. Up until now, it's been a moot point, since our time has been so limited. We've made due with rabbit ears, watching fuzzy Simpsons reruns and whatever evening news and weather is watchable. Somehow, the "Appliance Direct!!" commercials always seem to come in clear, while the shows we want to watch feature fuzzy ghosts lost in a blizzard of static snow.

We've considered a dish, but we've always had cable to we've reverting to old habits. The only problem is that I am not used to having to pay for installation, having been spoiled by the plethora of specials that are offered in the Chicago area. Unfortunately, in Celebration, free (or even discounted) installation is nearly impossible to come by.

I did see one special last week: half price installation, and a free month of HBO to top it off like a tasty cherry on top of the cable television sundae. Unfortunately, it ended before we would be able to have it installed. The phone rep. told me that they should be running another special right afterwards, but so far there is nothing.

Actually, I am not much of a television addict. I am usually busy at night, booking Disney cruises or clients, working on school work, tinkering with one of my websites, catching up on email, or relaxing in the bathtub to wind down from all of the previous items. The only channel that I probably couldn't live without is Comedy Central, and if I don't have it for a while, their incessant reruns ensure that I can easily catch up with whatever I miss.

I should have plenty to keep me busy in Florida. Besides the usual work, I need to get back into my exercise routine. That means committing to daily walking, swimming, and/or biking. I am normally very good about exercise, but when my travel agency business picked up and I had to get serious about my dissertation (both of which are worked around a full-time job), the health club visits and at-home exercise sessions went out the window. I still do a daily 30 minute walk, but that's no match for my love of chocolate and other goodies.

In Celebration, there is no excuse for avoiding exercise. There is a pool in each village, and even when the weather is cold, the pool at Lakeside Park is heated. The trail beckon walkers, joggers, and bikers. And if you get bored with the scenery around town, it's only a short jaunt to Epcot, where you can get in your exercise by walking around the "world," or you can haul your bicycle to Fort Wilderness and hit the bike paths there. Or you can do one of many other jaunts, like the path between Epcot and Disney MGM Studio, the circle from Epcot to Boardwalk to the Yacht & Beach Club and back again, or hiking through the tropical environs of the Animal Kingdom.

Normally, I make my New Years resolutions along with the rest of the world, starting them when the clock strikes midnight. This year, due to all the turmoil of the move, I cut myself some slack. I'll start my weight loss resolution when we return from our Disney cruise on February 6.

Of course, while Disney World has many opportunities for exercise, there are also many dining temptations to avoid. So many wonderful restaurants, like Jiko, Artists Point, Ohana, and Cape May Buffet; so many delicious snack items like the godly vanilla/orange juice twist sold in Adventureland at the Magic Kingdom. My husband and I will have to develop wills of steel to ward off the pounds.

72 hours to the Cat Caravan!

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

So Little Time, So Much To Do

The weekend went by much too quickly, thanks to a combination of ATA moving our return flight to 4:30 p.m. from its usual, much-later departure and the fact that we had so much to do in order to make our house ready for the pets. We didn't get home until midnight on Friday and left for the airport before 2 p.m. on Sunday to have lunch at Macaroni Grill. That left only a bit more than one day to get anything done.

Actually, we would have been even more pressed for time, but the friends we were going to meet on Saturday had to fly home early. They are from PA, which was in the grip of a snowstorm that ravaged several states this weekend. They have a diabetic cat and were concerned that their pet sitter would be unable to get to their house in order to administer an insulin shot. They called us Friday night as we were driving home from the airport; they were busy packing in preparation for heading out at 4 a.m. to ensure that they'd be on the first available flight. I haven't talked to them yet, but according to what my husband could find on the internet, it looks like they probably made it on one of the last planes allowed to land there.

We had been planning to spend Saturday with them at Universal and Islands of Adventute, capping off the evening with dinner at Ohana and a viewing of the "Wishes" fireworks. Then we planned to get up early on Sunday for a trip to Petsmart. Now, we did our shopping on Saturday instead, stocking up on cat food and litter (what goes in must come out).

We have located three likely litter box locations: a small one in our Harry Potter powder room on the first floor, another small one between our gargantuan wardrobe cabinet and the wall at the top of the stairs, and an enormous box in the master bedroom closet. Tooncinator, our "Howard Hughes" cat, spends most of his time hiding in the master bedroom closet of our Chicago condo; no reason to think that he won't transfer his insanity to similar quarters in Florida. He'll have a box nearby, and the other two cats can alternate between the two additional locations. Now, I just hope that I can convince them of the wisdom of this plan.

Their food will be in the area between the dinette and the family room. Ironically, that's also the only good spot for my bird Bradley's cage, so he will be in close proximity. I shudder to think of the mixed messages that this will send to the cats, who view him as a potential appetizer anyway.

Whenever we are home, we usually let Bradley out, and he sits on the top of his cage. He rarely goes anywhere else, except perhaps to do a fly-by or two of the room to annoy the cats. But he hates being in; I guess it's just the principal of the thing. He wants to know that he's free, even though he doesn't care to do much with his freedom.

When we had our old cats, he was much more wicked because he knew they were too elderly and weak to fight back. I'll never forget the time he flew down from his cage to where our 16 year old tortie, Muse, was drinking her water. That nasty little bird pecked at her till he'd driven her away from the bowl and then proceeded to take a bath in it! He wouldn't pull that with the young, agile predators that we have now.

I am still trying to figure out what to do with Gil the betta and Finny the goldfish, my two refugees who I don't have the heart to send packing on the Porcelin Highway. I think they are going to have to go on a shelf in the bedroom, which hopefully will keep them out of feline reach. When I was a kid and won goldfish at the local carnival, they always died within a month. These two fish seem virtually indestructible; I've had them over a year now, and they're still going strong.

Our neighbor's cat, Pearl, stopped by to see us as usual. I wonder what she'll think when she meets her new feline neighbors. I figure I can do a safe introduction if I have them outside in the yard, but confined to their cage. They can do some paw-slapping through the bars in relative safety. I will also be interested to see how they get along with their canine neighbor, Lacy. She's a tiny but feisty dog; I'm hoping that they like her because I'd love to get a little dog of my own (much to my husband's chagrin).

We bought mats to keep under the litter boxes, and I still have to get a Dust Buster to avoid the danger of cutting my feet on the silicone litter. We use the "crystals," which are great for odor control, but boy, they hurt when you step on 'em! With the way our house is laid out, I will have to be judicious in my litter changing duties because I can't stand that icky smell that lets everyone know you're a cat owner the minute they walk in the door.

I also swapped my flag to a new one for Valentine's Day, and we hung lighted hearts on the porch. I love decorating for just about any holiday you can think of; the light-up shamrocks are next.

That's about all we had time for; soon enough it was Sunday, and we had to get ready for our early departure. It's not like I could complain to Lame Duck Air about the time change; since this was one of the last non-stops from Orlando to Chicago, it's not like they'd really give a rat's butt.

When we got to the airport, the security line filled all of the queues. We were a little worried that we would be late if we ate at Macaroni Grill as planned, but we decided to go for it. Good thing we did, as the line was almost non-existent by the time we were done with our meal. The menu is more limited than their regular locations, but the food quality was excellent. The waiter asked us if we were catching a plane so he could adjust the speed of the service accordingly.

When we got to the gate, our plane had just arrived and disgorged its load of passengers. For the very last time we were able to flash our Elite card for the pre-board to Chicago and settle in to watch the show as the other passengers trooped on. It's usually like "Airplane," only much better.

This boarding was relatively uneventful except for the very end, when the flight attendants were ready to shut the door. Only problem was, there was one passenger missing. Suddenly he appeared, strolling rather non-chalantly for someone who was on the verge of being left behind. I guess he thought departure time means the time that you're supposed to show up at the airport. Then he was miffed when told that he might have to check his overstuffed bag if it didn't fit under his seat because there was no more overhead space. Fortunately, the flight attendants got him sorted out, including finding space for his "steamer trunk," and we were on our way.

The wind was against us, making the flight time 20 minutes longer than usual, but thankfully it was relatively turbulence free. The flight attendants bummed change off my husband and I for people buying drinks (for some reason, both of us had change for a twenty), so they rewarded us with my favorite ATA cookies. Mmmmmm! I am really going to miss those. They're really hard to describe, but imagine a graham cracker if it was crossed with shortbread and made by angel chefs in Heaven.

We landed to bitter cold temperatures and a foot of snow burying our car. I kept telling myself, "Five more days, five more days" as a I pictured the "cold" fifty degree temperatures that I had just left. The fifties seem like a heat wave when compared to single digits.

Now comes a week of preparation, culminating in the Cat Caging Rodeo and Car Stuffing Competition on Friday. Should be an interesting time.

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Saturday, January 22, 2005

Endings and Beginnings

Our trip to Celebration this weekend brought some endings and some new beginnings. As I drove toward Midway Airport, praying to beat the blizzard that was bearing down on Chicago, I realized that this would most likely be my last flight ever to Orlando on ATA. They have truly earned the name "Lame Duck Air," and my relationship with them has been like a dysfunctional romance. We had the honeymoon period where everything was nearly perfect. I have fond memories of flights to Florida many years ago; my husband and I would arrive at the old Midway Airport, which is nothing like the current mini-O Hare, bleary-eyed and anxious to wing our way south on the 7 a.m. flight. ATA had just switched from being charter-only to being a low-cost general carrier specializing in vacation destinations. This was reinforced by their gaudy uniforms and a delicious tropical juice blend drink, available with or without alcohol.

But just as a lover sometimes changes once the relationship is established, ATA went through a startling metamorphosis. Gone was the vacation theme, along with the drink, the uniforms, and the catchy "On ATA you're on vacation" television jingle that still drifts through my brain (if you're from Chicago, you know what I'm talking about). Now, my fun-loving airline was all business; leisure travelers were fine, but they were gunning for the business market and they tried to change their image to align with that goal. They even painted their planes to eliminate their cute old logo, although you can still see it on some of their older aircraft to this day.

I did love their new airplanes, particularly the roomy, comfy 757-300s, with their plush leather seats and adjustable headrests. I got so spoiled that I would recoil in horror every time I was forced to fly on a 737. In comparison to my beloved 757s, 737s look like little metal micro-tubes.

Then something happened that no one could predict: 9/11 devastated the airline industry. Suddenly ATA's expansion plans, which had seemed like a wise move in the heady, pre-terrorist days, put them in a precarious financial position along with virtually every other airline. Most of the airlines managed to pull through, but things would never, ever be the same. I never realized that I noticed the sound of airplanes overhead until it was suddenly gone. After 9/11, the sky was filled with eerie silence, like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." I'll never forget the first time I heard a jet when flights finally resumed. I was at the barn where I board my horses, riding Figment in the corral; the barn owner was doing yard work nearby. We both heard that lovely sound and looked up in the air just in time to see a jet leaving its vapor trail overhead. We looked at each other and gave a big thumbs-up; no words were necessary.

Our trips to Florida became more and more frequent, and our relationship with ATA settled into acceptance of their new business focus. After all, their prices were still the best. In the past, we had grabbed a trip on American or United every once in a while, but now we were flying ATA exclusively. Their fares, plus the convenience of Midway (even though by now it had undergone a major expansion), was a powerful draw.

By early 2004, we were coming to Celebration nearly every other weekend, and we had come to depend on ATA. Inevitably, we could be found on the same flight out each Friday evening and the corresponding return flight on Sunday. Amazingly enough, we discovered that we were not the only "commuters." There were several others who we encountered on a regular basis. We became a little unofficial "fraternity of the sky." I'm sure that similar groups can be found on Friday/Sunday flights on just about any other airline heading to just about any major destination.

Our relationship with ATA settled into a comfortable, predictable pattern. It had actually improved with the introduction of their frequent flyer program. It was the most generous I've ever seen, offering a free companion ticket after only three roundtrips, with absolutely no blackout dates. Little did I know that the shoe was waiting to drop.

Bankruptcy! That terrible word popped up in mid-2004 like some evil jack-in-the-box. The expansion, coupled with skyrocketing fuel prices, had caught up with ATA. Ugly rumors were swirling around that they would be leaving Midway Airport. Like a cheating spouse who insists, "No, really, I'm not seeing anyone else!", ATA swore up and down that they were fully committed to Midway. They even ran television ads and had a "We're Not Leaving" sale.

But alas, it was all lies. Bankruptcy was soon to follow, and with it a wild roller coaster of rumors and aborted plans. Suddenly they were leaving Chicago, much to our chagrin (although I had long expected as much; their previous ad campaign had been a classic case of "Methinks thou doth protesteth too much"). Then maybe they weren't. It was at this point that my husband dubbed them "Lame Duck Air," a very apt description. Predictably, the Chicago employees' attitudes had suffered, and their service level dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, the uncertainly raged on. First they were going to link up with Air-Tran, but then suddenly maybe it was America West. Then back to Air-Tran...and suddenly, at the eleventh hour, there was a bid from Southwest.

The Southwest deal gave us hope. It would mean an infusion of cash for Lame Duck Air, as well as the retention of several Midway gates. Surely they would keep their Orlando route; after all, it was one of the most popular. Like an abused spouse whose counterpart swears on a stack of Bibles to change, we came to believe that Lame Duck Air had finally settled down and that they would keep their word this time. After all, they were still selling tickets from Chicago to Orlando a year into the future. The Southwest agreement was a done deal. It had been a rough several months but we'd finally reached the happy ending, right?

No such luck.

Suddenly Lame Duck Air announced that they were dropping every non-stop flight between Chicago and Orlando. Yes, every single one. You could still take a puddle jumper and connect through Indy, but that was not a very appealing option, especially since the airfare was ridiculous. That will happen the first week in February, so this weekend was definitely our last trip on the airline that we've gotten to know so well over many years and many, many flights.

It was a somewhat melancholy trip. God, who has a very ironic sense of humor, saw fit to prevent me from one last trip on a 757-300. That was our scheduled aircraft, and I even double checked at the gate when we arrived at the airport. But when we boarded, my eyes were assailed by the optic orb-searing Las Vegas upholstery of a 757-200, my favorite plane's poor cousin from the sticks. In talking to the flight attendant later, I learned that our original plane had been stranded in another state due to the blizzard making its way across the country. Thus this old bus had been pressed into service. We are scheduled for another 757-200 on the return flight, so I'll never know the leather padded luxury of a 757-300 or the comfort of our favorite seats 10D and E again.

Still, I was glad to be flying at all, in any type of aircraft. Already the storm had forced cancellations of scores of East Coast flights. A parade of snowplows was struggling to keep the runways open for as long as possible, but you could tell that the level of snowfall would soon be outpacing them.

We were very fortunate to be able to leave with only a 45 minute delay. In a complex, well-choreographed ballet, our deicing had to be timed precisely with a window of take-off opportunity created by the snow plows. Complete the deicing too early and the runway wouldn't be ready before the ice took over the wings again. Complete it too late and the runway would be snow-covered again in a vicious Catch 22. But somehow it all came together, and soon we were winging our way through the snow clouds and off to a better climate.

Our last flight to Orlando on Lame Duck Air was relatively uneventful (just the way I like it). Endings are always sad, but the effect it mitigated when a happy new beginning is just around the corner.

Of course, in this case the new beginning is permanent residency in Celebration. In one week, we'll be heading south in our Aztek/Canyonero, packed to the hilt with animals and household goods, to make Celebration our base of operations. My husband will still be doing some regular air commuting, but it will be in the opposite direction.

The upcoming week will be melancholy for me; it's my last week at the job where I've worked for 16 years. Another ending, and although I knew it was coming, it still is difficult. I am in the enviable position of having to choose between several good things. I enjoy that job, but I am also excited about how my travel agency has taken off. Chicago is home to me because I was born and raised there, but Celebration has become home in many senses too. I love our cozy little East Village home and our wonderful friends. I knew the choice was coming; that doesn't make it any easier, but at least I feel like we prepared ourselves as much as possible.

There are still many unknowns, but those are what make life interesting. Endings, beginnings...that's what life is all about.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Tick, tick, tick

The clock is winding a little over a week, we'll be on the road to Celebration to become official full-time residents. Well, at least mostly full-time, since my husband will still be required to make occasional jaunts back to the "freezer." I have a sense of excitement mixed with a tinge of sadness; it's hard to leave a job when you've been there for 16 years. Worse yet, I enjoyed my job (at least most of the time). It's easy to make the break when you're miserable. It's much harder when you're not.

But I think this is a good time to make some changes in my life. My travel agency is doing quite well, considering that the only place I advertise it is on my Disney Cruise Line website, With the completion of my doctorate, I can finally do more with my counseling practice. I might even get a part-time job over at Disney World, which a lot of people seem to do for the benefits, or just for fun. I love animals (and I'm not afraid to shovel horse poop), so I can picture myself working in Fort Wilderness at the stables a day or two a week.

And of course, what better place to do all of that than Florida. Even if this whole social experiment totally fails and we go bankrupt, I'd rather be living in a refrigerator box in a warm, balmy climate than in the cold and snow.

I called today to arrange our cable installation, as Comcast was finally running a special. But wouldn't you know it, it expires before we will be ready for the installation. Sigh! Thank goodness I'm not much of a television addict, other than "The Simpsons" and just about anything politically incorrect on Comedy Central (i.e. "South Park," "Reno 911," and best of all, "Drawn Together").

We're heading to Celebration this weekend on our last ATA flight ever. Just when I thought that everything was going to be okay, they totally and utterly hosed us by eliminating ALL direct flights to Orlando. We'll be on one of the very last ones. Not so coincidentally, all of the other airline rates to Orlando have sky rocketed now that a big chunk of the competition is gone. Southwest added some direct flights, but getting their best internet fares is akin to walking a tightrope backwards while blindfolded and balancing an aquarium of electric eels on your head.

And if you manage to score a cheap fare on Southwest, be prepared to sit in the middle seat of the last row if you're not traveling with children. The pre-board line routinely is as long as A, B, and C put together, as parents liberally interpret the age range to mean anyone under 17. Many of them also seem to be traveling with their aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great cousins six times removed, judging by the caravan that accompanies them on for the pre-board.

Ah, for the good old days of assigned seating on Lame Duck Air! Oh well, at least this coincides with our semi-permanent move. Even if we have to return to Chicago for 10 days a month, it will be more tolerable than the nomadic existence we've been living for so long now.

As I'm scraping the ice off the car window tomorrow morning, I'll just keep repeating to myself my new mantra, "Ten more days, ten more days, ten more days."

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Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Preparation Continues

Just two weeks until the Big Transition, and the pets have no idea. My last day at my Chicago job is January 28, and early the next morning the "Kitty Karavan" hits the road. Well, maybe they have some idea, considering that my husband and I just hauled in a jumbo cage. It's meant for dogs, but I've never been one to discriminate against species. It can be folded for easy storage and has a removable divider wall so it can be used for puppies and expanded as they grow. For our purposes, it will be the perfect separator between Stitch and Farquaad (a.k.a. the Unholy Duo) and their nemisis, Tooncinator.

Stitch and Quaad are joined at the hip. Wherever you find one, the other is not far behind. Sleeping, playing, eating (well, Farquaad eats and Stitch just tries to bury the food for some psychotic reason)...they are best buddies all the way. Farquaad was just a tiny ball of fluff when my brother rescued him, so young that he still had blue eyes. When we turned him loose in the house, and spotted Stitch and must have thought, "Mama!" Stitch immediately adopted him and was a good mother in almost every way (he drew the line at nursing).

Conversely, feral Tooncinator hates everything and everyone. "Like" is a foreign emotion to him. He simply has greater and lesser degrees of hatred. He will deign to sleep on the bed with me every one in a while, but woe to me if I make a move that he doesn't like. More than once, I've had a fang sunk into my hand. He's like a crazy relative that you stash in the attic or cellar, resigned to tolerating their insanity and cleaning up any messes they might make.

Unfortunately, Stitch and Farquaad are not as understanding as my husband and I. They pick on their "kitty brither" unmercifully, flushing him out from his under-bed lair and tag-teaming him with their savagery. He has actually become somewhat more tolerant of humans since they entered the picture because he knows we will protect him, like the outcast kid who stays near the teacher. Thus we will divide the front part of the cage into an area for the crazy cat, with the other two together in the back.

We purchased two small litter boxes that will fit nicely into the cage. I don't know if they will actually use 'em in a moving car, but I don't like the thought of confining them without some sort of "toilet facilities."

Hopefully, we will also be able to fit at least one of their giant cat trees into the car. We have two giant, carpeted monstrosities that they love to sprawl on. I know we could get new ones, but a) they're darned expensive! and b) it will probably be more comforting to have something familiar when they're in a brand-new place.

My husband is relieved because the cage has a removable tray in the bottom, so we can also use it to give the kitties a taste of the Great Outdoors. With the tray out, they'll be able to sit in the grass and watch for errant lizards to wander within paw reach.

So will the cats, bird, fish, and, most importantly, our sanity, survive the day-long roadtrip? The answer is a mere 14 days away.

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

Noah's Ark It Ain't

It might not be Noah's Ark, but my Aztek will soon be carrying a full load of finned, furred, and feathered critters. At the end of the month, we'll be transporting our menagerie of pets from the snowy Midwest to the sunny South.

We'll be on the road for about 24 hours straight; neither my husband nor I wants to to drag out the Journey from Hell any longer than we have to. One of us will sleep while the other drives, and when the person behind the wheel is ready to drop into a coma, we'll switch off. Of course, if the three cats decide to wail non-stop, as cats are often prone to doing in cars, neither of us might get any rest.

Besides the three kitties, we also have a bird and two fish. I figure that Gil the betta and Finny the goldfish can be transported relatively safely in water-filled baggies. Bradley, the bird, should be fine in his cage, albeit a bit ruffled (no pun intended). The cats are going to be the big challenge; we still haven't figured out whether we should tranquilize them or not. They are wussy, spoiled house cats that aren't used to venturing out into the real world.

Well, actually, I should take that back. Stitch, our big black-and-white blob, came to us from a shelter after being abandoned by his previous owners in a field in the middle of winter. He enjoys going out into our condo hallway, but he draws the line at actually venturing outdoors. It's been a couple of years, but the memory of that field is a bit too vivid.

Farquaad is our "kitten" (he's actually a grown cat now; we named his because of his tiny size when we got him, and the name still fits because he is totally self-asorbed). The last time he was outside was over a year ago, when my truck-driver brother found him hiding under a dumpster. He was marked for death by the sadistic men in the truck yard till my brother came to the rescue. He was lured out with a can of Fancy Feast and whisked off to a life of luxury. Like Stitch, he has no desire to ever venture out from his "deluxe apartment in the sky" again.

Tooncinator is going to be the big challenge. He is our big, nasty feral cat, named after the driving feline of Saturday Night Live fame. Problem is, he was born to a feral mother that had been rescued. She never adapted to the world of humans, and when she had her kittens, she taught them that people are EVIL. Thus he spends most of his time hiding under the bed or lurking around the house, waiting to sink his fangs into the hand of anyone foolish enough to pet him. When we got Stitch, he didn't come out from under the bed for two whole days. I can't even imagine what sort of mental breakdown a daylong car ride will induce. The irony is, he looks like a big, sweet, fluffy Garfield that you just want to hug and pet; but do it and you'll end up with bloody stumps where your hands used to be.

So that will be the menagerie that we haul down to Celebration very soon. This weekend we are going to look at cages, as I don't want to jam them into tiny carriers for such a long time. I'd like them to be safely confined so they can't jump out during rest stops, yet still have some room to move and stretch.

Once they get to Duloc Manor, I know it will never be the same. It's so nice and pristine now, but in less than a month they'll be tracking litter all over, shedding in a coordinated manner (light hair on dark surfaces and visa versa), knocking over and ingesting the plants, sitting on top of the kitchen cabinets, and using the sofa as a scratching post. Sigh! Oh well, their affection more than makes up for the mess (or at least with two of them...Tooncinator is mostly a charity case).

I'm sure they'll love Florida once they get used to it. I don't let them out to wander on their own, but if they have any interest, I will take them outside on leashes. If he feels industrious, my husband might even build them a "kitty playpen" like he did for our former cats (sadly, they are both gone now, having lived to the ripe old age of 16). He built it from two-by-fours and flexible plastic snow fence-like material. It was a sort of bottomless cage that allowed them to roll in the grass and enjoy the great outdoors while still being safely contained.

And of course I pity any poor frog or lizard that might make its way into our house. They are wicked little predators that show no mercy for flies or spiders. I'm sure reptiles and amphibians will receive the same treatment unless I can intervene in time.

Tune in the first week in February for a full report on the Cross-Country Cat Trek.

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Saturday, January 08, 2005

48 Hours

When we come to Celebration for the weekend, it is the fastest 48 hours of my life. This is one of those weekends, and technically it's less than 48 hours because we don't land in Orlando until almost midnight on Friday night. Then we have to head to the airport around 5 p.m. on Sunday, so we're really only at our house for a brief 36-hour period. Subtract the 16 hours that we spend sleeping and it's not much more than a 24 hour interlude.

But that's okay; it's still enjoyable, and we still manage to pack a lot into that short capsule of time. This weekend has been a lazy one so far. Since it's January, people are working on their 2005 vacation schedules, which means lots of calls for my travel agency. Since the "agency" consists of my laptop computer and cell phone, I can do a lot of work while in Florida.

But all work and no play makes Barb a dull girl. There is time for recreation, too, or at least socialization. Tonight, we headed over to our next door neighbors' house for dinner. They served up delicious, juicy steaks from Sam's Club...mmmmm! I never really thought of Sam's as a place to buy meat, but the steaks were huge, thick, and tender. The side dishes were salad, rolls, twice-baked potatoes, and asparagus. Quite a feast!

As our contribution, we brought over a dutch apple pie (obtained from Publix, since kitchen talent is not one of my strong points) and a pot of freshly brewed Barnie's coffee. My husband has one of those fancy-schmancy coffee pots with an urn that keeps the coffee hot indefinitely. It doesn't have a heating element; the urn itself must be insulated with some magical material, as it really does work. The coffee will stay hot for hours, and it doesn't get that burned taste that a heating element inevitably gives it if it sits for too long.

Those who like Barnie's coffee are like a cult of vampires. We're always trying to recruit others into our unholy circle. If you've ever read the book "'Salem's Lot" by Stephen King, you'll know what I mean. Whenever neighbors stop by, my husband brews up some tempting flavor like Cool Cafe Blues (maple and nuts) or German Chocolate Cake (just what its name implies). Since Valentines Day is right around the corner, Barnie's is now selling the seasonal Sweetheart Blend (chocolate, cherries, and brandy). I think we're slowly but surely winning them over.

Our neighbors have a cat and a dog, which is always a treat because we miss our own cats when we are in Florida. They are still in Chicago, and when you have a house filled with rambunctious furry acrobats, it's hard to get used to peace, quiet, and the absence of hairballs. Like addicts, we get our "fix" by petting other critters until we return to our own furry family.

It will be hard to head out to the airport tomorrow, knowing that we are returning to cold and snow. We had a little mini-blizzard earlier in the week, although the temperature was supposed to get warm enough to melt it while we were gone. But as we walked from the parking lot to the airport, I was COLD! I can't describe how wonderful it felt to disembark down the jetway and feel that familiar Florida mugginess. I don't like it in the summer, but in the dead of winter it feels great.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Fleeing to Florida

Today is the kind of day that reminds me why my husband and I bought a house in Celebration. Sunday night we had to return to Chicago for four days, and of course Jack Frost and Mother Nature had to enter into an unholy partnership and whip up a blizzard to welcome us back. It's been snowing for most of the day, and it's supposed to continue all night until we've got a foot of the white stuff just in time for the morning rush hour.

When I woke up this morning, the bitter wind was doling out frostbite to the unprotected, and my car windows were sheathed in a thick coating of ice. As I chipped my way through it with what little mobility was left in my frozen fingers, my thoughts turned longingly to Florida. In Celebration, the worst "car incidents" usually involve discovering that the interior has turned into a blast furnace. It's much easier to reach in gingerly and crank up the air conditioning than it is to shovel out a snowbound, ice-encased vehicle. And that's a moot point anyway, since the summer heat has fled Celebration. Now the weather is mild, with the occasional nippy night. It's at the perfect temperature to open the windows and fill the house with fresh air.

I can see why birds fly south for the winter, and why so many humans follow suit. I prefer Florida all year 'round, but the span of time between November and March only confirms my choice. Back when my husband and I were mere tourists, we snickered when we saw the natives bundled up in thick coats, gloves, and even ear muffs in weather that would give a northener heat stroke if it occurred in January. Now we're starting to lose our heartiness, and we shiver and complain when the temperature drops below 70.

Hopefully the snow will clear out by Friday night, when we wing our way back to the Sunshine State. As usual, we'll be flying good old Lame Duck, ATA, which may actually be more like a phoenix than a duck, rising from the ashes into a new incarnation. It looks like Southwest will be taking over several gates at Midway and purchasing a stake in ATA. The infusion of cash will keep them afloat (or rather "aloft") and allow them to keep the rest of their gates in Chicago. They will be cutting some routes, but Orlando is a popular one, so hopefully they will keep it running.

It will feel so good to return home to Celebration this weekend. Christmas is past, so the "snoap" on Market Street and at Disney World is long since over for the season. How nice it is to live in a place where "winter" means switching from t-shirts to sweatshirts.

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Monday, January 03, 2005

The Dark Side

Yes, I'll admit it. I'm going to do it. I'm going to step over to The Dark Side.

For years, I've had "Swiss Walls" (white or off-white, as neutral as Switzerland). Sure, you can call it Ivory Snow or Vanilla Frost or Blizzard or whatever, but those are just fancy ways of saying WHITE. That was true in my home up north, and it's currently true in Celebration, too. Actually, that's not entirely by choice. When we purchased our home, it was classified as an "inventory home," even though the ground hadn't been broken yet. That's just a fancy way of saying, "We're already chosen everything for you, and if you want to make changes, you'll have to wait until the moon turns pink and aligns with Mars while Saturn's rings implode."

We hate, hate, hate builder's paint, so if nothing else, we would have at least paid for an upgraded paint job, even if it was a neutral color. But no, poor Duloc Manor's walls are "covered" (if you can call it that) in that cheap, thin coating that I suspect is concocted from water mixed with skim milk.

Now that the first year has passed, and we have most of our furniture in place, it's time to get a real paint job. And, dare I say it: I think I'm ready to make the leap to COLOR.

Big, bold walls with big, bold colors seem to be very popular in Celebration. Not having much of a knack for interior design, I've always been afraid to try anything that daring. In the past, my most gutsy foray was to have someone stencil a cat design onto the kitchen wall of my condo. But now, I think I'm going to dip my toe into the Pond of Dark Colors and Irreversible Decisions by having two of my family room walls painted a deep maroon.

This insanity took root when I was trying to figure out how to artifically separate the kitchen/diningroom from the family room. Our floor plan is totally open, and it wouldn't work to put the sofa or loveseat in the middle of the room as a divider. Our couch is brown, with semi-southwesty pillows with a yellow, aqua, and maroon pattern. The maroon is the most distinctive color, and it also blends rather nicely with the brown. We have matching lamps and a floor vase in the same color, so I'm thinking, "Why not slap it on the walls too?" Then, if I keep the kitchen white or very lightly colored, the accent walls should make a nice separator.

Logically, I know that it should look good. I've seen many homes with dark, stunning colors that are lovely. But in my gut, I have this terrible fear that I will hate it when it's done and spend the rest of my life painting over it with 50 coats of white, which still won't be enough to cover it.

I am a big fan of bright homes and lots of sunshine, and dark walls can be counter productive to that. But I think I can get away with it because there are four windows in the kitchen/familyroom area, not to mention a windowed door. I hope that the dark wall won't suck in the light like some evil black hole in outer space, devouring stars, planets, and even whole galaxies.

The rest of our house will be much more Swiss. I am going with a fairly bold yellow in the Harry Potter room (our powder room underneath the staircase), and I am going to have a blue accent on the tray ceiling in our master bedroom. Other than that, the rest of the house will have just a hint of color hidden within the off-white base.

But, like Anakin Skywalker, I am tempted by the Dark Side and yet full of fear. If I dare to make the leap, will the darkness consume me? Will I regret it forever, yet be unable to pull back from its all-encompassing maroon depths? Will it engulf me so fully that I will suddenly start plastering primary colors throughout my happy little home? Only time will tell.

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Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Wild Ones

A while back, I blogged about my fascination with Florida wildlife, much of while can be seen right here in Celebration (Note: I'm talking about the feathered and furred kind, not the two-legged Homo Sapiens variety, which is also prevalent). Now, more than a year later, I still find it fascinating that in the middle of the 'burbs, we still get glimpses of what Celebration was like not so long ago when some of the original inhabitants pay a visit.

Late this morning, I was sitting on the family room couch, working on my laptop with my back to the window. I love the fact that our house has windows in available spot, letting in the sunshine and providing a glimpse of the world beyond. My husband was making coffee; the kitchen is wide open to the family room, so he could easily see outside into our back yard. He paused suddenly and said, "Turn around...quick!"

I glanced outside, and there, toddling down the alley in perfect formation, was the largest flock of wild turkeys that I've seen so far. There had to be close to ten of them, big and bold and not afraid to show themselves now that Thanksgiving and Christmas are safely over. I hurried into the yard to watch the impromptu parade, and I noticed that our neighbor on the corner was even taking pictures.

I know that the turkeys were frequent visitors back when our little corner of East Village was basically a huge sand lot. I saw them often when we came to town to visit our house in its various stages of construction. Back then, I saw lots of deer tracks, too, although I never saw Bambi and friends in the flesh.

I'm happy to see that man-made "progress" has apparently not frightened the animals off. We have the advantage of having a large plot of conservation area right across the street, which still offers some refuge for the wild critters. I'm glad to see that they still wander over to check out the human invaders.

Now that we live here, I've spotted the elusive deer many times. I've seen them in Aquila Reserve, which is not at all far from my home, but they still come over to our street too. I've had them hop out in front of my car while driving home at night, and my neighbor in the mirror triplex unit has even had them come into her yard.

It's easy to figure out where those critters come from, but I still haven't been able to fathom how a frog got into my mailbox. I went to check it the other day, and there he was, cowering in the back and trying to turn invisible. I felt sorry for the poor little guy; I knew that he couldn't survive in there for very long, despite the fact that he obviously wanted to remain. Besides, he was probably violating all sorts of Federal regulations. It took a bit of doing, but I managed to catch him and relocate him to the more hospitable environs of our front lawn.

The frogs seem to be attracted by light. At night, I enjoy bringing my laptop outside and working on my porch swing (thanks to the wonder of wireless DSL). I keep the porch lights blazing, and soon I have an audience of tiny reptiles, clinging to the wall of the house with their sticky little toes and watching me intently.

I still haven't caught sight of the wild pig that allegedly visits Founders Park in downtown Celebration. That is a good distance from East Village (20 minutes by foot). It's a much more "urban" area...that is, if anything around here can truly be called "urban" I'm surprised that a wild animal would hang around. Maybe he enjoys having an audience. But although there are also some massive arachnids in Florida, I haven't seen any spider webs declaring "Some Pig."

Depending on where you live, I suppose that Celebration is not all that exciting for wildlife spotting. I have a friend in Estes Park, Colorado (think Rocky Mountains) who has spotted all manner of wild creatures on his hikes, and even around his cabin. He recently sent a photo of a bobcat that was stolling along with her two kittens. Turkeys, deer, and even wild pigs pale in comparison. But still, it doesn't take much to excite me; as an animal lover, I enjoy spotting any sort of creature (although when it's a gator or poisonous snake, I appreciate some distance).

I know that we're going to have to fence our yard soon because we want to have a whirlpool installed. For safety reasons, I imagine that it will have to be a relatively tall one. That makes me sad, as I enjoy the backyard wildlife visitors, but hopefully I'll still see them when I'm sitting out on my front porch. And meanwhile, I don't think the fence should deter some animal visitors too much; our neighbor's cat likes to meow at the back door, knowing that I will come out to administer petting, and I'm sure that the fence will be simple for a feline to negotiate. Hopefully it will be wild pig-proof!

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Saturday, January 01, 2005

Day One

You know that you had a good New Year's Eve when you don't wake up until noon (or later) the next day.

It's Day One of 2005, and I didn't stir until 12 p.m., having crashed into bed sometime around 3 a.m. We started our celebrating around 7:30 p.m. with some egg nog at our next door neighbors' house, along with another neighbor from our triplex. There was enough nog in the drinks to convince me that I'd just won $25 on one of the lottery tickets in my Christmas card. By the sober light of the next morning (well, afternoon), it turns out that I hadn't scratched the ticket thoroughly enough. It was one of those confusing Bingo games that actually requires you to work to figure out if you're a winner. Due to incomplete scratching, I had mistaken a "41" for an "11."

After that interlude, we headed to a house party a few streets down. On the way, there is another triplex that looks almost exactly like ours. I made a mental note: If I consume too much "holiday cheer," I should not head for the very first place that looks like home.

From the end of the block, the party house looked quiet and still. But as we approached, we could see the kids romping upstairs through the windows, and the pulse of music rose in volume with each step closer to the door. Inside, the party was in full swing. There was a snack-laden table in the front room and hot dishes and drinks in the kitchen. The family room was the scene of the music and the main revelry, although the party had spilled over pretty much throughout the house.

Our hostess had the neat idea to set up a pajama party for the kids upstairs. That way, they could party to their hearts' content and then drop in place. But most of them decided that it was more fun to hang out with the "big kids" downstairs. It was an especially huge hit when the lights went down and the glow sticks came out.

I was varying between alcoholic beverages and soda, but my husband was sticking to a potent rotation of margaritas, wine, and Godiva white chocolate liquor. I was feeling tipsy, but he was well beyond feeling any pain. I won't go into details of the freewheeling conversation, but suffice it to say that I will never think of either China or Taco Bell in the same way again. It is also amazing how fascinating a "virtual dancer" on the computer can be!

I also consumed an obscene amount of calories, but I take no responsibility. How can I resist items like turtle confections, caramel Chex mix, corn salsa with chips, and delicious chili with shredded cheese when my willpower has already been severely lowered by alcoholic beverage consumption?

I did notice an interesting phenomenon; like the hostess, I am from Chicago, and the parties there tend to run all night. You keep going until the wee hours, when you pretty much drop in place, unless you have enough energy to seek out a couch or other more suitable area. The next morning apparently differs, depending on your social circle. My friend said she would whip up a big breakfast for everyone when they finally regained consciousness. In my social group, the usual result was that people would simply wake up one by one and drag themselves home at various times.

Conversely, in Celebration, parties seem to end earlier. I was amazed that several people headed home before midnight. The party had started at 7 p.m., so that was still a good stretch, but conservative by Chicago standards.

My husband and I were determined to wait it out until the new year arrived. As the countdown entered its final minutes, the champagne was passed out and the music was turned down so we could switch to Dick Clark and the ball in Times Square. That's one advantage of living in Florida; you are in the same time zone as New York. In Chicago, you watch all the hoopla on television an hour early, and by the time "your" New Year rolls around, it feels anti-climactic.

I'm sure that there were fireworks outside, but they were muffled by the sounds of the party. After 2005 had arrived, things shifted into high gear. I remember more drinks, glow stick dancing, and conversation that would make Linda Lovelace blush. Eventually most of the people started trickling out, and we joined them at some point between 1:30 and 2 a.m.

As we walked home, it didn't seem at all strange to me to be walking in mild weather, surrounded by palm trees, rather than being in single-digit cold and snow. The one thing that did seem odd was the eerie quiet. Other than the distant echo of a lone firework, we didn't hear a sound or see a soul. A couple of cars passed us, but most of the houses that we passed were dark; even those with lights had no partying bodies visible. In Chicago, the partiers would still be going strong.

We were still pretty wired when we arrived home (thankfully we still had enough presence of mind to go to the right house), so my husband went upstairs to read for a while, while I checked my email. I think it was right around 3 a.m. when I finally crashed. Other than a brief interlude to answer a phone call around 9 a.m., the next thing I remember is hearing the coffee grinder some time around noon.

We actually had a fairly ambitious day. I tidied up the house to give anyone who might pop over the illusion that we actually live like civilized people. Meanwhile, my husband dismantled the silver Christmas tree and its dazzling array of color wheels.

Tonight we'll attempt to get back on a somewhat regular sleep schedule. We're going out with some friends, but it will probably be an early evening because they have a "teenage drama queen" (as her mom loves to call her) at home. On Sunday, the holiday visitors should be heading home en masse, so we'll probably hit the Animal Kingdom for a safari or two before closing time and then pop over to Disney-MGM for one last look at the Osborne lights. We may check out the parks on Monday, too, to compare the wall-to-wall crowds of a week earlier with what will probably seem like a ghost town now.

My husband wants to brave one of the Disney parks for New Years Eve someday, but I'm more of a house party person. I like private parties, or perhaps a small community event. I'm sure the poor souls at the Magic Kingdom were out well past 3 a.m., mainly because it probably took them that long to get out of the park and maneuver through the traffic.

2005 promises to be an interesting year. Goodness knows that 2003 and 2004 have brought about some major changes for my husband and I, but I suspect that this new year will top both of them. It's off to a darned good start, so with any luck the momentum will continue. Happy 2005!

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