Friday, April 29, 2005

The Explorers

I have a trio of furry explorers living in my household. Farquaad, Stitch, and Tooncinator were used to living in a condo three stories up, where the opportunities for exploration were limited. Once in a while, they were allowed to on an excursion to the balcony, or perhaps into the hallway where they got great pleasure sniffing at our neighbors' doors. Other than that, they were housebound.

It wasn't totally tedious for them, as we had plenty of windows with big sills and strategically placed cat perches, but their line of sight was still somewhat limited by being so high up. I also created what I called "Cat Television" by scattering bird seed on the balcony. That would attract lots of sparrows, mourning doves, grackles, and the occasional acrobatic squirrel that managed to climb the brick wall. It was always amusing to see the cats sitting with their fuzzy faces pressed up against the patio doors, chattering their kitty machine gun noises to threaten the wildlife.

But overall, their opportunities for adventure were limited. Duloc Manor is much more cat-friendly. Granted, I don't allow the felines to go wandering at will. They are only allowed outside while safely restrained on a leash. I've seen the cars whiz by as though they think they're on the racetrack at Disney World, so I don't want my pets to become "kitty pancakes" in the road. There's always the possibility that they could become gator bait if they get too close to a lake, and I saw how much interest our nieghbor's dog piqued in the hunting owls. When they go outside, I want them securely leashed and as close to me as possible. But even though they're restrained, the cats just love any opportunity to get out and explore their little corner of the world.

Stitch is our most intrepid explorer. Before we adopted him from a shelter, he had spent some time loose in a field. I suspect that he was a housecat before he was lost or abandoned, since he settled right into our household with virtually no adjustment period. He knew exactly what a couch was, as well as a litterbox, scratching post, and most importantly (to him), a food bowl. But in his time living on the wild side, he apparently developed a taste for wandering. Now, he is just as enthusiastic as any dog when we take his leash out of the drawer. Almost before we slip it over his head, he's frantically begging at the door.

Sometimes he bolts down the stairs like a black-and-white streak of lightning. At other times, he steps out casually and daintilly sniffs the air for a while before deigning to leave the porch. Otherties, he simply collapses, rolling and thrashing around on the porch, trying to get his coat as filthy as possible. No matter how he makes his initial exit, he also has to have a good roll on the sidewalk the moment he steps down off the stairs. He is just as meticulous as any other cat in grooming and polishing his coat, but the moment he steps outdoors, he has an overwhelming compulsion to get his fur as dirty as possible.

Personally, I suspect that he is engaged in a "scent war" with the cat next door. His orange and white kitty neighbor has free run of our street, and she considers herself the four-leged ruler of the neighborhood. Before we brought our own cats to Duloc Manor, she would stop by to visit us and give us a "kitty fix." She wandered through our yard and perched on our porch posts, making herself right at home and no doubt leaving all sorts of kitty pheromones to mark her territory.

Apparently cats place a lot of importance on pheromone communication. I know that my trio loves to rub their faces against virtually everything in the house. When we moved them to Florida, I purchased Feliway (a synthetic spray that mimics a cat's facial pheromones) to spritz around Duloc Manor. Supposedly, it makes cats more comfortable in their surroundings. I couldn't swear that it worked, but I do know that the kitties settled in much more quickly that I thought they would. Even Tooncinator, our crazy cat, got over the shock of being hauled in a cage with his two mortal enemy-cats for 24 hours straight rather promptly.

I'm sure that our neighbor kitty had our property staked out, so of course Stitch smelled the presence of another cat and decided to do some marking of his own. Whenever he is outdoors, he rubs his face on everything within range and rolls and thrashes like a wild thing on the ground.

Farquaad used to be scared to death to step over the threshhold. His background is more traumatic than Stitch's, as he had been living under a dumpster in a truck yard. He was barely old enough to be away from his mom-cat; I have no idea what happened to her or his siblings. But he was marked for death, as the sadistic workers think it's fun to play "Let's Run The Kitty Over With The Forklift." If they don't finish the job, the Waste Management pick-up man enjoys tossing any unfortunately stray that he can get his hands on into the compactor. As you can tell, they're a real charming bunch of people.

But fortunately, they didn't know about the kitten, which my brother found when he was making a delivery there. Poor Farquaad was sitting in front of the dumpster and wailing piteously, but whenever my brother approached, he would duck under it, sitting just out of reach. Finally, he was tempted out with food; my brother leaped at him and just managed to grab his hind leg before he made it to shelter. Now, he lives a life of luxury, buddying up to Stitch, beating up on Tooncinator, and conniving my husband into giving him ground beef. Quite a far cry from the days when the death penalty was almost imposed on him.

Other than that, his only experience outdoors was being shoved into a cage in Canyonero and being transported 1200 miles through an ice storm. Understandably, he was in no hurry to leave the house again. One day, when my husband had Stitch in the front yard, I tried to bring Farquaad out and he was so terror-stricken that he peed all over the foyer! That was my last attempt to force him.

But little by little, he has watched Stitch out the window, and his curiosity has been piqued. At first, he would slink stealthily out onto the stoop and gaze around in a panic before retreating into the house. Then he got a little braver and mapped out the foreign territory of the porch, rolling around to leave cat smells and claim it as his very own. Now, he will actually go all the way down the stairs and even to the end of the front sidewalk, rolling, weaving through the flower beds, and grazing on the lawn (all the better to hork up later so I get to do my favorite cleaning job: mopping up cat barf).

It took him a little while to understand the concept of the leash, but now he's an old pro. Stitch adapted to the restraint almost instantly; he may have been a dog in a former life. He will walk with me all the way around the block, and even down the alley. For the most part, he trots along at a steady pace, but every now and then he has an irresistable urge to collapse. Still, if I goose him with my toe, he gets the message.

Farquaad probably wouldn't do well on an actual walk. He has a terror of strangers, so he'd probably choke himself to death trying to make a beeline for home the moment he spotted a jogger or someone walking a dog. He likes watching people from distance, as long as he's within our property limit. He's also very bold when he sits in the formal room window. No matter who comes on the porch, he'll stare them down from the top of his cat perch, as he knows full well there's a pane of glass between him and them. If they open the front door, he rockets upstairs at full warp speed.

Tooncinator's outdoor experience is limited. In the condo, he enjoyed the balcony, but he wasn't much for the front hallway. At Duloc Manor, he will occasionally take a jaunt outside if he happens to be around when we're doing kitty excursions. But since he spends most of his life under the bed upstairs listening to the scary voices in his head ("Kill all humans! Kill all humans!"), there's not a lot of opportunity.

I try to make what the behaviorists at Animal Kingdom would call an "enriched environment" (i.e. lots of perches, scratching posts, and cat toys), but the lure of the great outdoors can never be entirely overcome. Thus, forevermore, I'll be stuck taking the explorers for their daily walks. If you're ever in East Village and you see a woman holding the leash of a big, black-and-white bundle of fur that is writhing around on dirtiest spot of the sidewalk, that would be me.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Warning: I'm not a tourist, I'm an armed native

While riding my bike this afternoon on my usual ice-cream break, I saw a great bumper sticker. It was on a car parked in front of the condos at the end of our alley, and it said: Warning: I'm not a tourist, I'm an armed native.

The bumper sticker's warning is not as far-fetched as it might sound. In Florida, we recently were freed up to use deadly force for self defense in public as of October 1 (as opposed to just when someone breaks into your home). As the Associated Press described it, "With a National Rifle Association lobbyist at his side, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law yesterday to make it clear people have a right to meet 'force with force' to defend themselves on the street."

Although the definitions are subject to interpretation, it basically means that you can use "deadly force" to defend yourself in any location without having to attempt to retreat first, which was required under the old law. You're only supposed to use it to prevent death or great bodily harm to yourself or someone else, but ascertaining someone else's intent in a pressure situation is not always an easy thing to do. It remains to be seen whether our state will come to "resemble the Wild West," as some critics have prophecized, or whether it will reduce crime because criminals will fear retaliation.

I don't have a strong opinion on the law, as I prefer to avoid life-and-death situations. I suppose that I would be willing to fatally hurt someone if they broke into my house and I truly belived they were a threat. In the state at large, I would still defend myself rather than be killed, but when tempers flare, there is probably a high potential for people misreading each other. It's a slippery slope; not too long ago, on one of the right-wing radio shows, they had a story about a man in Georgia who shot and killed another person when they approached his car. I missed the first part of the story, but it sounded like a road rage situation, and it was at some ungodly hour like 2 a.m. in a rough city neighborhood. Nobody will ever know the second motorist's true intent, since he is dead, but it's very possible that he intended to do some damage himself.

Speaking of road rage, that brings to mind another law, or at least a law-to-be. In the free-wheeling state of Florida, we've also got the oddly-named Road Rage Reduction Act, which, in the words of the Orlando Sentinel, would "make it illegal to drive at or below the speed limit in the left lane if doing so impeded the natural flow of traffic." In other words, if you're going to drive on the left, you'd better be speeding or you're going to get a ticket. The bill passed through the house and senate, but last I heard, it was still sitting on Governor Jeb's desk, at least as of April 15.

I'm not sure what I think about that bill. I'm more than familiar with the confused tourists putzing along at 40 on the left while reading roadmaps. I try to stay to the right, but the Sunpass lanes are all on the far left side of the toll plazas, do I do have to move over eventually. Even with the law in place, are the tourists really going to know about it? Even if we post signs, can we really expect them to be read? If a tourist doesn't notice the hundred signs pointing the way to Disney World, they surely won't read something non-Disney related.

Also, I read an editorial that pointed out an amusing irony: What if there is a driver in the left, going the legal speed limit but holding up a line of ragers who want to speed? Does a state trooper pull over the lead car and ticket him while the others rocket by at 80 mph?

Some people even predict that the law will result in more rage, not less. Speeders in the left might feel entitled to drive as fast as they please and feel justified to be even nastier than usual to anyone who impedes their progress.

I guess the two new laws could work pretty well in tandem. For example, let's say that a left lane putzer pisses off a fellow driver by breaking the Road Rage Reduction law. At least they are allowed to legally blow off the rager's head if he cuts them off and approaches their car in a threatening manner.

But aside from our amusing laws, I couldn't help but snicker at the bumper sticker for another reason. Ever since we moved to Florida, I find myself playing "Spot The Tourist." It's a local variation on "Where's Waldo?" in which you must scan the crowd in downtown Celebration, picking out those people who hail from out-of-state. But unlike Waldo, who appeared solo among the masses, the tourists are typically present in herds that swell to gargantuan proportions at peak vacation times. It would probably be a lot more challenging to spot the Florida natives.

Tourists can be spotted on foot by several tell-tale signs, including a set of keys with a car-rental tag hanging from their belt loops and a confused deer-in-the-headlights expression. They often have overstuffed fanny packs, but that can be misleading; I tend to carry one of those myself. They also can frequently be spotted in Disney World t-shirts, wearing socks with their sandals, but again, that can be a red herring. 99 percent of my husband's wardrobe is shirts purchased from the Mouse, and I actually caught him doing the socks-and-sandals thing the other day.

Cars make the spotting a bit easier. Just look for a Chevy Cavilier or a Sebring convertible with a license plate marked with "Sunshine State" instead of a particular county and you've found a visitor. But again, this can be misjudged. Canyonero is a maroon Aztek of the sort favored by Avis, so I'm not always easily identified as a local. Even if you notice my license plate, you could potentially be fooled. I have my old Illinois license on the back, since it doesn't expire for several more months. On the front, I have a gaudy yellow plate advertising Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas. Many Celebration residents have a green front plate with the Celebration logo as an easy way to recognize their cohorts. I've been tempted to get one myself, but I just can't part with the Castaway Cay plate. Thus, I'm probably frequently mistaken for a gutsy tourist who has driven 1200 miles just to meet Mickey.

If I want to be sure that I'm never the victim of mistaken identity, I can get a copy of that bumper sticker. I don't like to sully my Aztek with stickers, but I might make an exception for that one, or at least I could tape it in the window. I always wanted a Mickey antenna topper, but when a co-worker gave me one for Christmas, I made the shocking discovery that Canyonero doesn't have an antenna! Perhaps I have finally found a worthy vehicle decoration that I actually can put on my vehicle.

And if you ever visit Florida as a tourist, be very, very careful. Make sure you're speeding if you insist on riding the left lane, and don't piss us off. Remember, the natives are armed, and thanks to good old Governor Jeb, we're not afraid to use our weapons.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Monday, April 25, 2005

Radio Days

At Duloc Manor, we have two separate landline phones. The first was our "original" (the one that I hated because it is a 321-939 number instead of the traditional 407-566 Celebration exchange). When we moved in full-time, that one was demoted to the status of computer line. My husband sometimes has to dial in for his job, so we added a second line to make sure that we'd have an available phone for my business.

Our new phone number was much more to my liking, since it was a 566 number, and the last four digits are the same as my street address (check out my blog entry from last October to learn about my obsessive/compulsive number fixation). That's the main line that we use for making and receiving calls, whether business or personal. We have some sort of ultra-package that includes call waiting, call forwarding, and about a zillion minutes of long distance, so it works out really well.

Sometimes my husband and I both need to be on the phone at the same time for our respective jobs, so we press both lines into service. But mostly the computer line phone sits silent, so I'm always startled on the rare occasions that it actually rings.

I heard it ringing the other day; it's only plugged in upstairs, and I was down in the family room, so I heard my husband treading across the second floor from his office to answer it. A few people still have that number, and he was on the line for a while, so I figured it must have been someone we know.

"Who was it?" I hollered up when I heard him conclude the call. "An Arbitron survey," he replied. He informed me that during the week of May 5, we will take on the vitally important role of helping to determine radio station ratings. A few years back, my brother's family participated in the Nielsens, but I've never heard of anyone being contacted by Arbitron before. Oh well, it doesn't sound too complicated...just track what stations I listen to during the designated week.

There is an irony in this situation; when they asked my husband what he was listening to at the moment they called, he replied, "WNUA." That happens to be a Chicago jazz station, which he listens to via a live internet feed while he's working. It confused the survey taker for just a moment, since the poor guy knew he was calling a Celebration, Florida number. But then he told my husband that it's becoming more and more common for people to stream in radio feeds from anywhere in the country rather than tune in to the local airwaves. Chicago may be over a thousand miles away, but its radio entertainment is as close as our computer.

Normally, I don't listen to the radio unless I'm driving solo in my car. When I do tune in, I prefer talk radio in general and a continuous news/traffic/weather station in particular. It's not so much for the information as to have the "company" of voices, much like some people keep the television on when they're home alone. In Duloc Manor, I have plenty of company even when my husband is out of town. Between the three cats romping around in a frenzy of shedding and litter-scattering and the bird perching on my should to taunt them, I rarely feel lonely. In the car, it's nice to have something to break the silence; I know that nowadays most people do that with cell phone conversations, but I think that the radio is a much less dangerous distraction.

I enjoy music, but being able to burn my own CDs, with specific songs that I like, has spoiled me for listening to music stations. There are too many bad songs mixed in before they finally play a good one, not to mention all the ads and inane, blathering introductions. If I want music, I pop in a CD, but usually I prefer a talk radio station.

In Chicago, I always listened to WBBM NewsRadio 78. Even when I was a kid, I tuned in to that station every night at bedtime. During the day, I was a typical youngster listening to WLS or to Super Jock Larry Lujack on WCFL (my fellow 40ish Chicagoans will know what I'm talking about...remember "Animal Stories' with your old Uncle Lar and Little Snot-Nosed Tommy?). But at night, I always switched the dial in time for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which was broadcast on 78. I would usually drift off in the middle of the show, before the news broadcasts resumed, but sometimes I managed to make it all the way through the mystery and fell asleep listening to the news.

As an adult, I drifted away from pop music to talk radio almost exclusively. In Chicago, my commute to work was less than five minutes, but if I timed my leaving time correctly, I could usually catch traffic and weather, which is repeated every ten minutes on the eights (8 past the hour, 18, 28, and so on). I also could catch the main news stories; usually, they were things I already knew about, but I'll never forgot the morning of 9/11, when my drive coincided with the second plane striking the World Trade Center. When I turned on the radio, the first plane had already hit, and I listened in stunned horror, thinking, "What a terrible, terrible accident." Then the second plane crash, and it was suddenly apparent that it was no random tragedy.

By the time I got to the office, my co-workers were clustered in anxious little knots around the desks of those who had radios. I don't think much work got done that day; we were all too involved in listening to the drama unfold and trying to make some sense out of an utterly senseless situation.

Thankfully, the morning news was usually more benign. Sure, there were assorted tragedies on a local and national level, but none could ever begin to reach the horror of that dark day in September.

Now, in Florida, I have no commute at all. My radio listening is limited to the my "airport runs," when I'm either picking up or delivering my husband to Orlando International Airport. That usually happens in the early morning or late night, so the newscasts keep me alert on the road. I learned on the 1200 Mile Drive From Hell that talk radio is a great way to keep your mind focused in the wee hours of the night, when your brain wants nothing better than to sink into a numbed state of unconsciousness. On that overnight drive, with my husband dozing in the seat beside me, I found an Atlanta station to keep me company from Tennessee through Florida.

The shows on that station were actually quite scary, as the hosts tended to have extremist views. I don't remember much about the political discussions, but I do remember the hunting show. The two hosts spent the whole time making fun of a person who wrote them a letter about controlling deer populations with contraceptives. They yucked it up for an hour, and various people called in to join them in mocking the poor letter writer. They also discussed some sort of militant gun club to which they belonged; I meant to check out the website, but the address has long since slipped my mind.

The programming got more ominous as night turned into morning and reports of the ice storm started coming in. Since we had two fish, three cats, and a bird, we couldn't stop at a motel, so we had to press on through the wicked weather. It's a good thing we had the radio on or it would have come as a complete surprise.

That station doesn't make it all the way to Florida, but I've found a pretty good one called WDBO, AM 580. It has some really cool extremist talk show hosts; most seem to be rabidly conservative, although I think that one is a liberatarian. Personally, I don't pigeonhole myself into a category like "liberal" or "conservative." My views vary widely, depending on the subject. Therefore, I enjoy listening to just about any viewpoint. When I'm heading to or from the airport, I love listening to the extremist rantings of whatever host might be on the air. Sometimes, it's an Orlando Magic game, which always disgruntles me...then I have to search the airwaves for an alternate. I am a creature of habit, so I don't like searching up and down the AM dial.

We don't have a radio in Duloc Manor; even my alarm clock is a little atomic clock rather than a traditional clock-radio variety. But we don't really need one, since my husband and I can both get our Chicago feeds online. I can get WDBO online, too, and if I ever decide to listen to the radio while I work, that would probably be my choice. It's just to weird to listen to Chicago news and local advertisements while I'm sitting in the Sunshine State. I'd rather tune in to my own local programming and hear what's going on in the Orlando area.

I did actually manage to pick up NewsRadio 78 one night while driving on 417. Now, that was weird! It's one thing to hear about the traffic on the Dan Ryan from your PC speakers and quite another to hear it while you're driving among the palm trees on the Greenway. But I think that was a rarity; normally, the radio signal doesn't make it more than 1000 miles.

When Arbitron contacts us in May, it looks like WDBO will be the winner with me. My husband will skew the ratings with his beloved Chicago station; there is a jazz counterpart in Orlando, but he's a creature of habit, so I don't think he'll ever make the leap.

Me, I'm just the opposite; the next time I'm stuck in Chicago, I won't be thinking of my old news channel. I'll be logging onto my favorite Orlando station with its troupe of crazy talk show hosts, and then I'll feel like I'm really back home.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Invasion of the Endless Pie Buffet

This year, my husband and I experienced another "first" in Celebration: the Great American Pie Festival. We missed it last year, much to my chagrin, since a "neverending pie buffet" sounded like something I could sink my teeth into (pun fully intended). This time around, as full-time residents, we planned to be front and center for the big event.

The event actually spans the entire weekend and overflows from Celebration to the Radisson World Gate Resort, just across 192. At the hotel you'll find the APC Crisco National Pie Championships (Crisco is also the main sponsor of the event, along with various pie-related businesses such as Baker's Square, Pillsbury, and Schwan's Bakery, to name a few).

I wasn't interested in the competition, which I can always catch later on The Food Network anyway. My main, selfish interest was in consuming mass quantities of pie. I originally had planned to be a volunteer, but both my husband and I had to work this weekend. We spent the majority of Saturday and Sunday chained to our respective computers, but on Sunday morning we took a break and headed downtown for feasting and fun.

Actually, Sunday was probably the best day to visit. Most of Saturday was pleasant and sunny, but in the late afternoon the rainshowers let loose with a vengence. Sunday was cooler, with plenty of sunshine; the only slight annoyance was a breeze that periodically strengthened just enough to whip the vendors' wares around.

We decided to head downtown right around 11 a.m., when the festivities were scheduled to begin. Normally, I would walk or bike down, but since the Farmer's Market was running simultaneously, we opted to drive. I reasoned that since the festival would draw a larger-than-usual crowd, there might be more craft vendors at the market. If we drove Canyonero and I found something large and/or bulky to buy, I wouldn't end up trying to balance it on my bicycle or dragging it along the walking path.

We parked way down on Celebration Avenue, near Stetson University. Since it was early, there was still plenty of parking closer to Market Street. But I reasoned that we were going to consume huge volumes of sugary calories, so some additional forced exercise would do us good.

The Front Street/Market Street area was blocked off for the event, and the crowd was slowly but steadily arriving. We passed the children's activity area and the Town Tavern booth. Normally, I would have a difficult time passing up their clam chowder and lobster pot pie, but this time I knew that I had to save valuable stomach space. Same thing for my husband...normally he makes a bee line to the Columbia Restaurant's booth to indulge in salad and sangria, but he managed to maintain his focus and head for the pies instead.

We made a quick stop at the Orlando Sentinel's booth. They are a fixture at Celebration events, and I always like to stock up on pens and notepads. My kitchen counter seems naked if there isn't at least one Sentinel pen and pad scattered somewhere near the phone.

There were a few scattered pie booths along Market Street, but we studiously ignored them. We were heading for the Main Event, commonly known as the "Neverending Pie Buffet." Within its sacred boundaries, pie connesuiers could run rampant from table to table, filling up on delectible baked delicacies. Within this fantasyland of pie, you could find anything from traditional standards like apple, cherry, and pecan to more exotic concoctions like mango and sugar cream. For those who might prefer an alternate indulgence, Oberweis Dairy was on hand with chocolate and vanilla ice cream. To wash it down, there were tables laden with bottled water, and Healthy Cow was handing out milk in plain, chocolate, and strawberry varieties.

And the price to be turned loose into this sugary heaven? A mere seven dollars. Pay at the gate, get your hand stamped, and cram in as much as your gullet will fit.

My husband and I coughed up the requisite fee and entered the Promised Land of Pie. The booths were fenced off in a ring at the end of Market Street where it intersects with Celebration Avenue. We flitted about from booth to booth like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Decisions, decisions! Where should we start? I ended up grabbing a slice of traditional pecan pie, then a hunk of coconut cream and a sample of tasty looking cherry. I also just had to sample the intriguing selection known as "sugar cream." I had no idea what it might taste like, but anything with the words "sugar" and "cream" together couldn't be too bad.

I plopped down at one of the many tables scattered around the area and waiting for my husband to return from his own pie-hunting excursion. He had amassed quite an interesting selection, and he'd brought samples of key lime and mango for me. Ah, yes, key lime! How could I live in Florida and not indulge in that traditional Sunshine State treat? I've learned to tell the real stuff from the phony shlock served to tourists who don't realize that real key limes are not green. If you ever order a slice of key lime pie and you receive something with a bright green hue, send it's not the real thing.

It was interesting to note that the portions of pie varied from vendor to vendor. Some, like the key lime and mango, were in tiny sample-size portions (both of those were in the little plastic containers normally used to hold condiments). Others offered slices, albeit thinner ones than usual. Still other served up big, whompin', full-sized slices. I actually preferred the ones who offered smaller sizes. After all, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet, so you can take as many of the mini-sizers as you want. I'd rather have a lot of tiny samples to start off with so I can try more kinds of pie. Then, I can always go back and take more of my favorites.

My husband discovered a rare gem: rhubarb pie. We both love it, but it's hard to find, and when you do locate it, it's usually mixed with strawberries. Many years ago, we used to take a lot of weekend trips to Ohio. On the road we usually took, there was a farm stand that sold the most delicious Amish pies. Among them we could usually find that rare Holy Grail of the pie connesuier: 100% pure rhubarb. The pie at the festival had strawberries mixed in, but thankfully they were in the minority. Mostly, my fork hit huge, pink chunks of rhubarb goodness.

The pie was delicious, but there's only so much that a typical human can take before your teeth start to rattle from the sugar and your stomach begs for something that is not sweet. Still, we managed to taste quite a wide assortment of pasteries, and I topped off my feast with a helping of chocolate ice cream. The experience was definitely worth the seven dollars.

We dragged our pie-filled carcasses away from the buffet and down Market Street, planning to check out the Farmers Market. But as we approached the lake, we noticed that some entertaiment had just started on the main stage. I'm always a sucker for jugglers, magic, acrobatics, and the like, so we paused to see what was going on.

When we arrived, some poor volunteer was standing on the stage area while jugglers whipped fast-moving bowling pins around his head. I can only imagine the breeze as the pins zipped by his cheeks and ears and scalp while he muttered a silent prayer that he wouldn't suddenly have to sneeze. My husband and I decided to stick around, and we were treated to a spirited round of plate twirling and a very interesting unicycle ride...the performer wheeled around in a tight circle while balancing a volunteer from the audience on his shoulders.

Next up, he asked for another volunteer. My husband and I were standing in the back, behind all the seated people, so I figured that we were relatively safe. The performer was pointing in our general direction, so we figured he was going to pick on one of the people in the chairs. But no, he was suddenly heading right at us! At first, he said he was going to take me, and I was frozen in a sudden spasm of stage fright that kept me from even opening my mouth to protest. Normally I am an exhibitionist, but I am not the most coordinated person in the world. Thus, I'm not big on volunteer opportunities that might require me to throw, catch, climb, or do other things that potentially require skill. After watching the previous volunteer clamber up onto the performer's shoulders and balance there while he weaved around on the unicycle, I could only imagine what terrors I might potentially be subjected to.

Turns out he was just trying to scare me anyway...the one he was really after was my husband. Whew! I could tell that Tony was wishing he could melt into the pavement, but instead he sheepishly made his way up on stage. Why don't I ever have a camera at times like that!

It turned out to be a simple assignment. My husband was directed to lie down on a blanket spread on the sidewalk, and he was even given a pillow. Then, the performer climbed to the top of a ladder, which he planned to "walk" over my husband while juggling a trio of tennis rackets.

There was only one slight glitch. My husband is very barrel-chested, so there was no way the ladder's bottom rung would fit over it. No problem...the performer simply "walked" the ladder as far as possible, then did it backwards. He managed to do so without dropping any of the tennis rackets onto my poor, long-suffering spouse, who was eager to jump up and escape into the audience as soon as the trick was over. No such luck! He needed to assist one more time, but this time there was no risk to life or limb. He was asked to strap the performer into a straight-jacket, from which he planned to escape while riding around on a six-foot-tall unicycle.

I would never be able to ride any sort of unicycle, let alone one that is taller than me and while restrained in a staight-jacket to boot. But the performer managed to pull it off while the audience watched in awe. His manipulations to escape the jacket looked downright painful; they reminded me of the scene in "Lethal Weapon 2" where Mel Gibson dislocates his shoulder with a loud crack and worms his way out of restraints to win a bet. But Mel didn't have to do it while perched precariously on one wheel, cycling around the cement.

When the feat was completed successfully, we all let out a collective sigh of relief and burst into applause. It had been quite an interesting show. Even though he'd been walked over by a ladder while tennis rackets spun wildly overhead, my husband looked none the worse for the wear, so I led him to the safer environs of the Farmers Market.

Normally, when I come to the market, I allow myself a Sunday morning treat of fresh-squeezed lemonade and filled cookies. These items come from two separate vendors; there is a booth where the lemonade is made up right in front of you, and a little farther down is a table where a French couple displays their tempting, fresh-baked wares. My favorite item is their cookies, which are stuffed with enticing fillings like caramel or peanut butter. Those are my two favorites, and usually I can't decide between them, so I end up buying one of each.

But this time, I was still stuffed to the gills with pie, and even my favorite goodies couldn't entice me. I walked by the booths without feeling even one pang of temptation. I'm sure that my stomach was busily diverting as much blood as possible from my brain, rendering it incapable of manifesting any desire for sugary treats.

There were a few more crafters than usual, but nothing really tickled my fancy, so we cut across the parking lot to return to Celebration Avenue and Canyonero. Back at Duloc Manor, we both had plenty of work waiting for us, but we were happy that we'd taken the time for a sweet interlude.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Obstacle Course

I always snicker when I read an article about Celebration that says our streets run on a strict New Urbanism grid. If that's true, the grid designed must have been three sheets to the wind when drawing up the plans. If you're trying to find Duloc Manor and miss the turnoff for our cul de sac, you'll soon be dizzy from the twists and turns and the circle that you'll ultimately make.

Not only are our roads curvy and confusing, but they are often an obstacle course. This is especially true during business hours, when the construction crews and landscapers are out. I go walking with a friend almost every morning, and our starting point is on Front Street downtown. To get there, I drive from my East Village enclave, where there is still a flurry of construction. The crews park willy-nilly on both sides of the street, and being anywhere close to the curb is optional. Sometimes I wonder whether I'll be able to maneuver Canyonero through the obstacle course of beat-up pick-ups, trucks with trailers, and piles of construction material and debris. Like a video game, extra "challenges" may pop up at any time, too, like someone abruptly flinging their car door open just as I'm attempting to squeeze my vehicle through an already too-narrow space. Instead of wax, I've seriously debated simply coating my Aztek with a nice coat of slippery grease.

That is the road behind my home, and it's really just a warm-up for the major construction area on East Lawn (the main road in and out of East Village, which intersects with Celebration Avenue). East Lawn is lined with multi-zillion-dollar mansions in various stages of construction, which means various configurations of construction vehicles, trade vans, and whatnot on any given day. It's a narrow street even at the best of times, but during business hours, it often narrows down to literally one lane. Congo lines of cars take turns navigating the single narrow pathway. There is no flagger, but for the most part drivers are quite civil, taking semi-organized turns.

The driving can be hair-raising at times when you realize that both you and a Hummer are trying to navigate the same keyhole space at the same time in opposite directions. But I like taking that street because I enjoy watching the contruction progress on the houses. The only thing most of them have in common is a price tag exceeding the total amount of money that I'll probably earn in my whole lifetime. Other than that, they vary in style from stone-faced to Victorian to Spanish to Colonial. On the same street, you'll find a rambling Spanish villa right next door to a lavendar mansion, with a home fronted by massive white pillars just a few doors away.

My neighbors and I, being curious (i.e. nosy), have poked around the construction sites after hours, and we've been awed by the massive homesteads. While it's a little difficult to picture their true beauty when the drywall is absent, or perhaps just recently hung, and the floors and stairs are still bare concrete and wood. But the Ghost of Mansions Yet To Come hovers near, and with a little imagination, you can fill in the stone fireplaces, curving hardwood staircases, and intricate tile or marble work that will exist someday.

East Lawn borders a lake, so perhaps the best feature of those homes is the scenery right outside the backyards. Almost all of them have a swimming pool/lanai designed to take fill advantage of the view. Many of them have ceiling to floor windows; I can just imagine the light flooding in with the serene backdrop of the lake right on the other side of the glass.

Most of the houses have a while to go, and there are still several vacant lots with "Sold" signs, so the obstacle course isn't likely to be cleared out any time soon.

In the morning, the various landscape companies are busy throughout Celebration, too. Their vehicles and trailers create little surprise obstacles at various points throughout town. As I head out for my walk, I always note the distance droning that sounds like a hive of angry bees. But it's just the raucous symphony of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, edgers and various other motorized gardening devices. Based on my observations, the number of people in Celebration who do their own lawn care can probably be counted on my fingers and toes.

Since I live in a triplex, I am numbered among those with an outside gardening service. For a long time, my yard resembled a jungle; I'm sure that panthers were roaming the savannah-lands of Duloc Manor each night. It's even possible that Jimmy Hoffa's body was stashed somewhere among the knee-high grass. Our monthly fees were boosted, but now the service is vastly improved. They don't pull the weeds too often, but the grass always looks nicely clipped and manicured, and our hedges have even been trimmed twice this year. I planted a plethora of flowers, so I keep their beds weeded myself. The weeds are growing rather wild between our house and the neighbors, but I dub that "protected wetlands" and ignore it.

Even on streets that are free of work vehicles, white-knuckle maneuvering may still be required. In Celebration, the resients are divided into two distinct classes: driveway haves and have-nots. I am one of the lucky people numbered among the haves. We have a decent-sized driveway behind our garage where I can easily fit Canyonero. But only a handful of the houses on our cul de sac, and none of the ones behind us, have parkable driveways. In many parts of town, a typical "driveway" consists of a tiny spit of concrete good for nothing but holding a trash can. People who live in driveway-deprived homes must park their vehicles out on the street. Since many of our roads are narrow, and most households have multiple vehicles, this can create quite a bit of "car clutter." You can easily identify the streets where the homes lack driveways because they are always peppered with vehicular obstacles.

But the obstacles in Celebration are not limited to vehicles and gardening or construction equipment. In the morning, my friend and I often walk down the path that rings Lake Evalyn and then along the lake behind East Lawn. There are lots of ducks and other fine feathered friends that leave their "presents" on the walkway. This takes a bit of maneuvering that can resemble drunken weaving when the birds have been especially busy with their sidewalk artwork.

If we happen to be walking around school time, we must also be on the alert for convoys of children on bicycles. We see a handful on foot or on skateboards, but overall the majority seems to prefer pedaling. Usually they will shout a warning so we have plenty of time to step aside, but every now and then we are taken by surprise as a bike whizzes by on the grass next to us.

It's relatively easy to maneuver on foot, but driving around the various obstacles can be a bit more challenging. I do know alternate roads where I can avoid most of the congestion on the way to and from Duloc Manor, but they are out of the way. Besides, that fun would it be to drive on an open road, free of any surprises and challenges?

They say that, in order to keep your reflexes sharp, you should continually exercise them. In the same vein, to keep your mind alert, it's good to actively seek out mental challenges. The great thing about driving in Celebration is that maneuvering through the obstacle course allows you to accomplish both of those things at once.

You can email me at
Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Davy & Jan: A Love Story

When I headed out last night on the latest Mickey Mommas romp, I had no inkling that it would turn into epic of star-crossed romance for someone right in our little group. On that night, a certain celebrity would single out a cheering Celebration fan and bestow her with a token of love for all the world to see.

Things started out tame enough as I hopped into Canyonero with my neighbor to join the Mickey Mommas caravan to Disney World. We were heading over to Epcot to see none other than that Marcia-Brady-approved heartthrob, Davy Jones! He was appearing this weekend as part of the Flower Power concert series, in conjunction with the Flower and Garden Show.

It makes me feel old to see bands that I knew as a kid gamely playing venues like Epcot with wrinkles and gray hair. I wonder, in 40 years or so, will today's acts be doing the same thing? Will Epcot feature senior-citizen rappers with canes and walkers, their necks barely able to support their bling? Will they still look as threatening spouting off about ganstas and hoes as they wave their Social Security checks?

Rap might not transcend the decades very well, but the music of the 60s and 70s still does. I was anxious to see Davy perform live; although I had seen him onstage once before, it was primarily as an actor. Many years ago, "The Real Live Brady Bunch" appeared at the Park West theater in Chicago. Basically, it consisted of actors reading verbatum from old Brady Bunch scripts. That, in itself, is hilarious enough, but we got to see a special show where Davy played himself and Danny Bonaduce (aka Danny Partridge) played his manager. Although I loved seeing Davy reprise his famous role, the show was stolen by Alice the housekeeper singing Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" (i.e. "Ask Alice").

Other than that, I was a Davy Jones neophyte. I grew up around Monkees music played by my older brother and sister, but I was too young to appreciate the television show. "Words" and "Last Train to Clarksville" were particular favorites in my household, although "Pleasant Valley Sunday" has emerged as my all-time top Monkees tune.

I rediscovered the show on "Nick at Night" around the time that I moved into my first apartment. As a young child, I favored cartoons to real-life buffoonery. As an adult, I had come to appreciate the insane humor that I'd missed the first time around. I didn't really have a favorite Monkee, although one of ny two favorite episodes happened to be centered around Davy. And as a Brady Bunch junkie, I was intimately familiar with the infamous Davy-Jones-prom episode. I just love the Brady Bunch movie, where Davy performs at the prom and all the teenagers are staring at him like he's from another planet, but the teachers are all swooning.

Now I was going to be one of those old-time swooners. Ah, how life comes full circle! We picked up Jan, the leader of the gang, another group of Mommas pulled in behind us, and the caravan of Davy Jones groupies was on the roll.

In case you're wondering what the Mickey Mommas are, they're actually the group that gave birth to the Bunny Brigade. But the Mommas are a select, female-only contingent, and their headgear is not limited to bunny ears. The Bunny Brigade was actually spawned by last year's Davy Jones concert, where the ears first made their appearance. Unfortunately, Davy studiously avoided the gaggle of bunnies and refused their generous gift of his own set of ears. But despite his snubbing, the bunny ears theme took on a life of its own on the Front Porch (the community intranet, where you can add a photo to your signature line). Brigaders can still be found flaunting their ears, and often handing out carrots, at various Celebration events.

Meanwhile, the Mickey Mommas continue to flourish. This year, Jan provided feathered deedly-bopper headgear in pastel colors. The two feathered balls on top of each headband bounced jauntily on springs in a way that was sure to win us lots of attention. My neighbor had heard a lot about the Mommas, but this was her first personal experience. She has a good sense of humor, so she donned her deedly-boppers along with the rest of us.

Besides drawing snickers, stares, and smiles, the headpieces served a more practical purpose. We could easily spot each other in large crowds; just look for the bouncing feathered balls. And we could quickly take a headcount. As long as there were three pinks, three lime greens, a purple, and a blue, we knew that we were all present and accounted for.

Those deedly-boppers were the hit of the night! With all the strange headgear that you can buy at Disney World, you'd think that no one would give us a second glance. But all the mouse ears and sorcerer hats couldn't hold a candle to our bouncing pastel feathered glory. We lost count of the people who asked where they could buy their own set. If Jan had only known, she could have had a very profitable side-business going.

We headed over to Mexico to meet some more Mommas and consume some burritos and Margaritas before taking in the show. However, I soon suspected that we'd somehow stumbled into a black hole and ended up in the Neverending Line from Hell. It had been at least ten minutes, and the line for food hadn't moved more than half an inch. Would we make it through before poor Davy died of old age? Would we make it through before we all died of old age, or perhaps starvation?

When I finally got towards the front, I realized that they were only taking one order at a time and not serving the next person until the one before them got their food. Not terribly efficient when you have dozens of people stacked up. And apparently they were sending Juan Valdez and his donkey off to Mexico to personally pick up each order. Finally it was my turn, and I ordered nachos with a side of guacomole. I was planning to go for a Margarita, but a blend of frozen fruit juices tempted me away.

When they finally handed me my tray, I was shocked! The guacamole was $2.50, so I was expecting a decent portion. What I received was one of those tiny little plastic cups that Moe's Southwest Grill gives you for your salsa (your free salsa, I might add). The cup would barely have held enough ketchup for an order of French fries, let alone $2.50 worth of guac. Turns out it didn't matter anyway, as it was hotter than brimstone in the heart of Hell. I like a bit of a kick, but when my tongue starts smoking and I smell burning flesh, I draw the line.

Fortunately, the nachos were quite tasty, and the frozen fruit juice blend was as delicious as its description on the menu had implied. Soon I was fueled up and ready for the concert. We decided to stop at Italy on the way to stock up on chocolate to sweeten the wait in the concert line. I selected milk chocolate with hazelnuts...heavenly!

We managed to secure a good place in line that would assure us a prime spot from which to cheer Davy. People continued to be awestruck by our bouncing feathers; earlier, we had decided to tell anyone who might dare to ask that we were with the United Feather Producers of America convention (visit our website at

Davy's earlier concert was still going on, so we were treated to the faint strains of "Daydream Believer" and "Girl" (his famous Marcia Brady song). Meanwhile, as pre-show entertainment, high school bands appeared periodically from a backstage area and marched along the line-up. The first band had to be freezing, as a frosty, decidedly un-Florida-like wind had whipped up, and their skimpy costumes offered little protection. Later bands were dressed more sensibly for the chill; I was firmly convinced that one of them had to be from Amish country, based on their ankle length skirts. My favorite band must have been from Stepford High, judging by the plasticized young people marching in eerie Audioanimatronic precision. Maybe they were actually some sort of Disney experiment in free-walking robotics.

To amuse ourselves, we began playing "band groupies," shouting, "We love you!" and "Drummers rock!" inbetween screams of ecstasy as each band passed. Normally, there was a cast member walking in front to clear the way, but one poor band apparently got ahead of its handler. As they marched out, the crowd did not clear out of the way. A collision seemed imminent, but suddenly a panicked cast member came flying down the walkway and tossed himself in front of them to act as a human cow-catcher.

Finally it was time to enter the theater. We jostled forward, eager to plow down any unfortunately soul who might stand between us and primo seats. We secured a good location just a few rows back, right next to the walkway, where Davy couldn't miss the hypnotic bouncing of our feathers. Would he welcome us with open arms, or were we facing a repeat of the cruel snubbing that happened the year before? Only time would tell.

Soon enough Davy came out on stage to the frantic screams of aging groupies and the quizzical stares of their children ("Who is that guy, and why is Mommy so excited?"). It may be a few decades since the Monkees, but fortunately Davy can still put on quite a show. Soon the whole theater was clapping and swaying to the music.

Of course, we all had to scream and shout like crazy people, which attracted Davy's attention. He looked at Jan and blew a kiss right at her! There was no mistaking it; he aimed his virtual pucker right at her cheek. Of course, this expression of true love put her right into a swoon. Eat your heart out, Marcia Marcia Marcia. This time Jan had won.

Then Davy asked what was up with our headgear, so of course she had to present him with his own special set of feathered blue balls. He donned them right up on stage, much to our surprise and delight. There was no snubbing this year. Maybe Davy doesn't like rabbits, but pastel feathers are definitely his style. Click here to see the incriminating photos.

The night had reached its pinnacle; Davy had publicly demonstrated his love for our intrepid leader (and he'd also pointed right at my neighbor, who was wearing a blue set of feathers that matched his). The only problem remaining was how Jan could break it to her husband and children that she would be leaving them to be Davy's woman and join him on the road.

But then she made a heart-wrenching decision: she just couldn't toss away her family and home, not even to join her true love. Instead, she made the brave choice to deny her destiny and return to her life in Celebration along with the rest of the us.

As we headed around World Showcase to the park exit, the Illuminations fireworks lit up the sky (but I'm sure they weren't as loud and bright and the fireworks than Jan felt when that Davy pucker landed on her cheek). Even now, at the end of the long day, fellow park guests were still coveting our headgear. Perhaps they had heard rumors about the pastel feathers' potent powers to seduce celebrities.

All in all, it had been an exciting day. We had enjoyed a feast of Mexican food and drink, topped off with Italian chocolate. We had heckled high school bands from multiple states. We had spread good will for the United Feather Producers of America (don't forget, that's But, most important, we had made a spectacle of ourselves and managed to lure Davy into becoming an honorary Momma by donning the feathered blue balls. We had even lured him into a public show of affection towards our leader (despite her newfound fame and status, Jan was still graciously allowing us to hang out with her). Only one question remains: How will we were top this next year?

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Illusion Vs. Reality

The Disney Company is very big on maintaining illusions. It's one of the reasons that Disney World is so popular with families looking for an escape from reality and a vacation sprinkled liberally with pixie dust. I'll admit that it was an attraction for me. When my husband and I were only able to get to Florida once or twice a year, we wanted to leave our everyday worries and responsibiliies behind. For a few precious days, we wanted our biggest worry to be whether we should go to the Magic Kingdom or maybe visit Typhoon Lagoon instead and which restaurant we should choose for dinner. Should we choose an old favorite like Ohana, Morocco, Brown Derby or Chef Mickey's or try something new?

We never rented a car, preferring to rely on the Disney buses, boats, and monorails. We stayed at Disney-owned hotels, and if we ever turned on the television, it was like to the internal channel that would show highlights of the parks and give us the "Zippity-Doo-Dah Tip of the Day." Chicago could have been oblierated from the face of the Earth by a nuclear blast, but if it had happened during one of our Disney vacations, we would never have known till we returned home to a smoking hole.

As our Disney experience grew, we enjoyed learning some of the backstage secrets. While the Mouse works hard to hide them, there are a few opportunities to peek behind a corner of the curtain. "Guests" (Disneyspeak for customers) can sign up for tours that take them behind the scenes, and even down to the tunnels (officially called utilidors) below the Magic Kingdom. They can learn about special effects, like Pepper's Ghost, that lie behind the magic of attractions like "Haunted Mansion." My husband and I took several opportunities to learn all that we could about how Mickey and crew work their magic. It never lessened the fun for us; it only enhanced it because we had a new appreciation for the effort by which it is accomplished.

By they way, Disney's term for its customers has always amused me, since most people don't require their personal guests to pony up big bucks when they visit. "Guest" implies that your host is treating, but freebies from Uncle Walt are rare.

Now that I live in Celebration and drive throughout the area, I've learned just how tenuous the fantasy really is. My husband and I used to enjoy staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. To us, it seems as though it was located at the ends of the world. I always imagined that we were surrounded by miles of wetlands, off in some distant corner of the resort. Now, when I drive down 192 heading to the Wal-Mart on 27, I see the Lodge peeking up from behind the trees. Not only is it near the property's perimeter, but it's within spitting distance of a gaudy neon tourist-trap strip that would make Walt spin in his cryogenic capsule.

I've read the Disney lore about how Walt and Roy snapped up tons of land in Florida to avoid a repeat of their California folly. The fantasy exists within Disneyland's gates, but take just a few steps outside and you're in one of Anaheim's seediest areas. By purchasing 40 square miles of orange groves and swampland, the Disney brothers planned to insulate the visitors from the tourist circus that would undoubtedly spring up adjacent to their "Florida Project."

But the Disney World Resort has grown and expanded throughout the years until its development reached the borders in several areas. Worse yet, they have created their own sprawl inside; drive by Pop Century at night and you'll see that the neon-outlined Rubik's Cubes rival any hideous creation you'll see on 192.

When I'm on Disney World property, I'm not lost in the midst of a wonderful Neverland anymore, where time and responsibilities cease to exist and real world feels like it's miles and miles way. But, like learning some of the backstage secrets, the nearness and familiarity of living in Celebration hasn't dampened my love of Disney. It's just put things in a different perspective.

It's sort of like living in Celebration and getting to know the town a lot better. On my first visit, I was awed by the cleanliness of the downtown area and what seemed like pristine houses set on Truman Show-esque streets. I could understand how it had earned its reputation of Stepford South. When you're just passing through, spending a few hours or maybe a day, you see the sugar coating but not the cracks.

Now that I live here, I can see the cracks clearly, and some of them are more like craters. Most of the problems are small: now, I notice the graffiti on some of the signs or the names (and some naughty words) scrawled onto the sidewalks by kids who couldn't resist the universal lure of wet cement. The white picket fences have mildew, just like everything else in Florida, and the paint fades here just like anywhere else. The grass is lush and green, but watch out for the dog poop!

The craters include crime, school problems, and the lack of parking at our special events. We're in the real world, not on a sheltered soundstage; the visitors may never notice, but for those of us who live here, Celebration is a wonderful place but by no means a perfect one.

I've never once regretted moving to Florida, and I love living in Celebration, just as I still love visiting Disney World. It's different now that the illusion has worn away from both places, but different is not necessarily bad. I consider myself fortunate that the best town in the U.S.A. is right next door to my favorite vacation destination so I can live in one spot and take advantage of both.

Learn more about Celebration on my website:

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Back to the Routine

I'm back home in Celebration and into my fitness routine. In Chicago, I tend to revert to bad habits, not doing any exercise and indulging in an obscene amount of Culver's ice cream. In Florida, for some reason it seems a lot easier to stay active. Most mornings I go walking with a friend, and most evenings I head over to Celebration Health for a few laps in the pool. In between I might venture out on my bike or take the cat for a walk. Granted, it's hard to get my heart rate up when I take Stitch out on his leash. Every few steps he likes to collapse and roll around on the sidewalk as though he is having a kitty epilepsy fit. Still, we usually make it most of the way around the block.

Today, I arrived home in the afternoon. My flight was scheduled to land at 2 p.m., and we actually touched down 15 minutes early. It was a fairly comfortable flight; I was first in the A line at Midway, so I was able to select an exit row. I had a sugar kid behind me, but that's always a risk on flights to Orlando. Other than that, it was a smooth, non-eventful flight, just the way I like 'em. Even though I fly a roundtrip at least once a month, I am actually terrified of flying. The logistics of a silver cigar tube jetting through the wild blue yonder at several hundred miles per hour just doesn't compute in my humble litle brain. Yes, I know that it's safer than driving (and I really believe it after driving through the Atlanta ice storm on our Chicago to Celebration trek). But if I get in a crash in Canyonero, I have front and side airbags to cushion some of the blow. If a plane decides to drop out of the sky, there's no cushion between the clouds and the ground.

I found an excellent website called that has helped me a lot. It explains just how airworthy planes really are and what all those funny noises that you hear are all about. I'm fine as long as a know that a weird creak or rattle has a legitimate purpose. Now, rather than being paranoid, I can anticipate various stages of the flight. I have a very logical mind, so a little knowledge goes a long way in reassuring me that flying is, indeed, safe, no matter how impossible it might seem to defy the laws of gravity and good sense.

Once I got home, I tamed the house down into some sort of order. The cats had made a fort with two of the back doormats. The bird was complaining loudly about being on "house arrest" in his cage (he's used to being loose when we're home). I also had to log on and do some work, since I'd wasted the whole morning traveling. I had done some programming of a training course that I'm working on, but it's hard to do much without internet access.

I realized that evening was rapidly approaching, and I knew that I needed to do some serious exercise. Visions of the turtle sundaes that I had consumed during the previous days danced around in my head. And of course there was a meal at The Melting Pot that would have made Henry the Eighth cringe and the never-ending buffet at the House of Blues Gospel Brunch. It was time to put my fitness club membership to good use.

I dug up a swimsuit, tossed it into my workout bag, and headed off for a nice, invigorating swim. Celebration Health is usually very quiet in the late evening. Often, I have the whole lap pool to myself, although there are usually a few inert bodies relaxing in the therapy pool, which is meant for arthritis-friendly exercise but which also doubles as a whirlpool. It's kept somewhere in the 89 to 92 degree range, and there are powerful jets on one side.

On this evening, there was one person in the therapy pool. As I passed him, I did a doubletake, but my eyes were not deceiving me...he had a cell phone glued to his ear. I'm used to seeing people gabbing away just about anywhere, but a swimming pool? What conversation could be that important? It must have been hard for him to hear and be heard, since he was sitting in the whirpool jets. To make up for this, he was shouting heartily into the mouthpiece. You'd think it would be easier to move to a quieter location, but no...he was determined to talk from the pool.

It's funny to see how our society has no sense of privacy anymore. I've heard people carrying on loud, animated cell phone conversations in public on topics ranging from a relative's mental illness to graphically detailed bathroom habits. Worse still are the people who use the Nextel walkie-walkies. With others, you have to use your imagination to fill in the other end of the conversation. With the Nextel people, all their dirty laundry flaps in the breeze for anyone to see (or rather, hear). My favorite was the couple who were having quite a nasty argument over their Nextels. I was standing near the husband, but he was oblivious to me and the rest of the crowd as he lambasted his spouse. She gave as good as she got, and all in the public eye. Better than a soap opera.

My brother the truck driver once played a nasty joke on one of his buddies. Everyone in his company as Nextels, and they use the walkie-talkie feature frequently, like a bunch of overgrown kids playing space ranger. Their conversations are inane banter, liberally sprinkled with expletives. One day my husband and I were driving along in Canyonero with my brother and sister-in-law. My brother's buddy gave him a shout on the Nextel, and my brother really got him going into a politically incorrect conversaton full of four letter words. Then, he finally revealed that there was an audience. I thought the poor guy was going to die of embarrassment! I'm sure he'll be careful of what he says on his Nextel in the future, at least when talking to my brother.

I did my laps in the six foot section of the pool. At 5"2', that means that my feet don't even come close to touching the bottom. That helps me get a better full-body workout. I vary traditional swimming with using a swim noodle to hold me up while I propel myself across the lane in various unconventional ways. Sometimes I ride it like a bike, or I lean back on it and paddle lazily along. Other times I wrap in around my waist and mimic cross country skiing under the water or lean forward and hold it out in front of me like a kick board. The swim noodle is truly one of the most versatile pool toys ever invented.

I worked out for half an hour so I could get home in time for the new episode of "South Park." I like to leave enough time for a few minutes in the whirlpool and a nice, long, luxurious shower before I leave. Mr. Cell Phone had left by the time I was ready to hop into the therapy pool. I relaxed in its warm waters for five minutes or so, then headed into the locker room.

Once I was showered and dressed, I headed out to Canyonero. It's always a little surreal to hear the Muzak that continually plays outside the entrance way to Celebration Health. I've never seen a hospital or health club (Celebration Health is both) that had outdoor Muzak before.

I felt invigorated after my exercise. It always feels so good to get my heart pumping and to feel like I'm burning off at least a few calories. Tomorrow morning I'll head out on my before-work walk to start the day with some physical activity; then, at night, it will be back to the pool to end it with a workout too. No Chicago laziness here; I'm back into my routine, and it feels so good.

You can email me at

My Celebration website is

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Midnight Madness

I depart for Celebration tomorrow morning, and that means tonight is Midnight Madness. Now that I fly on Southwest, I must obsessive/compulsively wait until the stoke of 12:01 a.m. so that I can print out a coveted A boarding pass.

I can't even imagine how it used to be in the old days, when travelers on Southwest had to get to the airport hours ahead of time or risk getting relegated to C status, which usually meant getting strapped to the wings or being stowed down below in the luggage compartment. Now, the internet-savvy don't have to waste all that precious time. Sure, you have to stay up late, but that's not a problem for night owls like my husband and I. In theory, you can still get an A pass in the morning. In practice, I wouldn't risk it. I've heard that they hand out about 30 As, and even when we check in while the toll of the last bell of midnight is still audible, we've still been as late as 7th to check in. Supposedly they keep some A passes to hand out to airport customers; if they keep half (15), that means that the online As were almost half gone within minutes.

Is one seat really all that much better than another? In theory, I suppose not. In practice, I only bring carry-on luggage, so I like to be one of the first off the plane. The seats may be just as comfortable in the back, but the additional time to deplane can be significant. When you have to wait for baggage, it doesn't matter. But as soon as I land, I'm ready to grab my bag and rush home to Duloc Manor.

My exile in Chicago hasn't really been so bad this time around. I was busy attending training and meetings for my next work projects. I've been at my regular job during the day, and my nights have been filled with travel clients, so the hours and days have zipped by at lightning speed.

Still, I'm ready to return to Celebration. I've been keeping homesickness at bay by logging into the Front Porch intranet and to keep abreast of the latest controversies. They generally don't change too much; the quality of our schools and the soon-to-be-absence of downtown parking are still holding strong, and the flap over dogs at downtown restaurants (and now the post office) is making a minor comeback. Ah, Celebration, land of oppressive problems and controversies!

Each time I am in Chicago, I stuff a supply of paperbacks and music CDs into my bag to transport home with me. When the Kitty Karavan headed south, space in Canyonero was limited, so I had to leave a lot of the smaller, less critical items behind. Now, slowly but surely, they are making their way to Florida. Eventually, we will bring a truckload, but for now it's a trickle at a time.

It's funny how displaced I feel in the condo that was my home for so long. My 40 year old mind can't make the leap from the Florida Comcast channel line-up to the one in Illinois, so I fumble desperately with the remote, trying to find Fox, Animal Planet, or Adult Swim. I used to have a regular television schedule with shows that I put on as background noise, but in Celebration the line-up of court shows and Simpsons/King of the Hill reruns is much different. Also, I have quickly adjusted to the East Coast hour-later mentality; I'm not ready for Fox News at 9 p.m. because it should rightfully come on at 10. It will be so nice to return to home-sweet-home, where I know the channel numbers and what comes on when.

I also catch myself looking out of the corner of my eye for the absent cats or listening for the bird's frantic squawking serenade to the sunrise each morning. I nearly put things like food or power cords out of feline reach before I realize that it doesn't matter here. Back in Celebration, I must take great care because of the destructo-kitties. On my last flight, I tried in vain to watch a DVD on my portable player before switching it to my laptop. Lo and behold, the player didn't work because nasty little felines had chewed the base of the battery connector, leaving lots of fang holes in the insulation. That's why I have learned to never, ever leave the power cord for my laptop on the floor when I'm not in the room.

There's so such worry in Chicago, but also no big, furry, purry bodies keeping my feet warm at night and keeping me company during the day. I miss the menagerie terribly; I can hardly wait to get home and see the critters again.

It was also be nice to leave temperatures in the 40s; earlier in the week, it was sunny and in the 70s, but rain and a last blast of winter made a comeback today. 40...brrrrr! Way too cold for a Floridian, even a Johnny-come-lately one. Thank goodness I'll be back to my native climate in another 14 hours or so. And by the time I return in May, spring in Chicago should be firmly entrenched.

My email address is

My Celebration website is

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The House of Blues

For years, I have been nagging my husband to go to the House of Blues at Downtown Disney. Even when we were still of the species Tourista Annualus, it seemed like it would be a fun place to eat. Of course, we've had a House of Blues in downtown Chicago forever, but things seem more exciting when you do them somewhere far, far away. I read that they had a Gospel Brunch, and while I wasn't quite sure what that might be, it sounded like a unique way to spend a Sunday afternoon...a place to get uplifted in both spirit and caloric intake.

We never got around to visiting the Downtown Disney location, but this weekend we went to the one in Chicago. We have a group of friends with whom we go out for lunch or dinner ever couple of months or so. We met something like seven or eight years ago...of all places, at a dude ranch in Colorado. One of the families (a mother and son) had been going there for years. The other was a couple that enjoys horseback riding and had decided that the Rocky Mountains sounded like a nice place to ride. They had also brought their little granddaughter along, and although she was a tiny thing, she could manage a horse as well as any adult.

Myself, I had seen the ads for Lane's Guest Ranch in the Wall Street Journal for a couple of years and though it sounded like a nice place. I've owned my horse, Cochise, for close to 25 years now, and although my husband had never been on an equine before we were married (and, he confessed, never had any desire to be), my love of riding somehow rubbed off on him.

He did make it very clear that he didn't aspire to be a show rider, so he didn't want to hear my nagging about form. All he wanted to be able to do was manage to stay in the saddle and have some small modicum of control over the hooved creature's speed and general direction of travel. It didn't taken him long to master a basic level of horsemanship, and soon he was accompanying me on pleasant jaunts in the woods and canters along the lake.

He is a roller coaster buff, but I slowly but surely managed to expand his horizons. We decided that it would be nice to see the West, one state per year, by visiting various dude ranches. Because I knew of Lane's, which is in Estes Park, adjacent to Roosevelt National Forest in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, it became the first of many.

Even though we were in Boofoo, Colorado, it turned out that those other two families were also from Illinois, albeit the northern suburbs (about an hour's drive from us). We all bonded over the week of rustic fun, and we vowed that we'd keep in touch when we returned to the Land of Lincoln. Usually, those are empty words spoken among strangers whose paths have crossed briefly but will never cross again. But our little group meant it, and we starting linking up for dinner every two months or so. Now, almost a decade has passed. The granddaughter is a young lady, and our other friend's son has gone from a little boy on horseback to a young man who just got his pilot's license. And still we continue with our regular outings.

Our last outing was at a steakhouse next door to Marina City, where the House of Blue is located. HOB looked intriguing, so we decided that next time we'd do the Gospel Brunch.

I've always liked Marina City, which is located right on the Chicago River. When I was a tiny child of about two, I remember visiting someone who lived there with my mother. I wandered out on the balcony, high above the river, and stared through the railing at the twinkling lights of the city spread out like jewels below me. I was too young to have a fear of heights; instead, the perspective fascinated me. I still have the memory of feeling the bars pressed against my nose as I stared out at the beauty of the skyline. Ive always loved prints and posters of night cityscapes, and I wonder if it was spurred by that experience.

Over the years, the towers of Marina City fell into disrepair. Mismanagement and financial problems turned them into a towering tenement. But nothing in such a prime location could stay in that state for long. Now they are pricey condominiums that are restored to their former status as a coveted spot to live.

Getting to downtown Chicago involves a hair-raising drive on the Dan Ryan. Well, maybe not as hair-raising as it used to be, as drivers in Chicago have nothing on Florida tourists. For me, driving in the Windy City is much easier than in the Sunshine State. In Chicago, the driving is predictably bad. You can almost sense when someone is going to cut you off to get into a lane that's moving faster or abruptly stop in the middle of a street and abandon their vehicle because there are no parking spots. In Celebration/Orlando/Kissimmee, there is no element of predictability because the drivers are pretty much all lost tourists who have no idea what they're going to do until half a millisecond before they do it.

Traffic was surprisingly light, so we got to House of Blues with time to spare. We settled in to wait for our friends to arrive, enjoying the Folk Art decor. I will be interested to compare the Orlando location to the one in Chicago. Slowly but surely, the crowd swelled as the noon hour approached. Our friends showed up, and we banded together near the staircase, waiting for seating to begin.

I had reserved a box so we'd have our own private area. Otherwise, you are seated at long tables with large groups of people. Normally I don't mind that, but because we see each other so infrequently, we all like a chance to talk and catch up. Being in a box allowed us to do that without disturbing the people around us.

Our box was supplied with mimosas, orange juice, and coffee. Once we had settled in, we trooped downstairs to the buffet line. The choices were overwhelming; to solve my dilemma, I ended up taking a little bit of everything. There were plenty of cold salads, plus breakfast items like grits, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and waffles. There were hot items, too, with a southern flair, like godly whipped sweet potatoes and spicy fried chicken. There was a carving station with pork and beef and an area for made-to-order omlettes (I love them, but the line scared me off). Best of all, there was a table laden with the most delicious and decadent desserts, including chocolate brownies, peach cobbler, and apple brown betty. And watch out for the vanilla's spiked liberally with Jack Daniels!

I could barely maneuver my brimming plates back up the stairs. I had piled on the goodies, hoping to make only one trip. We all tucked into our meals; there are 45 minutes from when the doors open to when the entertainment starts to give you ample time to get your food and get a head start on eating. From my perch high above the food floor, I noticed that the omlette line was now non-existent. But while it was tempting, I had more than enough culinary delights to keep me busy.

The show was a high-energy rendition of gospel songs, complete with lots of hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and swaying to the beat. The time rushed by so quickly that showtime was over before I knew it (they perform for about 45 minutes, so overall it's a 90 minute experience). Afterwards, we dallied in the box, having a mimosa for the road and planning the date of our next get-together (my husband and I work our flight schedules around it; penalty-free changes are one of the things I like about Southwest Airlines). Finally, our waiter came to break the bad news that the theater had to be cleared so they could prepare for the concert that evening. Reluctantly, we headed out into a Chicago afternoon that reminded me of the glorious spring weather I'd left behind in Celebration.

As much as I miss Duloc Manor, it was nice to see our friends again and to have a fun city outing. I'd never want to live right in downtown Chicago, but I love traveling there for the excellent restaurants and theaters. But I realized that my life had come full circle when the emcee on stage asked who was from out of town. My husband started cheering wildly, and at first I looked at him as though he were crazy. I was born and bred in the Windy City! Then it dawned on me; I was once a Chicagoan who was a frequent tourist in Florida. Now I am a Floridian who happens to visit Chicago a lot. Not too shabby of a thing to be.

You can email me at

My Celebration website is

Saturday, April 09, 2005

A Breath of Fresh Air

This time around in Chicago, I feel a little more at home than on my last visit. Last time, I was working at home, and the weather was still cold and snowy. Typing on my laptop in my quiet-as-a-tomb living room while the wind whipped wildly outside and the ground was steadily powdered white made me long for Celebration. The condo felt so solitary with my husband at work in the city and animal menagerie back home in Florida.

This time, I am going back to my old office to work, so it feels more like the old, familiar routine that I followed for a decade and a half. The weather has improved to sweatshirt temperatures; after a long, hard winter, people keep commenting, "Isn't it nice outside?" I nod a superficial agreement, but after coming from a palm treed paradise where we've been having temperatures in the 70s and 80s, "nice" has a much different meaning for me. Tonight we went out to dinner with my brother and sister-in-law, and tomorrow we're joining old friends for a Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues. All in all, it's not so bad to be back (just as long as I'll be returning to Celebration soon).

But there is one thing that I greatly miss about Florida: the strict laws that regulate indoor smoking. Virtually all restaurants in the Sunshine State are totally smoke-free. There is an exception for places that get less than a certain amount of their revenue from food sales (i.e. places that are primarily bars but that might serve snacks or appetizers). Other than that, smoking is prohibited inside all of the eateries. If you want to light up, you'll have to sit outside.

The law was passed as a referendum a couple of years ago, and it passed 75 percent to 25 percent (interestingly, that's also the approximate ratio of non-smokers to smokers among the general population). At first, it was a novelty to me, but now I've come to expect it. Returning to Illinois, where I have to specify "Non-smoking, please," and then probably have an extended wait, comes as a jolt to me.

While I have nothing against smokers, I do hate cigarette smoke in enclosed areas because it wreaks havoc with my sinuses and sends me into a full-blown allergy attack if I'm around it for too long. Even my own brother is not allowed to smoke in my house. He is a two-pack-a-day chain smoker, but ironically he doesn't like it around him when he's eating, either. He is a cross-country truck driver, and he smokes up a storm in the truck cab, but he always sits in the non-smoking section of truck stop restaurants.

I have no problems when restaurants have their smoking and non-smoking sections well separated with solid walls, or better yet in separate rooms. Unfortunately, in Illinois they often go on the "invisible wall" principle. They arbitrarily designate an area in an open room as "non-smoking," even though there is no barrier. In theory, you can be sitting in the non-smoking section, and the diners in the booth next to you and/or behind you will be lighting up. Apparently the smoke is supposed to know enough to stop at the invisible wall, but I've never seen that happen yet. Somehow it slips by the imaginary force field and invades my airspace and nostrils.

Normally, at busy times you can be seated immediately in the smoking section but there is a long wait for non-smoking in Illinois eateries. It drives me crazy when the host or hostess doesn't accept my stated preference and tries to talk me into sitting in the smoking section. I'm sure they're not happy about all the lost revenue from the sea of empty tables while a huge crowd of potential diners either cools their heels waiting for a non-smoking table or simply leaves. They'll say, "Are you sure? I can seat you in smoking right now. Are you positive?" But I've learned that they will back off when I finally respond with, "Yes, I'm sure because I haven't mastered the talent of holding my breath through a whole meal yet."

My wait is often even longer because when I say "non-smoking," I mean non-smoking, which means far, far away from the invisible wall. I'm not going to wait 45 minutes for a table and then be seated next to or across from a smoking table. I've noticed more and more people demanding the same thing, so perhaps someday restaurants will realize how much revenue they are losing and build real smoking/non-smoking sections.

I was irritated this weekend because I went out to dinner at Pepe's (a wonderful Mexican of the few places that I miss in Florida) after work on Friday. Even though we arrived around 5:30, it was already hopping, and the choice of vacant tables was slim. Knowing that they subscribe to the "invisible wall" theory, I specified, "We want non-smoking, and as far away from the smoking section as possible."

"Sure thing," said the hostess, and she proceeded to lead us to a booth only two down from the start of the smoking section. The people behind us wouldn't be lighting up, but the ones behind them would be, not to mention the kitty corner tables. I politely but firmly said that it wouldn't be acceptable.

She said, "I don't really have anyplace else." I pointed to a large round table at the back of the restaurant, strategically placed in a lung-friendly area, and said, "What about that?" She looked decidedly unhappy but finally agreed. But as we settled in, she couldn't help snapping, "You know, we could be seating a larger party here." I just love it when other people try to make their problem into yours. I am a paying customer, and it's not my problem if their smoking policy sucks. I very sweetly replied, "Well, you know, that darned smoke just can't seem to stop at the imaginary line." Of course, she had no answer for that, so she flounced off and we enjoyed our dinner surrounded by breathable air.

We often run into the same thing at The Melting Pot, my favorite fondue restaurant. There is one on Sand Lake Road in the Orlando area (actually, in Dr. Phillips), and of course we have no problems there. But there is also one in Oak Brook, Illinois, and they literally seem to be obsessed with convincing me to sit in the smoking area. For a long time, the whole restaurant was smoking, and I never ate there. But I think they were losing a lot of business, so they finally changed their policy. Still, when I asked for non-smoking, they would wheedle and cajole me into changing my mind. My favorite excuse was, "But no one is smoking in the smoking section right now." Yeah, and what happens when someone who wants a cigarette does decide to light up. Once, the hostess even tried to convince me that they were still an all-smoking restaurant until I motioned her to follow me, took her to the back, and pointed to the ashtray-less tables.

Quite literally, whenever we make a reservation and specify "non-smoking," that note never makes it onto the sheet. My husband has finally taken to asking them to repeat the information to him, but that hasn't helped. On one memorably annoying visit when we arrived at the appointed time, they curtly informed us that they had no non-smoking tables open and that we should specify our preference when calling. My husband immediately said, "I did, and I made you read it back to me." Too bad for us; we still had to wait over an hour. When they finally called us, they led us to a table with an ashtray on it! If their food wasn't so darned good, and if we hadn't wasted so much time already, I would have walked out at that point. Instead, I held my temper and point out their little "error."

Eventually, we were seated in non-smoking. But to add insult to injury, they seated a party across from us that included a man who was actually holding a lit cigarette in his hand! He sat down and immediately began puffing deeply, not even noticing that there was no ashtray, the cloud of blue smoke descending over all of the surrounding booths. You can bet I had our waiter over there within seconds, and the party was hustled off to a more smoker-friendly area. It still boggles my mind that they would sit a smoker holding a lit cigarette in the non-smoking section when I had just waited over an hour and there was immediate seating in the smoking area.

It really wouldn't bother me if I didn't have allergies that turn my nose into a faucet and my eyes into scrunched-up, red, watering, puffy holes in my face when tobacco smoke is nearby. But in Florida, it isn't an issue, as long as I confine my dining to the inside seating area. That's just fine with me; smokers are welcome to their area, and I can forgo dining al fresco to give them their separate area while I dine in respiratory comfort.

Soon enough it will be back to Celebration, where I never give smoking a second thought when I go out to dine. But there is one thing that I've learned to specify, although it's taken a while. It's not smoking/ the south, you must specify "Unsweetened" unless you want your iced tea with enough sugar in it to make your teeth ache. But that's fine with me; for a smoke-free environment, I'd drink tea with a whole canister of sugar dumped into it. It may be hazardous to my waistline, but better that than a hazard to my respiratory health.

You can email me at

My Celebration website is

Friday, April 08, 2005

I Must Be Meant to Stay in Florida

Even though Celebration is my full-time home now, returning to the Midwest occasionally is a necessary evil. This week, I had to return for three days of training (Friday, Monday, and Tuesday), so my husband booked me on a Thursday evening flight. Since he was already scheduled to fly to Chicago on Saturday, I would be spending Friday solo. Not a problem, since it promised to be a jam-packed day, with nine hours of intensive training in the daytime and catch-up work for my travel agency at night.

But as Thursday drew closed and closer, my relucance to return to Chicago grew. A few weeks ago, I accompanied my husband on one of his fuve day jaunts, which he has to do regularly for work. But other than occasional special events, my work is 100 percent home based, so there is no business reason for me to leave Celebration. Sure, I like to see my family and friends, but I can yak with family members on the phone just about any time, and most of our Illinois friends are scattered at wide distances and/or work erractic schedules. It takes some pre-planning in order to organize get-togethers with them. Thus, unless we are scheduled to go out with someone or to see a play in downtown Chicago ("Lion King," "Wicked," and "Little Shop of Horrors" are all on the docket this speing and summer), I'd just as soon be in Celebration.

As the day approached, my husband had to listen to my constant grousing: "I don't want to go back. I don't! I don't!" I knew it was unavoidable, and I knew that the time would pass quickly because I'd be so busy. But who wants to fly to a place where spring is barely making a foothold when you can be among palm trees, sunshine, and humidity that is already giving a summer sampler? Who wants to go to a barren, dead-quiet condo instead of being in Duloc Manor, with galavanting cats and a squawking bird adding life (and fur and feathers to clean up)? Who wants to stare at barren gardens and empty flower pots that are almost a month away from being filled when you can be among the glorious colors of gardens that have been in full bloom for several weeks already? Who wants to be trapped in a dull suburb where the chairs in the town square are literally chained to the concrete when you can walk down to the lake and gently rock in chairs that are (gasp!) not secured in any way? Who wants to be stuck in a place whose claim to fame is the "World Music Center" when you can be next door to Disney World? Compare my old home to Celebration and the contest is not even close.

But still, I was looking forward to the training, which will be a big help with my current project. Thus, on Thursday afternoon, I sparsely packed my luggage bag (it's nearly empty going out but stuffed with items from the condo on the return trip) and dragged my carcass into Canyonero so my husband could chauffer me to the airport.

I had been worrying all day because there were reports of a major storm system heading to Orlando. The news broadcasts were full or dire warnings and footage of damage that the storm had already cause in other states. So far, the skies partly cloudy but not really threatening, and the rain had held off. But somehow I just knew that moments before my plane would try to pull away from the gate, all hell was likely to break lose.

Sure enough, as we made our way down 417, the rain drops started spitting down on the windshield. There weren't was just a little tease. It was God, with His ironic sense of humor, saying, "Yes, Barb, I know that you're on your way, and I don't want you to think that I've forgotten you."

My husband dropped me off, and I made my way to gate 126 to catch my flight, which was scheduled to leave at 5:20. Now that ATA is, for all practical purposes, a non-entity in Chicago, we have been flying Southwest. We print our boarding passes at 12:01 a.m. the morning of each flight in order to get an A pass and then camp out in the A line the moment we get to the gate. This time, since I was solo, I was a bit worried about what would happen if I needed to take a potty break. Leaving unattended luggage is not a good idea in our post-9/11 world, and if I took my bag with me, I would lose my place in line. I really didn't want to do that, since I had snagged the coveted #1 spot. But the flight was supposedly on time, and I had purposely limited my liquid intake for the day, so I figured that I could hold out until boarding.

Alas, as boarding time nearer and no plane showed up at the gate, a disturbing rumor passed through the line. Supposedly someone had asked an agent and had been told that we were facing an hour's weather-related delay. Even though the storm hadn't hit Orlando yet, it was wreaking havoc in other areas.

Since few people dareed to leave the line, we were dependent on updates from people traveling with companions who could hold their spot while they got the latest news. The clock ticked on...and on...and on...and still no aircraft. Worse yet, I was getting an urge to visit the facilities that it was nearly impossible to ignore. The one cup of coffee that I'd allowed myself in the morning had apparently decided to hide out somewhere in the far recesses of my stomach before sprinting to my bladder at the most inopportune time possible. Finally, I desperately assured the people around me that my luggage was not a security risk and literally sprinted to the restroom. When I returned after finding relief, my bag was thankfully still in its place and the crowd parted to let me resume my rightful place in line, where I'd been camping for something like two hours now.

Then the gate agent got on the microphone and announced that, although our originally scheduled plane was apparently lost somewhere out in the boondocks, they were going to put us on a different aircraft. Unfortunately, that also meant a different gate. Southwest line-ups are a fiercely competitive sport, and since I was at the far end of the A chute, I was at a decided disadvantage. Sure enough, I was at the end of the mad dash; now, instead of first, I found myself almost the last person in the queue at our new gate. Oh well, there are worse fates in life. At this point, I knew I'd be happy just to be on a plane, and if I could get an aisle seat, that would be nice but not totally necessary. I doubted that I would be anywhere near the front; I like to be there, since I only have a carry-on, which makes it nice to get off as quickly as possible.

We filed onto the new plane in a semi-orderly fashion. Surprisingly, I was able to get an aisle seat in row 5, where another solo traveler had already taken up residence by the window. I settled in, reading a novel, while the rest of the crowd filed on, breathing various sighs of relief that they were finally taking concrete steps towards getting to Chicago sometime in the near future.

It almost looked as though I would luck out and the middle seat would remain unoccupied. But one last straggler boarded and filled in row five just before the aircraft door was closed. Both he and the woman seemed quite pleasant. We made a bit of small-talk, sharing our various tales of where we were headed and why. For some reason, passengers on Southwest seem to do more "verbal bonding" than I've ever seen on ATA. At the beginning of the flight, people flock on as strangers. By the end, I've heard them saying goodbyes like they were old buddies.

I dozed off a bit just as the plane started backing out of the gate. I didn't noticed that the reassuring motion had reversed, and then stopped, until me seatmate lightly nudged me. "We're back at the gate!" he said. I dragged myelf back to consciousness....sure enough, we had returned.

Shortly thereafter, the captain informed us that there was some kind of mechanical problem, but that repairmen would be checking it out promptly. But God the Omnipresent Practical Joker had other ideas; the heavens suddenly opened and gushed forth a vicious monsoon, complete with thunder and lightening. At first, we were told that the rain shouldn't cause too much of a delay. Then, as the lightning intensified, the captain got on the PA once again to let us know that, due to the lightning, ground operations had been temporarily shut down; no mechanics would be coming out there until Mother Nature's wrath subsided.

The man in the middle seat was foreign, and although his conversational English was quite good, he was having trouble following the plethora of PA annoucements (goodness knows, I have trouble interpreting them half the time myself). Thus, the woman by the window and I were briefing him on the details of each new development. Then he (and most of the other passengers, myself included) would whip out a cell phone to call whoever might be waiting patiently in Chicago. For me, it was my sister-in-law, who was killing time at the Wal-Mart near Midway airport. My brother was scheduled to get off work shortly after my originally scheduled arrival, so she was planning to pick me up and then swing by to get him. I felt bad to keep calling her with no specific information, but the situation seemed to be changing by the minute.

We had a nasty little bout of hail, and then, finally the heavenly lightshow subsided, and the captain announced that the maintenance crew would tend to the problem. He said that it appeared to be an indicator light. But it must not have been the light that was broken; apparently it was indicating real trouble, because the next annoucement was that the plane was being taken out of service. After being so close, we were now back at square one.

Since everyone had already handed in their boarding passes, a gate agent passed out little plastic cards as we exited the plane. The system had disintigrated to the point that now, if you happened to be in the front of the plane, you were an A. Those in the middle got B, and the poor souls in the back of the aircraft were now Cs. I supposed it was as good a system as any, considering there was no way to know who originally had what letter. In theory, most of the As sit in the front anyway, except those who head to the exit rows. At any rate, I didn't hear anyone complaining; I think most people were just too exhausted.

I bought some Ben & Jerry's ice cream to give myself a little sugar buzz and headed back to the A line. Amazingly, now I was number two, after having gone originally from number one to nearly last. The shuffle was making me dizzy; I sincerely hoped that it would be my last line-up of the day. I was wondering if, perhaps, I was really meant to stay in Florida. But ironically, no matter how I felt, I really needed to get to Chicago for the training class. Still, some wicked part deep down inside me whispered, "Wouldn't it be nice if the flight was cancelled?" I squelched it, knowing that the majority of my fellow passengers most likely needed to get to the Windy City that day.

Eventually another plane showed up and disgorged a gaggle of passengers. They didn't look too frazzled, so apparently it must have been in sound mechnical condition (or at least sound enough not to do anything noticably scary, like fail to set down its landing gear). A buzz of excited anticipation ran through the crowd, swelling when the gate agent announced, "Boarding will begin shortly."

After 15 or 20 minutes, the magic moment finally arrived. First was the preboard, and I noticed that the line of people "needing extra assistance" had swelled and the four year olds were looking decidedly more mature (although to be fair, they might have been four when the original wait started). But even with the crowd, it went quickly, and soon enough I was heading on the plane with the herd of As. Whenever I board a Southwest plane, it's hard to resist the urge to moo.

At this point, I thought it might be nice to sleep, so I decided to see if I could get an exit row. That way, I could lean up against the window, but I'd still have enough space to get up without trampling the rest of the row when my nervous bladder decided to bug me. Happily, the exit rows were empty, so I settled down into a nice, snug window seat with plenty of maneuvering space. Shortly thereafer, a couple plopped down next to me; I assured them that I was a relatively tame seatmate, other than my tendency towards restroom visits (I think the root cause to that is my intense fear of flying).

This time, when we backed out of the gate, we actually continued towards the runways. But then we stopped...andsat...and sat. You could feel the nervous tension as everyone wondered, "Are we going to get socked with a whammy again." The pilot sooned reassured us that everything was fine; air traffic was just backed up because of the storm, so there were a lot of planes in front of us waiting to take off.

When we finally got airborne, the passengers broke into spontaneous applause. How good it felt to see the lights of Orlando growing fainter as we climbed into the night sky. Still, I felt a slight pang of disappointment. After all the ruckus, it almost seemed as though I was meant to stay in Florida. Here I had gone through so much trouble to go to a place where I didn't really want to be. But I kept reminding myself of the busy days that lay ahead of me. I knew that work would soon be crowding out the feelings of homesickness for Celebration, and the condo wouldn't feel so empty when my husband arrived on Saturday.

The flight was bumpy from beginning to end. Even the flight attendants were ordered to stay in their seats for most of it, although they did manage to complete the drink service in two or three tries. The turbulence wasn't so much severe as it was constant The pilot warned us that there was no smooth air at any altitude, and he never turned off the seat belt sign throughout the whole flight. Since I knew it was going to be bad, I had popped a Xanax. It must have done something to soothe my nerves because I never even had to try to sneak to the restroom (although I saw a few intrepid souls brave the bumps to do it).

I popped a DVD with the pilot episode of "The Greatest American Hero" into my laptop and made my way through most of it before I slipped into Dreamland. I was quite glad that I'd selected a window seat with a handy wall for leaning.

Eventually we made it to Chicago, where my sister-in-law and brother were waiting, even though the hour had grown quite late. At this point, getting out of Orlando International Airport had become a vendetta, and it felt good to know that, after all the hub-bub, our ragged little band of passengers had finally made it. I was surprised that no one succumbed to a case of air rage, but overall the people handled the bad situation with good natures. There wasn't much that Southwest could do, since it was mainly weather related. Sure, there was a mechanical problem, but we wouldn't have had to change planes if it hadn't been for the storm. It was nice to see that people can be understanding when that sort of thing happens.

Today, my husband informed me that there is a chance of thunderstorms in Chicago on Wednesday, the day I am scheduled to return to Florida. I can just see God snickering to St. Peter as He plans some new irony for that flight. Oh well, He can torment me all He wants as long as He finally lets me get home.

You can email me at

My Celebration website is