Sunday, May 27, 2007

Chicken of the Swamp

One of the hazards of living in or near a "touristy" area is the stunning sense of complacency that eventually numbs you like a dose of Novocaine. It happened to me in Chicago; even though I lived near a host of tourist meccas, there were many that I never (or rarely) saw in person. Although I visited the North Avenue Beach a couple of times, normally I eschewed the Downtown Chicago beaches, preferring to drive out to Indiana in order to swim in Lake Michigan. I never went to the Lincoln Park Zoo, nor did I visit the Field Museum. I never saw a Bears game in person and never made it to the top of the Sears Tower (although my husband and I did hold our Valentine's Day nuptuals on the observation deck of the John Hancock building). When you live close to things that inspire awe in outsiders, you learn to take them for granted yourself. You put them on a list of "Things To Do Someday," and often you never get around to them.

Now, I notice that the same thing is happening with our lives in Celebration. People tend to identify this area with Disney World and Mickey Mouse, but there are dozens of other sights and attractions within a stone's throw (or at least within a take-your-life-into-your-hands excursion down I-4). We often pick up coupon books to use at the local restaurants, and as I thumb through them, the glossy ads pop out at me. "Rent an airboat!" "Feed a gator!" "Ride a simulated top speed dragster!" "Soar through the skies in a hot air balloon!" "Get shot 300 feet in the air on a bungee cord 'sling shot'!" "Have dinner with gangsters!" "Pilot a stunt plane!"

Whew, who would have thought that the Orlando/Kissimmee area is an attraction all on its own? Even if Disney World was sucked into a freak black hole tomorrow, you could still visit our slice of Central Florida for several weeks without a hint of boredom. And of course, that doesn't take the other theme parks, like Universal Studio/Islands of Adventure and Seaworld/Discovery Cove, into account.

As I thumb through the tourist books, I make a mental note: "We've got to see this other stuff." But somehow, we always end up at either Disney World or Universal/IOA, as though drawn by a magnetic forcefield that blinds us to any other attraction.

My husband and I have made a commitment that we are going to force ourselves to expand our horizons. Each weekend, we will take turns picking an off-the-beaten-path attraction. We've had a few false starts, as it's hard to get excited about going somewhere where the lines might be outrageous when we can use our Universal Premier Pass and get unlimited Express Pass ride time every day after 4 p.m. They sure know how to addict Florida residents! But this weekend, we finally broke free of the "box" and did something totally and utterly different. We visited "Titanic: The Exhibit."

Actually, it's not entirely new for us. We saw the travelling exhibit when it was at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. That was the one museum that was near and dear to my heart; from the time I was a child and made a yearly field trip trek, I loved its hands-on exhibits and the really cool stuff, like the WWII submarine, the "underground" coal mine, Yesterday's Mainstreet with its authentic soda fountain, the giant dollhouse that was more detail and luxurious than most real homes, and (very creepy) the unborn babies suspended forever in formaldehyde, each at a different level of development from head-of-a-pin size up to impending birth.

The museum is also home to Mold-O-Rama, one of the most fascinating inventions known to childkind. You pop in your money, select a style, and a mini-sculpture is injection-molded right in front of your eyes. That melting plastic has a distinctive smell that I would recognize anywhere.

My favorite exhibit was always the oil well, where you could "drill" for your own black gold using a ball and flippers to guide it into an oil field. If you were lucky enough to strike oil, you won a gold-colored plastic medallion.

Sadly, that exhibit was removed, as were many of the most interactive ones, due to vandalism. Now, the museum is "okay," but it's a shell of its former self. It has been dumbed down to cater to the hands-off-or-they'll-break-it ADHD crowd. I still have one of the pseudo-gold oil medals, which I treasure to this day because it is the key to a trove of happy childhood memories of other exhibits long gone.

My husband and I were members of the museum, primarily so we could attend special events like sneak previews of new exhibits and overnight campouts where you spent the night locked in with a passel of other members, enjoying a selection of Imax features and all the other exhibits without having to be among the unwashed masses.

Once of the "members only" events was a preview of the travelling Titanic exhibit. Having taken nearly 60 Disney cruises (well, probably closer to 30 at the time), this was the sort of thing that appealed to us. Thus, we attended and gazed in awe at the various artifacts plucked from the mighty ship's oceanic gravesite.

That was several years ago; now, we thought it might be interesting to compare a permanent version with the travelling exhibition. Thus, we loaded into the Family Truckster and headed off to I-Drive for a quick "sail" aboard the doomed liner.

We had a general idea of its location; turns out it is in a creepy, semi-abandoned I-Drive mall called "The Mercado," not too far past the convention center. There is a building close to the road where you buy your tickets, and although it looks large enough to hold the whole exhibit, that is not the case. Instead, you are directed to hike through a disreputable-looking courtyard where you'll find the actual attraction in a different building, surrounded by the shells of long-closed stores and an occasional still-open-but-possibly-soon-to-be-condemned-by-the-health-department restaurants. Some of the storefronts still bore the ghostly imprints of former signs, but their papered-over windows gave mute testament to the fact that their heyday was long over.

We arrived just as the tour was starting. A Titanic "passenger" greets you, checks your ticket, and welcomes you into the "shipyard." The Orlando version is quite similar to what we saw at the Museum of Science and Industry, although at the museum we had a celebrity guide: The Unsinkable Molly Brown. At both locations, your ticket lists the name and details about a particular passenger. At the end of the tour, you can check a chart and see if your passenger survived or perished (hint: if they happen to be in third class, they're almost certainly a goner).

In Chicago, my husband had gotten Bruce Ismay, the head of White Star Lines, who ignored the "Women and children" first rule to secure a spot in the lifeboats. I told him with derision, "Gee, I wonder if he's gonna make it!" Hubby, who was clueless about the name despite seeing the movie "Titanic" more times than I care to count, looked at me blankly. I guess that the sight of Kate Winslet's bare chest crowds out everything else from his brain.

In Orlando, he was a reverend in second class, and I was a crew member working in the spa (perfect place for me). We trooped through an exhibit about the ship's construction and were then led aboard through a "gangway." There was a recreation of a first-class suite and various exhibits and artifacts. I was hoping to see items from the Titanic itself, but most were from its sister ship, the Olympic. I was surprised that the permanent exhibit had less authentic items than the travelling version, but hubby pointed out that the roadshow probably needed more of a draw. The permanent location has somewhat of a captive audience, since it is located smack in I-Drive, in the midst of a daily tourist stampede.

After viewing the artifacts, we were led into a room with a wall of ice representing the fatal 'berg. Everyone had a chance to press their palms to its deathly-cold surface. Our guide (who had switched now to another "passenger") reminded us that the bitter cold we were feeling was equivalent to the temperature of the water on that deadly night in 1912. Contrary to popular belief, most passengers died of the cold rather than drowning.

Next, we were led to a dark, chilled area representing the Promenade Deck on the night of the sinking. Ghostly strains of "Nearer My God to Thee" played in the background as we all looked down from the deck into the inkwell of black, freezing water below and a black velvet sky above. The cheerfulness of the twinkling stars belied the grim reality of the tragedy below. Although it was silent, save for the music, my mind drifted back to survivors' accounts I had read before. Those drifting far off in the lifeboats likened it to the roar of a crowded stadium that slowly diminished and fell silent as the desperate people, crying for the rescue boats to come back for them, finally sucumbed to the deadly embrace of the cold.

Afterwards, there were more exhibits, and we were allowed to go back and look more closely at the sections we had already passed through. First, hubby and I checked out the fate of the poor souls on our tickets (his had perished, mine had lived). Then, we wended our way back through the various rooms, pondering the impact of a tragedy so profound that it still fascinates the public nearly 100 years after its occurrence.

The tour ends in the requisite gift shop, and we purchased "Titanic" shirts to wear on our August transatlantic crossing on the Disney Magic (yes, I have a warped sense of humor). Then we wended our way through the maze of abandoned shops to locate the Family Truckster. On the way, I noticed a forlorn-looking set of public restrooms, The men's room was open; the women's was locked, with a sign "Obtain Key from Titanic Giftshop." But I knew that would be futile, as the woman in the shop had directed a restroom seeker to the Goodings grocery store when he inquired while we were making our purchase.

Since it didn't look like there was any eminent danger of a crowd descending on the area, I posted hubby to stand guard and went inside the men's room. Ugh! After checking half a dozen stalls and finding everything from seats wrapped like an old mummy in toilet tissue to festering bodily wastes in plugged commodes, I finally found a "throne" upon which I could sit my derrierre without too much fear of disease. On the way out, I hazarded a glance at the urinals, which were just as disgusting as the toilet stalls. Oh well, at least I wouldn't have to spend our impending drive with my legs crossed.

Since we had successfully resisted the allure of Universal/IOA and embarked on a new adventure, we decided to continue in that vein for dinner. We randomly chose an I-Drive restaurant called Ran-Getsu, which we soon discovered featured Japanese cuisine. It had the usual sushi and tempura, but it also featured some more unusual items...including Florida gator! Hubby and I had tried gator before, but it was blended with other meat. A Japanese restaurant was truly one of the last places where I would have expected to find 100 percent, unmixed gator meat, but there it was, right on the menu: Deep fried gator bites (forget the "Man Bites Dog" the Sunshine State, it's "Man Bites Gator").

We had a lovely table by the window, overlooking a serene koi pong. Hubby ordered a selection of four appetizers, including the Gator Bites (he also chose tuna sushi, Chilean sea bass, and fried shrimp). I opted for vegetable tempura, two ounces of Kobi beef with the house sauce, and pork dumplings with hot mustard. The menu was so intriguing that we promised ourselves we would return someday to explore it further.

I of course had to try the Gator Bites, and dare I say it? They do taste like chicken! If I had closed my eyes, I could easily have imagined that I was biting into a somewhat chewy Chicken Tender. I felt like I had somehow managed to pop over another Floridian hurdle, even if it was in the confines of a Japanese restaurant. I have eaten gator!

To add to my sense of amusement, our server presented hubby with the following card:

Now, if anyone dares question that we ate, Florida gator, we have wallet-sized proof.
The meal was very tasty and uneventful, save for two little incidents. First, I somehow managed to knock over my waterglass, bathing myself and my half of the table. Then, a while later, the hostess was seating a party of three (man and two teen boys). The diningroom is huge, but they were seating people in a particular section, presumably for ease of serving. She led the trio to a table near other other diners, and suddenly the man piped up loudly, "Geez, a whole empty restaurant and you're going to sit us by other people?" He spat out the last two words as though they were something filthy. "We do not want to sit here. Take us to something more suitable."
Now, I can understand not wanting to sit near a brood of unruly children or a screaming 120 decible baby or a tour group from the local leper colony, but none of these conditions existed as far as I could see. Maybe they had an immune disorder and had forgotten their bubbles, or perhaps they all suffered from a raging social anxiety disorder which the man covered up through extreme rudeness. His tone of voice towards the hostess was the sort usually reserved for someone who has murdered your mother and desecrated her corpse. As a customer, we all have the right to ask for what we want, but why not do it in a polite and respectful way?
At this point, hubby and I had tucked into our desserts (apple tempura-friend ice cream with mint sauce for him and mini trio of cakes for me...despite the name, one item in the trio was actually a green tea creme brulee, which was unusual but very tasty).
We headed out with full tummies and contented tastebuds, glad that we had stepped outside of our Disney/Universal comfort zone. We had visited a new attraction, discovered a new restaurant, and added a uniquely Floridian experience. Now, when I hear someone say "Tastes like chicken," I can nod in true assent, knowing firsthand that gator meat is truly Chicken of the Swamp.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Picking My Poison

Since Florida is prime cow country, when we moved here I had high hopes that I'd be able to find an old childhood treat: raw milk. Basically, that means milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized; we used to get it when I was a very young child, but at some point it became illegal to sell. Ostensibly, that's because unpasteurized milk carries a high risk of disease, plague, death, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living short, mass hysteria. However, in view of the recent spinach contamination, the deadly poisoned pet food, and the latest contaminated ground beef scare, it seems as tho' milk straight from the cow teat should be the least of the lawmakers' worries.

I hadn't had a taste of this creamy, cholesterol-laden treat since the late 1980s, when I used to get it at a riding stable. The owner had a few cows among the horses, and he sold raw milk and ice cream to people he knew. My favorite among the homemade ice cream was "Lemon Creme," lemon-flavored ice cream chock full of smashed-up lemon creme cookies. I boarded my horse, Cochise, down the street, so I'd ride down to the stable and tie him up while I purchased my treat. When I was done, Cochise wouldn't move until I gave him his share...I always saved the bottom of the cone, with a bit of ice cream left inside, for my steed.

Sadly, that stable is now a subdivision, and my raw-milk sources dried up for two decades. When we moved to the Sunshine State, the herds of peacefully grazing bovines piqued my hope. Surely I would be able to find a new source. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that most of the blissfully unaware critters were destined to become steaks, not milk producers.

After doing some research, I discovered that raw milk can be legally sold in Florida, as long as it is labeled for pet use only. That's fine with me, and if I happen to accidentally grab the wrong container in the fridge and mistakenly pour a glass for myself...oh well...

Still, it took me a long time to find an organic supplier that carries it. Finally my persistence was rewarded, and this week I've gotten my first taste of Liquid Heaven in 20 years. Sure, I bought it for the cats just as the law stipulates, but I think somehow it accidentally got switched with the regular carton.

Actually, I did share my bounty with the cats; Farquuad adores milk, but Tooncinator has never been all that excited about it. But when he got a sniff of the raw stuff, he actually pushed Quaad aside!

It brings back so many memories to see that thick clot of cream on the top through the glass container. I actually had a flashback of the days when a real, honest-to-goodness, white-uniformed milkman would deliver glass gallons to our door.

We really lived on the edge when I was a child...a true Darwin Family, ensuring that only the most hardy genes were passed along by placing us in all sorts of dangerous situations. I guess it's sort of ironic that I chose not to breed; having survived my upbringing, I have proven an intrinsic hardiness that Charles D. would be proud of, but it won't make it to a new generation.

My favorite childhood endangerment was my mother's bright idea of bathing me in the kitchen sink, right next to a plugged-in toaster. Better yet, she disappeared somewhere in the bowels of the house, leaving me unattended. So what does a bored two-year-old do? Sure...stick their hand into the closest available interesting niche. A toaster...shiny...silver...ooooooo! OWWWWWWW!!!!

Fortunately, my screams roused my older brother. He tried to touch me but got a jolt, so thank goodness he had the presence of mind to unplug the toaster. To this day, I'm still not certain why I wasn't killed. Oddly enough, I still remember the incident, although I don't remember the shock. A burning feeling sticks in my mind, though I have no burn scars on my hand. My brother, of course, has never let me forget that he saved my life. I think my mother showed up at some point, relatively non-plussed at the chaos. Her reaction was to institute a new family rule that the toaster had to be unplugged after every use (my sink-bathing continued unabated).

Recently, I was going through one of my childhood photo albums, and I came upon a picture of my toddler self, naked and sudsy, soaking in the kitchen sink. The infamous toaster lurks in the background, awaiting its opportunity to seduce me. Ah, memories....

My mom also served us raw beef in the form of meatballs; as she was making dinner, she would make a few extra that were given to us kids as a "treat." Thus, I developed a taste for bloody cow flesh that remains with me to this day. When I return to Chicago, I seek out my favorite German restaurant and order hackepeter, i.e. a plate of raw, ground-up filet served with a raw egg on top and a garnish of raw onions. It probably sounds gross unless you are either a) German or b) rather fond of playing Samonella Roulette.

But I am living proof that raw, bacteria-laden food and a little occasional shock therapy are good for the human constitution. In over four decades on this earth, I've never been in the hospital and have enjoyed almost perfect health, save for a variety of annoying allergies. But if that's the worst that I've ever had to deal with, I have no cause for complaint.

In researching sources of raw milk, I discovered that there is actually a whole movement to legalize it again, mainly because of its purported health benefits. Like other raw and organic foods, the milk is supposedly much healthier than its heated and treated counterpart.

I don't know about the health benefits; all I know is that the taste is sheer ecstasy. There are plenty of other things you can buy that are supposedly "bad" for you, from cigarettes to Triple Whoppers with cheese. Hopefully, the day will come when I don't have to buy my raw milk supertiously, sharing my bounty with my felines in order to stay within the letter of the law. In the meantime, I'm just pleased that I can finally indulge my cholesterol craving once, if I could just find a local restaurant that serves hackepeter, my self destructive appetites would once again be complete.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Monkee Mamas

Ah, has it really been three years already? I marveled at the passage of time as I readied myself to join the Mickey Mommas for our annual sojourn to see Davy Jones. Every spring, like a sprightly (if somewhat wrinkled) tulip bulb, Davy pops up on the Epcot stage. And each year, without fail, the Mickey Mommas caravan from Celebration to oogle and swoon at his feet.

This year was no exception; as you can see from the photo above, we had quite a large contingent of Mommas, with more planning to meet us at Epcot. We were all sporting stylish Monkey Hats, courtest of our intrepid leader (wielding the bag in the front row).
We always ensure that we are alcoholically enhanced for the yearly Davy Stalking. Thus, our first stop was the Mexican pavillion to toke up on frozen margaritas. Since we hadn't eaten dinner yet, my next door neighbor and I made a quick pitstop at Britain for fish and chips. The fish and chips are excellent and make a handy mobile meal. We crammed our craws with fish and french fries as we whizzed through World Showcase to catch up with the rest of our crew. We knew it wouldn't be too hard to spot them; how many others at Epcot would be crowned with a rainbow of primate-themed chapeaus?

We caught up with the other Mommas just in time to place our margarita orders. I opted for some sort of blended concoction, consisting of four flavors. I think that kiwi, lime, and strawberry were involved, although I couldn't swear to it. All I know is that it was cold and strong and delicious!
We snagged a prime place in line and milled about expectantly as the last strains of Davy's previous show echoed all around us. Finally, the gates (well, more accurately, ropes) to the Promised Land were cast aside, and we were allowed to enter. Acting as a primal pack with one mind, we made a stampede for the front row. An exasperated cast member shouted at us to walk! Obviously, he had no proper sense of Davy's allure and the lengths through which we would go to achieve the closest possible proximity. Soon enough, we were all seating in the front row on the lefthand side:

While all seemed to be proceeding smoothly, there was a faint undercurrent of unrest. It seems as though one of the Mommas had an "in" with Davy:

Notice the photo on her shirt above, documenting her up-close and personal meeting backstage with Mr. Jones. How would this sit with our Fearless Leader, who jealousy guards Davy for herself each year? She had packed a secret weapon: a matching green monkey hat with which she hoped to divert Davy's attention from his former flame:

Would the bribery ploy work? Or would there be a catfight at the foot of the stage? I began to fear the latter as the performance throttled into high gear. Davy was blatantly flaunting himself at his t-shirt-wearing former fling, and also at my next-door neighbor, with whom he'd had also been flirting last year.
Unable to bear Davy's relentless taunting any longer, our leader lept up and proffered the coveted money hat. As you can tell by his startled deer-in-the-headlights expression, her bold profession of love caught him off-guard ("I thought I told my manager to make sure that the restraining order was still in force and to have her photo posted at every entrance").

Like the good sport he is, Davy donned the hat:

He finished his song in his lovely new green headgear, and afterwards, it inpsired him to launch into a monologue about how he will never escape being a Monkee. Later, the big tease danced with another Momma, but our leader was now assured that it was all an act...she knew that he belonged to her and her alone, and that he wore the mark to prove it.

After the concert, Davy took the hat offstage with him...I won't even speculate on the unholy purposes for which it may have been used.

Afterwards, we all stuck around to watch Illuminations, but the Disney fireworks were anti-climactic after the explosive display between Davy and the Mickey Mommas. I can't even begin to guess how we will top 2007's excursion, but I'm sure our leader will dream up an even better way to get the attention of her Cheeky Monkey in 2008.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

The Quest for Chicago Cuisine

One of the few things I miss about Chicago is the wide variety of regional cuisine. You can get almost anything in Orlando, but there are a few hometown taste treats of which I've never found an equivalent.

Primary among them are real Chicago hot dogs, slid into a steamed bun and topped with onions, relish, cucumbers, and tomatoes (I eschew the traditional squirt of mustard for a blob of ketchup). Then you must top the tantilizing taste treat with a sprinkle of seasoned salt. My favorite hot dog stand is JR's, which also serves a delicious drink with the destructive-sounding name Orange Bang. It tastes as if you mixed Orange Julius with Tang.

Next up is Culvers custard; the chain is not limited to Illinois, but they are as scarce as an unscarred manatee in Florida. Make my poison a serving of chocolate custard, topped with marshmallow sauce and chopped almonds and finished up with a fluffy cloud of whipped cream and a ruby cherry orb.

I also adore real Mexican food. Oh, sure, we have plenty of pseudo-offerings in Florida. I dearly love Chevy's, but the authenticity of their food is about as close as chop suey is to Chinese. I mean, come on, when is the last time that you think a native Mexican villager really tucked into artichoke and portabello quesidillas?

There are plenty of Mexican neighborhoods in and around Chicago where you can sample real south of the border tastes. I usually sneer at chains, but there is one called Pepe's that is actually pretty darned close to genuine. I lust for their stuffed steak tacos (melt cheese between two soft corn tortillas, then cram them with carne asada). They also have the best chili con queso; their version is a delicious red sauce with a consistency just a bit thicker than tomato soup, although the taste is entirely unique. Dip in corn chips or spoon it onto flour tortillas and you will quickly discover that it is chock full of floating cheese chunks. You can feel your ateries solidifying with each bite.

I also have to visit one of the local Japanese steakhouses. I know the Florida residents are rolled their eyes; we have one of those on virtually every street corner here in Tourist Land. The trick is, none of them here in the Sunshine State seem to serve Lard Lobster. The name Lard Lobster was bestowed by my brother to describe a teppan-style lobster tail cooked with a generous portion of egg sauce. The sauce pretty much consists of solid lard infused with egg yolk; they have ambulances standing on call outside and a hotline to the local coronary care units. I know it sounds odd, but it's rather an acquired taste.

And last, but not least by a longshot, is Lawry's. They serve my beloved silver cart prime rib with whipped cream horseradish sauce imported straight down from Heaven. (As I type this, I've noticed a trend...nearly every food that I love is a heart attack on a plate. Oh well, at least I'll keel over with a wide smile on my face and contented tastebuds.)

I had decided to drag my carcass to Chicago for the first time in nearly a year. It would serve a fourfold purpose: to see family and friends; to say "Happy 30th birthday" to my horse; to have a last "practice flight" before I fly to Europe later this year so I could fine-tune my aeronautic Xanax dose; and to go on a gastronomic binge.

I managed to indulge in all of my favorites. Most of them lived up to my memory, although the Orange Bang was nas-tee! It tasted like something prisoners might distill in their cells by fermenting purloined orange juice for a week.

But perhaps the biggest shock was Lawry's. The food was the same as always, but the atmosphere...well, it's hard to put into words, but I half suspected that Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie had taken over management of the restaurtant.

Lawry's is located in a former mansion, and the setting is truly elegant. Think mirrors and inlays and crystal chandeliers. Once upons a time it was a dress-up occasion, but that has been slowly but surely changing in tandem with the general grunging of society. But still, it retained a measure of stately ambiance.

This time, I felt a vague sense of disquiet soon after we entered. Close to the entrance, in a flea market-esque touch, there was a large table set up with cookbooks and seasoned salt for sale. Not a big deal, but just a little creepy.

We were meeting friends, and once everyone had arrived, we were seated in the main dining room. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that the open area between tables was now apparently a toddler play area. The Trashmans, sitting at the table across from us, let little Billy Bob Ray Trashman roll around the floor and run amongst the hot silver meat carts, dodging dish-laden servers and trying his darndest to be taken out of the gene pool. It just wasn't the sort of clientele that I was used to seeing. They were probably letting the kid run amock because the kind of restaurants they usually visit (McDonald's, Chuck E. Cheese's, et. al.) always have a playground. They were probably wondering where the plastic ball pit was.

A while later, I heard the little poster child for ADHD screaming at that piercing level that summons dogs from five miles away and that bursts the eardrums of everyone within 20 yards. I glanced over and saw Mrs. Trailia Trashman holding him. At first, I assumed she was trying to quiet him down, but I quickly realize that she was the one inciting his screams! She was tickling him enthusiastically, causing the ungodly screech to emenate at regular intervals, in rhythm with her finger strokes. Sigh....

Thankfully, the food as as godly as I've come to expect. The service was lacking in some subtle, hard-to-define just didn't have the usual edge of elegance. But I hadn't come for pampering. I had come to scarf down roasted cow smothering in gobs of horseradish-laced whipped cream, and I definitely wasn't disappointed.

On the way out, I stopped in the restroom, accessed by a magnificent sweeping staircase with a beautifully carved polished wood bannister. The restroom itself is larger than my first apartment; it has a lounge area with a couch, and then the toilet area. As I entered, I noticed a woman reclining on the couch with a magazine in hand, looking quite at home. Seemed a little strange, but what the heck. Then, as I entered a stall, I noticed a tray on the sink filled with perfume, Tic Tacs, snack sized candy bars, and Blowpops. Okay.....

I overheard another woman coming out of her stall and realized what was going on. The magazine reader was a restroom attendant, something Lawry's had never had before. I could hear them interacting, and when I stepped out of my stall, the attendant squirted the soap dispenser for me and handed me a paper towel from the dispenser. Not too elegant. If you're going to have attendants, at least have better soap and cloth towels! Do I look so weak that I need someone to pull out a paper towel for me? Puh-leese! Basically, it's a thinly disguised ploy for tips.

Sure, I could have taken advantage of the perfume, but that would conflict with the scent I was already wearing. Maybe a Tic Tac would have been okay, but why the heck would I want a Blow Pop? I mean, come on! I had just finished eating a Chocolate Bag (the signature dessert). Why would I want to sully my tastebuds with a kiddie sucker?

I know the woman was dying to return to her magazine, but she wasn't about to budge until I'd parted with the obligatory dollar. For a moment, I had a flashback to Haiti, where I'd been shaken down in an identical manner, expect that the perfume and candy had been missing in that Third World land.

On the way out, I noticed that a woman had been stationed at the entrance door where she practically pounced on every poor soul who stepped in. "Check your coat? Check your coat?" It was more of a demand than a question, as she virtually blocked their paths until they surrendered their outerwear. Good thing no one tried to enter without a coat, as she probably would have forced them to remove their blouse or shirt!

Outside, as we waited for the valet to retrieve our car, a van pulled up and began to disgorge such a vast stream of humanity that I thought I was watching a clown car. Out popped two adults and half a dozen kids, like some hellish version of the Brady Bunch (they probably hailed from the same trailer park as the Trashmans). I breathed a sigh of relief that we had finished our meal...with my luck, they would have been seated on our other side.

As we escaped to the Pimpin' Family Truckster (my husband's Aztek), I shook my head sadly and made a mental note that I needed to visit Lawry's again very soon. At the rate they are going, I predict that either a) the food is going to plummet downhill along with the atmosphere, so I'd better get one more good meal before that happens; or b) it's under new management on a downhill slide that will culminate in shutting down completely.

It reminded me of Sauzer's, a kiddieland in Indiana that I visited when I was very, very young. At that time, it was a cheerful, well-kept paradise of neon lights and amusement rides. Many years later, I returned with my husband, and it had been transformed into a horrorshow version of itself. To ride the Galaxi roller coaster, you literally had to reach out pull the train along to the lifthill via the support beams. There was a Bamboozler rusting and mouldering in a patch of weeds that I thought was inoperable...till they actually fired it up and loaded people on board! How melancholy to see what a once-beloved place had become.

Lawry's hasn't made it down that far (yet), but I fear that they're on the way. And in the meantime, it's too bad that Sauzer's closed the year after my visit. Otherwise, I could have given directions to the Trashmans and the Clown Car Family. It definitely would have been their kind of place!

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Forever Young

Other than the very last moment when we loaded up Canyonero for our move down to Celebration, I've never questioned whether we made the right choice. Sometimes I miss Chicago in a vague, nostalgic way, but I can't imagine ever leaving Florida and returning permanently to a state of short summers and wicked, wind-whipped winters where gray skies and snowstorms make cabin fever a way of life for almost half the year.

But there is one thing that I sorely miss: My 30-year-old Appaloosa, Cochise. In the past, I've blogged quite a bit about Figment, my younger Appy who I moved to Florida last June. But since 'Chise was in his late 20s when we moved (and has since turned 30), I didn't think that a jouncy, bouncy 1200 mile trailer ride would be good for his old bones.

To give you an idea of how he has changed over the years, here he is in his young, spry days on the left, and three decades old on the right:

As you can see, he's regressed into some sort of wooly mammoth/missing link. He's had trouble shedding his winter coat for a few years now; the vet tested him for thyroid disease, but it came up clean. I guess he's just like one of those shivering senior citizens who always wear a sweater, even in the sweltering heat of July.
Cochise has been my pride and joy since I was 16. My mother wasn't a supportive type (mostly, she just wasn't present at all), so around the age of 12 or 13 I figured out how to get to a riding stable via a string of three buses and a 1.5 mile walk. I babysat and did housecleaning for the neighbors in order to fund a weekly trail riding "fix."
By the time I was 16, I got in a school work program and managed to save enough to buy my very own horse and to swing the board, shoe, and vet bills each month. Since my father had passed away years before, and my mother was in her own chemically enhanced universe that didn't include the bother of child-rearing, 'Chise gave me something positive to focus on. I couldn't have asked for a better horse; he did everything I ever asked of him. Where it was jumping in the showring or cross country.....

Or hopping fences in the corral for fun, or gearing up for a trail ride.....

Or showing off at a parade.....

.....Cochise was my loyal companion. We muddled together through my teenage years, through the big leap when I escaped the bedlam of my mother's house to strike out on my own, and through my young adulthood and eventual marriage (I warned my husband up front that horses in general, and Cochise in particular, were part of an unnegotiable package deal). Through all of that, 'Chise was my best friend, loyal riding partner, and therapist/stress management specialist. We spent countless hours traversing miles of woodland and open fields. Stress slipped away from my psyche as we galloped top speed down endless straightaways. I rarely rode him with a saddle, so we shared one mind and almost one body as his muscles pulsed beneath me, hooves churning the dirt and his mane rippling and waving like a flag in the wind.
He was four years old when I bought him; somehow the years slipped by like the pages of a novel that you can't put down because you're so immersed in enjoyment...then, all too suddenly, you realize that you've almost reached the end. How can 'Chise be 30 already? Wasn't it just yesterday that I braided his mane for a show or hopped aboard bareback for a day on the trails? Where did that carefree teenager go who was so unconcerned with mortality that she and her steed leaped over picnic tables like a sturdy bay Pegasus with a wraith perched over its wither? I look back at the old photographs, then look at Cochise now and glance into the mirror...who is this shaggy old equine and this chubby woman, both of whom have way too many gray hairs and too few years ahead?
Actually, with any luck, I'm only halfway through my life, but 'Chise is living on borrowed time. It's pretty rare for a horse to make it into its 30s, so he's currently the equivalent of an equine centarian. It breaks my heart that he lives 1200 miles away, but I also know how guilty I would feel if I tried to ship him down to Florida and he didn't survive the trip, or if I brought him down and he died shortly thereafter.
At the moment, he lives at the barn where I've boarded him for over two decades. Over the years, the barn owners have had a parade of their own equines, but he's always been the only boarder (other than Figment). Sadly, the last of their horses died last December, so now 'Chise is flying solo.
Generally, while I'm in Florida, I try to put him out of my mind. I know that he is fed well, has a warm, clean stall, and is turned out regularly in a half acre corral. He gets a semi-regular hoof "pedicure" and a vetting every spring. The only thing lacking is equine companionship (which, oddly enough, he doesn't seem to miss) and lavish human attention (vs. just the basics). I try to justify it to myself by saying, "Well, after all, he's retired. He's probably quite happy plodding through the same old routine that he's known most of his life. Sure, he'd like some coddling, but it wouldn't be worth two days bouncing in a horse trailer, only to arrive in an environmental oven of 90 degree-plus days."
Since I hadn't visited Chicago in nearly a year, it wasn't too hard to keep my guilt on the back burner. But now that I returned for a visit, all the old emotions came flooding back. When I arrived, the barn owners were out so 'Chise was confined to his stall, munching contentedly on a pile of hay. It hit me hard to see the others stalls all converted into storage space; over the years, I came to love the barn owners' horses as much as my own, so to see them gone so permanently was a blow. Granted, I know that they all lived happy lives and died at relatively ripe old ages, but I still felt a deep pang of pain. It was like seeing the ghosts of an era gone husband and I spent so many happy Saturdays riding 'Chise and Serenity (a big, high-spirited Saddlebred who was dumb as a box of rocks but who had a puppydog personality). Serenity thought he belonged to my hubby and would cuddle up for a carrot and a "massage" with the soft brush. We'd head out into the forest preserve and to the straightaway by the lakes, our eager mounts tensed for the signal to run. We'd trot down the trails, enjoying the ever-changling tableau of the seasons...the explosion of green in the springtime, the rainbow burst of flowers in the summer, and the earth-toned hue of Nature's fall paintrush...until finally, winter rendered the landscape barren until it surrendered to spring once again.
But now Serenity, that silly, sweet Saddlebred, was gone. It was quite ironic, since he was a few years younger than Cochise. I patted my old man, thankful that he was still alive and healthy.
'Chise was more interested in carrots than sentiment, so I dropped a two pound bag into his feedbox. It took him a while to consume them, due to a dwindling number of teeth, but he made sure not to leave a crumb.
As he ate, I worked on his neglected coat, which seemed thick enough to survive a Siberian winter. He had already started to shed, so I removed as much of the loose hair as possible. In some areas, I could see a semblence of the Appaloosa that I knew lay buried beneath the hair. But his belly, legs, and neck were hopeless, so I finally threw in the towel, satisfied he look at least 20% more civilized than when I had started. I also brushed and trimmed his mane as best as I could, removing the worst of the knots.
Then I took him outside for some photos. I figured I could turn him loose to graze on the lawn and get some candid shots. I had removed his halter because it had rubbed a raw patch on his nose, but I didn't think it would matter. After all, I do that with Figment all the time. He's a very good boy...I cut him loose in a grassy patch while I put away my tack or take care of other chores, and when I'm ready, he stands like a rock while I retrieve him. Besides, at the age of 30, just how far or fast could 'Chise go if he decided to run?
I sure found out!
'Chise has always been the sort who takes full advantage of liberty. I usually brag that he's a better horse than Figment, but he reminded me that it's not true when it comes to handling without a halter and lead rope. He started off grazing peacefully till he realized that he was halterless and outside the fence. With more fire than I could ever have imagined, he galloped down to the other end of the property. I managed to retrieve him with the help of some treats, but as soon as I let him loose again, he was up to the same trick.
I knew he wouldn't go far, so I managed to get my photos and then lured him with more food and looped a leadrope around his neck. He grudgingly surrendered to my control and I returned him to his stall.
After being separated for nearly a year, it was good to see that he seemed relatively happy. But it pained my heart, too; even though he was well-fed and healthy, it was apparent that no one was giving him that extra love and attention on a regular basis. It made me think of the horses where I board Figment. You can easily spot the ones whose "Mamas" visit them frequently. Like Figgie, they have shiny, well-groomed coats and a contented look in their eyes. The ones whose owners rarely appear stand forlornly at the fence, watching the others get babied. Their coats have an unkempt air and they exude an aura of loneliness.
'Chise seems happy enough, but that little spark seems to be missing (or at least my paranoid mind tells me so). I don't know if bringing him to Florida is the best option, but perhaps it would help to visit him more often. Just a good grooming once a month or so, coupled with half an hour of grazing on the green lawn at the end of a leadrope might enhance his twilight years.

In the meantime, you can see that he's not suffering too badly. He may be a hairy mess, but he's still got a smile for his Mom.

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