Saturday, February 23, 2008

Crowds Crowds Everywhere

Monday was Presidents' Day, so I guess I should have suspected that Tourist Land would be more crowded than usual. What I didn't expect was the sheer volume of people who would swarm Disney World and the surrounding environs this whole week.

My first clue was that the area restaurants were much more crowded than usual. Our next door neighbors faced a wait of over an hour at Logan's, a steakhouse on 192. We went there the next day but made sure to arrive a bit early. The place was already nearing capacity, and by the time we left it was on a wait (mind you, this was a week night).

A friend who works at the Magic Kingdom confirmed the sheer insanity of the crowd sizes. She said that the parks had been packed with a mass of bodies more suited to Christmas or Easter than a second-tier holiday.

Hubby went to Typhoon Lagoon later in the week because it was reasonably warm, expecting a fairly light crowd. He arrived after 1 and was informed that the park was almost at capacity. Yow! I wisely stayed home because a) crowds make me crazy; and b) even tho' it was in the 80s, I feared that my Floridian blood would still be chilled.

Our last attempt to get near Disney World occurred when I found a t-shirt online with a picture of the monorail and the phrase "Por favor, mantenganse alejado de las puertas" emblazoned in red on the front that is available at Downtown Disney. I decided to hustle over to get one, and hubby was planning to join me so we could have lunch at Earl of Sandwich.

The Earl has the most godly sandwiches this side of the Atlantic Pond, and as such it is wildly popular and teeming with humanity overflowing the queue. Thus, I usually go either early or late to avoid the peak lunch crowd.

On this day, we decided to go late, knowing that there would probably be a lot of people but figuring that it would have thinned out some. We should have know that was a futile wish the moment we saw the parking lot, with a conga line of cars circling like vultures lusting for a carcass, all in search of the most elusive prey of all: a parking spot.

After literally 15 minutes of circling, we hit the Parking Lot Jackpot. We spotted people in their car preparing to pull out. Even more amazingly, the spot was in the very first row (not that I mind parking farther back; after lunch at the Earl's, I can use the extra exercise).

The people took their sweet time in preparing to leave, reminding me of a research study conducted many years ago. It showed that people take longer pulling out of their parking spot when someone is waiting for it...something to do with territorial instincts. Waiting was better than circling aimlessly, so finally I managed to outlast their territoriality. They pulled out and I immediately zipped in, reveling in my small stroke of luck.

The luck most definitely ended there; when we got to the Earl's, it was nearly 2 p.m. but the stinking line had overflowed the queue and was tangled in a messy crowd scene near the doors. I popped in line while hubby hustled over to World of Disney to buy our shirts. I knew he'd be done with the purchase long before I was even in sight of the cash register.

Complicating matters was the sheeple nature of the tourist, which seems to find comfort standing within a herd even when there is a huge gap. At the Earl's counter, you order at a register, then proceed down the line to pay (and you can pick up various drinks and desserts from coolers as you ease your way down). However, if you order a salad, you have to stop at a counter just past the register. Those who are not getting salads can bypass those who are and go straight to the registers.

Unfortunately, the sheeple just weren't getting this concept. They stood in a clot of confusion at the register while the entire path to the payment area beckoned invitingly before them. They must have thought it was a trick and that surely ravenous wolves would leap out of the coolers if they actually dared to pass the salad folks. This whole mess was making the backup worse than ever.

Eventually we managed to get our order, and amazingly we even found a table. We had the ham and cheese sandwich with dijon mustand and the Caprese (with tomatoes, mozarella, and balsamic vinegar). Mmmmmm!

When we returned to the parking lot, another poor wandering soul immediately moved into place, ready to swoop into our parking spot. Fighting my territorial instincts, I pulled out promptly and fled back to Celebration. I was still in awe of the sheer volume of the crowd; if I was oriented to day and time, I would have sworn it was the thick of the holiday season.

Oh well, we have our t-shirts now, and I don't plan to go anywhere near the theme parks till I hear reliable reports that they crowds have shrunk down to a reasonable level. Imagine what a fortune the makers of Preparation H would make with Preparation C: Just smear on the crowd and the swelling disappears.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

An Unexpected Find

Sometimes frustration leads to an unexpected find that makes it all worthwhile. Little did I know as I set out to pick my husband up from the airport that I was in for just such an experience.

We had been planning a nice dinner at one of the Disney restaurants, but when I called there were no reservations available at any of our favorite, or even the peripheral "well, we'll eat there if nothing else is available" spots. Apparently the combination of Valentines Day weekend and Presidents Day weekend was enough to destroy any chance of last-minute dining plans.

Oh well, we figured we'd go for our old standby, Chevy's. They have call-ahead seating, so that would minimize the wait among the tourist hoardes...or so I thought. An inner voice urged me to call just to see if they were doing call-ahead that night. The person who answered said "yes" but was promptly shot down by a frantic voice in the background: "Tell them we're all booked up!" It's impossible to be "booked up" with call-ahead, since a person calls when they leave home and is placed on the list; thus, most of their wait time is over when they arrive. I think it's more likely that the hostesses didn't want to deal with angry patrons who see someone being seated immediately when they've been waiting 45 minutes.

With that option gone, we decided to go to Don Pablos, which is very similar to Chevy's and is located not too far from the airport's North Exit. Since it was only 6 p.m., we thought we might beat much of the crowd. As we approached, I could see that the parking lot was empty...good sign. No, wait, bad sign! It was totally empty! Yet another of our regular haunts had bit the dust.

Hubby hadn't had lunch, and I'd only had a light bite myself, so we were ready to nosh. We decided to continue down Semoran Blvd. and see what we might run into. We knew that most restaurants would be jam packed, but at that point beggars couldn't be choosers.

Unfortunately Semoran is a gauntlet of traffic lights every other block, perfectly timed to ensure that you have to stop at every one. Our progress felt like mere inches as our stomachs rumbled and we scanned the neon-lit horizon. All around us were gas stations and fast food outlets, but nothing within the sit-down dining realm.

On and on, we drove...if you can call the stop-start-stop-start of the red light gauntlet "driving." Finally I noticed a little unassuming restaurant coming up on my right, with a sign announcing "Mexican Food." The forever-lost taste of Don Pablo still lingered on my tongue, so we decided to give it a whirl.

Our expectations weren't overly high, as we've never, ever found real, true, honest-to-goodness authentic Mexican food in Florida. I don't expect the chains to be authentic; while I enjoy Chevy's, I view it as being perhaps just a bit more authentic than Olive Garden. Chevy's has wonderful food, but it doesn't fulfill my taste for the real thing.

I developed my craving for authentic Mexican food back in my teen years. I grew up in a heavily Mexican neighborhood and babysat for a Mexican family. At their home, I learned to appreciate the cuisine of their native country.

We were lucky enough to have some wonderful Mexican restaurants in that area, too. My first apartment was right around the block from the main drag in a "Little Mexico" neighborhood, with three great eateries within walking distance of my front down. But my favorite was actually a chain called Pepe's. By "chain," I don't mean Taco Bell or even Chevy's. It was a small franchise, with locations only in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, and I think that most of them were family owned. While the quality of the food varied by location, most Pepe's were a gastronomic delight.

It was rough to move from that area to Kissimmee, where Mexican restaurants are plentiful but where authenticity is lacking. There are some I would peg as "okay," but nothing that even comes close to Pepe's. Every time I return to Chicago, Pepe's is included on my gastronomic city tour, along with Beggar's Pizza, JR's Hot Dogs, and Lawry's The Prime Rib (all things I've never found an equivalent for in the Sunshine State).

I didn't have high hopes for the little restaurant, particularly since it was housed in a building that I suspect was a Taco Bell in its former life. It had been converted to a rather unassuming sit-down place, and we plopped down and hoped for the best.

The menu actually gave me some hope. It featured dishes you don't normally find in a place aimed at the unadventurous diner who thinks a taco is the epitome of good Mexican eating. It had things like menudo (tripe soup), lengua (tongue), fried pork skin, and some sort of beef head dish (barbacoa?). That last one brought back memories of the Mexican markets in my teenage years, where whole heads stared blindly through the glass at the butcher's counter.

Initially we were among only a handful of patrons, but as others trickled in I could see that we were in the ethnic minority...another promising sign. I dunked a chip into the salsa, took a bite, and was instantly transported back to Chicago. The salsa was virtually identical to Pepe's! If I didn't know better, I would have believed that's just what I was eating. Even though I knew I should save room for the meal, I plowed through the chips with the lust of someone re-discovering their long-lost love.

Amazingly, the food was just as delicious and authentic as the salsa. I had gotten a combination plate, but the best item had to be the quesadilla. Unlike the usual flour taco-encased version, this one had thick Mexican cheese between fried corn tortillas. Mmmmmmm! They served corn tortillas with hubby's fajitas too, which is rare to see but is the true authentic way. To me, flour tortillas are a sign of the Americanized palate. I remember the dad of the family I baby sat eating corn tortillas with virtually everything and preparing them by simply turning on the gas burner and tossing the tortilla over the flame.

It was a long drive home, made more tedious by the red-light gauntlet, but it didn't seem so bad with my stomach basking contentedly. We had grabbed a take-out menu so we could easily return (the restaurant is called Tortilleria El Rey). The only thing that would have made our new find ideal is if they had served fideo (a delicious Mexican "spaghetti soup" that is rarely found in restaurants but is a common in-home comfort food).

It had been a decidedly "different" day from what we had planned, but with an unexpectedly happy ending. When I get a taste for Pepe's I won't have to hop a plane to Chicago...although with the traffic light gauntlet, I would probably get to Pepe's more quickly!

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Friday, February 15, 2008

No Bird Brain

Back in November, I covered the saga of losing my cockatiel, Bradley, and gaining Truman the quaker parrot as the newest family member here at Duloc Manor. Our little green feathwad has been here almost three months now and has developed from a perch potato into quite a comical little bird.

As you can see from the photo above, he has no fear of the cats. Stitch (pictured) is non-lethal anyway, but Farquaad would eat him in a second. Poor Tooncinator still can't figure out why Truman won't play with him like Bradley used to. Toonce would swat at Bradley, and Brad would bite him back...they would go on and on with their play fighting. But Truman wants no part of a big, hairy cat paw coming at him, and I can't say that I blame him.

It took Truman a while to settle in, but now he is just as demanding as Bradley. We keep his wings clipped, and he's not as cat-savvy as Brad, so he has to stay in his cage when we're not around. But as soon as we open the door, he's ready to climb out and take up residence on his cage-top jungle gym. At first he hated being up there because the cage interior was his safe zone, but now he loves the taste of freedom and will play up there for hours. He has store-bought toys, but like a little kid his favorites are simple household items. He loves straws, flat toothpicks, toilet paper rolls, paper towels, and the plastic lids from Campbell's Soup to Go. The other day I gave him a metal juice lid, and he thought it was great fun to bang it against the perches.

He also enjoys making a rather disgusting "soup" in his water dish, consisting of whatever he can find to throw into it. That includes food, shredded newspaper, and various toys. I gave him the nice, big dish so he could take baths in it, but he prefers to bathe in his tiny drinking cup.

Since that's not adequate for proper birdie cleanliness, I take him into the shower with me every couple of weeks. To him it must be like the rainforest enjoyed by his ancestors...he perches on my arm and basks in the warm "rainfall" as the water beads run off his feathers and soak his little body.

I like to mentally torture him with games like wrapping a Nutriberry (bird treat) in a couple of layers of newspaper. He knows it's in there and tries to rip off the paper like a kid on Christmas morning. I also hide Nutriberries in empty Kleenex boxes so he has to wedge his birdy body in to get them out.

He is a wicked little bird; even though he is my pet, he bonded to my husband. Hubby is a bird hater...well, maybe not hater, but tolerator at best. He wouldn't be cruel to a bird, but neither does he like them or have any desire to interact with them. While he shares some of the cat duties and has cleaned out more than a few horse stalls in his day, he always left the care of Bradley strictly to me. He'd occasionally take Brad on his finger but that was the extent of their interaction.

With Truman, I informed hubby that he had to do some interaction because I didn't want our little green quaker to be bonded only to one person. Since we vacation frequently, I wanted him to be comfortable with others so he wouldn't be unduly stressed by different caretakers. Hubby started handing him a little bit each day, and darned if that wicked little Truman didn't bond to him! I mean bond as in hubby is his mate choice, and I am just chopped liver.

Now my husband can do anything with the bird. He is greeted by happy "clicks" each day, and he tolds Tru upside down on his finger, swings him around, and lays him on his back. No matter what, the bird trusts him and succumbs to whatever torture he imparts.

I never get a greeting, even though I am the feeder/cage cleaner, and when I try maneuvers like holding Tru upside down I get bit for my trouble. I've learned more about quakers, and apparently this is not uncommon. They are very opinionated birds who make their own choices despite the best efforts at human intervention. Like the cat who rubs against the only feline-hater in a room full of people, quakers will often peg a reluctant target.

Indeed, hubby was reluctant in the beginning but the cute little greenie's spell is working. I have caught him snuggling the bird and crooning baby talk, although he refuses to allow me to get such antics on camera.

In the meantime, I'm sloppy seconds but I still enjoy Truman. His vocabulary is amazing, with things like "Hello," "Bad Kitty," "Good Bird," "Step Up," and "No Bite," and he's starting to learn the Quaker Song ("I'm a little quaker green and stout, open my cage and let me out"). Of course he only talks when he wants to, and that's never when I have the video camera ready.

I still miss my sweet little Bradley, but Truman has definitely added life to Duloc Manor. Once you've had a bird, a quiet household just doesn't cut it.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Fling With the Muse

A comment to my last blog entry made me realize just how long it's been since I last posted to my blog. Ironically, it's the blog's inspiration last year to edit the entries into a book awakened a long-dormant love affair with the Muse. I was a prolific freelance writer in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but that slacked off when I began my corporate job and got married. Then I started school to pursue my doctorate, went through the fun of an internship, and became addicted to Disney cruises. In view of all the other pursuits, my poor Muse went into cold storage.

Last year, I could hold it back no longer. The desire to convert the blog to a book awakened a much bigger monster for me. Editing the blog burned me out fast, so I decided to return to magazine writing as a counterpoint. I didn't have any specific goals for the year, just to start making submissions and sales again. My Muse plunged into that so strongly that there hasn't been too much left over for my poor blog.

But while I've been neglecting the chronicles of my life in Celebration, I've made quite a few sales. Most are in print form, but two of my articles (Miniature Donkeys and The Legend of the Donkey's Cross) can be found online at:

I've been supported in my endeavors by the Celebration Writers Group (, a local band of writers from virtually every genre that meets bi-weekly for mutual support and encouragement. We've got quite a few people in and around town who've been bitten by the writing bug just as hard as I've been. They write everything from children's stories and poetry to opinion pieces to fan fiction.

It feels good to be immersed in the world of writing once again. I knew I would be a writer someday from the time I was old enough to know such a thing could be done as a profession. Even before that time, I would wander around the house at the age of three, making up elaborate stories in my mind about the family cat. I created and acted out scenarios with my building blocks. Finally, when I was old enough to read, a neighbor let me go through some of his old books and I found a copy of the 1963 edition of Writers Market. It was as though I had been struck by lightning! Writing could be a job, as proven by that old, dog-eared book.

In my elementary school years, my favorite "toy" was a typewriter, at which I would bang out all sorts of fanciful tales of horses and cats. Sadly, my childhood tomes didn't survive the years, but by high school I had sold my first newspaper article and I plunged into magazine writing in my 20s. I purchased a Magnovox Videowriter and named my first cat "Muse," as she'd lie on top of the printer to keep me company while I banged out my missives.

Here I am today, decades later and still as much a slave to the Muse as I was back then. I'll try not to be as negligent of my blog, and one of these days I will get back to editing it into book form. But in the meantime, I am still writing and still enjoying life in good old Celebration.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

You Know Your House Isn't New Anymore When... start replacing the furniture.

It's been a little over three years since we made our way to Duloc Manor in an ice storm, and almost four years since construction was completed. Our happy home long ago lost that "new house smell," and cat hair tumbleweeds, nicked walls, and other signs of wear, tear, and animal life are the norm.

I never really thought about just how long we've lived here till I realized that it was time to replace the family room sofa. Since I work at home, I spend a lot of time on the couch which is pretty much my "office." It was a cheap couch to begin with, and the flimsy foam cushions were getting flattened out. Add a few coffee spills to that and you can see why I was ready for something new. Also, it was the type with loose pillows against a flat back instead of built-in cushions, which was taking a vicious toll on my back.

Thus it was that we headed out to Orange Blossom Trail, home of innumerable furniture stores. We started at Kanes, where I saw one couch that was semi-passable. I was looking for something with thick back cushions, in a heavy cat claw-resistant material, and in a very neutral beige or light brown. That narrowed down our selections, but the one that filled the bill was a nice model that even had built-in recliners on either end. I thought we might have found our new couch.

Since we were almost to the mall, hubby suggested that we check out Rooms to Go, where we had purchased much of our original furniture. Since it was a lazy Saturday, I figured, "What the heck?" We ventured down the road, crawling in the always-jammed mall traffic, and eventually reached our destination.

Like Kanes, Rooms to Go had limited options that met our three criteria, but where was one nice brown couch, made of just the right material, and it had recliners just like the one at Kanes. But then the salesman pointed out the feature that instantly won me over: built-in massage! A center console flipped down, with cup holders and massage switches. I could just picture myself, tied to my laptop with an aching back, being able to flip on the massage and instantly finding relief from my ergonomic self-abuse.

There was a matching loveseat (sans the massage and recline), so we measured the two pieces and returned to Duloc Manor to see if they would fit. Happily, they would actually fit better than our original couch and loveseat, leaving enough room for me to switch around our end tables and add a file cabinet for all my paperwork.

There had been a sale the day we visited; I went online a few days later and was disgruntled to discover that the sale was over and our pieces had skyrocketed in price! Oh well, we figured that another sale had to come around sooner or later, so we'd bide our time till then.

As luck would have it, the very next week we got a new sales flyer with a $100 off coupon. We didn't know how much the sofa and loveseat had been marked down to in this latest sale, but we figured we'd pop over and see. We were quite excited to discover that they were actually a couple hundred dollars cheaper than the original sales price...both pieces were now being sold as a set for $999.

The bad news was that our coupon was only good for items $1000 and above. The good news is that we added on the stain guard, which brought the total over $1000. The coupon covered almost the entire cost of the stain treatment, so it was like getting that for free. We had it on the old couch, so I can vouch from experience that it works.

We finalized our purchase and set up a delivery date. Now the only challenge was getting rid of the old furniture. Even though the couch was showing its wear, the loveseat was in virtually brand new condition. I figured I would advertise it on Celebration's intranet, and if no one wanted it, I'd have to pay the fee to have the garbagemen take it away. But that bugged me because I just hate to discard anything that still has some useful life remaining.

As luck would have it, I didn't even have to advertise. Someone had already posted on the forum seeking furniture and household goods for a needy family. Arrangements were quickly made for the old couch and loveseat to go to a new home where they could do some good. They were picked up on Wednesday, and the new furniture wasn't due till Saturday, so I temporarily moved my office into the formal room at the front of the house. I didn't realize that the change in routine would disgruntle Truman, my quaker parrot.

Tru's cage is between the kitchen and family room, so when I am working I am in his line of sight. He likes to play on his cage top jungle gym and takes comfort from having a "flock member" nearby. However, he can't see me when I'm in the formal room; he knew I was there because he could hear the television, but he was all alone (even the cats had taken refuge in the front of the house with me).

All of a sudden I heard a rustling of feathers and then loud squawking right outside the room. Tru had flown down the hallway and was waddling towards the sound of the TV, making angry birdy squawks to express his displeasure at being excluded. I cuddled him for a bit to show him that he was still a valued member of the family.

The days passed quickly, and soon it was Delivery Day. Having been scarred by previous unrealistic delivery dates and timeframes, I wasn't expected the truck to show up anywhere close to the four-hour window we were given. Imagine my surprise when the new furniture showed up right smack dab in the middle of the quoted timeframe!

The new pieces were brought in and set up, much to the chagrin or Truman and the cats, all of whom don't like change to their environment. But the cats soon realized that this was new territory to explore. It was a riot to see their expressions when I turned on the massage and the couch started "purring." Soon both had curled up on the new loveseat and were contentedly shedding and snoozing.

It took a little while to get used to the new look of the family room, but now it feels like "home" again. I love having a center console to hold my coffee cup and other essentials such as the remote, the phone, etc. I've used the heck out of the massage already too.

Thankfully I don't think any other pieces of furniture are near needing replacement, so hopefully things will be stable at Duloc Manor for a while.

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