Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yes, Lost Tourist, Please Cut Me Off

As I was driving down I-4 the other day, I was reminded of the entirely new set of driving rules I had to learn in Florida. Being from Chicago, I was a mix of assertive and polite. You won't survive on the Dan Ryan expressway if you're a wimp, but you have to offset that with occasionally letting some poor slob in when he's desperate to change lanes or waiting to pull out of a driveway. I also learned to slow down a bit and allow people to merge onto expressways. Then I move to Celebration and the rules were suddenly turned upside down.

In Florida, it's almost never a good idea to let someone get in front of you when they make a sudden decision, turn on their blinker (or not), and try to force their way over. That's because they're usually not just someone who was sleeping at the switch and suddenly realizes they're in the wrong lane. Instead, they're most likely a totally lost tourist, and if you let them in, you'll be going 5 m.p.h. with occasional abrupt stops as they search desperately for whatever it is they've suddenly decided is on your side of the road. I'm more likely to let a local-looking vehicle in; when it's a Chrysler convertible with "Sunshine State" plates (vs. a county), they're not going to wedge their way in front of me without a crowbar.

I've always wondered what the big deal about getting over right now is anyway. The incident that brought this all to mind happened on I-4 approaching the Sand Lake Road exit. There was still almost two miles to go before the exit, yet some dude decided he had to get over right now and it had to be in front of me. Uh, no. A lack of planning/knowledge/whatever on your part doesn't constitute a crisis on mine. He hovered parallel to me with his blinker on, and I studiously maintained just enough space to show him that it wasn't going to happen. Why bother me? Choose some other car to cut off. Get in front of some other tourist and you can be lost together.

Eventually he gave up with a mile still to go. He of course had to honk his horn in irritation before dropping back and moving over; there was plenty of space a couple cars behind me, but people don't seem happy unless they're actually getting in front of someone. As a cognitive therapist, the horn thing always cracks me up. I suppose the honker sees it as an "up yours" sort of gesture, but it makes me laugh because it shows me that they're giving me power over them...the power to really piss them off. Why would they want to give that to a total stranger? Just drop back, merge in elsewhere, and don't waste time stewing about it. Oh well, the "stewers" are more entertaining.

I do try to be polite on the expressway, but sadly it just doesn't work in Florida most of the time. When I'm in the right lane and I see people merging, I slow down to let them in. The majority of the time they see this and slow down too. I slow down more...so do they. They just don't get the concept of "I'm slowing to let you in. I swear it's not a trick." Eventually I just give up and floor it, leaving them in my dust.

Politeness aside, I have utterly no pity for the people who get on a clearly marked tollway, then exit at an unmanned booth and just sit there...and sit there...and sit there...as though it's going to either disappear or coins are going to start falling from the sky like manna from Heaven. This is particularly bad on Osceola Parkway, where I've been in three car backups because some tourist is panicking. Suck it up, dude, and deal with the ticket 'cause you made a stupid choice and have no other option.

I've actually given coins to tourists at the Celebration Avenue toll plaza before I had my SunPass (which has its own lane at that exit, thank goodness). One desperate U.K. family even ran back to my car and offered me some type of British coins in exchange for quarters, but I just thrust some money at them and refused their offering...I'm not too likely to be on a British toll road in the near future.

It is indeed a different world when you're driving in the Tourist Mecca of the U.S. If you're ever looking lost on I-4 or 192 and see Kitt (my Saturn Vue) in the next lane, don't look for any sympathy if you feel the sudden need to be where I am. I've got places to go, and I prefer to get to them at a pace a little faster than 5 m.p.h.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fire in the Sky

When we lived in Chicago, I was interested in the space shuttles as most Americans are, but I never felt a personal connection. All that changed when we moved to FL where we can see the launches from our front yard. When you see it live, there is a deeper sense of connection. And when you get to see the fiery spectacle of a night launch, it's even better.

Last night, the shuttle went up just before midnight, and I ran out to the park in front of my house to view it. I was suprised that no one else came out. Sure, it was late, but it was a Friday night. For launches, there is usually a little knot of neighbors craning up at the sky. But on this evening I was all alone, watching for the ball of light. It started with an eerie orange glow that backlit the area behind the houses on our street. All of a sudden the fireball itself was in view, rocketing skyward. At first it was flame-colored, but then it died down to white. By the end it looked like a star moving slowly and steadily up into space.

As I watched the shuttle, I was struck by the awe of 1) the fact that we actually send people into space; and 2) actually being able to see it from my home. I did see one other night launch, and that one was even better as I was on a cruise ship near Cape Canaveral. We do a lot of Disney cruises, and they sail out of Port Canaveral. One December a few years ago, a night launch was scheduled for the first night of the cruise. Instead of immediately steaming towards our destination, the captain kept the ship in the general vicinity so we could all see the launch. At the appointed time, everyone streamed from the dinner tables out onto deck. I'm surprised the ship didn't tip over to that side! Seeing the actual launch pad and watching the shuttle go up from the very first moment of the launch gave me the shivers. It was so beautiful, like a mini-sun heading up into orbit.

This wasn't quite as exciting, but it was still a thrill because it was the first time I've watched a live night launch from home. It's so surreal to watch that lightball and realize that there are people in it. By the time I went in, the TV was saying that the shuttle had passed the point of no return. It continued on its way for what will hopefully be another safe mission.

In Chicago, the most interesting thing I ever saw in the sky was an occasional blimp. Here in Celebration, we have hot air balloons almost every morning and a shuttle launch every few months just to keep everything interested. Just another benefit of living in the Sunshine State.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Florida Food Favorites

In the past I've blogged a few times about how much I miss Chicago cuisine. There are certain restaurants that I just have to visit whenever I return to the city of my birth. That got me to thinking the other day...now that I am a Floridian, what restaurants in the Sunshine State would I miss most if I were forced to return to the Windy City? I came up with a few:

Sonny's BBQ
Sonny's is a chain, but it doesn't have any locations in Illinois. It's good old-fashioned Southern BBQ at amazingly reasonable prices. We don't have a Sonny's close to Celebration, but my husband and I visit Busch Gardens pretty frequently and there is a Sonny's on the way. When we go to the shopping area at I-4 and 27, we sometimes head a little further down 27 as there is a Sonny's out there too. As an added bonus, we discovered a place that drew us in with a sign announcing "Goats Milk Fudge." The fudge was just okay, but we discovered that they sell wines from our favorite Key West winery.

Most of Sonny's meals are below $10, and that includes two sides. They have crinkle-cut fries, which I adore, and I usually choose corn on the cob as my other option. They also have a salad bar which I typically add even though I know better; the portions are huge, so I end up bringing part of my meal home.

We have a place called Famous Dave's near our Chicago home, but Dave isn't fit to shine Sonny's shoes.

Good Mexican food is one of the things I miss most in Chicago. Abuelo's isn't as good as Pepe's, my favorite authentic Chicago chain, but it comes darned close. Like Sonny's, Abuelo's is amazingly reasonable on many of its prices, especially its lunch specials. I almost always get an enchilada combo, although I like their tacos too. I get 'em with a soft shell and insist that they use corn tortillas, not flour.

We still like Chevy's, although I don't consider them particularly authentic. But Abuelo's is much easier to get to (the Loop shopping area vs. the special hell that is the Crossroads at Lake Buena Vista), so Abuelo's is our latest Mexican food rut.

We used to have an awesome Polish restaurant near our house in Chicago, but alas it closed down many years ago. Polonia is actually better; besides pierogies, it also has kieshka and poppyseed cake, among other authentic delights. It also has chicken paprikas, which threw me off because that is a Hungarian dish. I haven't tried it yet, but it's on my list because my grandma was Hungarian and I ate many a bowl of paprikas in my youth.

Alas, Polonia is all the way out in Casselberry, but it's worth the trip. There is a German restaurant next door that is quite good, too, but I wouldn't miss it if I went back to Chicago because nothing can beat Die Bierstube in my old stomping ground.

I know it sounds crazy, but I would also miss Sizzler. Yes, I know it's a generic steakhouse chain but I love their Malibu Chicken. They abandoned the Chicago area years ago, so when we first moved to Florida it was a real treat to savor my old favorite dish again. I still go there every now and then for lunch, although I am leery of that unsanitary Orlando equation: out-of-control kids + salad bar = germs germs germs.

I would miss the good old Publix grocery store too. Even though I grew up going to Da Jewel's, Jewel can't compare to Publix because it doesn't carry sushi. I was rather surprised the first time I saw the fresh sushi section, but I've come to rely on it as the source of quick and tasty lunches.

The one thing I would not miss is that stinkin' sweet tea that is so pervasive here in the South. I always order unsweetened tea, but my husband can confirm that I still get served that nasty, teeth-jangling sickly sweet stuff at least 20 to 30 percent of the time. Specifically ordering unsweetened tea is so engrained in me that I even do it when I'm back in Chicago. That always earns me quizzical looks, like, "What the heck are you talking about?" Hey, I can't help it...I'm a pseudo-Southern girl now. I know what sweet tea is, even though it never passes my lips whenever I can help it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Naked Mole Rats Aren't Just at Animal Kingdom

Out of the four cats that reside at Duloc Manor, three are nice, friendly creatures. Sadly, the fourth is a demon cat that will sink his teeth into your flesh without a second thought. He hides under the bed or in the closet 23 1/2 hours a day, which is actually a mercy. He comes out to put food in and let it out, and once in a while he will have a flash of normalcy and actually solicit some putting. Unfortunately, when he's had enough he won't actually let you know in an appropriate way. You'll just get a snarl and a chomp.

For the most part we just leave him alone. He was the son of a feral cat who spent too much of his youth without human contact, so he's not redeemable. No one else would want him, so we consider him our "special" boy. We keep him fed and let him do this thing.

Unfortunately, he has long fur that tends to get matted. If I try to cut the mats, I end up being the one to get cut. Lately the mats have gotten so bad that his rear end was all poopy. The poop was building up to the point where he was so gross and rank smelling that we knew something had to be done. The "something" was a shaving, but I sure as heck wasn't going to do it myself.

Fortunately Celebration Veterinary, the clinic where we take our normal cats, also has grooming services. Crazy Tooncinator has never been out of the house since we moved to Florida, but we decided the time had come to finally take him in. The vet could sedate him, give him his shots, do some bloodwork, and then the groomer could take care of the mats.

Since our crazy beast is around 20 pounds due to lack of exercise, we had to buy a dog carrier to transport him. Then came the trick of getting him into it. This task fell to me, since he hates me somewhat less than he hates most humans. On the appointed morning, I dug him out of the closet and picked him up amidst growling and hissing. Somehow I managed to stuff him into the carrier before he realized what was going on. I could see that he wanted to shred me, but the door was already latched so he could only glare with deep hatred as the voices in his head whispered, "See? See? We told you that you can't trust humans."

SheiKra was loaded up next, as he was due for a shot. He's come a long way from the sickly, worm-infested, road rash-riddled kitten we rescued a few weeks ago. No hissing or growling from him, just a look of resignation.

We dropped off Tooncinator, who had howled and growled the whole way. As we left, I wondered if vets or groomers ever filed lawsuits after being savaged by vicious pets. Fortunately, they managed to get him sedated and he slept through the shaving. He did start to come around, but they got more anesthetic into him before he could attack anyone.

When we arrived to pick him up, we heard his wails from the lobby. It took several people to get him into the carrier, but they managed to do it without bloodshed and presented us with...a naked mole rat. A really, really big naked mole rat. I've seen them many times at Animal Kingdom, and that's all I could think of when I saw our poor kitty. He was done in a lion cut, so his head, legs and tail tip still had hair, but the rest of him was fully shaved. Here are some photos:

Meanwhile, even Farquuad has decided that SheiKra is okay:

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Three Little Kittens

When we rescued SheiKra the kitten from I-4 in Tampa, I thought we were only adding one kitten to our household. Little did I realize that we were going to end up with three little kittens...or rather, one genuine kitten and two sumo cats in their second kittenhood.
Out of our current brood, Tooncinator is 12, Stitch is somewhere around 10 (we adopted him as an adult so we're not sure), and Farquaad is almost 7. We got Quaad as a kitten, and Stitch immediately adopted him and mothered him, as you can see in the photos below:

Now they're both old and crotchety, and we had no plans to add another cat to our household. But fate dropped SheiKra (literally) into our laps, so we figured we had to integrate him with the others. We didn't really count Tooncinator, since he hides most of the time anyway.

When we first brought SheiKra home, we limited his initial contact with the others because he didn't yet have a clean bill of health. He had the runs, worms, and fleas, and he hadn't had his feline leukemia test yet. The boys weren't too thrilled with him, even with limited contact. He ran right to Stitch, much as Farquaad had done years earlier. When Quaad did it, Stitch immediately started washing him and they were inseperable buddies from Day One. With SheiKra, Stitch wanted no part of him. I wonder if he sensed that the poor kitten was sickly (Quaad had been healthy when we got him, other than being half starved).

Many vet appointments and medications later, SheiKra was pronounced healthy. He had been living in the shower, but now we released him into full run of the house. Last night was his first night outside of the shower, and he spent part of it playing chase games up and down the hall with Quaad and Stitch before finally curling up with me.

I noticed that all of a sudden the oldsters were acting like kittens too. Not only were they playing with SheiKra, but they also had to horn in whenever I tried to play with him with a string or feathered cat toy or ball. My 20 pound sumos suddenly wanted to jump and leap and do acrobatics at playtime. I wonder if they were worried that one of them was going to be voted out of the household now that new blood had moved in. Or perhaps they had seen the Adams Family movie in which Wednesday convinces Pugsley that because there is a new baby, one of the current children has to die (Grandmama reassures them, "That's just not true. Not anymore."). Tooncinator was his usual crazy self, but the other two reverted to full kittenhood. When I would open the shower to give SheiKra some out time, they would even sneak it and eat his Kitten Chow and try to shove their huge bodies into his tiny kitty condo.

Now that he was out and about, their kitten antics continued. SheiKra loved it, but he still wanted to befriend them for something more than just playtime. Not much more than a week ago he was no doubt cuddling with his mom and littermates. Now he was on his own, and he wanted the warmth of another cat. I doubted that would ever happen, but my husband insisted that Stitch's nurturing side would take over now that SheiKra was healthy. Sure enough, we came upon the following scene in the family room:

SheiKra was snuggling up to Stitch just as Farquaad had once done. As you can see in the first of the three photos above, Quaad stayed close at hand to monitor the proceedings. We even caught Stitch meticulously washing SheiKra.

It's rather exhausted having three (not so) little kittens...and one insane cat...in the household, but it's fun too. At least it wasn't hard to integrate SheiKra with the big boys, and it's fun to see their antics as they try to prove they're just as cute and loveable.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

SheiKra Update: Before and After

What a difference three days can make. Below is a photo of SheiKra from Saturday, shortly after being dumped on I-4:

Below is SheiKra on Tuesday, learning that he can climb his scratching post but that it's not so easy to get back down:

His little tummy is plump and round now, the fleas seem to be gone, the bloody road rash is healing, and he's more alert and playing. The other boys still aren't thrilled about him, but they tolerate the inevitable.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

June is Adopt-A-Cat Month...Whether You Want To Or Not

June is the American Humane Society's "Adopt A Cat" month, although I usually don't give it much thought because Duloc Manor is maxed out on its feline population. We have two normal cats, Stitch and Farquaad, and a schizophrenic beast named Tooncinator who spends 23 1/2 hours a day under the bed and the other half hour trying to bite us if we dare interact with him. I don't really count him as a pet, since to actually "pet" him would result in a bloody stump. He's like the crazy relative who lives in the attic and who you don't really talk about.

We were plenty comfortable with three cats in our home. Stitch and Quaad have a relationship that's way too close, and Tooncinator...well, he's just sort of there. Thus everything was in a somewhat shaky but acceptable balance Little did I know that Adopt A Cat month was about to become very, very personal to me.

It all started with a trip to Busch Gardens. I'm the Orlando Theme Parks Examiner (Click here to read my articles), and Tampa is close enough to fit under that umbrella, so I wanted to gather fodder for some Busch articles. We have Platinum SeaWorld annual passes that are good for Busch Gardens too. The passes are also good for preferred parking and the ability to stay on the roller coasters and ride a second time with no wait. All in all, we were looking forward to a fun day.

We arrived right at parking lot opening time and were directed to the preferred lot. I loved it, as it's right by the entrance vs. across the street like the regular parking. We had our tickets scanned and lined up at the entrance rope, where they had a band come out to entertain everyone till rope drop time. Our plan was to head right to SheiKra, Busch Garden's main roller coaster. Hubby and I are both coaster fanatics, and we especially like models designed by Bollinger and Mallibard. Thus we were looking forward to a B & M-designed 200 foot climb, followed by a straight-down plummet to earth.

We figured that if we headed to SheiKra first, we could ride it a few times before the crowds got heavy. Alas, that coaster doesn't open until 9:30. Ugh! Thus we went over to the Lion and Tiger wooden racing coasters and rode each of those twice while waiting for the time to pass. We only did a two-fer because we could do it with our pass; those coasters were wicked! There aren't many wooden coasters in Florida, so I forget just how rough they can be. I'll take a metal model any day.

By that time it was after 9:30, so we hustled over to SheiKra. I looked up at its intimidating heights and wondered if my nerves might overcome my love of plummeting down head-first at blinding speeds. I adore Magnum XL at Cedar Point, but unlike SheiKra, Magnum has regular trains. SheiKra's have no floor and the end seats hang out over the track so there is literally nothing below you. Better yet, it pauses at the top of the hill for four seconds before zooming straight down. Although I adore roller coasters, ironically I have a fear of heights. It usually doesn't bother me on rides because I am securely strapped and harnessed in, but I wasn't sure how an open train would feel.

We waited for the front row, figuring we should do our first ride the right way...and I loved it! It actually edged out Manta (also a B & M coaster) as my favorite Central Florida coaster. We did our re-ride, and then I kept dragging hubby on, telling him, "Let's just keep riding it until the line gets too long. Then we'll do something else. I promise." (He was dying to try all the other coasters.) We made it up to nine rides on SheiKra, but on the ninth one I could feel drizzle as we left the station. Sure enough, it started raining harder...and harder...and harder...ugh! There I was with a fanny pack full of stuff, including my cell phone, and DH had his cell in his pocket, and we were getting progressively wetter. Little did we know that we mere seconds away from experiencing new levels of being soaked.

SkeiKra has a second hill where it also stops before plummeting, just like the first one. We climbed it, stopped...and sat there. And sat there. Meanwhile, a monsoon was pummeling us with a rainwater flood. As the minutes ticketed away, we could tell something was wrong. A voice came over a loudspeaker telling us that Sheikra had temporarily ceased operation (thank you, Captain Obvious) and that the situation was being assessed. I eyed the nearby stairs, wondering if we'd have to walk down and weighing the excitement and bragging rights as a coaster enthusiast vs. the chance of getting zapping with lightning.

The people around us were flipping out about their cell phones and whatever else they had in their pockets, and one poor girl towards the back was screaming and being ordered to "shut up" by her unsympathetic companions. I focused on trying to cover my fanny pack as best as I could. Normally, being a seasoned Floridian theme park goer, I wrap the contents in plastic. I'd gotten lazy lately, and now I was paying the price. Finally, after several more minutes, the coaster started moving again, and a new sort of hell started as the rain hit our faces like hail pellets. I kept my eyes closed and reminded myself that it would all be over in a minute or so and that sudden rainstorms are part of the joy of living in Florida and a fair trade-off for a life free of winter blizzards.

We made it into the station and were given two front of the line passes each for our future use, along with our fellow riders. I thought it was a nice gesture, since Busch can't control the weather. We hustled over to a nearby store, where I bought a dry t-shirt (which I had been planned to anyway) and shorts (which were not in the plan, but I wasn't driving more than an hour home in sloshy jeans).

We donned rain ponchos and hustled to the car, planning to stop at Sonny's BBQ for a nice lunch. We see their commercials all the time, but they don't have a location around Celebration. We'd noticed one just off I-4 so we figured that would be convenient. I contacted Onstar to ask how to get to I-4, and they gave me directions for a different way than the one we'd come. That was fine with me, as long as we got there eventually.

We were tooling down the road at 55 m.p.h. when a flash of movement caught my eye. A kitten! A tiny black kitten! It appeared in the right lane, and darted towards the center. I was sure it was going to be splattered, but somehow it decided to change direction and ran to the shoulder. Unfortunately, there was a 10 foot concrete wall. It tried frantically to climb it, and I knew it was just a matter of time before it ran into traffic again. I whipped over onto the left shoulder, since I was in the left lane, jumped out, and ran towards the frantic little fur ball. He must have exhausted himself, as he was now plastered motionless against the wall.

The kitten was so close but yet so far, as there was no break in traffic in sight. I-4 is only slightly safer than the Daytona racetrack. Finally a few cars noticed me and slowed down, and one woman stopped in the right lane so I could get across. As I ran, the jackass behind her suddenly whipped around her on the shoulder, heading right for the kitten. I started screaming at him, but he just gave me a blank stare as he nearly ran it over; thank god it was against the wall. As soon as he passed, I swooped in and managed to grab the soaking wet, shivering little creature. Now there just remained the trick of crossing the road one more time.

Hy husband had emerged from the car and was standing helplessless on the other side. Eventually I saw a tiny break and ran like I was in the Olympics, making it safely with my precious cargo in tow. Hubby took over cat care duty as I lept into the driver's seat to try to figure out what to do. I was reasonably sure that the kitten hadn't been hit, since I'd seen it running and trying to climb the wall. It was bleeding, but that appeared to be from road rash since someone had obviously tossed it out onto I-4. Besides the tell-tale marks, there was literally no way an animal could have gotten to that stretch of the expressway on its own. Someone must have tossed it out right at the moment I saw it appear in the traffic lane.

I knew we needed to get it to a vet, but it was Saturday afternoon and we were in totally unfamiliar territory. Onstar to the rescue! I called to see if they could find a nearby vet, and they started calling listings until they found one that was open for the next hour. We rushed off with the poor little kitty in tow; he was wet, bloody, shivering, and literally skin and bones. Thankfully the doctor was able to see him. He gave us two types of medication and said that the poor little baby seemed like he would pull through the ordeal.

We headed back to Duloc Manor with the kitten in tow. I've rescued lots of strays in my life, and back in Chicago I knew no-kill shelters where I could bring them to ensure their safety and adoption. In Florida, no-kills are fewer and much farther between, and now is a terrible time anyway since people who are getting foreclosed on are abandoning their animals left and right. With three cats already, I knew I should try to find somewhere to take the kitten. I figured we could even foster him till a rescue group could find him a home. But in reality, I had risked life and limb to save him, and I hated the idea of giving him away and probably never knowing where he ened up. If we fostered him for a rescue group, I'd just get attached and end up keeping him anyway, so why deny the inevitable? Before the night was over, I realized that June had indeed become Adopt A Cat Month for me.

We christened him SheiKra; it was either that or Onstar, since both were responsible for our being in that place at that very moment to save him, and naming him after my favorite roller coaster just seemed fitting. Riding over and over and getting caught in the monsoon had set me up to find him, so in a way he owed his life to SheiKra. Now we just have to go through the ever-so-fun process of waiting for our other beasties to adjust to him. As you can see by the last photo in the series of pictures below, he is adjusting to life in Celebration quite well.

Below, three photos on Rescue Day:

One day later, the two photos below show how SheiKra has settled in (the big cat in the last photo is Stitch):

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Floods and Tornados

Nothing underscores the difference between living in Florida vs. living in the Midwest as much as a tornado. Having grown up in Chicago, I learned that tornado warnings were as common as dandelions in spring and fall. Every Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. I'd hear the tornado siren tests. Sometimes the sirens would scream in the midst of a storm, and we'd troop down into the basement and nervously ride out the worst of it, hoping we wouldn't hear a "freight train" rumbling overhead. Fortunately we never had a nearby touchdown. I even remember driving with hubby to pick up a propane tank and seeing a funnel cloud dancing in the green sky off in the distance.

We have tornados in Florida too, but it's a much different matter. There are no warning sirens or basements. You're pretty much on your own. Granted, you can turn on the TV, but Fox News et. al. go into frenzies of anticipation the minute the skies even hint that they might spawn a tornado. They break into programming and show the radar ad naseum to the point where you'd never know whether they're tossing off "what ifs" vs. actually referring to a real tornado baring down on your home. It's the classic case of the boy who cried wolf: if a Florida weatherman told me a tornado was in my backyard, I wouldn't believe it until it blew down the door.

But even if you know it's coming in Florida, you're pretty much shafted because 90 percent of the houses have no basements. Duloc Manor is shotgun style, with three exterior walls covered with windows. In the best of times, I love all that sunlight. In tornados, windows become the enemy. We only have one potential cubbyhole to hide in: a Harry Potter powder room under the stairs. It's barely large enough for a toilet and sink, so imagine it being crowded with two adults, three cats, and a quaker parrot.

Actually, we'd probably have to leave our crazy cat, Tooncinator, to the fates. He spends 90 percent of his time under the bed, conversing with the voices in his head. If you touch him in a way he doesn't like, which pretty much includes all touch, he'll bite and scratch the living snot out of you. By the time we could ever get him out and stop the bleeding, the tornado would no doubt have already ripped the house down.

Today was one of those "tornado days," the culmination of a stormy week. Fox News was in a feeding frenzy, interrupting my court shows so the weatherman could play with the various radar views and go over the horrifying possibilities with obvious glee. Sometimes I picture the entire newsroom in a prayer circle, asking the fates to send a killer storm so they can rush out and cover the devestation, thus ensuring plenty of extra air time. They're even worse in hurricane season...any time a fish farts in the Atlantic, they'll already referred to it as a named storm and projecting its killer capability.

For the moment the storms have settled down, although we might have Wave Two tonight. Meanwhile, I'm gauging the odds of whether I'll be able to figure out if a tornado is really heading our way and, if so, how I'll control the manic housepets in the Harry Potter room.

If you've ever thought about becoming a mental health counselor, check out my new book, "So You Want To Be A Counselor," by visiting http://counselorwannabe.blogspot.com

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mary Poppins and a Culinary Tour

The longer I live in Celebration, the less I miss Chicago. Actually, I suppose "miss" is a misnomer, since I've never really missed it on the whole. It's more like certain parts, such as my favorite restaurants or the bustling theater district. Food and Broadway shows are the two things that occasionally draw me back, and that's exactly what happened this past weekend when I winged my way north to see "Mary Poppins" and indulge in as many of my favorite foods as possible over the course of 48 hours.

My trips north tend to be as brief as possible, so hubby scheduled me to fly out Saturday morning and return on Monday morning. That way, the cats and Truman, my quaker parrot, could fend for themselves while I was gone. I flew Southwest as usual, and on the way out we managed to snare our favorite exit row seats. Hubby is an A-Lister (frequent flyer who automatically gets a good boarding number), so we were first to board after the conga line of pre-boarders. Fortunately, the "pre-people" posed no threat since they're not allowed to sit in the exits.

It was quite amusing to watch all the people with babies and toddlers flipping out when they were told they had to wait until after the A group boarded. Even though most other airlines abandoned family pre-boarding years ago, especially in Orlando, Southwest kept it for a long, long time. The breeders got spoiled, so they get really irked now that they have to wait until after A. They seem to forget that they could go through the effort to get an A pass themselves if they really cared. The gate agent warded them off and we trooped on board at the head of the A group and plopped into exit row seats 11A and C.

I always find it funny when couples insist that they have to sit next to each other. Hubby likes his window exit, while I prefer an aisle for easy bathroom access. I'm secure enough in our marriage to figure it will survive if someone sits between us for a two-hour flight. Indeed, we soon had a middle-seat occupant...a tall guy who thought he'd hit the jackpot with all the extra leg room. I settled in with my music and headphones and dozed off for most of the flight; hubby poked me awake when we were descending into Midway and I had to turn off my electronic device.

Compared to Florida, Chicago was freakin' cold! It's already flirting with 90 in Florida, but Chicago's temps were in the 60s and 70s, so I was shivering in my thin Floridian jacket. My brother and sister-in-law picked us up at the airport, and we headed to Pepe's for lunch. It's my ultimate favorite authentic Mexican restaurant, and I don't mean Tex-Mex. Ironically, tho', although it was delicious, it wasn't the culinary treat I had anticipated. I think that's because I love Abuelo's so much now that Pepe's has lost some of its charm. It's just not worth the 1200 mile jaunt when I can run 10 minutes down Osceola Parkway.

That evening, we had reservations at a Japanese Teppan restaurant for what my brother and I affectionately call "lard lobster." There is plenty of Teppan in Orlando, but I've never found a place that serves their lobster slathered in a heart attack-inducing mixture of lard and egg yolk. It sounds gross, but it's an acquired taste. We Chicago natives love our heart-destroying culinary concoctions. That old SNL skit with the Super Fans, where at least one of them had a heart attack on every show, is no joke!

The lard lobster was good, but like Pepe's it didn't wow me like I expected. The side dishes were rather bland compared to my favorite (and unfortunately now closed) Orlando Teppan place. Still, it was fun to dine with family, although I don't miss them as much as I probably would if I lived in pre-cell phone days.

The next day was the main reason for my visit: "Mary Poppins" at the Cadillac Theater. Hubby had managed to snag front row balcony tickets so we'd be in a perfect position to see Mary fly. Driving the Dan Ryan Expressway was no more fearsome than good old I-4. We parked near Lawry's, which was where we had dinner reservations, and walked over to the theater. I was surprised at the number of little kids, since the play is nearly three hours long. I think the Disney movie version is pushing it, especially in today's ADD society, and the play doesn't have the cartoon sequences to capture the kiddie's attention.

Surprisingly, the wee ones seemed engaged for the whole show...or at least the ones seated near me. Part of that might have been due to the fact that Mom was bribing them with Skittles through most of the second act. I had wondered if I'd get a bit bored myself, but it was so fast paced that the three hours flew by. Mary flew too...literally. She did it onstage a couple times, building up to the grand finale where she soared over the audience. We were in a perfect spot to see it, as she flew pretty much right over our heads. I thought that would be the highlight, but I have to admit the dance scene in which Bert literally dances upside down came pretty darned close.

The play isn't just a Broadway version of the movie. The story is somewhat changed, making Mrs. Banks a former actress rather than a suffrage activist and making Mr. Banks a lot more of a jerk. Also, there were more parts from the original Mary Poppins books; most people probably didn't realize that, but I read them all as a kid so I was pleasantly surprised to see Mrs. Corry and her gingerbread shop and the live statues.

The staging is really the best part of this show. I didn't like it as well as "Lion King," but that's not to say that it's not a great production. It's just that "Lion King" is so different. "Mary Poppins" is more of a traditional musical with some amazing scenery changes and special effects. Right before my trip, I had been wondering if it would be worth the bother of visiting Chicago for a whirlwind 48 hours. Happily, it was indeed worth the trip.

Afterwards, it was off to Lawry's and a dinner of the best prime rib on the planet. Being Mother's Day, the restaurant was packed to the gills but we had a reservation so we were seated promptly. The prime rib was as delicious as ever. It's carved right at your table, and our carver was in an overly generous mood as he plopped the equivalent of half a cow on each of our plates. I slathered the meat liberally with the heavenly whipped cream horseradish sauce that is a Lawry's hallmark. I also had spinach and creamed corn as sides; they were good, but I don't miss the creamed corn as much these days, since hubby has the recipe and makes it frequently at home. Now if he could just figure out how to slow-roast a freshly slaughtered cow.

As I indulged in my culinary tour of the Windy City, I imagined the abuse I would soon be enduring from my Wii Fit. I've lost a lost of weight just by cutting out desserts and most sugar, but I recently got the Wii Fit to add some regular exercise. If you're ever seen Japanese game shows, you know what a cruel streak they have in Japan. In the Wii Fit, this manifests itself in blatantly calling you "overweight" and demanding that you justify any gains by selecting a reason. Unfortunately, "Gorging self on favorite foods on hometown tour" is not among the options.

Oh well, I figured that I couldn't do too much damage in just 48 hours. Monday morning came all too soon, and I had to drag my carcass out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to make it to the airport for my early morning flight. Hubby was staying in Chicago for business, so I bid him farewell at Midway and went off in search of my gate. My boarding number was so-so (A24), so I wasn't holding out much hope for an exit row. I figured I'd just grab any convenient aisle.

When it was time to board, I discovered to my amazement that 11A (the exit row window seat) was still unoccupied. Even though I usually take an aisle, I figured I could grab that seat without guilt since there was plenty of room to get in and out to the restroom. There was a man sitting on the aisle, and we almost lucked out with an empty middle till a rotund dude hustled on the plane at the last minute and wedged himself between us (I say "wedged" because I could feel the armrest straining). Oh well, I figured it wouldn't be too traumatic since I planned to spend most of the flight reading or napping. The guy did try the old "lean over and read with my magazine in your space" ploy, but I quickly thwarted that with pressing needs to lean down and rummage in my bag and then set up an intricate pattern of items on my tray table, which make that maneuver impossible to maintain. He got the hint, and peace reigned for the rest of the flight in our comfy little exit row.

Back at the airport, I had to endure the special hell of taking a bus to the Blue Lot. Normally we park in the Red Lot at the South Exit, which is very convenient to 417. Sadly, it's been closed for a while now so everyone has to park in the Blue Lot, way out by the North Exit. Better yet, even though half the population of Orlando was waiting for the shuttle bus, they sent a micro-shuttle with a capacity of literally only nine people, although that was reduced by the fact that there was little room for any luggage. I was lucky enough to make it on board, but I felt bad for the huge crowd of people who were left behind as the driver shrugged and said, "Another bus is coming." Things were so tight on board that adults were literally sitting on each other's laps.

Oh well, I made it back to the lot and breathed a sign of relief as I headed for 417 to return to my hometown of Celebration. I suppose that a part of me will always be a "Chicago Girl," but every time I return there is less and less to miss. Now I'm a thin-blooded Floridian at heart...I probably won't go back to the Windy City for a year or two, when "Shrek the Musical" finally makes its way there. And if the rumored new theater ever gets built in downtown Orlando...heck, I might never have to go back!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chevy's Vs. Abuelo's

Back when I lived in Chicago, I learned how to love good Mexican food. Or perhaps I should say, good authentic Mexican food. I liked some of the Americanized stuff, too, like the old Chi Chi's chain, but it wasn't in the same league with good old-fashioned Mexican home cooking from the neighborhood restaurants. Actually, there is one local chain called Pepe's that is usually quite good, depending on the owner/manager. They even had sopa de fideo for a very short time, although most Americans are clueless as to what that is so I was probably the only one ordering it.

In Florida, I've rarely found authentic Mexican food, other than one little hole in the wall (aren't those always the best?) way out past the airport. For close-by food, we contented ourselves for a long time with Chevy's. Mind you, I love Chevy's, but most of it is not authentic by any stretch of the imagination (portabello fajitas? nope!). The only problem is that Chevy's is located on the other side of Disney World, at the Crossroads just outside the Lake Buena Vista gate. That means the special hell of navigating a section of I-4 that is usually akin to a parking lot. As an alternate, you can play "dodge the tourists" by driving across Disney property, complete with the Downtown Disney stoplight gauntlet. Either way, getting in and out of the Crossroads shopping center with a traffic light that stays green for maybe 3 seconds is an adventure all on its own. Still, we did it pretty often because my appetite for Mexican food is insatiable.

Then, one happy day, a new restaurant arose from the ground next door to BJ's Brewhouse over at the Loop shopping center. At first I thought the sign said "Aurelio's," and I nearly fainted as that's one of my favorite Chicago pizza chains. Alas, they hadn't expanded over to Florida. It was Abuelo's, apparently a Mexican restaurant. I didn't hold up much hope, but it went on the "Try eventually" list.

Eventually took quite a while, since BJ's tends to draw us in. Finally one day I had a wild taste for Mexican, so we have Abuelo's a go. Mmmmmmmm! Delicious! Still not as authentic as a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, but moreso than Chevy's and so much easier to get to. Not that I like it more than Chevy's...I like them equally in their own ways. But the simple drive down Osceola Parkway is so much easier than I-4 Hell.

For a long time we stuck with Abuelo's, even though my mind would wistfully turn to Chevy's seafood enchilada once in awhile, as Abuelo's has no equivalent. Then Chevy's sent me a coupon and it finally drew hubby and I to make the dreaded journey. The internet said that I-4 was clear....wrong. We inched along, watching snails jog by us, until we finally got to the Lake Buena Vista exit. As we pulled into the Chevy's parking lot, I imagined that if we had gone to Abuelo's, in the same length of time we'd probably already have been tucking into our main course. Thankfully we managed to beat the dinner crowd, and I ordered my favorite enchilada, along with a fish taco since those are the current special. It felt so good to chow down on my old favorite...but, surprisingly, not quite as good as I thought. I had honestly thought that going back to Chevy's would remind me of why I loved it and draw me back for more. But as good as their food is, the drive was so miserable that all I could think is, "Now I see why we've switched to Abuelo's."

I felt a bit melancholy on the way home (although at least I-4 had cleared up some). Chevy's had been a staple for us ever since the days when Duloc Manor was still being built and we'd come down to FL for weekend progress checks. At that time, the Loop had been a cow pasture, and I never imagined that a shopping center would spring up out of the dirt.

Oh well, it's nice to have Abuelo's nearby, and I don't think the traffic will ever get too bad since Osceola is a tollway that charges $1.00 per way. Pricey, but worth it for the convenience. In the meantime, I'm afraid that Chevy's will have to be an off-season indulgence.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Search for Cat Crack and Rolaids

My husband and I went on a rather odd quest last week. We wandered outside of the Bubble and through the greater Kissimmee area in search of Cat Crack and Rolaids. Yes, it's an odd combination, but let me explain. Until recently, I had no idea that Target, the unassuming big box store, sold cat toys apparently made in Columbia. We buy our cat litter there because they have the cheapest store-brand crytal litter anywhere, and last time I also grabbed a catnip toy on a lark. I love to get our cats high and watch their insane antics. Usually I buy toys at the pet store, and I kind of doubted the nip would be fresh or reactive, but I thought what the heck.

When I gave my cats the toy, they went on a total bender. Within mere minutes, it was a mass of teeth marks as they tried frantically to get at the cat crack inside. One of them even bathed it in his water bowl, apparently trying to brew some sort of psychoactive tea. I resolved to get more of the toys on my next trip to Target.

Meanwhile, my husband had discovered that the Rolaids multi-symptom chewable tablets we like had suddenly disappeared from every pharmacy shelf, as well as from online retailers. Poof, they were gone, with no signs of a recall or being discontinued or any other logical explanation. We did find a stash at one boofoo Walgreens way out on West 192, but other than that we came up empty handed at the usual stores. I take a medication that tends to make me bloated so they are a lifesaver for me, and they're the only brand with their particular blend of ingredients. I even went to the brand-new Target that had just opened on 192, looking for both cat crack and Rolaids, but neither graced their shelves.

Hubby and I finally decided that we would head out on a mission. I had called the manufacturer of Rolaids and was told they had moved production, resulting in a shortage. Fortunately, that is supposed to be resolved in April, and in the meantime they gave me the names and addresses of several places that might have stock.

I should probably explain that 192 is a tourist strip, which means that it has a Walgreens and CVS drugstore every other block. Most of the addresses that I was given were for the various drugstores lining East 192. I was also told that the godforsaken K-Mart out there might have 'em, and I figured that might be true since I rarely see many people shopping there. On the way, there are also two Targets within literally maybe a mile of each other, which I've never understood (the 20 or so Wal-Marts try to stay at least a mile and a half apart). But hey, we could make it a dual effort and pick up some cat crack while we were out.

Thus we begain our mission, little knowing how futile it would prove on both fronts. Every few blocks we pulled over into a Walgreen's or CVS and came out empty handed. Even the K-Mart was bare of the coveted Multi-Symptom Rolaids, although I did manage to pull some sort of weird Mardi Gras colored stuffed animal out of the claw machine. Fortunately a little kid was watching me, so I pawned it off on her.

Meanwhile, the older of the two Targets had cat toys, but not THE crack toys. And sadly, the closest ones they had were on close-out. The government must have figured it out and shut 'em. Argh! I bought as many of the similar toys as I could; at least they were only a dollar. Now it made sense why the brand new Target had none at all and why our usual Target hadn't restocked since the last time I cleaned 'em out.

We still stopped by our usual Target, as hope springs eternal. Nope, no crack toys. Once the close-out goodies are gone, I'll have to send all three cats to rehab, then they'll have to content themselves with the "methadone" toys we get at Petsmart. In the meantime, we actually did find some of our favored Rolaids, albeit in pocket-sized rolls. Hopefully that will be enough to get us through till April when the new manufacturing facility clicks into full gear.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Creepy King Comes to Florida

I'll admit it, I like weird commercials. Cutsey stuff makes me roll my eyes, and the Charmin Bears with their dingleberries and group pooping make me shudder. But give me something like those freaky hamster-looking things that used to sing off-tune for Quiznos and you've got my attention.

With my odd taste in ads, I supposed it should be no surprise that I am a big fan of Burger King's Creepy King. Unlike the clownishness of Ronald McDonald or the affable previous Burger King who appeared in the ads of my youth (I can still hear the jingle in my head: "He's the marvelous, magical Burger King and he can do most anything"), the Creepy King is just...well, creepy. He's got that frozen plastic smile, modeled after the king head that used to top tanks of helium used to blow up balloons at Burger King franchises for various promotions back in the day. You can't help but wonder what's going on behind that rigid smirk and whether he's going to show up in your bed with a breakfast sandwich someday.

I've seen him on various Burger King commercials, showing up unannounced to present frightened people with food or slip money into their pockets. I've also watched him be pummeled by a group of angry mothers, although I can't remember why. Little did I suspect that I'd ever get a chance to see him in person, but now I can say that I've met the Burger King:

I am a reporter for Examiner.com, an online news and feature publication that includes coverage by locals on various "citizen journalist" beats. Mine is Orlando Theme Parks, which means I mainly cover Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and the like. As a result, I go to various media events to cover the latest happenings at the parks and their peripheries. When I was invited to the opening of the world's first Whopper Bar at Universal Orlando's CityWalk, it never crossed my mind that the King himself might be in attendance. I expected the usual company officials, but not the Creepy King with his bling, royal-robes, and plastered-on plastic smile.

Surprise, surprise! There he was! I was a bit disappointed that he didn't chase people around and try to give them food, but he was on his best behavior. He simply posed for photographs before being the first person into the new Whopper Bar with an excited crowd close behind. You can read about the full experience by clicking here to visit my Examiner.com page.

If you've never seen a Creepy King commercial, you can check out "Wake Up With the King" below:

And here are the Quiznos rats ("They got a pepper bar!"), lest we forget one of the creepiest commercials ever:

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Disney Brand...Eggs?

Granted, it's not as exciting as Spotted Dick Pudding, but another product caught my eye in Publix today. This was in the Publix near Celebration, where we have no obscenely named foods but where people make milk sacrifices to God (if you're not sure what I'm babbling about, just read the previous blog entry). What we do have is Disney Brand Eggs. Yes, Disney Brand Eggs, complete with Mickey on the box and characters neatly stamped onto each shell:

I was innocently choosing some yogurt when Mickey caught my eye. When you stay at your first on-site Disney resort, they implant a powerful chip that will draw you to such things like a beacon, and when you move to Celebration I suspect they somehow upgrade it, or else the close proximity to the Home of the Mouse just makes it stronger. I did a double take...yes, I was looking at Disney eggs, produced by chickens who eat nothing but vegetarian feed, with no hormones, chemicals, or antibiotics. According to the description inside the carton lid, they have "bright, clear egg whites and rich, plump yokes, making them more distinct than ordinary eggs." I can't say I've ever really looked an an egg close enough to make any comparison. As long as the yolk reasonably yellow and soft enough to smoosh my toast in, I'm covered. A bit of exploring on the internet revealed the following commercial, featuring a somewhat scary Mickey head made from a fried egg, although I supposed it would be rather tasty with Mickey waffles, and a Mickey ice cream bar for dessert:

Alas, I didn't see the groovy Mickey shaper included in the carton of eggs, so you're on your own to create egg artwork for your breakfast table. I'm close enough to Disney World to get a dose whenever I want it, but if you live farther away, a taste of Mickey (literally) is just as close to the refrigerator case in your local store. You may even get a few extra eggs down the kids' gullets before they realize that stamped-characters still don't make them as desirable to young palates as sugar-laden cereals.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Publix Porn

Normally my husband and I shop at the Publix located closest to Celebration. It's right down 192, just past the underpass for 417 and behind Logan's Steakhouse. Granted, it's always swarming with hordes of tourists, and every now and then there's a purse snatching or robbery (but that's the norm with tourist-strip businesses). I just clutch my pepper spray firmly and put on my aggressive "I'm from the South Side of Chicago, don't mess with me" demeanor, and thus far I've had no problems.

A few months ago, a brand-new Publix opened in the Hunters Creek area, near the new Loop shopping center at John Young Parkway and Osceola Parkway. I heard through word of mouth that it was supposed to be very nice. A much more local crowd, bigger, cleaner, and with a better selection. Checking it out has been on my list of things to do, but I never got around to it till today.

Hubby and I had lunch at Abuelo's, a yummy Mexican restaurant at the Loop. Since the Publix is right across Osceola Parkway so we decided to do our shopping there. Little did I know that I was stepping into the Porn Publix!

It started when a can caught my eye: Spotted Dick Sponge Pudding. Yes, Spotted Dick. The mental images stirred up by the name were quite disturbing and did not put me in the mood for pudding. You can see the can below:

Okay, weird brand but what the heck. I didn't realize that it was a trend until we reached the coffee aisle and I discovered Major Dickason's Blend. I have no idea what it was blended with, but I have no doubt that it probably goes well with the Spotted Dick pudding. At this point my mind was reeling a bit, as I've never found such graphic brands in our local Publix. Little did I realize what was waiting around the next corner.

"Uh, honey...honey..." I gasped, tugging at my husband's sleeve. There, just down the aisle, was a woman in tight black pants. But the pants had a cutout on each side that ran from her thighs all the way up to and including her generous butt cheeks. Other than sewn-in mesh, they were naked for all the world to see. And it wasn't tight mesh either. It was the kind you'd see someone wearing with a teddy. Perhaps she was searching for Major Dickason, hoping he would show her the location of the Spotted Dick. I have no idea, and I didn't care to explore the concept further. All I knew was that I'd somehow blundered into the Porno Publix, and I was more than ready to escape.

I shared my tale with a friend, who recounted her own experience at our local Purse-Snatching Publix. She'd been selling Girl Scout cookies with her daughter in front of the store and noticed a woman sitting there, pouring out a container of milk. When she was done, she poured out another one, right out onto the ground. Perhaps noticing my friend's astonishment, she explained that when you want something from God, you have to make sacrifices. Apparently, rather than slaughtering a goat, which would be rather messy for the parking lot, she had chosen to give Him milk. She pointed out that she was giving Him lowfat, buttermilk, AND goat milk, since she wasn't sure which type He preferred. Smart woman...not taking any chances.

While my friend was still reeling, a white van pulled up and Milk Lady hopped in, perhaps on her way back to the Funny Farm although it was an unmarked vehicle. Meanwhile, as the Girl Scouts sold their cookies, they also watched the milk curdling in the sun. Apparently God didn't feel moved to spirit the sacrifice up to Heaven.

I can't say I've ever witnessed such goings-on at a supermarket in Chicago (where, of course, everyone shops at Da Jewels). That's not to say they don't happen there, but in my personal experience there were no Spotted Dicks or milk sacrifices. Just another bit of fun living in such a....er, diverse part of the world. From now on, I think we'll stick to the Publix close to home because curdling milk puddles are easier to handle than Major Dickason's Spotted Dick and Bare Butt Woman.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Parade of Stars at Disney Hollywood Studio

Thursday, February 12th, was a gala day at Disney Hollywood Studio as a parade of American Idol celebrities, including all seven winners, joined a motorcade down the "blue carpet" past throngs of adoring fans.

You can read about my adventures at the parade, the show, and the after-party (where I met my favorite Idol of all time, Ruben Studdard, producer Simon Fuller, and many others) by visiting my Examiner.com site at www.examiner.com/x-2200-Orlando-Getaways-Examiner (there are plenty of photos of the show, where Carrie Underwood and David Cook did a duet and all seven winners took the stage together). Meanwhile, you can thumb through the parade photos below. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Join Me Live at Walt Disney World!

Check out my video and pictorial blog of the American Idol premiere event by visiting http://www.wdwevent.com/packinthefun/examiner/

You'll see photos and videos that are updated every day (right now there are three videos live and a TON of photos). The media tour is part of my work for Examiner.com, where I am the Orlando Getaways reporter. My main Examiner site is at http://www.examiner.com/x-2200-Orlando-Getaways-Examiner

Please join me over at the Disney site...I promise it will be a lot of fun! The Idol premiere is Thursday, so by Friday the final video and photos should all be uploaded.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Community Crisis

Normally, a crisis in Florida consists of an impending hurricane, or perhaps a tornado. Lately, the wind chills (yes, wind chills!) might qualify. But here in Celebration we had a different sort of crisis yesterday. Electricity went out to several villages (near as I can figure, East, South, Aquila Reserve, and Artisan Park were all affected) and was off for several hours. In EV, I think it ran from 5 a.m. all the way to past 1 p.m.

Initially, I gained semi consciousness at 5 a.m. and noticed that it was awfully dark. It partially registered in my sleepy mind that the power was off, but I didn't think much of it. I had a meeting scheduled in the morning, so I just drifted back off. When I woke up again, the sun was blazing so I didn't notice the pervasive darkness, but everything was too silent and my clock's face was blank. Uh oh, it was almost time for my meeting, and there I was with no hair dryer and a questionable amount of hot water. Everything in our house is electric, so a power outage means paralysis. Even the phones are all cordless, which means they were all dead. I had my cell, but it was nearly out of battery power. My laptop was charged up, but no power means no wireless router and therefore no internet.

I tried to communicate with my husband via my failing phone. It's a G1 so I can normally use the internet, but for some reason it wasn't working. Hubby checked the community intranet and saw many reports about the outage, as well as the fact that Progress Energy was working on it. At this point, my phone was almost dead, and I knew I needed to work, so I left the house in search of power and wireless. I headed off to Clementine's, a nice little coffee shop at Water Tower Place.

Clementine's has yummy food and drinks, but better yet, they had power and internet access. I set up camp at a comfy table, ordered a drink, and plugged in my phone and computer. There were many other refugees. In a way, it was like a hurricane shelter on a much smaller scale. People had fled their powerless homes to congregate on a handy central point where they could enjoy a latte and indulge in their internet fix.

I met several people I knew already and one person who realized we were posting on the community intranet at the same time, from nearby tables, and introduced himself. It amazed me as to just how wired society has become, to the point of barely being able to function when the tech gadgets are taken away. For me, all three of my businesses are tied into the internet, so my laptop and a connection are crucial. I was much less dependent on cell phones before I got my G1, but now it's like having the internet in my pocket. It's cool and frustrating all at the same time, as the battery lasts less than a day if you actually use the stupid thing.

The huddled masses continued to sip coffee (well, myself, I switched to iced tea) and get their electricity and internet fixes until word came down that power had been restored. It had been over eight hours in total, and I think that half of town must have given a collective sigh of relief when Progress Energy was finally done with their work.

Now I'm back to having power in Duloc Manor, and I think I've got a renewed appreciation for what that means. And I don't feel too bad, because as the impromptu refugee area showed, I'm most definitely not alone in my dependence.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

In Search of a Happy Hut

Truman Burbank, our quaker parrot, is in love with his Happy Hut. If you don't own a quaker, conure, or similar feathered friend, you probably have no idea what that means. Basically, Happy Huts are cloth or fabric tents that hang from the ceiling of a bird's cage. The bird can sleep inside or hide in his "secure zone" if he's scared.

When we first bought Truman at Chief's Bird Cabin in Orlando (yes, that's really the name, and yes, it's really a cabin), they recommended buying a Happy Hut for him. They had a homemade variety made of plain cloth (the name brand models are made from thick, fuzzy material). I selected one, and as you can see below, he took to it almost immediately. It became his bedroom, as well as his sanctuary from the Vaccum Monster and various other household terrors.

Things went on peacefully for a year, and then last week Truman went to our friends' house for a weeklong visit while we took Disney Cruise #66 (to read my day by day trip report, click here to start with Day One on my Orlando Examiner site. They have five birds of their own, and Truman loves their daughter, so I knew that he'd be in good hands. Of course, his Happy Hut went with him.

When we returned, one of our friends delivered him instead of me doing a pick-up because just about everyone in their household was sick. Truman was quite non-plussed at all the turmoil. As soon as we took him out of the carrier, he greeted my husband with clicking sounds and a repetitive litany of "What?" and "Step up!" I got some of his favorite fart noises and a few cockatiel-style whistles (he was with two 'tiels all week).

After our friend left, I realized that Truman's Happy Hut was not among his supplies. Oh no! How would he sleep? Granted, birds can sleep on a perch, but my spoiled little boy was used to to his cushy birdy bedroom. I decided to just run out to the pet store and get him a new one. For a quaker parrot, he's pretty flexible. Some take days or weeks to get used to new things, but he generally takes to new toys and whatnot right away.

As much as I love living in Celebration, one of the hazards of being in a residential bubble in the middle of Tourist Land is a dearth of specialized stores. Sure, we have souvenir shops up the ying yang, and plenty of Wal-Marts and Targets, but dedicated pet stores are few and far between. Thankfully, there is a recently-built retail oasis called The Loop that's about 10 minutes (and a $1.50 toll) away from Celebration. They have a Petco that carries Happy Huts so I figured it would be a simple journey.


The one stinkin' time I needed a Happy Hut, they were totally out. I've seen them every time I've come to buy bird food, but on this day there had apparently been a run on them. It was getting late on a Saturday, so my only other option was to head out to the Petsmart way down in boffo on the other end of John Young Parkway and pray frantically on the way that they'd have a hut in stock.

Hubby and I raced off to the far-flung Petsmart. Even though I prefer them to Petco, I hate going there because it's far, a pain in the butt to get to, and it has one of the world's most poorly designed parking lots. Actually, I have to say that Florida in general has horrible parking lot design. Back in Illinois, there were myriad entrances and exits to choose from, and you could easily get from one part of the lot to the other. In my little slice of the Sunshine State, there's one entrance that's often well hidden, and you'll be lucky if one end of the lot connects to the other in more than one hard-to-find spot.

But we were on a mission, so I braved the special hell of the Petsmart lot and raced in to the bird section. Whew! The good news was that they had plenty of Happy Huts. The bad news was that they only had the name brand, which looks a good deal different from Truman's old digs. Oh well, I figured he'd get in it if he was desperate enough. I bought two identical huts to prevent any similar panicked quests in the future.

While Truman didn't flip out when I hung the new (and somewhat larger) hut in his cage, he was extremely leery of it. He gave it the fuzzy eyeball, then climbed out onto his cage top play gym. I returned him to the cage and showed him that the hut didn't bite me when I lined it with paper towels, but he was still skeptical. Finally hubby offered him a noodle, and the little carb hog grabbed it and ate it on the perch next to the hut. When it didn't attack him, he decided to do some shred work on the paper towels. By bedtime, he had climbed in and made himself at home.

The next day, I felt relieved that he'd slept in his hut, but I wondered if he really liked it as well as his old one. A quick glance inside answered that question! Quakers are nest-building parrots, and in captivity they will play with sticks and other building materials if you provide them. Tru has a bucket full of skewers, straws, popsicle sticks and the like. Just as he used to in his old hut, he had constructed a...well, I don't know what it is, but I do know it means he is happy. Check out his handiwork in the photo below. As you can see, the Happy Hut is living up to its name: