Winter Park’s Rollins College Greenhouse

Today after breakfast at the new branch of First Watch on Aloma Avenue, we went with our buddies Alan and Mark to visit the greenhouse at Rollins College; it was a nice antidote to all the yelling I’ve been doing this week thanks to the imminent destruction of the pioneer Capen House.

Alan is the greenhouse manager, and this morning he gave us a tour.  According to the Rollins website, The Susan O. and Frederick A. Hauck Botanical Research Center, or what is commonly referred to as “The Greenhouse,” is conveniently located next to the Alfond Boathouse on the shores of beautiful Lake Virginia. The Greenhouse opened on October 20, 1983, to facilitate student and faculty research, provide plant material for study and to permanently house a diverse collection of plant species, some of which are indigenous to Florida. During the Summer of 1998, a student designed and installed a butterfly garden. A book which describes each plant in the butterfly garden in detail is available to the public as a reference during normal hours.

It was very warm inside, what with all this weather we’ve been having, but I managed to photograph some of the inmates before the camera’s lens fogged over.

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This is a chenille plant, though I first knew it as “Love Lies Bleeding” when I planted seeds years ago. “Love Lies Bleeding” sounds like the name of one of those bodice-ripper romance novels featuring Fabio on the cover. 

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I’d ask to live in here if it was air-conditioned, but then I would survive and most of the plants wouldn’t. Besides, there might be bugs. I can imagine waking up at night and, in a panic, breaking through the glass panes because I discovered that I was covered with ants. It’s very nice inside, steamy and tropical and there are hundreds and hundreds of unusual plants growing and blooming. 

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A geranium and a blood lily.

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Pitcher plants. These things are big, over six inches long in some cases, and have been known to entice and digest things like mice. 

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Beautiful orchids, here and below…

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Ropy donkey tail, a sedum.

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A nut from a cacao tree. Inside there is Swiss chocolate!

I also took some video of Alan demonstrating how the Venus Fly Traps work, but they are .avi files and won’t upload on WordPress unless I buy an upgrade. 

And there’s so much to see on the college grounds. Pinehurst Cottage, erected in 1886, is a showplace. It was one of the school’s original two buildings.

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And the chapel…

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It’s a beautiful spot for a school, nestled along Lake Virginia. It deserves a trip back, by bicycle.

IKEA MADNESS: Comfort Food and… Comforters

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So, in the mail this past week arrived a brochure from IKEA promising comforters, Weight 3, any size… for $14.99, starting this morning at 10am.

$14.99!

Now, people who know me know that we’re not into possessions; we are the world’s worst consumers. When President Obama has to have an economy conference, we are not included in the equation. We just don’t buy stuff; in fact, we give away stuff, and I won’t be happy until the house is empty of things we never use anymore.

But a $14.99 comforter… everyone needs one of these, so we decided to buy two– only two to a customer, please!– and divide them between the two beds. But wait! Knowing that my sister Lois sniffs out bargains like bloodhounds sniff out dead bodies, I called her and told her about this once-in-a-lifetime offer, and of course she wanted one. “And couldja look for two shams too while you’re at it?” Certainly! So now we were up to THREE comforters, and decided to make it an even four– only two to a customer, please, so why not?

The Orlando IKEA opens at 10, and we decided that we’d better get there in case there was a huge rush. HA! A huge rush for comforters in Florida, the Sunshine State? But, you never know, so we checked the catalog to make sure the store really DID open at 10, and then discovered that they let the breakfast crowd in at 9:30. My God, this could turn out to practically be a holiday of international proportions!!

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I was awakened from a dream I was having (involving two parish priests and an outdoor Mass, with one of them asking if I was going to be attending, and ended with me lying and answering “Yes”) and given coffee, and, before I knew it, was in the car on the interstate heading to the Millennia Mall exit. We giddily planned on being there early, and so we parked and discovered that we were actually first in line when we arrived at 9:10. First! That’s never happened, and you could see the envy in the eyes of the other shoppers who arrived very soon after we did as they lined up Swedishly behind us. We wondered: could these people suddenly streaming out of their cars ALL be wanting $14.99 comforters? They came as if to Lourdes, afoot or with walkers, on crutches, in wheelchairs… and, just in case you’re wondering, the less ambulatory did not automatically move to the head of the line, which was us: this wasn’t Disney, after all– this was, essentially, Sweden, where everyone is equal. Just ask the King and Queen!

At one point I remarked that it seemed like we were all waiting anxiously in line to see the premiere of the newest Joan Crawford movie.

Because we have lived here for decades, we did meet someone we knew– a tall, nice-looking guy named Patrick who is always so bashfully polite and friendly that we let him stand with us. Guess what he was going to buy? Comforters! And it was a good thing that we met him– Patrick told us that to get FREE COFFEE and be eligible for the incredible discount on comforters, we would have to be Ikea Family members. If not, we could quickly register at a kiosk inside the store. WHAT?!?! We weren’t IKEA Family members!! How did we do that?! And would that result in a delay?! Suppose somebody got ahead of us!!

At 9:30 sharp (this WAS Sweden, after all) the doors opened and we streamed in politely to have breakfast, the two of us stopping to ask the greeter where the comforters were– and everyone stopped in place behind us!!  I almost started singing Kumbaya! The answer was given– they’d be located in the warehouse area– and then patrick deftly pointed out two kiosks to us so that we could register as IKEA Family members. Which we did, though Kirk had a spot of trouble with his terminal, lending me no end of angst, sighs and sweat. The problem was that he had to type in his birth year as 1951, not 51 (sorry, Kirk) but I corrected it and we were on our way. We weren’t first in line anymore, but we queued up in the food area and had a nice discussion with two women (yes, they were there to buy comforters), one of whom ran her hand along my sweater, leading to a detailed discussion about all the different kinds of wool there were in the world.

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We wolfed breakfast, and then some sort of secret signal went off, and we paying  breakfasters advanced to the rope at about 9:50 so that we could be let into the store proper. And that’s when we noticed a giant crowd of people waiting beyond the rope who were there for the 10am opening, but who had to patiently wait while we Paying Breakfasters (except for the coffee) were herded past them.

It was incredible– an IKEA staffer led the hundreds of us to a staircase that reached down to the main floor, and there we were given a speech. He basically told us that:

*     There were enough comforters for everyone.

*     There would be no pushing, shoving or running.

*     We would advance toe the area where the comforters were offered, and we would be handed the size we needed by staffers. There would be no diving into boxes. No jumping ahead. Non issues.

*     Finally, even though the ad said TWO to a customer, we could each buy up to FOUR. Not twenty-five… FOUR. Still, there was mass salivation at that point, which (I think) was a great way of making the crowd feel even MORE disposed toward buying even MORE.

As we waited those final minutes before 10am, we talked with the people around us. We learned from our staffer that comforter COVERS were going to be offered for sale on Monday, and a woman next to us said “great!,” to which I replied “awww, whatta you need covers for?” And she replied: “Men leave stains.” Laughter and commiseration followed, and then I told the story of how my grandmother was waiting outside Gimbel’s sometime in the 1940s for a huge sale, and the crush of women dressed in their winter coats and hats eventually surged too far forward, breaking the store windows. But they let the women in anyway because, after all, a sale is a sale.  (Eugene, was your mother there for that? Because every Brooklyn woman I know was there for that.)

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10am finally ticked, and we were led like hungry sheep to the warehouse area; you could feel the crowd hurrying up as we got closer. Even though we had been instructed to WALK, the people in front were definitely breaking into a trot, causing the rest of us to do so as well. (The Brazilians, I am happy to say, were easily outflanked by the Americans among us who chose to use their splayed elbows as shields.)

And you know? IKEA was true to its word– there were comforters galore, and we all got our allotment. We couldn’t find and shams– I even called Lois from my Jitterbug, in public, which I never do because that phone is big and red and looks like a shoe horn stuck to my face– but we did find a bath mat for the guest bath because the one in there looks like a leaf of tissue paper on the floor.

They must have sold sixty-five thousand comforters this morning, all of us high on breakfast carbs. There was a sort of World’s Fair pleasantry going on, what with people talking and laughing and feeling one another’s sweaters. We were Americans, lined up politely, spending money, improving the economy, and making the President happy. And it was good. And then loaded our comforters and bath mat into the trunk and, drunk with accomplishment, we headed to our next scintillating destination– something we’d been planning for weeks: to Sears Fashion Square for vacuum bags.

(Incidentally, we met at a party on February 16, 1985– 28 years ago exactly, and we call it Meeting Day– and so this is exactly how to celebrate such an auspicious occasion: comforters, bath mats and vacuum bags. I rest my case.)

The Dr. Doolittle of Winter Garden (Me)

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Regardless of my experiences with the quadrupeds (both wet and dry) referred to in my previous post, rest assured that I am really and truly a friend to animals, regardless of the extraordinary ways in which many of them have impacted my life. They’ve always fascinated me, beginning with the fabulous caged beasts I gazed upon at various zoos in New York City as a boy. Usually I was dressed in the distinctive blue-and-gold Cub Scout uniform, instantly marking me as a target of derision by your nastier, non-Scouting teenagers, but nevertheless I forged on, game as always.

(Query: why is it that caged beasts always seem to indulge in the most vivid of erotic encounters whenever a prepubescent audience lurks beyond the bars? Answer comes there none.)

My other experiences with animals took place on television, safely seated atop a Herculon-covered couch next to Mom as we egged one another on through countless episodes of Wild Kingdom. Who was that old guy? Oh, Marlin Perkins. Each week he, via the benevolence of the Mutual of Omaha insurance conglomerate, guided us through close-up vignettes of wasps paralyzing weaker insects (think Hugh Auchincloss doing a number of Mickey Spillane); lions surrounding graceful gazelles and turning them into mincemeat; hundreds of millions of lemmings jumping off the White Cliffs of Dover; and ants observed deep within their burrows as they printed their own currency, played bridge, and enslaved aphids. Fascinating! And then you turned off the television and went to bed, knowing that you’d fall asleep without scratching.

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I haven’t had much to do with animals since, other than finding myself surrounded by a herd of chickens in Key West seconds after stepping off a city bus, laden with luggage. I stood stock still, afraid to move lest I excite their avian anger. (Come on– we’ve all heard stories about farmers found pecked to death by the very creatures they worked hard to keep in feed. (Imagine showing something off at a 4-H Fair, winning a ribbon, bringing it home, and being killed by it?) Other than that, animals have usually been encountered in my grocer’s freezer.

Today in Winter Garden, however, I made up for my years of animal ignorance, all within the space of five minutes.

Down from my office at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation History Research Center, where I happily spend my days looking up “Judge” James Gamble Speer’s third cousin twice removed, is a feed store called Winter Garden Feed and Seed. It’s located in a building that’s been there for many years, and we have a lot of clippings on file regarding its history. I like to shop locally wherever I find myself working, and it means a lot to me to patronize a business whose previous antecedents have stretched back many decades. Winter Garden Feed and Seed sells things for horses and cows and chickens, and I’ve gotten Blueie’s bird food there once before; Karen Grimes and staff are friendly and down to earth, and very helpful. Blueie is finicky about what he eats, flapping and screaming and rubbing his beak dramatically on his perch after he’s tasted something he decides he’ll never try again, but he’s decided that he likes the bird seed at Winter Garden Feed and Seed. And, since he’s trained me so well, there I take myself.

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There was a line today Yes– people were busily making purchases for various animals, speaking a language I’d never heard before; not having spent much time near farms, or even spacious backyards, I had no idea what the customers were talking about. All I knew as that I wanted a bag of bird food, no complications, and so I wandered over to the area where you could dispense seed into plastic bags; they would weigh it at the register, charge you accordingly, and then send you back to Tara. Simple, right?

Only I couldn’t find the plastic bags, though I knew they had to be nearby. I turned to search a close-at-hand shelf, and found myself confronted in the shins by something large and kind of soft. I looked down and a very large pig was looking up at me as if to say “what the heck? Excuse me?!” As I considered this, I stepped back to give him room in case he decided to scamper away, squealing, like in the cartoons,  and I stepped on something that sort of squeaked in a snarling sort of way. I looked behind me and saw a rabbit running off in the direction of a tub full of shavings.

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Pigs. Rabbits. While the woman at the counter instructed the pig to not eat her shoe, I took advantage of the lull in commerce to ask where the plastic bags were. Finding them, I filled one with what I’d hoped would be a financially beneficial amount of bird seed (I like to shop locally) and went up to the counter. I pulled out a credit card, checking above me for swooping albatross, and saw the woman at the counter removing a chicken from atop the credit card machine. And this wasn’t just a chicken– it was a glorious chicken made, it seemed, from a white feather boa. “She’s up there because the rabbit keeps nipping at her,” I was told, and it all made sense because I was in a place that sold animal feed and farm equipment. When in Rome…

Always be open to new experiences. A pig could eat your shoe, a rabbit could bite your ankle, and a chicken could compromise your credit card.

And this is why I love working where I do.

Blueie the Lovebird Makes the News!

I just had a piece published in The Orlando Weekly, Central Florida’s alternative newspaper.

Their Pets issue features a lot of local pets… and Blueie!

Here’s the online link:

http://orlandoweekly.com/news/bonding-with-blueie-1.1440063

And be sure to check out all the items in the Pets issue!

 

Blueie

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas 2012 in Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights

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Well, the Mayans didn’t get me, but some sort of flu-like ague that settled into my chest and sinuses on the 15th. of December decided to stick around (literally) through the week that I was in Brooklyn. It hadn’t been debilitating; my energy never flagged, the worst of the attack usually only lasting a day or so, but then I get to slog through a couple of weeks with a stuffed head, ears and chest. It could be worse, so I’m not complaining.

It was cold in Brooklyn, like in the 30s– just this side of freezing, but cold enough to erase all the green from the Bay Ridge / Dyker Heights landscape, rendering everything bleak. You know it’s temporary, though, and soon the gardens on the block (that haven’t yet been replaced with garages or parking slabs) will erupt again with bushes and flowers, the trees leafy and full.

Cold weather used to send me into asthmatic paroxysms, but that didn’t happen this Christmas. Mom and I took a walk over to Fifth Avenue to have burgers and fries at a little diner-y place, and I felt good enough to go for yet another walk after we got back home. I didn’t have to use my puffer at all, though a shot of generic Dayquil every few hours was keeping me feeling pretty good. The puffer, incidentally, has been taken off the market because it employs fluorocarbons to blast the life-saving medicine into my lungs. And we have learned that fluorocarbons erode the atmosphere. My position is: the fluorocarbons don’t leave my body– I can FEEL them– so what’s the nag? The nag is that the drug companies want asthmatics to have to troop to their doctors for (expensive) consultations and (expensive) prescriptions. The screwing of the wheezing public continues, step by step. Anyway.

I walked southeast of our neighborhood, which is situated at the very edge of Bay Ridge, and into Dyker Heights. (If you go slightly more east, into the 60s near 7th. and 8th. Avenues, skirting the interstate which raped and defaced this section of Brooklyn, you’re in an area that’s not Bay Ridge or Sunset Park or Dyker Heights. Years ago my friend Donald decided to name this no-man’s-land Peacrest.)

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Dyker Heights is still very Italian, and, except for a couple of shopping streets, composed mainly of single or duplex houses. Some of the single homes are very, very grand. This is because the owners of these houses, who are now mostly well-to-do but still desiring to live near their business interests, have invested their money in their immediate property. Italians being Italians, the more grand a home is, the better chance you have of showing the world that you’ve Made It Big. Corinthian columns, gardens, statues, fountains, pergolas, ornate dentilled cornices and elaborate porticos can often ALL be found gracing ONE dwelling, often half of a duplex. The Puttanescas may be content with their gray shingled two-story, but the attached Cazzolungho home will be seen erupting with the stylistic architectural excesses of at least seven historic periods.

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I got to see these homes up close because I had to go to “the Italian store” for Christmas Day comestibles. As the plans stood at the time, Christmas Eve was going to be me, Mom and my brother Tony at Colandrea’s New Corner Restaurant (just down the block from Mom’s house), while Christmas Day was going to be spent at my sister Gina’s house in Staten Island. We were going to bring our end of the bargain– pastries, and a stuffed escarole.

Do you know what a stuffed escarole is? You buy a bunch of escarole; you separate each leaf and wash it because dirt collects down near the base of the leaves; you arrange the leaves in an overlapping sunburst form in a pan; and then you place a large chunk of stuffing in the center of these leaves. Then you draw up all the leaves, creating a ball shape, and then, finally, you bind the whole thing with thread so that it can be cooked in its pan. Then you load it in your brother Tony’s car and bring it to Gina’s house on Staten Island.

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To Scaturro’s Italian grocery store I went, walking all the way in the bracing cold air, thanking God that it wasn’t windy. Mom lives between 8th. Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, a long block; Scaturro’s is on 11th. Avenue, and from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Eleventh Avenue is two long blocks, and then I had to turn left and go nine short blocks to 63rd. Street. It wasn’t bad. Walking gave me up-close glimpses of the neighborhood, and I realized that our latest crop of immigrants has decided that their front porches and area ways can be used as storage for all manner of plastic pails, cardboard boxes, hanks of rope, unidentifiable things made of metal, dead plants, and garbage pails. Incredible! All of these things used to be kept in the basement, but now Grandma is living in the basement. Hence the scenery.

Scaturro’s is great. It’s like an A&P of old, yet run and patronized exclusively by Italians, a few Asians, and the occasional Yuppie interloper. With ears poised like a lynx, you hear all sorts of things:

“When is the bread man getting here? I ain’t got all day and I want a bag of FRESH sandwich rolls, not stale from an hour ago”

“Now I gotta make a plate of sfingi to bring to her house, not that she always appears at mine man’ d’a bocc’… with the hands out expecting to be fed. ”

“You can’t find a jar of pignoli nuts in this town if you don’t buy it six months before you need them. And then they’re stale.”

I found the produce section and noticed someone examining the offerings: tall, sandy-haired, be-scarved, WASPy. What was he doing in this neighborhood?

“Which ones are escarole?” I asked the Yuppie interloper, because really, I had no idea; all that greenery looked the same to me. And he shrugged because he hadn’t yet seen Martha Stewart’s episode about Italian vegetables, and then we both realized that wide rubber bands twisted around the bases of the greens happened to identify them. ESCAROLE. PARSLEY. BASIL. I took the largest bunch of ESCAROLE I could find and placed it in my basket. I also had a few other things to get, like the aforementioned rolls. “How long you staying with me? Seven days? Okay, get seven sandwich rolls with the seeds for lunch, but not sesame. And don’t get the long rolls, get the short ones” When I’m out of rolls, I guess I have to get back on the plane.

I got back home with my groceries, passing the same plastic pails and the same cardboard boxes. I loaded everything onto the butcher block table, scarred with the knife dents that my Dad made when he demanded order from us rotten children by banging his cutlery along its edge. Mom inspected the escarole minutely.

“Look at this, it’s so small. Didn’t they have bigger?”

“I got the biggest.”

“And it’s full of dirt. Look at this! It’s not your fault, I’m just saying.”

“I didn’t check. Already I was causing concern by rummaging for the biggest. Can I take a hot shower?”

“Hmm. I don’t know if I can serve this. Well… we’ll see. I shoulda sent you to C-Town. They always have big escarole. I’m not blaming YOU, of course, but I shoulda sent you to C-Town.””

Also on my list was an injunction to buy PASTRIES, but NOT NOW; GET THEM LATER WHEN TONY CAN DRIVE YOU. It so happens that there are no longer any Italian pastry shops on Fort Hamilton Parkway where you can buy large pastries. So, on Christmas Eve, as soon as Tony got to the house, we got back in his car and drove to the Mona Lisa bakery on 86th. street, just south of Dyker Beach Park and next to Mezcal’s Mexican Restaurant. We lined up with all the other Italians buying emergency Christmas Eve pastry. I listened in on the buyers’ conversations; mainly they were speaking in Neapolitan and Sicilian dialects, and so the Tuscan half of my being quivered and snickered with derision.

“So whaddya think? Six zhvoolyadell [sfogliatelle] and six ganool [cannoli] , and maybe some cream horns?”

“I told her I would bring some zeppole but not if she’s gonna have that attitude she has. With that attitude she has I’m gonna bring her an empty box filled with my best wishes.”

“Did you put extra change in the parking meter? I ain’t got all day and I don’t need a ticket on Christmas Eve, Christ child or NO Christ child.”

Tony and I went to Mezcal’s after buying pastries, rebonding over a few straight shots of Sambuca. My brother is very funny; I love that guy. And then we drove back home.

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~ ~ ~

Tony and Mom and I celebrated our traditional Christmas Eve at Colandrea’s New Corner Italian Restaurant, conveniently located down the block from us; we didn’t even have to find a parking space, always a celebration in my house. We had the five o’clock seating, which is a good thing, believe me; by eight o’clock all the waiters are exhausted from having to deal with beehived aunts from Bensonhurst and Long Island. We chose from their very nice menu and then waited for my father’s cousins to appear. Like the Magi, they appear at New Corner annually, just after we do. Actually, they’re cousins-in-law: two of my father’s departed cousins’ husbands, a son of one of them, and one of the husband’s sisters. We’re very close; we see them once a year as long as we eat at New Corner.

At one point during our meal we noticed bright lights shining from their table. It turned out that Joe’s sister, who has big, beautiful, blue owl eyes like her brother Joe, was reading her menu with the aid of magnifying eyeglasses AND an LED flashlight. How dark could it be?! I had to go over and tell them that the resultant reflection was burning out my retinas– and what exactly were they doing, spotting planes?

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~ ~ ~

Christmas Day wasn’t spent with my sister Gina according to plan, as she had an emergency and spent a few days in the hospital. (She’s fine; she’s tough as nails and thick as oak.) And there we were, loaded down with a box of pastries AND a stuffed escarole. What to do? We decided we would await instructions from her family, but God forbid we miss a meal, so we ended up having Christmas dinner at– did you guess it?– Mezcal’s Mexican Restaurant. It was just about the only place open in that section of Brooklyn, and they made us reserve a table for two p.m. They were very nice. They played Christmas music over the speakers for us, delighting in repeating “Feliz Navidad”  until we memorized it. We were the only three people in the place until three p.m., when two more people showed up. “They must be the three o’clock seating!” I exclaimed, because I had had two Coronas already. We made fun of the travel posters– “See Puerta Vallarta and die!”– and the holiday lights strung with plastic green and red peppers, and finally headed back home in the quiet cold of Tony’s car.

The rest of the week, I ran errands, walked a bit in the cold, and kept tabs on Gina’s progress. I also watched a lot of TV that I normally wouldn’t watch, let alone know what it was that I was watching. I just don’t watch a lot of TV, but there I’d be in Mom’s living room, listening to her change channels with the clicker.

“Whaddyou wanna watch?”

“I don’t know what’s on. I don’t watch much TV.”

“You’re such a snob. Why can’t you just relax? Here, pick something.” And she would start clicking through the ten thousand cable stations she has on her state-of-the-art system.

“That looks good,” I would say when Bea Arthur or Norma Shearer ghosted across the screen.

“Nah. I saw those a hundred years ago.”

“Oh look, Lucy!”

“Nah. I saw them all a million times.”

She’d eventually settle on a gory movie or show which usually involved severed limbs, decapitated teenagers, Nazi zombies, exhumations of murder victims, or nature films with names like “Survival In the Wild” featuring close-ups of ants devouring one another. “I just like to figure out the special effects in the slasher movies,” she’d admit, “but those ants are pretty damned real, right?” In another life she would have made an excellent forensics expert or movie make-up artist.

I walked one day far afield, thirty-six blocks east and four avenues north to Green-Wood cemetery where my father is. He’s not in the hilly area where the big mausoleums and monuments are; he’s in an area that I refer to as “the Flats,” close to the landscapers’ buildings, in view of the side street brownstones and the traffic along Fourth Avenue. He probably loves it. I called Mom from the gravesite and told her that I was visiting Dad, and that he said hello. (You never know.) I brushed away some of the scattered leaves and bits of plastic shrubbery that had blown onto his stone from other sites, thinking, as always, how much he would have appreciated the Mexican restaurant, Joe’s sister’s flashlight, and the determined  people lined up for pastries. I thought of him the day I stopped in Regina Pacis on the way back from Scaturro’s, just to marvel at that mini-Vatican and say a small prayer. I know how much he would have appreciated all of this craziness, especially because he loved Christmas so much and everything that went along with it. Especially the stuffed escarole. And he helps me appreciate it all even more.

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The small Marian chapel at Regina Pacis (“Queen of Peace.”)

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The Manhattan skyline from Sunset park, just east of Green-Wood Cemetery.

Yarn Bombing Rollins College

As most of you know, one of my gainful gigs involves working with owner Anne Jones and staffers Donna, Mary, Shirley and Laura at The Black Sheep Needlepoint Shop on 17-92 in the Virginia Mills District of Orlando. It’s a great gig, a fun gig– I handle their eCommerce sales and assist in the shop when needed; e.g., on Thursdays when it is time to decant the large, full garbage bag into the dumpster,  I am elected. Or if it’s opening time and therefore the moment to bring our mascotress Woolamena outside, I’m the guy. Other than that, I’m ensconced in the Rear Annex, quietly listing and selling and packing and shipping our wares.

Anne bombed the museum’s banisters…

Today, however, was an extra special treat. I was entreated to come up front (unshaven, wrinkled) and pose for pre-event photographs which Rollins College photographer Scott was needing to shoot prior to a yarn bombing which The Black Sheep was going to be involved in later that day. Even though, at that point, I hadn’t been expecting to touch any yarn, let alone do any bombing, I gamely sat at the table with Donna  and Mary and allowed myself to be photographed as if I were a vital part of stitching together the crocheted and knitted panels that were going to be wrapped around trees at Rollins College.

Marty, Donna and Laura prepping the giant dueling oak…

If you know me well enough, you are telling yourself right now that you can’t just believe that I would sit there idly posing with a needle and not actually be doing any work. And I actually did: I whip-stitched my way along numerous panels and then, when a needlework class began arriving at the shop for a 1 PM tutorial and needed our work table, I hied myself to the Rear Annex so that I could stitch at a table which had enough room for me and my panels.

Laura made these diaphanous and ethereal yarn constructions…

I now know what Betsy Ross must have felt like while the revolution was going on around her. She probably sat alone in a stifling attic, sweating through her farthingale, stitching together the banner for what were then known as The Thirteen Original States. Ask yourself: was she looking forward to a Fourteenth state? Who knew?

Anne, Laura, Donna, Jim and Mary.

But I digress. When we were done stitching together our panels of assorted projects which had been donated, The Black Sheep contingent drove to Rollins in Anne’s truck, which she actually spoke to while driving, by the way– and it answered her. Politely. It even made phone calls for her! If I even ask my car– BEG it– to make a right turn, I am given grief and an eventual argument, neither of which help when I’m trying to blend onto the East-West Expressway from Semoran Boulevard.

Donna… bombing!

We attracted a lot of attention as we stitched away at Rollins, and the slowly setting sun gave our yarns myriad hues and textures as the light changed. It was magical. The weather was perfect this evening– it had rained an hour or so ago, and the air was cool and crisp and verdant. You could smell the grass under the trees we were bombing, every step sending up a puff of green.

This tree I bombed looks like a candle being lit…

Rollins is hosting an installation at its Cornell Museum called The Mysterious Content of Softness, featuring exhibits by many talented fiber artists. It’s amazing and provocative and, though I normally hate the overused adjective “amazing,” in this instance it fits. The exhibits are jaw dropping and inspirational. You should go.

Mary… wrapping!

This was a very special day– a nice blend of nature, fiber arts, good people, great weather, and a chance to invade Rollins College. The installation will be there for you to enjoy for a short time, so get down there and see what’s up. You might even be creatively inspired… and who knows? Maybe we’ll invite you to help us yarn bomb the Brooklyn Bridge!

Sara and Matt’s Traditional Wiccan Wedding on Cocoa Beach

One thing about being Catholic is that we’re not allowed to rag on anyone else’s religion; gone are the days when dire consequences would accompany any religious act not taking place within the hallowed precincts of a Catholic Church. Eating meat on a Friday was bad enough, but attending a Protestant service– and participating!!– was like riding a leaky rubber raft down the river to Perdition City.

Not that most people paid attention to all that, really. Divorce? We divorced. Birth control? Over 90% of the faithful continued using birth control even after Paul VI’s famous veto of the decisions of the majority of the bishops during Vatican II. So there ya go. Wiccans? There weren’t any Wiccan families on my Brooklyn block that I know of, so this was a nice opportunity to partake of yet another religious tradition.

Our friend Sara married her beloved Matthew at a touching Wiccan ceremony out on Cocoa Beach yesterday, and a good time was had by all. Yes, there were some raised eyebrows as well as a tiny bit of amazed tittering during the pronouncements, but eventually everyone got it: it wasn’t about black magic or the devil, and nobody ever mentioned Rosemary’s baby, not even once. The shaman shared words of encouragement and love, had them plight their troths to one another, swept away evil by using a broom while circling the groom and then the bride, and then had them stand on a raised platform where they drank and ate symbolic food. He bound their hands together with a rope and that’s how they exited: linked together with love.

The color theme was black and violet and green, though the bride was in traditional white and the groom was kilted. The colors were carried over into the reception hall at the Tides Club, where bunting draped the utilitarian banisters and floated down from the ceiling in airy arcs. And in that space you had all the wedding traditions as practiced during the late twentieth / early twenty-first centuries.

My Manhattans came in a proper vessel  rather than in the current martini glass that seems to be wrapped around every cocktail of choice these days. I paid, and we got ready to leave, but intrepid Yesun chased me down because she had made a mistake on my tab; I thought I’d been getting a hefty discount (which I’d mentioned when paying) because I’m so charming, but that wasn’t the case.

The whole experience was a wonderful mix of traditions and people, and I even ran into a family of former upstaters (New York) now living in Central Florida. It’s great hearing their reactions to their New Land; even after many years here we still get the occasional urge to smack heads, but by now– at least in my case– it’s a sweeter sort of smacking… fageddaboutit!

Umanhattans in Umatilla with the Girls

I’ve made reference to my friend Becky on this blog site. She’s related to just about everybody in Florida who’s been here forever, and so you have to be real careful what you say to her: there’s a cousin under every bush. We recently went to find one of her ancestors in Geneva, and a couple of weeks ago we set out to find some more– this time in Umatilla.

Umatilla is an ancient Florida town located way up north of Orlando on the fringes of the Ocala National Forest. To get there you find 441 through Apopka, and then avail yourself of the Eustis By-Pass. That sounds rather like open heart surgery, doesn’t it? But I love Eustis; the By-Pass actually takes you thorough some beautiful farm country. After bypassing Eustis in a nice way, you get on 44A and then 19 north to Umatilla.

Now, Becky had told us that there were plantation houses in her family, but we weren’t quite prepared for The Palms… you can just about hear Melanie Wilkes opening the back doors onto the porch at Twelve Oaks and saying “I love it as more than a house… it’s a whole world that just wants to be graceful and beautiful.” And then Ashley takes her in his arms and kisses her in a cinematic moment of innocence and foreshadowing. Smash cut to Scarlett sitting under a tree surrounded by a dozen randy bloods: “I’m glad I sat here instead of at a table… a girl’s got only two sides at a table!”

The lady of the house, Becky’s Cousin Sister, is just as gracious and beautiful as the home she lives in. That day she was getting ready to root for the Gators on TV with her friend Dixie, both of them proudly wearing the orange and the blue. Sister let us roam up and down the two stories, poking into rooms and basking in the sheer simple beauty of The Palms.

Yes, I go into people’s homes and photograph their mixers. Someday the Umatilla Historical Society is going to be wanting a photo of this!

In the neighborhood of this fabulous house, which is situated downtown, you’ll find this old Methodist church, now occupied by another sect. You see it pictured in just about any historic treatise dedicated to Umatilla, and it was built in 1922. Methodist churches are always so solidly-built, as they plan on sticking around for a very long time.

Later we drove north to the family camp on Lake Beakman, which is quite a distance away. We drove through Altoona and Pittman, Linda and I glancing at one another in the car as the sky darkened. On either side of us, nothing but banks of trees and green isolation… … and then Sister says something to us like “there are still plenty of people living in these woods.” Which immediately brings to mind every horror movie you’ve ever seen. But, we were well taken care of. We weren’t dragged from the car by triple third cousins intent on introducing us to the rest of the family.

Beautiful Lake Beakman.

There’s a wonderful little restaurant called the Blackwater Inn on the St. John’s River just east of the camp, in Astor, just below Lake George. (Daytona Beach was due east as the crow flies.) We watched a rain shower sweep toward the big glass windows and had a couple of drinks to top off the ones we’d had earlier at The Tavern in Umatilla, which was another type of place entirely.

The Tavern has a sign on its front door imploring  bikers to refrain from displaying their colors while inside the joint. That was our first reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The second reminder was a karaoke set-up, thankfully shut down for daytime or I would have been up there crooning, after my two “Manhattans,” everything that Tammy Wynette ever recorded. And she’s a girl.

Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man
So we spell out the words we don’t want him to understand
Like T.O.Y or maybe S.U.R.P.R.I.S.E
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tear the heart right out of me.

Our D.I.V.O.R.C.E becomes final today
Me and little J.O.E will be goin’ away
I love you both and it will be pure H.E double L for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

Watch him smile, he thinks it Christmas
Or his 5th Birthay
And he thinks C.U.S.O.T.D.Y spells fun or play
I spell out all the hurtin’ words
And turn my head when I speak
‘Cause I can’t spell a way this hurt
That’s drippin’ down my cheek.

Our D.I.V.O.R.C.E becomes final today
Me and little J.O.E will be goin’ away
I love you both and it will be pure H.E double L for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E.

Right? Even before the first refrain, I would have been tied to a motorcycle muffler and given an involuntary tour of Umatilla– from the ground up– past the car parts emporium and the Collins Building that’s being restored, around the square, and finally deposited in the parking lot of the feed store.

Let me tell you about those Manhattans. First, let me begin by saying that I and my friends are in no way elitist; we love everyone and treat everyone according to our political and societal mores. That said, our waitress at The Tavern– smiling, big-hearted, friendly– came to take our drink orders. A Maker’s Mark Manhattan straight up for me and Becky, and a Ketel One Martini (very dry) for Linda, with a twist. I tell you, the friendly light blinked out in our server’s  eyes, replaced by a haze of unknowing, but she brought our drink orders to the bar and started to make them with much clattering, fizzing, and ice picking. She hollered over to us at one point and asked which kind of glasses we wanted, and we chose martini glasses. But.

Time passed. The other waitress finally stopped by and whispered conspiratorily that SHE would be making our drinks: what were they again? Becky and I eventually got our Manhattans: straight up bourbon on the rocks, with lemon slices and straws; no vermouth; no cherry. Linda’s turned out to be just vodka on the rocks, with lemon. Was there a straw? I have no recollection.

And we ordered another round, with nary a complaint. Why complain? The cycles and the chains were parked just a few yards away, their owners seated mere feet from our cynical backs.

Through a Manhattan glass… darkly.

… and we tipped very well.

The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation: Where I Work

Many of you know, thanks to the instant technology of eMails and Facebook, that I have recently been hired by the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation as a Writer / Collections Curator. That, along with my organization and eCommerce work for The Black Sheep Needlepoint Shop and various other gigs, keeps me busier than ever these days. Ultra Organizers is a little enterprise I’ve also started up, so I’ve been doing organizing projects for businesses like The Awards Store as well as for people in their homes.

The position at the Heritage Foundation is really something special for me, because I get to hang out in West Orange County– places like Winter Garden, Oakland, Tildenville… Beulah, Ocoee, Crown Point… Fullers Crossroads… Killarney… it’s great. And I get to write about it now, and sift through boxes of history. Lots of the volunteers have deep roots in the area, and they’re always so generous with their time and their stories.

The Heritage Foundation, along with lots of business owners and concerned individuals, have done so much to revitalize downtown Winter Garden after the fallow 80s and 90s. Well, it was still a place where people lived and worked, but there was a lot of potential that hadn’t been tapped. It’s even more beautiful now– the West Orange Bike Trail and the Green Mountain Scenic Byway meander through the area, taking you past and through well over a hundred years worth of concentrated history: beautiful homes and buildings, a restored movie theatre, busy shops… it’s all very invigorating.

The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation where I work  manages the History Research Center, the Central Florida Railroad Museum, and the Heritage Museum. If you have any interest in trains– boarding them, riding them, or even just knowing about them– the Railroad Museum, housed in a former depot, will astound you with all the ephemera you’ll find inside…  this is just a small part of it:

Visitors spend hours in here!

My workspace is in the History Research Center, a documentation and preservation facility jammed to the rafters with photographs, donated items, newspapers, letters, and anything else you can think of that has to do with West Orange County. We are currently involved in digitizing the photograph collection, an ongoing project, and we also produce a quarterly newsletter and displays that are set up in various venues in town. Many people drop things off so that their family history can be added to the collections. It’s a great place to ask questions, too, as the staff is ready and able to share information or steer you in the right direction; some local visitors like to stop by and see if we can help them find their cousins.

The History Research Center where I work is in that white building:

The Heritage Museum is also housed in a depot, just a block or so away from the Railroad Museum and the History Research Center. It features lots of displays and photographs which focus on the area, as well as a large collection of yearbooks from Winter Garden’s Lakeview High School. (I really enjoy looking at all the senior grad hairstyles; hairspray stock must have zoomed to the ceiling in 1964.) The citrus label collection is definitely worth seeing, as it highlights the very fruits that put West Orange County on the map. My favorite corner of the museum displays rare photographs of Oakland, with striking views of the large, rambling Mather-Smith home that stood on the site of what is now the Southern Oaks subdivision. (You can still see the Mather-Smiths’ original front gate– it’s survived.)

The Winter Garden Heritage Museum

All of these museums are free to explore, by the way, though your contributions are always appreciated. Winter Garden is unique because, for such a small city, its historical facilities are vast. Stop by and see what’s going on down here, and then take me out for a coffee break!

A Drive to Bradenton and Ellenton: Botanical Gardens, Castles, Mansions, Ruins, and Pottery

Today we made like Mother Cabrini and went not to the east, but to the west. Kirk had some time off and so we headed to the balmy west coast of Florida to gaze upon flowers, friends, squeezins, and mansions. And decayed castles, which was the main draw for me. Okay, the REAL main event was visiting Evelyn and her husband Brian (she and Kirk went to massage therapy school together), but you know me: “decayed castle” perked my radar and there we scurried.

Above is the entrance at the Palma Sola Botanical Park, which we had completely to ourselves the whole time we were there. (Office Closed Until August 7th. No brochures. No map. No polite answers to our exorbitant questions.) We roamed and roamed in the intense heat– it was like an oven, but it’s August in Florida and so there you have it. The park boasts of the fact that many of its specimens simply won’t grow inland.

There’s a section here planted with exotic fruit trees, so you can see where all those weird-looking things at the Spanish supermarket come from.

We behaved, even though my mother wasn’t around to say “don’t touch anything! You could get a rash!”

And this lovely thing crashed to the ground from a tall palm tree A SECOND after Kirk moved out of its range. A SECOND! Imagine having to visit the emergency room at manatee Memorial Hospital with this thing in tow? Incidentally, we didn’t see any signs warning us of falling frond sheaths… I think we’ll build the house over by the inlet.

I sat and stared at this duck for a good ten minutes, and he stared back at me. I felt a bit guilty– my lovebird’s first commandment is “I am the Lord thy bird– thou shalt have no strange ducks before me.”

Some shots of the striking and beautifully maintained landscape here, mostly photographed by Kirk:

This area of Bradenton is generally referred to as Palma Sola; the name alone makes you relax. It’s just north of state route 64, which leads you west across the bay and eventually to Anna Maria Island. Here you can make a right and go through the sleepy beach towns of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria on the island which juts northwest into the Gulf. Of course, “sleepy” is relative; there is much development and plenty of Chrysler Imperial Crown Victorias prowling the little streets at ten miles per hour, but at least you get to stare at everybody’s front yards.

We had a late lunch at the apparently incredibly popular Sandbar, which has both valet and lot parking scattered all over the place, but it was very relaxing indoors. I always love looking at people at the surrounding tables, and beach restaurants always seem to attract people who would normally seem more at home in offices: the men look uncomfortable in their Lacoste alligator shirts, ironed plaid shorts, and sock-less feet wedged into topsiders, the muu-muued and flip-flopped women more at ease in high heels and red power jackets. I guess they’re slumming! Then there are the three-generation families who, practically naked and covered in sand and salt, sit merrily at giant tables swilling iced tea and causing giant, heaped bowls of fritters and fried calamari to disappear. I love them all.

Here’s the Palma Sola Community Church, nestled within an old cemetery… On the map on the way home I noticed that we had completely bypassed (can you imagine?!) another site– the Fogartyville Cemetery– and so I’ll have to go back one day.

Our next visit was to the Braden Castle ruins, hidden in a manufactured home community that hugs the south shore of the Manatee River. We’d been here years ago, and I recall Kirk muttering “it’s just a pile of coquina” as he sped by, but this time I made him park the car while I circled the site and took a thousand photos. It’s not the friendliest sort of neighborhood: signs surrounding the site warn you to NOT park, so you have to settle the car on a tiny side street. (Everything is tiny in here: the roads, the houses, and– I hope– all the people.)

A display shows a photo of the “Castle” when it was intact.

And here’s its story:

And here’s what it looks like now:

We then left this pile of coquina tabby (a mixture of lime, sand, crushed shells, water, and heartbreak) and headed across the river to Ellenton, where we paused to refresh at the Gamble Mansion, which was built between 1845 and 1850.

There are a couple of plantation devices on the grounds, used to press the juices from corn and sugar cane. When Liz and I were here years ago, we laughed and laughed when we saw the “squeezins” machines. Well, it was beastly hot; the mansion was closed; of coursed we were half hysterical in the heat. This time the mansion was open but we didn’t tour it. Next time!

Our last stop was to Evelyn and Brian’s house nearby; she was a fellow student when Kirk went to school at the Reese Institute of Massage Therapy. Evelyn and Brian ahve a neat little house which they are surrounding with foliage and love, and inside we discovered that she had once worked at a potter’s studio in Massachusetts. (Evelyn is also an accomplished painter.) Here are some of the wares she designed and worked her sgraffito magic on:

And then home toward a blackening sky. As we approached Orlando on I-4, we decided to go north on the 429 and head into Winter Park via the 414 through Maitland, thus avoiding all the storms. Good move! And I noticed some sort of monument at the intersection of I-4 and the 429, which bears investigation… stay tuned!