Monday, December 31, 2018

En Route

I'm writing this in the Tampa airport, where I'm sitting at the Cigar City Brewing Company "taproom" and having a pre-flight beer with Dave. I'm going to schedule this post to publish Monday morning London time, about the time we land. So you'll have to wait until Tuesday to hear about our flight! (Hopefully there will be nothing to report.)

Our last day in Florida was busy. It dawned very misty, as you can see from the photo above, taken from the dock behind our hotel.

But when the mist cleared and I happened to glance across the street, look at what I saw -- a bald eagle perched majestically above its nest in an old pine! We saw these nests across from our hotel and talked about how big they were, but stupidly we didn't stop to think they might be eagle nests. (There are at least two of them.)

We met up with Dave's family and went to the Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton, a sort of family tradition. Dave and I didn't buy anything but, as usual, I saw a lot of curious stuff. (None of which I needed to haul home in my suitcase.)

We said goodbye to everyone about 11 a.m. and drove up to Tampa, where we had a few hours to kill. We went to Lake Park, near my stepmother's house in Lutz. I found a parking area and left Dave in the car while I went walking with my camera. Among other things I saw gopher tortoises (above) and a big pileated woodpecker that was too fast for my lens.

Only after my walk, as I was returning to our car, did I realize that I had been walking partly through the archery area. Christ! I'm glad I didn't emerge from the woods with an arrow in my chest. (I have issues with the signage in this area of the park, but anyway...)

Dave and I drove to my stepmother's, where we began our Florida sojourn almost two weeks ago. We took Maybelline for the second walk of her life, and again she seemed half-awed and half-terrified. Look at her marveling at the size of that big dog bowl full of water!

After a quick post-Maybelline shower and an Uber ride to the airport, we happily checked our bags, and now, here we are, waiting for our plane. Next stop -- London, and 2019! Happy New Year, everyone!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Mid-Century Motels

Tamiami Trail in north Sarasota -- which used to be the main north-south highway through the area before the Interstates were built -- is lined with old mid-century motels. I have long enjoyed driving this route and seeing the old signs. I got to do so again yesterday when I went to Sarasota to have lunch with two old friends, Charlie and Jay, who I used to work with when I was a reporter at the paper there.

We went to a little restaurant in downtown Sarasota and, man, has that area changed. (It's been 18 years since I left Sarasota and moved to New York City.) So much construction!

Anyway, it was good to catch up and see what the town looks like now. (Overall it's much swankier than North Tamiami Trail, which -- although lined with charming old signs -- has long been somewhat downtrodden. I think it looks better now than it did when I lived there.)

Before lunch, I spent the morning with Dave and his family. We had three more occurrences of the mysterious power outage at their house, which I think has something to do with a failing circuit breaker near the electric meter. We eventually learned to use just one major appliance at a time!

Last night we went for drinks at the Swordfish, a restaurant in Cortez, where we saw roseate spoonbills a few years ago. This year, none showed up. And then we went to the Sandbar on Anna Maria Island for dinner, and I wasn't driving so I got to have a martini. Woo hoo!

Now Dave and I are preparing to fly back to London. Our plane leaves tonight. It's been a good visit and we'll get in a bit more activity today, but I think both of us are ready to go home.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

A Short-Circuit in Our Plans

I took this photo on the way to dinner on Thursday night, while Dave sat patiently in the car. Don't you love all that neon? It zigzags down the sides of the building and gives a very colorful effect.

Speaking of electric lights, yesterday we had our Christmas dinner with Dave's family. But it almost didn't happen, courtesy of Zeus or Thor or Tesla or whatever god of electricity strikes your fancy.

Dave's parents, sister and nephew were getting ready to go to the beach yesterday morning when suddenly, everything in the house stopped working. Granted, we had a lot running -- washing machine, dishwasher, air conditioning, TV, Internet, lights and whatnot. It all went dead. At first, none of us thought much about it -- power outages in Florida aren't that unusual -- and in fact the family left for the beach.

But as Dave and I sat around in the rapidly warming house, I began to think we needed to do something. It's not typical for power to go out for an extended period of time on a sunny day, and as we looked around at the neighbors it became apparent we were the only ones affected.

Besides, we had an uncooked turkey sitting in the refrigerator (!), and Dave had to start meal preparation sooner or later.

So I began texting Dave's parents about calling the power company and looking for the breaker box. Maybe this made Dave's dad nervous, because he decided to come back from the beach. He reset all the internal breakers and called the electrical providers and some other people. Several hours later -- after I drove out to the beach to retrieve the rest of the family -- someone showed up from the maintenance office at their mobile home park and found a main breaker near the outdoor meter that had flipped. He turned it back on and we were back in business.

We'd been making contingency plans to go out to dinner, but fortunately that wasn't necessary and our spatchcocked turkey got eaten. And we didn't die of salmonella. Whew!

Dave's sister asked me to take some photos of her son for graduation announcements, so he and I went for a walk yesterday afternoon and took lots of photos in different locations. I'm always a little nervous about doing portraits for people, because I have no training in portrait photography beyond what I learned in my photojournalism class in college -- but these turned out well and I think they've got some good shots.

On our walk we saw a flock of colorful parrots descend on an orange tree and begin squawkily gnawing their way through the fruit. I believe they're Nanday parakeets, which we never see in London. So that was kind of exciting!

Speaking of London, in case any of you are wondering about Olga and what she's up to in our absence, our dog-sitter sent us this video Thursday. I believe it was taken on Hampstead Heath. You can see Olga very clearly in the beginning and then she runs to the front of the pack -- which is definitely just like her. "She is full of beans, never stops, then gets home and sleeps like a baby," the dog-sitter wrote. I'm pretty sure she doesn't miss us at all!

Friday, December 28, 2018

More Florida Nature

Yesterday I took a walk through the Robinson Preserve, in western Bradenton. My friend Sue told me about this park, which she described as an incredible "moonscape." I don't think I'd use that word, but it is an interesting mix of muddy tidal marshes and mangrove swamps. I saw lots of seabirds, including flocks of white pelicans, cormorants and ibis, backed by the Sunshine Skyway in the distance. No roseate spoonbills, though!

This yellow wildflower, which looks like some kind of pea, was almost hidden by the swaying brownish grasses. (I think I used to know what this plant is called but darned if I can remember now.)

There were plenty of turkey vultures circling overhead, riding the breezes -- a common Florida sight.

This pelican made an ungainly landing -- also a common sight. They're basically pterodactyls.

This yellow-crowned night heron was successfully hunting crabs on the mud flats...

...while this little blue heron was fishing nearby.

It was a good walk and I spent several hours out there, nearly missing lunch. I stopped on the way back to Dave's parents to buy a few holiday cards, so I could send them to the people who mailed cards to my mom. (Mom is terrible about responding to cards, and I wanted to let people know that she appreciated them.) I was appalled to find that four Happy New Year cards cost $16! Insanity!

Last night Dave and I met up with a couple we know from our years in New Jersey. We hadn't seen them in about eight years, and since they were in Florida on vacation we coordinated a rendezvous at a downtown Bradenton restaurant. It was fun -- a sort of retro surf-and-turf place where I had scallops and, for dessert, a big green grasshopper (the drink, not the insect). How long has it been since you've seen one of those on a menu? So '70s!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Aliens, Rush and Francophone Radio

We spent almost all day yesterday in the car. We left Jacksonville about 10 a.m., then drove south through Green Cove Springs and Starke to U.S. 301 and then I-75. En route we came across this auto salvage (or something) business near Starke.

I especially like the little alien reclining atop the cars with his bottle of Captain Morgan:

It takes all kinds, doesn't it?

Anyway, we wound up at Dave's parents' house in Bradenton about 4 p.m. We had just enough time to grab dinner before climbing back in the car and driving up to Tampa to collect his sister from the airport -- only to learn that she flew into St. Petersburg and not Tampa. So then we had to cross the bay and get to the right airport. Whew!

But now everyone is here and we have a few days to relax.

On the way down from North Florida, surrounded by so many Trump signs, Dave and I were inspired to try listening to some right-wing talk radio. We found a station carrying Rush Limbaugh -- jackpot! -- and although Rush himself was on vacation the show was still good for some LOLZ. Long on bluster, short on facts and specifics. We eventually had to turn it off because we were both getting a headache.

The worst thing about talk radio is the incessant talking. Honestly, I don't know how anyone can stand it.

Now, at 6:49 a.m., I'm sitting in the lobby of our Ramada Inn in Sarasota, listening to a modern version of "Living in the City" on, weirdly, a French-language radio station. I have no idea why.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Guana River

Before I write about Christmas, I have to fill you in on a little outing I took on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. I went to a nature preserve between Jacksonville and St. Augustine with a ridiculous mouthful of a name: The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. For simplicity's sake, I'm just calling it Guana River.

It's a beautiful preserve, and it gave me an opportunity to walk several miles of trails and see some wildlife. (My mom, ordinarily a wildlife enthusiast, decided not to go, and Dave is never a fan of hiking. So it was a solo excursion!)

I saw several armadillos, and they weren't shy at all. While I took pictures they snuffled around in the grass a few feet away. My biggest challenge was getting a picture showing their (absurdly tiny) head and eyes -- usually they're buried in grass up to about their ears.

I saw a dock covered in more pelicans than I have ever seen in one place. I counted 109 birds in that picture, both pelicans and cormorants, and I'm sure I missed some. (I went to Guana hoping to see roseate spoonbills, but alas, no such luck.)

This guy was lying in the path as I walked, and at first I thought it was a snake -- but it didn't look quite right. A little too short, a little too fat. Turns out it's a legless Florida glass lizard. Very strange!

Again, it didn't seem disturbed by my presence at all. I walked all around it taking photos and it never moved.

And finally, I saw this beautiful little downy woodpecker.

Christmas was blessedly low-key. Dave and I met up with my mom in the morning, accompanied her on her morning walk, and had lunch with her. Then we all gathered at my brother and sister-in-law's for Christmas dinner, which had a Cuban/Puerto Rican twist this year -- black beans and rice, tostones, pulled pork and mahi mahi. Dave and I gave it some transatlantic flair with a British Christmas pudding from Harrod's, which we doused in orange liqueur and set alight. We exchanged gifts, and Hoopla was played again -- not even at my suggestion! My younger niece seems to have taken to it!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Winter Wonderland

There's a house just down the street from my brother's where the owners go all-out decorating for Christmas. It's truly unbelievable. We took my nieces last night and strolled through the holiday fantasia, and I compiled a little video to show you what it's like -- complete with cheesy Johnny Mathis Christmas songs (which I secretly love) and a special holiday appearance from Dave!

A couple of months ago I found this vintage ring-toss game, Hoopla, while walking Olga in London. It was set out with some other games on a garden wall, clearly meant for someone to take. If I had to guess, I'd say it's from 1970 or so -- those figures of the birds and "Mr. Mean" are very H. R. Pufnstuf, aren't they? Anyway, I brought it to Florida and played it with my nieces last night. I thought they might roll their eyes, but it turned out to be pretty fun!

This morning I woke up in our hotel and decided to risk going out for my morning joe (as usual -- I can't stand in-room coffee). Most places were closed, but I found a Daily's store in a Shell station where I got a cup (southern pecan flavored, allegedly, although you couldn't prove it by me). When I took it to the cashier she said, "Is that all, sir?" I said yes, and she said, "Merry Christmas -- it's on me." That totally made my morning.

Merry Christmas, blog readers!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Birds and Frogs

We spent yesterday with my mom at her retirement community near the wide St. John's River. There are always lots of birds around in Florida at this time of year, with migrants either passing through or stopping for the winter, and we saw some interesting ones yesterday. The green heron (above) is a year-round resident.

One of Mom's neighbors has a bird feeder that was a hive of activity, with squabbling bluebirds and several yellow pine warblers. I'm hoping to have another look at this feeder today. I saw what I think was a magnolia warbler on it too, but I didn't get a good shot.

We were there all morning and then went to lunch at a taco place nearby, where I had virtually inedible huevos rancheros. (And for me to say something is inedible is, well, saying something, because I am not a picky eater.) The eggs were severely underdone, the whole dish was tepid and yet the tortillas were so tough I couldn't cut them with a knife and fork. I ate it with some trepidation but fortunately there were no bacterial consequences.

Afterwards I felt like I'd swallowed a bag of cement, so I went for a long walk around our hotel.

I found a few more sculptural frogs left by the Frog Man of Mandarin. I'm always happy to come across his colorful amphibians.

More family time today, of course. Happy Christmas Eve, everybody!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Cedar Key

Dave and I made the long trek yesterday from Jacksonville to Tampa, and we made it even longer by taking a little side trip to Cedar Key.

Cedar Key is a rustic little fishing town in Florida's "Big Bend" area, and it's a long, long way from everything. I hadn't been there for about 30 years, so I wasn't sure what we'd find. There's a lot of history there, and now it has a sort of artsy vibe too.

We popped into the historic Island Hotel, which the proprietor said dates back to the 1850s. And there we found...

...a manatee playing the piano! And I had my camera!

We walked around town, popped into a gallery and bought some local art, and then walked out to Dock Street, on the waterfront, to have lunch.

The Gulf water there is heavily stained by tannins from the cypress swamps and rivers that flow nearby. We sat on the upper deck of a restaurant, listening to a guitarist playing Johnny Cash songs. I had a grouper sandwich, which cost an appalling $14 but apparently grouper isn't as easy to come by as it once was.

Afterwards we hopped back in the car and headed for Jacksonville. Driving back on the rural roads through the swampy interior, we saw...

...belted kingfishers perched on the power lines. I have never seen one before, at least not that I can remember, but they're unmistakable with that crest. Photographing them was hard -- they're very shy and every time I slowed down the car they flew off. This was the best I could do.

We got to my brother's at about 7 p.m. last night. Whew!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

West Wind, Blow!

Dave and I went to the nature preserve again yesterday, hoping for better weather this time. (The blue shell was still there.) We did in fact get to walk all the way around the park, and we did see a gopher tortoise -- well, part of one, anyway. It was in its burrow and it really didn't want to be disturbed. We saw the edge of its shell as it shuffled farther underground.

I didn't get a lot of photos. The wind was blowing so hard I couldn't easily see any birds or other critters -- everything was moving. Dave gets the credit for spotting this little brown anole, sticking his head out of a fence post. Definitely the best shot of the day.

For lunch we went back to Dave's favorite Chinese restaurant in Lutz. This time, the "in bed" game didn't work for either of our fortunes. Bummer!

From there we drove downtown, and checked in to our hotel. We're on the 20th floor overlooking Harbor and Davis Islands, and I'd show you the view if I could get a decent picture through our dirty, tinted window. Suffice to say it's pretty nice, and I can see Tampa General Hospital below us -- where I was born!

While Dave settled down to take a nap I walked along the Hillsborough River and through downtown, catching this crazy warped reflection of the old Tampa city hall in a neighboring building. It's always great to visit Tampa, and even though I haven't lived in the city proper since 1992 it still feels like home.

I found this unusual graffiti on the Riverwalk. Somebody has an artsy streak! (Well, sort of.)

Last night we caught up with some of my oldest and closest friends from college. We had dinner at Ulele, an excellent restaurant on the river where we tried to sit at the outdoor bar but it proved too freakin' windy and cold! It is winter, I suppose, even here. We retreated indoors.

Today, Dave and I are off on the long drive to Jacksonville, hopefully with a little side trip that will prove interesting!

Friday, December 21, 2018

A Really, Really Rainy Day

Not the greatest photo in the world, but I hope you can see all that rain! It poured all day yesterday. Dave and I were out and about in it because he decided to make a Christmas dinner for my stepmother, stepsister and her husband and son -- we wound up going to the butcher for a standing rib roast and then to Publix for all the various necessities.

I'm not a fan of grocery shopping, but I always love a Publix. The stores are meticulously clean, everyone is so nice, and they tend to every little facet of your shopping experience. For example, when we left, an employee was standing at the front of the store with a huge blower, drying the shopping carts that had been collected from the rainy parking lot. What other store does that?

Their slogan for years has been "Where shopping is a pleasure," and it's true. (I swear I am in no way on their payroll, although, in full disclosure, I will proudly reveal that my nephew works there.)

We also stopped at the public library in Lutz, which I used to visit as a child. (The town where I lived, Land O' Lakes, didn't even have a library when I was really little.) It's a low brown brick building, kind of '70s-cool, built on the site of that big open area at upper right in the mural above. Although it's been redecorated and expanded since I was there last (probably 40 years ago!) it was fun to visit again. I was impressed that they have two copies of David Sedaris' diaries. Oh, and they still have DVDs and audiobooks on CD -- so digital discs have not died everywhere.

Dave spent the afternoon cooking and I did laundry and read. Today the Lutz portion of our Florida idyll comes to an end, and we drive into Tampa for a night in the city.

My stepmother gave these old cookbooks to Dave. They were her grandmother's. (My grandmother also had a copy of that Boston Cooking School cookbook -- I think everyone had one back then. It was the "Joy of Cooking" of its day.)

They're full of old, bizarre, elegant recipes like "Capon in aspic garnished with cooked yolks and whites of eggs cut in fancy shapes, pistachio nuts and truffles." There are huge, complicated Jell-O salads like "Royal Diplomatic Pudding." Someday I want to try making some of those things just for the heck of it.

Rainy Maybelline says hello! She has a shelter, but was quite happy to leave it for a scratch, even if it meant getting wet. Priorities!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dream Big, Said the Blue Shell

Here's another shot taken on Tuesday morning, when the mist and the sun were blending in amazing ways. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse yesterday, and now it's pouring rain. I guess it's only unfortunate in that it limits our activities -- it actually sounds really nice from indoors.

We took Maybelline on an adventure yesterday. She lives in an enclosure on my step-mother's property -- a good-sized pen, but one she never leaves. She doesn't seem to mind it and as you've seen in the videos, she has a shelter and plenty of room to run around and she's well cared for. But you can't help but feel a little bad that she never gets out.

So Dave and I put a leash on her and took her for a little walk. Maybelline did not know what to think. She kept her tail between her legs, but at the same time, she was fascinated by everything -- all the new smells and sights. My stepmother is considering bringing in a dog-walker to train Maybelline and maybe take her out and about now and then. (She's too big for my stepmother to manage alone.) I think that would be a great idea.

After lunch, Dave and I went to the nearby Violet Cury Nature Preserve, where I'd hoped to show him some gopher tortoises. But apparently I am destined only to have bad weather experiences at that park, because about ten minutes after we arrived the rain began.

I had just enough time to find this peculiar blue shell along the trail. "You find the weirdest things," Dave said. We left it there, and turned back for the car.

We ran some errands in the afternoon, bought some last-minute Christmas gifts and went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Dave could not stop exclaiming about his General Tso's Chicken. There is something comforting about a basic strip-mall American Chinese restaurant -- the kind of place where you get food in a paper box and fortune cookies and orange duck sauce in little clear packets and the food marked "hot" on the menu isn't really all that hot. You know?

Dave and I played a game where you read your fortune aloud and at the end add the words "in bed." (Apparently this was a thing when he was growing up and he mocked me for not knowing about it.) His didn't work at all, but mine was something like, "Never forget what is worth bed."

Anyway, we spent the rainy afternoon relaxing and  I finally got our charitable donations made. I sent them via Paypal directly from our bank account, thereby skirting the credit-card barrier. Voila!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Aggressive Adoration of Maybelline

Yesterday morning was very frustrating. The entire digital world seemed to be against me.

Remember how I recently tried to make my annual donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, and I couldn't get the transactions to go through from London? I thought the problem might be my British ISP, so I wanted to try again from here within the states. But no -- I couldn't donate from here either, and when I called their donation lines even they couldn't make it happen. Apparently their systems won't accept the British billing address on my credit cards. It's the craziest thing, considering I've had no problem at all in years past and the online donation form allows me to choose a foreign country as my address. I suppose I could send them a check, but geez, how archaic!

They need to get that fixed. I guarantee you many people are not going to work as hard as I have trying to get those donations processed.

I did succeed in solving another niggling problem -- the spontaneous reactivation of my long-dormant account. About a year ago I started getting e-mails from Match wanting me to meet available guys in and around New York, where I used to live. I was like, "Ummm, thank you Match, but I'm married now." Apparently my ancient account somehow became active again (though my profile was not visible) and I couldn't delete it from England, because the UK Match site is different from the American Match site. Argh! So yesterday I successfully logged in and cancelled my account, and supposedly I'll no longer receive notifications and my profile remains unavailable to others. (I imagine it's still out there, though, lurking on some server. Nothing ever dies on the Internet.)

Sorry. I know that's all incredibly boring. Welcome to my morning.


Here's a little bit of joyfulness -- family dog Maybelline, welcoming me to Florida. (Getting this video from Dave's phone to my YouTube account took another feat of digital gymnastics, but I'll spare you the details.) Maybelline is much slimmer than she used to be -- my stepmother has her on a lighter diet. That's a good thing when she barrels into me like William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

And here's Manny, one of the chihuahuas, looking at me menacingly as usual.

Yesterday afternoon was beautiful -- sunny and pleasant -- so I took a long walk around the neighborhood. At first I didn't take my camera, because sometimes I just get sick of lugging it around. But as I always say, if I don't have my camera, that's when I'll see three manatees doing a waltz in Dolly Parton wigs -- and sure enough, although I didn't see that, I saw a lot of other things I wanted to photograph. So I came home and collected it and walked a bit more. Walking is an excellent antidote to afternoon jet-lag fatigue.

Finally, because I had so many requests for a close-up of my stepmother's needlework:

She assures me that it is, in fact, cross-stitch. I know nothing about these yarny sorts of hobbies but hopefully this will assuage everyone's curiosity!