Sunday, January 24, 2010

Disney World, Alli’s Bat Mitzvah, and Hitting the Ground Running

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We decided to spend Tuesday and Wednesday at Disney World for several reasons. We felt that the parks were less likely to be crowded on those mid-week days. We also planned it so that we would have Thursday to recuperate from two days at the four parks before having to pack and set out for our 3-hour drive to Jacksonville to attend cousin Alli’s Bat Mitzvah which was to begin with a Friday night Shabbat dinner at their synagogue. With the exception of freezing cold weather, we planned very well. When we set out at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning as Animal Kingdom was about to open, our car was encased in ice and we had to wait about 10 minutes for the defroster to thaw the windshield. The golf course, which our balcony porch overlooked, was a sheet of white-ice-encrusted grass. There was even ice on the Spanish moss hanging from the tree outside our porch. (I thought about titling this post “Ice on Spanish Moss,” very poetic, but that was only a very small part of our adventures.)

We began our foray into Disney World with a Lion King theatrical production, which was a very good way indeed to begin. The show is one of my top five favorite things at Disney. In the cold weather, as opposed to the 90 to 100-degree summer temperatures we usually encounter, we were able to spend the whole day in the park, exploring the new Asia section with its fabricated Mt. Everest roller coaster, the new dinosaur section which has many attractions for very young children, and revisiting our favorites like, “It’s Tough to be a Bug,” and the safari ride. By late lunch time, we were able to doff our winter coats to enjoy lunch in a picturesque outdoor pavilion by a lake with a view of “Everest” in the distance. Instead of the two hungry dogs under the table that we usually encounter at Jess and Alex’s, we had two hungry and very colorful ducks that were begging for food under our table. We lined up for the end-of-day parade at the beginning of the route and were able to follow Mickey Mouse, dancing on top of his souped-up jeep, all the way out of the park at 5:00 p.m. Then, we went to our car and drove to the Epcot Park, just a few minutes away with the hopes of catching a few attractions before having dinner at our favorite Japanese Restaurant in the Japan section of the World Showcase in time to watch the “IllumiNations” fireworks show from a table by the picture window.

Unfortunately, because the restaurant was very busy and they could not guarantee a reservation for the time we wanted, we chose to eat at a table by the window right away. Our quiet little haven had enjoyed such popularity that it had been completely refurbished to accommodate larger crowds. As a result, the menu choices were more limited and the din was deafening. The sushi was delicious and the service very attentive, but we decided to have dessert down the street in “France.” We bought an assortment of French pastries and café au lait at the boulangerie and sat down to enjoy them at a small outdoor table in what looked like a little section of Paris, but even with the hot coffee to warm us, the weather was bitter cold. We stood on a nearby bridge overlooking the Epcot lake to watch the spectacular fireworks presentation and then headed back to the condo, very cold and tired from miles of walking, but feeling very satisfied that we had really enjoyed our rather expensive tickets to capacity.

The next morning, we parked the car at the Disney Hollywood Studios park as it opened. We wandered around almost-deserted streets for awhile before heading over to see the colorful and engaging “Beauty and the Beast” musical production. While waiting to see the live “High School Musical” number, one of the guards told us that there were only 13,500 people in that park that day and that there are normally at least 30,000 and as high as 45,000. There were no lines at all for many of the attractions, so we were able to see and do most of what we wanted there before getting back into our car around noon and driving over to Epcot, which holds most of the attractions we like best, such as Soarin’, which we did twice, once with a Fast Pass and once after waiting in line for an hour. I could spend a whole day doing Soarin’ over and over if the lines weren’t so long. Everyone else seems to feel the same way about it. I hope they will add more rides like it eventually. We also twice did a boat tour called “Living with the Land” which also brought us through Disney’s amazing hydroponic experimental greenhouses. There was no wait at all. In “The Sea” pavilion, we also did not have to wait to do “Turtle Talk,” a live conversation with an animated character, Crush, the surfer-dude turtle from “Finding Nemo.” We had a big cafeteria lunch when we arrived at Epcot and decided to skip dinner to see more of the attractions. Saul had an encounter with learning to ride a Segway, and as darkness fell, we decided to hop the monorail over to the Magic Kingdom to catch the fireworks there. While we were waiting for them to begin, we went on the Haunted Mansion ride, which we haven’t done for many, many years and which we can never do with small children in tow, especially Sami. The fireworks display over Cinderella’s castle definitely made the trip worthwhile, and since we still had an hour to spare before the fireworks display at Epcot, we decided to try to catch both, and we did, making it back to Epcot just in time to see IllumiNations again. All you need is stamina and good working legs, which, luckily, Saul seemed to have on this trip. Ordinarily, in summer heat, he rents a mobilized chair to keep up with us. We had a small snack when we arrived back at our condo, and went to bed.

Exhausted from our forays into the four Disney Parks, we slept late the next morning, and ate breakfast and lunch in our condo to use up the small amount of food we had purchased, while Saul spent the day on his laptop catching up with his last bit of preparation before the new semester was due to begin on Monday, and I vegged out and did our laundry. In the evening, we headed back to Bonefish Grill for a delicious meal and to further use up our soon-to-be-expired $20 coupons.

Friday morning, rested and relaxed, we ate breakfast in the condo, packed, loaded the car, checked out and were on the road right on schedule by about 10:30 a.m. The drive was very pleasant and the weather was beginning to return to its usual semi-tropical state, although it was raining lightly. The Hilton Embassy Suites let us check in early and our suite was extremely well-appointed and convenient, a bargain for the money. The suites were arranged in circular configuration overlooking an inviting and lush tropical atrium. The price of the rooms, $89, included a hot breakfast with omelets cooked to order, eaten at the tables strategically placed around the atrium.

Mom’s cousin Ronnie was sitting in a small lounge area right behind us as we checked in and we were greeted with a warm and appreciative welcome immediately, and then briefly introduced to other members of the family and friends. Lonnie and Bruce, parents of the Bat Mitzvah, had provided us with a thoughtful bag of snacks and bottled water, which was presented to us as we checked in. We rested in our rooms for about two hours, changed for dinner, and headed out to the synagogue. We were able to mingle and meet many of the approximately 60 family members, friends and their children before an excellent catered dinner which culminated with a memorable dessert of warm, molten chocolate cake. After dinner, we participated in a service which was geared toward very young children with a special prayerbook specifically designed for them.

Saturday morning, we breakfasted in the hotel before leaving for the morning Shabbat service at the synagogue. Ronnie’s family is accomplished and attractive and Alli was as poised and beautiful as any bat mitzvah I have ever seen, and I have seen many. My mother spoke all her life about Ronnie’s five boys and how difficult it must have been to raise them all. After her first two, Alan and Chuck, she decided she wanted to have a little girl. On her third try, she was blessed with identical twin boys, Bruce and Bob. Then, as she told me last week, her husband, Mort, convinced her that if she was to try yet one more time, statistically, it would likely be a girl. After Fred was born, I think Ronnie finally realized she was destined for boys only. Now, she smilingly told me, she is surrounded by girls, her many loving granddaughters on whom she dotes and their mothers. Both she and Mort are only children, so there are no aunts, or uncles, to round out the family. Services were followed by a lavish buffet luncheon for the entire congregation. Arriving back at the hotel, we changed into comfortable clothing and spent the afternoon playing gin rummy in the atrium with Ronnie and her 21-year-old granddaughter, Jackie (Jacquelyn), Bob’s daughter. Bob’s branch of the family lives in Pacific Palisades in southern California. Joining us also was Bob’s wife’s mother, an expatriate of Philadelphia, who now resides in Florida. Many of the family spent the afternoon working out in the hotel’s gym. Bob had recently successfully completed an Ironman race in California. As darkness fell, we returned to our rooms to change into dressy evening clothes.

Back at the synagogue, the evening began with a sumptuous cocktail hour. A favorite hors d’oeuvre of mine was a sweet red watermelon cube, topped with tuna poké, and finished with a small dab of spicy wasabi mayonnaise. Adjourning to another large reception room for dinner, we felt the irony of the situation of the previous week. The theme of the bat mitzvah was snow and ice. Sparkly snowflake cutouts hung from the ceiling. The beautiful white tablecloths were made from purposely-frayed iridescent organza that gave the impression of an ice-covered snowbank. The tasteful low flower arrangements were pale blue hydrangea and artistically twisted branches. A D.J. kept the kids busy with games and activities during the cocktail hour and with enthusiastic dancing after the delicious dinner and dessert were served. A photo montage of Alli growing up with her family preceded the dinner. Along one side of the room were various activities for the kids when they were not dancing, such as a photo booth, and individually-designed tee shirts. During the evening the D.J.s provided all sorts of flare—flashing multi-colored rings, light sticks, silver hats, and maracas, to name a few.

We arrived back at the hotel well-fed and tired after midnight. With our Hilton Honors benefits, Saul and I were able to arrange for a late check-out at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday. Before leaving for an early brunch at Bruce and Lonnie’s home, we spent an hour in the atrium with Terry, a Philadelphia friend of the family, who happened to be the uncle of two of our former religious school students, and invited Bob’s family, who joined us, to visit us in Philadelphia as they check out some of our local small colleges for their younger daughter, Amanda. Another coincidence was that Alan, Ronnie’s oldest son from Arizona, is in the same obscure line of work (e-discovery) as Ari, and Ari works with a newly-hired, good friend of his, Karen. One of the amazing discoveries of this trip was the resemblance of their family to people in our family. Our son, Ari, looks remarkably like Ronnie’s father as a young man. I knew, even in a roomful of unfamiliar people, that I was related to Alan. He looks just like my mother’s mother, Anna. The twins bear a striking resemblance to my first cousin, Bob, and Ronnie’s Bob’s daughter, Jackie, looks a lot like our Bob’s sister, Julie. Isn’t it interesting that the names are similar also? My brother’s middle name is Alan.

Ronnie told me that Bruce had decided in high school, while doing volunteer work at Moss Rehabilitation Center, that he wanted to develop devices to help disabled people. To that end, he had earned both an engineering and a medical degree. He holds patents now on several devices and is developing others. His success is reflected in their spectacular home that was completed last year and which sits on the picturesque banks of the St. Johns River. The same talented caterer provided a tasty buffet brunch in their dining room with lox and bagels, french toast, kugels, salads, desserts, and omelets cooked to order in the magnificent kitchen. All the rooms were designed to maximize the incredible views of the river and their beautiful boat dock. While there, we used their computer to print out our boarding passes for the airplane and downloaded our scanned images of our common ancestors, along with the photos we took of our chuppah cloth family tree. Back at the hotel, we had plenty of time to pack, check out, return our rented car, and situate ourselves at our gate at the airport. The somewhat-delayed, two-hour flight back home was quite turbulent at the end because of strong tail winds. We caught a shuttle bus back to our car at the pre-arranged, long-term parking lot, SmartPark, almost immediately after retrieving our luggage.

Almost home, we suddenly were hungry, and we resorted to soup and sandwiches at a 24-hour diner nearby because everything else was closed by 9:00 p.m. By 11:00 p.m. we were happy to be back in our own bed and not looking forward to the alarm going off at 6:00 a.m. the next morning to awaken us to the new semester.

After making Saul breakfast and seeing him off, I decided to go back to bed for a short while. One of my clients was coming at two to begin working on a publication that had been delayed by my vacation. When I opened my eyes, it was almost nine. I decided to rest for another five minutes and then suddenly, it was ten! I spent the next four hours hurriedly unpacking, cleaning up, doing laundry, and catching up with the work that had already been e-mailed. I had to sort it out from 70 e-mails that had accumulated while I was away. So both of us hit the ground running after this vacation, but we both felt that we had really had a long, relaxing, and spiritually-satisfying experience.

Shabbat dinner this past Friday was attended by a long-lost neighbor from our childhood in Logan. Ian had contacted my brother, Ken, to see if Ken, with his employment agency, could find him a job in architecture. After much schmoozing about old times, Ken suggested he call me and arrange to get together. I arranged the dinner right before I left for Florida. Attending the dinner were Larry Shipper, Ian and his daughter, Lisa, Adele and Larry, Beth, Randi, Jamie, Andy, and Presley. Ken was sick with a fever and stayed home to build up his strength for Presley’s first birthday party which they were hosting for 70 people the next day. Erica was sick also, which freed up Adele and Larry from babysitting so that they could join us. Beth’s business meeting was canceled at the last minute, which allowed her to join us, and Ian’s wife didn’t join us because she was still recuperating from a hernia operation. Dinner, which Saul spent all day helping me prepare, was deviled eggs; membrillo that Larry had brought back from his trip to Copper Canyon with Comté cheese, homemade challah, chestnut soup, cod lamaize, Mediterranean vegetable lasagna, caesar salad, Israeli salad, carrot cake, and assorted cookies remaining from December’s family cookie extravaganza. Ian brought cinnamon buns from Eiselen’s Bakery and fresh flowers. In honor of the occasion, we opened a bottle of Hagafen’s 2001 cabernet from the case that we had ordered while we were in the Napa Valley a few years ago. Dinner was congenial and filled with so many animated conversations that it was impossible to keep track of them all.

Presley had a Mickey Mouse-themed birthday party, which we attended after services yesterday. Kenny was feeling better, and was up and around a bit, but said he needed a day or two to finish recovering. Erica had been taking antibiotics and attended also. The house was positively teeming with friends, family, and a zillion children. We returned home for a brief Shabbat nap. Late last night, we went to see the movie, It’s Complicated, which had us laughing our heads off. Alec Baldwin is a particular favorite of mine. The movie was not squeamish about showing off the ravages of aging on these stars and, I think, proves that even old people can look appealing in sexy situations, although maybe only to other old people :o).

Today, we went to visit Saul’s mom at Lion’s Gate. She seemed to be in really good spirits and looked much better and not as swollen. We spent an hour with her, downloading new photographs of the family to her digital picture frame, and talking on the cell phone with Jess, Sami and Ari. The only names she seems to remember now are Rifka and Paul. She did not remember her own sister even after hearing her name. She was delighted to see us, especially Saul, and remembered names and who they were for a few minutes. Then, her mind would seem to wander away. She seems contented with her life and says she would not want to go out. She told Jess to come to visit her. Saul felt better, having seen her, knowing that she is feeling okay and is not suffering in any way.

This week should be a little easier than last because we have begun to get caught up with our work. January and February seem to last forever because there is still such a long stretch of time until spring. The weather today was as dreary as it gets, dark, overcast, with drizzling cold rain. I am hoping the sun will come out tomorrow.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Twenty Ten and Beyond

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We packed up the girls and headed down to Baltimore on Thursday, New Year's Eve Day. After dropping the girls at home, along with some perishable food from our refrigerator, we checked into our hotel room at the Sheraton in Towson and took a nap. I was not feeling really well during most of the weekend because I had caught a cold in just the right side of my head. Does anyone else ever get sick on just one side of their body? We rendezv0used at Jess and Alex's at about 8 p.m. to snack on cheeses, chips, Alex's homemade pizzas, and various dips and to watch the animated movie, The Incredibles. By 10:30, Ari was dozing in his chair, I was struggling to stay awake and dealing with my allergies on top of the cold, and Saul was more than willing to call it a night and head back to the hotel, which we did. Jess said that Alex fell asleep on the couch right after we left, and she and Izzy fell asleep about 11:45 p.m. Only Sami was awake to watch the ball drop. Some live wires we are!

Ari drove back home after midnight, after he had snoozed for a while. He wanted to wake up in his own bed in his own good time on New Year's morning. Saul and I slept late, had a late breakfast in Towson Mall at The Cheesecake Factory, and we all met up again at Jess and Alex's for Shabbat dinner along with Alex's brother and sister and their families. For dinner we had chicken soup with Alex's gigantic perfect matzoh balls, his homemade sausages with sauerkraut and an assortment of mustard, mashed potatoes, and salad. Saul and I left right after dinner because of my cold and allergies. Alex's sister, Naomi had brought along their huge golden retriever, Casey, not realizing that Saul and I would be there.

During the weekend, Jess brought the girls over to use the indoor pool at the hotel. I was starting to feel better, but decided to wait for the following day to swim. Because of Ari's Starwood points, we were allowed until 4 p.m. to check out. The girls had a blast in the pool, as they usually do, including Yona, who becomes very contented and Buddha-like when she is in the pool with Jess. We arranged to have a grown-up movie night so that we could all see Avatar in 3-D at the Egyptian Theater in Arundel Mills. While Alex baby-sat the girls at home, Ari met us at the theater and we had a quick meal in the food court before seeing this truly astounding and visually stunning movie.

Saul, Jessica and I took Sami and Izzy out for lunch the next day at The Cheescake Factory where we shared a variety of delectable appetizers which almost covered our ample table. The girls finished up with ice cream, while we shared a slice of key lime cheesecake--a great way to start the new year. Unfortunately, afterward, when we arrived at the pool, we found a sign saying that the pool was closed due to mechanical problems. With very disappointed children, we checked out at 2 p.m. and tried to think of a way to assuage their discontent. Saul and I had taken our 4-wheel drive suv this time, in case of inclement weather, which just happened to contain a large cup of coins from Chuck E. Cheese's, leftovers from Camp Bubbie and Saba. Back at Jess's house, we found a nearby outpost and took the girls there. When we arrived, it was so crowded that we had to wait in line to get in. There were grown-ups who were playing the machines as well as many children. When the girls went to cash out their tickets, there was only one functioning ticket machine and at the front of the line was a man and his son putting in over 2000 tickets one-at-a-time. We left again with very disappointed children, but Jessica keeps a "prize box" at home and she allowed them to choose prizes which they knew were far better than anything they would win at Chuck E. Cheese's. After a bowl of Alex's sausage chili, Saul and I headed back home.

Our first week in January was spent organizing things. Adele came over on Monday morning and we went through the remainder of Mom's clothing while Saul prepared for the new semester. Beth had car trouble and borrowed our suv to take to work for a couple of days. On Tuesday, our mission was to buy new suits for Saul. He had not had a new one since Jessica's wedding, thirteen years ago. We spent the day shopping, having lunch yet again at Cheesecake Factory in King of Prussia Mall, checking out Nordstum Rack and finally buying two suits, a Calvin Klein and a Michael Kors at Men's Wearhouse, in preparation for the upcoming family bat mitzvah we are attending in Jacksonville, Florida, this coming weekend. Afterward, we met Ken and Randi for dinner at Bonefish Grill along with Beth. Ken had gone to the hospital in the wee hours of Monday morning thinking he was having a gall bladder attack or a kidney stone, but in fact, discovered that all the pain was from overdoing the rich food in New Orleans during their new year's weekend there. He ate very carefully that night. We met our friend, Faith, for lunch at Pumpernick's on Wednesday. In between all that, while our heating and air conditioning people took another stab, unsuccessfully, at fixing our heat pump, we began to sort out three large cartons of letters and photographs, we completely purged our own closet and donated bags and bags of clothing to Impact, and we began scanning very old photographs to take to the bat mitzvah of ancestors who are related to them. My mother's cousin, Ronnie, has never seen photos of their common grandmother, nor did she even know her grandmother's full maiden name. I discovered a photo I had never seen before of my mother as a six-year-old with an aunt of hers that she also shared with her cousin, Ronnie. It was extremely faded out, but with the magic of Photoshop, I was able to enhance it almost magically.

Armed with a slew of reproduced and enlarged photos, we prepared to leave for our vacation in Florida. Thursday, after I downed a large margarita at lunch (my way of preparing for a flight), we picked up dry cleaning and Saul's newly tailored suits and began packing for Florida. Unfortunately, snow was again expected in the wee hours of the morning, and the temperatures in Florida were setting records for the lowest in recorded history. When we awoke at 4 a.m., snow already was blanketing the ground. The airport, again, was reporting no delays, so we loaded up the suv and headed to our pre-arranged airport parking destination. This time, the snow began to lighten as we approached. Our plane left an hour later than scheduled due to the de-icing procedure, but after that, the flight was blessedly uneventful and smooth. The sun was peeking out and the snow had completely ceased by the time we took off. Uncharacteristically for a trip to Florida, we kept our winter coats, gloves and ear muffs.

Our plane was the emptiest I had ever flown, and our bags for which we paid $20 each, were waiting by themselves alongside of the turnstile in the few minutes it took us to arrange for our car to drive down to Orlando from Jacksonville. We stopped for lunch at a Sonny's Barbecue, a favorite of ours when we are in the South, and proceeded on our drive to Orlando. The weather was rainy and extremely cold with temperatures similar to those we had left in Philadelphia.

We are staying at a timeshare resort called Orange Lake, which is right next to our home resort of Summer Bay, because this week was entirely booked at Summer Bay. We were told that this resort would be even nicer than Summer Bay, and because of that, we were quite disappointed with the accommodations, although they are more than adequate with a beautifully landscaped view of the golf course. Lending an additional disappointment is the fact that for several days, the weather has been frigid. Because of the cold rain, we picked up some provisions at a nearby Publix supermarket, and went to an outlet mall on our first day here and bought some nice clothing to fill the new holes in our cleaned out closet. We spent yesterday walking around Pleasure Island and Downtown Disney after seeing the movie, Sherlock Holmes, there. The movie was enjoyable, but I was bothered by all the holes in the plot. Even though the sun was shining, Saul felt it necessary to put up the hood on his winter coat and I kept my hands in my pockets for warmth. It was really too cold to be outdoors for any length of time. We have had huge breakfasts each morning at Cracker Barrel, Golden Corral and Shoney's. Last night, we dined at Bonefish Grill to take advantage of our gift card coupons. Tonight, we had baked potatoes for dinner, having overindulged at the breakfast buffet. We bought two-day, park hopper, permanent tickets yesterday, and had agreed that we would use them only if the temperature was 40 degrees or above today. When we awoke early this morning to check, the temperature in Orlando was 29 degrees and was not expected to top 36 degrees. Saul spent the day catching up with work on the computer and I goofed off in front of the television most of the day, other than writing this blog post. Tomorrow, the temperatures are expected to rise above 40 to perhaps as high as 70 and sunshine is expected until the weekend. We are hoping and planning to spend the next two days park hopping at Disney World. I hope the weather people are right. I am really glad we brought warm clothing, despite the fact that we thought as we packed that we must be crazy bringing all this gear to Florida. We are looking forward to days at the park, a little rest, and then meeting all these distant relatives during the coming weekend in Jacksonville.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Samara’s Corner—Sami in the Poconos

We went to the Poconos for our winter break this year! We had so much fun because we went skiing for the first 2 times! The first time I went to class and the second time I got to go skiing with Daddy, but Izzy tutored with Daddy both times that we went to Jack Frost/Big Boulder. At the end of the week we left and went to Bubbie and Saba’s house 'til Thursday but we had fun there too! We went to The Philadelphia Art Museum!