Monday, January 21, 2013

Tissues, Towels and Tequila—Winding Down 2012

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Fortunately for us and our family, the end of 2012 should really be called “Winding Up 2012,” but the news was so awful that the end of 2012 can only be called a downer for the rest of the world. I refer, of course, mostly to the horrific elementary school shootings in Connecticut. Having a personality that tends to dwell on these things, I made a concerted effort to limit the amount of news I consumed to a few minutes a day. Even Saul, who chides me about these things, agreed to limit the time we spent viewing the bad news. The worrisome stuff this year included the possibility of copycat killings, the looming “end of the world” predicted by the Mayan calendar, the threat of Iran becoming a nuclear power accompanied by the threat that Israel and the United States will not let that happen and will initiate a preemptive strike, the fiscal cliff, the housing fiasco, seemingly limitless corporate greed, and the rate of unemployment. Everyone on the news says that the economy is recovering, but I don’t see any signs of it around me.

Our family has been very lucky and we have all been having a great time these past two months. On November 16, Saul and I, with help from our friends Gerry and Betty, and Bea and Phil, and a phalanx of volunteers, made a Men’s Club dinner for about 40 members of MBI-EE. The guest speaker that evening, Allen M. Hornblum, had written a book about Harry Gold, the spy who had exposed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I was very nervous about preparing the dinner in our new facilities, but members of the congregation pulled together to make sure that we had all the equipment we needed by visiting the temporary storage facility and pulling out almost everything we had requested. Additionally, a large convection oven was made functional so that we could warm all the food.

Also in the middle of November, Ken made arrangements for a prixe fixe “Russian night” at a Russian nightclub in Northeast Philadelphia called Golden Gates for about two dozen of his friends and relatives. We had done this a few times before over the years, but had given it up because of the smokiness of the room. We were all sick from smoke the next day. Because indoor smoking in Pennsylvania has since been banned everywhere, we decided to give it another try. The experience did not disappoint! Ari came in for the weekend to join us for his first time there, and is keen to set up a similar evening for some of his friends. The couples sitting next to us at an interminably long table, there for the first time, were blown away by the amount of food, the delicious variety, and the beautiful and efficient way it was presented throughout the evening. They said it was the most enormous variety of food that had ever been offered to them anywhere. There were a multiplicity of salads, fish courses (the sea bass was delectable!), cheeses, cold cuts, steaks, lamb, side dishes galore, fresh fruit assortments and desserts. The live band and singers were talented and entertaining. Everyone got up to dance at one time or another. Many of us drank quantities of byob vodka and wine, making the price quite a bargain and the evening, a sparkly and satiating blur.

Shortly after that evening, we flew down to Orlando, Florida, for an early delightful and memorable celebration of Thanksgiving and the 70th birthdays of both Adele and Larry, who had settled into their new home in The Villages right after the presidential election. On the Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, joined by Ari, and Ken and Randi with Brenna in tow, we met at Atlantic City Airport for a delayed two-hour flight on Spirit Airlines. Beth met us at the airport in Orlando in a rental car, having flown in from Tucson earlier, and after Ari picked up a second rental car, we all piled in and drove to The Willows, the wonderful home we had rented for the week, complete with pool and spa. We arrived so late, because of the delays, that the nearby Publix Supermarket was closed. Luckily, we found an open CVS Pharmacy where we were able to find the most important items on our shopping list, “tissues, towels and tequila,” and a Papa John’s with a sympathetic manager, so we all devoured a few pizzas before heading off to bed.

We arose early the next morning. The weather was good and we decided that Wednesday would be the least crowded of the Thanksgiving holidays to visit Universal Studios’ The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Not having put in many provisions, we had breakfast at a Golden Corral on our way, which turned out to be a big mistake for some of us. Ken and Saul rented electric scooters and procured passes which allowed us to circumvent any lines that were longer than 20 minutes. This proved to be both a blessing and a curse, as we all decided to experience the Harry Potter virtual reality ride and did not have time to wisely reconsider while waiting in the regular two-hour line. I was the only one who was not either sickened or terrified by the ride. Randi’s screams were so blood-curdling that I thought they were a part of the ride. Brenna was in tears and buried her face in Saul’s chest for 5 minutes when we got off. Saul was so nauseous he could barely stand there. Beth had to be helped off the ride and spent the first few minutes sitting on the floor with her head between her knees. Ken and Ari were also nauseated for a while afterward. I still really can’t see what all the fuss was about. The chairs were very secure and probably less than a foot off the ground. If you closed your eyes, the movement itself was not really any more violent than a wild rocking chair. The whole ride was only about six minutes long and Randi says she did not even open her eyes once it began. I guess the problem, like car or seasickness, is about the disconnect between the movement and what your eyes are seeing. After recovering, Ari and Brenna were able to experience every other roller coaster in the park, but in the end, Ari had done so many rides that he declared it was all over for him after a spin in the teacup-like Cat-in-the-Hat ride. We enjoyed many other quieter pleasures in the park, including dinner together at Mythos, a visually stunning venue with better-than-average food for a park restaurant.

On Thursday morning, we languished in the heated pool and spa, enjoying the beautiful weather. I put in provisions for our week, and we all headed out for Thanksgiving dinner and to visit Adele and Larry and celebrate their birthdays at The Villages. The ride takes about an hour and 15 minutes. Our buffet Thanksgiving dinner at an elegant hotel dining room within the environs of The Villages, was adequate. Adele and Larry were happy to have us all there. Beth and Brenna spent the night with them and joined us the next morning after the rest of us had a late breakfast at the Cracker Barrel in Davenport. Ken and Randi went off to spend a few days in Disney World at the Dolphin Hotel with Randi’s sister Lori and her husband, Jules, and their married children. Besides hanging out in the pool and spa, we found a good dim sum restaurant in Orlando, Ming Bistro. In Tucson, Beth has been starved for both dim sum and sushi. We knew a good sushi place, Aji Sushi, where we all indulged ourselves for dinner, but we thought that dim sum would be beyond the scope of Orlando. We were wrong. We were able to satisfy Beth on both counts. Beth and Brenna spent a day together at Sea World where Beth had arranged for them to swim with the dolphins. Saul and I found a home that we wished to buy across the street from where we were staying, but our negotiations have not worked out. We checked out more real estate as well as the closest synagogue and JCC in Orlando and were pleased with the facilities. Our flight home on December 3, was uneventful and we hated coming back to cold weather, sweaters, and socks.

Saul finished up his fall semester the week after we returned. The older girls came over for a few days to bake cookies for our family Chanukah party, and to give as gifts, when their schools had half-day parent conferences before the winter break. We attended a lovely, Chanukah-themed dinner with engaging interactive activities for the families designed by Alex in honor of Izzy’s class at TBS.

Then, we began shopping for yet another dinner that we had agreed to prepare to welcome new members to our congregation. There were quite a few since we have moved into our new facilities within KI. Again, on December 14, Saul and I, with the help of our friends Gerry and Betty, and a cadre of volunteers from the congregation made Shabbat dinner for 100 people at MBI-EE. Preparing the dinner was quite harrowing because, within a week, the number rose from 31 to 80, and then went from 80 to 100 in the last two days. Thankfully, we were able to prepare what turned out to be more than enough food. The room looked beautiful and welcoming with candlelight, floral centerpieces, and piles of colored rose petals and silver Chanukah gelt chocolates strewn across the tables.

On the evening of the following day, our family Chanukah party took place at Jess and Alex’s home. The party doubled as a house-warming as most of the extended family had not been there in light of the problems when they moved in and the months-long renovation of the kitchen. The two of them outdid themselves in the preparation and presentation of the food. Before kindling the candles, I made our new recipe for jelly donuts with the children. They were a big hit! It was a delightful and heart-warming evening, although we all missed Adele and Beth very much as each family lit their own chanukiah. Saul was able to reach Meredith on FaceTime with his iPad, so she was “sort of” present as well for the candle-lighting.

Around this time, Jessica applied for and landed another job within the JCC of Cherry Hill where she has been working and, because she was due to start on January 2, we found that the whole family would be available to take a winter vacation between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Ari’s firm actually closes down during that time, and Alex and the girls would all be off from school. We had such a good time during Thanksgiving week in Florida, that we decided to see if we could arrange the same type of rental again. At the last minute, Ari bagged another house with an identical layout to the first one in a different development. The house was so spacious, that Elaine, Alex’s mom decided to join us as well. The owner had just renovated the house and was planning to use it, but changed his plans when we expressed an interest. This worked out very well for us as everything in the kitchen was brand new and Alex could use it freely without kashering.

On Thursday morning, December 20, Saul and I cleaned the house spotlessly in case the realtor wanted to show it. We each packed a small suitcase, two bags of staple food items, and one refrigerator bag full of food from our refrigerator and freezer, and headed off to Wegman’s in Warrington to pick up four kosher rotisserie chickens to form the basis of our family Shabbat dinner in DC.  Our drive to DC was relaxing and relatively free of traffic. After unloading the car at Ari’s and resting for a short while, we picked him up from work and had a leisurely dinner at The Heights in Columbia Heights. This place, which is walking distance from Ari’s home, is fast becoming our favorite in the DC area. Ari and I shared an appetizer and a dinner as neither of us was tremendously hungry. Our waiter was one of the best, ever! Without being overbearing, he anticipated and fulfilled every request and our appetizers and dinners were split on two separate plates and beautifully presented. We each tried a featured artisan beer, both of which were high in alcohol (but low in sulfites), so the satisfying and delicious meal ended with a slight, pleasant buzz. Saul had developed a chest cold a few days earlier and was on amoxicillin, but felt much better after a few days on the medication.

On Friday, after dropping Ari at work, Saul and I headed over to the Giant Supermarket in Columbia Heights to pick up the rest of the ingredients for Shabbat dinner. Jess, Alex, Elaine and the girls were coming right before dinner, and we invited Alex’s sister Naomi, her husband Matt, and their daughter Talia to join us for dinner. Elaine was sleeping over at Naomi and Matt’s new home in Tacoma Park. In the afternoon, we set the table for dinner for 12 with disposables and prepared a huge salad with fresh basil, baby spinach, lettuce and mixed greens, hard boiled eggs, artichokes, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers, red onion, etc. When everyone arrived, we warmed up the chicken and ate it with giant, baked, salt and olive oil-rubbed baked potatoes. I failed at finding pareve pastries for dessert in DC, so we had to make do with an arrangement of fresh pineapple and grapes. During the day on Saturday, we had a bagel breakfast together and lazed around most of the day, taking naps as we were waiting for sundown to leave for Florida. We were planning to drive through the night. Ari and I walked Izzy to a nearby playground so she could climb, and swing, and run around for a few hours to release some of her excess energy.

As darkness fell, Ari and Jess went to pick up Elaine while the rest of us packed and put Ari’s house in order. We set off in two vehicles, our Prius and Jess and Alex’s SUV. Finding a place for dinner for nine on a Saturday night on the road was quite a challenge, but we were very lucky to find a sushi restaurant, Akida Japanese, in Richmond, VA, just off of  I-95, that was highly recommended on Yelp. I called about an hour ahead for reservations (estimating traffic, speed and distance), and I am positive that the hostess that took them did not believe that we were really coming or that we were really nine people. She barely spoke English. The place and the neighborhood looked really sketchy. We were warned by patrons who were leaving to be sure to find a legal parking spot as someone’s dispute with the restaurant had caused a police car to be posted nearby solely for the purpose of handing out parking tickets to unsuspecting patrons. Signs inside the restaurant also warned about the parking situation. Walking in, we realized how tiny a place we had chosen. It only held about a dozen tables, but two had been set aside, and they quickly moved them together and set them up. Even though our reservation was for 9:00 p.m., we were followed by enough people to form quite a waiting line by the time we left. As billed, the restaurant had beautifully prepared, wonderfully fresh sushi and sashimi. The staff was extremely congenial and the prices were very reasonable. Thanks to our modern-day iPhones and Google, Google Maps and Yelp, travel by car over long distances is so much better than in the old days!

This drive to Florida was fairly easy compared to other trips we have taken. Everyone was well rested, the kids went right to sleep, the weather was fair, and the only heavy traffic we encountered was during the first hour after leaving DC. We arrived in St. Augustine on Sunday morning just as the restaurant where we decided to have breakfast was opening. Again, based on Yelp reviews, we found a winner, Wildflower Cafe, where refreshed with a hearty breakfast and basking in the warm Florida sunshine, we happily set out on the final 2-1/2-hour leg of our journey to our beautiful home in Orlando.

Having just had a vacation where we overdid things on the first day and then spent a few days recovering, we decided to flip it so that we would have a few days to unwind before tackling Disney World at its busiest time of the year. During the first afternoon, I went shopping with Elaine and Jess and we laid in a week’s worth of supplies for meals and snacking. We spent the rest of the day hanging around the pool, watching television, and napping from our journey. Sweet Tomatoes, the unique buffet restaurant we had loved on a previous trip was where we headed for dinner the first night, and we were not disappointed. Monday was Christmas Eve day and many places were closed by noon. Our pool was not heating up properly and had only reached about 75°F. The management company was great about getting someone over to look at it, but it wasn’t until after Christmas that we were finally able to get the temperature over 80°F. We used the pool almost every day, especially Izzy and Yona. On Christmas morning, Saul, Ari, Jessica and I went for dim sum again at Ming Bistro in Orlando. Later, except for Ari, we all went to see the movie, Return of the Guardians, and had dinner at a Chinese buffet. Several times, we went to our secret place for a free and unobstructed view of the spectacular fireworks over the castle in the Magic Kingdom. The weather turned sporadically rainy on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, so we put off our day at Disney World until Thursday. We spent the morning on Wednesday at Downtown Disney, where the girls spent an hour or two shopping, constructing with Legos, riding the carousel, and then watched a glass artist who was meticulously creating a Minnie Mouse that sells for $250. Sami could have stood there all day, but the artist took a break after about an hour. The weather began to get very windy and damp, so we decided to have an early lunch at Fulton’s, a building built to look like a steamship. Elaine was much happier when she learned that it was indeed a building and not an actual ship that rocked. After a half-hour wait to accommodate our number, we were seated at a table upstairs that looked out over the lagoon. Our waiters were very attentive. The food was good and the Bloody Marys were remarkable. A driving rainstorm came and went while we sat comfortable and cosseted for a few hours. Then we headed home to rest up for our day at the park.

Originally, we had intended to visit the Magic Kingdom to check out the new Fantasyland, but discovered that most of it will not be completed for another year or two. Since Epcot is our favorite park, and is the least crowded park, especially during the Christmas season, and because you can drive right up to the entrance with a handicapped parking permit and not have to wait for the monorail or ferry, we decided spend our day at Disney World there. It was a good choice. The weather forecasters were accurate, and after a very chilly morning the sun warmed everything to balmy Florida temperatures. It was a glorious day. We arrived just as the park opened and by judiciously obtaining FastPasses, we were able to ride on Soarin’ (my favorite ride in Orlando) twice and Fast Track twice (within a half hour) before lunch. It seemed that Morocco in the World Showcase was our best bet for a vegetarian lunch. While the lunch was expensive, the restaurant was a unique, Casbah-like setting, complete with a beautiful belly dancer performing to the accompaniment of live musicians playing exotic instruments. The food, as in most of the parks, is good, but not great. Our servers were very attentive. After lunch Sami, Izzy and I did a spy mission involving Phineas and Ferb characters that led us to secret places by way of a phone that activated various animations around the World Showcase. We dined on incredible pastries we purchased in Norway. During our day we were able to do lots of the activities—Turtle Talk with Crush, the Finding Nemo ride, the Imaginarium ride, the boat ride through the fish farm and greenhouses where they were harvesting eggplants, the dinosaur ride with Ellen Degeneris and many others. We sampled Coca Cola products from all over the world. We totally exhausted ourselves by dinnertime, but had a great time. The park was open very late that night, but although some of us would have liked to go back after another dinner at Sweet Tomatoes, we were all too tired.

We invited Adele and Larry to join us for our Shabbat dinner in Florida. I shopped in the afternoon for provisions and Alex made an incredible dinner with various salads, broiled marinated salmon and haddock fish tacos, couscous, pico de gallo, Brussels sprouts, etc. I made potato-leek soup and Russian dressing for the lettuce-wedge salad. For dessert, we had fresh watermelon, with ice cream and slices of a variety of small cakes we had purchased. Adele and Larry did not stay late as their dogs could not be left for very long and the ride to and from The Villages takes almost 3 hours.

On Saturday evening, after hanging out by the pool all day, we had a feast of a sushi dinner at Aji and drove through the back roads of Disney to the Disney Boardwalk. Only Saul and I had ever been there before. There were various street performers and a real wooden boardwalk around the lagoon. We spent some time wandering there, but the weather had turned cold and windy again when the sun went down. Since Jess had promised the girls that they could each pick a souvenir, and they had not yet bought anything, and they were leaving the next morning to drive back home, we headed back to Downtown Disney. While trying to back up to catch a rare parking space, we badly damaged the rear bumper of our Prius on the extended trailer hitch of a very long van. The hitch didn’t have a scratch, and the car was drivable, so we decided to duct tape it back together and take care of it when we got home. Jess and Alex, the girls, and Elaine all headed home on Sunday after breakfast and arrived about 2:00 a.m. on Monday, December 31. They weren’t too tired to take the girls to the pre-Mummer’s Parade festivities in downtown Philadelphia.

Saul, Ari and I stayed on in the house for a few more days. Continuing to look at real estate, we traversed several new developments and drove through some old ones. We tried an Indian restaurant,  Dhaba, near our house and liked it very much. Even though it was almost 9:00 p.m. on Sunday when we entered the nearly empty dining room, as usual, we started a rush. The owner was very congenial and spoke to us for a while expressing his pride in his restaurant and the quality of his food. On New Year’s Eve, we settled for a late lunch barbecue feast at Sonny’s in St. Cloud after being turned away by early (unannounced) closures at two non-chain restaurants that we tried first. After Sonny’s, there was no need for dinner. We had drinks and ice cream by our lighted pool, enjoyed the fireworks set off in our neighborhood, caught the 8:30 p.m. fireworks display at the Magic Kingdom from our secret spot, and watched the ball drop on our big flat-screen tv back at the house—a very satisfying New Year’s! We began the journey back on January 1, but we got tired and hit rainy weather around North Carolina, so we decided to stay overnight at a motel. We checked in, dropped our bags, and had dinner at an Outback Steakhouse about a block away. In the morning, we refueled and had breakfast at a Cracker Barrel before getting back on the road for DC. The remaining five-hour drive was very pleasant, but Saul was beginning to feel the return of his head cold and chest congestion. He had finished his 10 days of antibiotics on the previous Sunday.

Back in DC, on January 2, Saul was feeling lousy, and we decided to stay with Ari until Sunday. Afraid we would catch the flu, and chilled by the unaccustomed cold weather, we decided on pho for dinner at Pho 14 in Columbia Heights. Towards the end of finishing our big bowls of steaming soup, we could not help but notice a man was seated at the table next to us who appeared so miserable and had such a bad cough that we could not leave fast enough. We went to the Giant Supermarket across the street, leaving Saul in the car,  to pick up milk and other staples. Saul began taking over-the-counter medications that the doctor recommended the next day, but was not feeling much better, so we ordered in dinner the next night from a nearby restaurant. On Friday, we picked Ari up relatively early from work and had a Shabbat dinner from soups that I defrosted from Ari’s freezer, challot and some other items that I picked up at the Giant, and leftovers of the previous night’s dinner. Saturday afternoon, Ari and I went on a scavenger hunt to find the ingredients necessary to make a large pot of chicken soup. We began at the Giant, but the lines were so long at every register (at least 12 carts) that we abandoned our cart and drove to a brand new, huge Safeway with underground parking that had been cleared of most of its fresh produce and also had huge lines. Ari and I bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies from the Starbucks register near the entrance as by then we were starving. Nearby was the new Union Market, but upon arriving, we realized that there was not much fresh produce there. Lastly, we decided to try the Yes! Organic Market that is within walking distance of his home. There, we found everything we needed and the prices were comparable, just a little higher than the supermarkets and organic to boot!

Arriving back home with our purchases, the three of us finished off the last of the leftovers, and Ari and I began preparing a big pot of chicken soup. It simmered on the stove until midnight, when we turned it off and went to bed. I arose early on Sunday morning and packed nine quarts of soup into Ari’s refrigerator and freezer. Then I finished all our laundry, including the sheets and towels we had used, remade the beds, and repacked our suitcases. Ari needed to meet his friend, Zach, in Rockville, MD, to pick up some concert tickets Zach had for him, so we followed Ari there in our car and tried yet another dim sum restaurant, Silver Fountain. The quality of the food was excellent and the staff, very congenial and helpful, belying the Yelp reviews we read of surly waitstaff. We arrived relatively late for dim sum, so it was hard to tell what kind of variety was available earlier.

Saul and I arrived home early Sunday evening. He scheduled a doctor’s appointment for the next day as the chest cold had fully returned and seemed to be getting worse. The doctor prescribed another round of antibiotics, this time Levaquin, which took about two days to make him feel a lot better. For fear of catching the flu which is rampant this year, we have both been sleeping a lot and not going out much. The new semester has started and we had a nice past two weeks having Shabbat dinner with Jess and Alex and the girls, joining Ken and Randi at Bonefish Grill on their last Saturday night before they left for months in Hawaii, and shopping for and cooking some nice meals at home. Cocooning at home through the cold weather in January and February has become a regular tradition which we enjoy, but after Saul retires from CHC in May, we hope to be soaking up the sun in warmer climates next year.

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